By Tamim Ansary
When Elina said she wanted to come to my college reunion, I said yes, even though it meant she would have to fly from San Francisco to Portland by herself—quite a big adventure for an eight-year-old girl! I remembered myself at her age, though, going on adventures with my father, and I wanted her to have the same sorts of memories. Debby and I agreed that she’d put Elina on a non-stop flight, and I would pick her up from the airport in Portland.
It was 1999, and you could still go right to the gate to meet your loved ones back then: terrorism had not yet been noticed by America–the last year of the time before. Elina came sailing out of the jetway all confident eight-year-old strut. She was in that toothy stage kids pass through: a few of her bicuspids had fallen out, two new front teeth had come in, and they looked huge—adult teeth in a child’s face. With the side teeth gone, the new ones had relaxed to hog all the available space, opening a gap in the middle. She looked adorably eight-years-old.
“How was the flight?” I asked.
She shrugged the shrug of the jaded traveler. “It was good.”
“Was it exciting?”
But my little girl was too cool for exuberance. “It was good,” she repeated firmly. “I sat with two girls. They were flying alone too. One was 6, one was 7. I was the oldest. Oh no! I lost my tag! It shows who’s going to meet you.”
“Well, that person has met you, so you don’t need the tag anymore.”
“Oh.” She saw my point. “I guess.” She stopped for a moment to see if she could balance on one foot. She could.
Back at Reed, she changed into her bathing suit because she had seen the pond in the middle of campus. When I was studying there, the pond had just been scenery to me; but college kids and eight-year-olds look at the world with different eyes. We made our way down a squiggly dirt path, and Elina eased herself into the water. I was taping her with my new video camera, the first one I had ever owned. “Ah…! Mud,” she exclaimed happily, scooping up a handful to show me. “Nice, squishy mud.” She started stepping in place, and each time she did, her foot sank into the soft pond bottom. “Oh … this is fun!” Then she paused to look around. Trees bent gracefully over the still waters. A couple of ducks trailed V-ripples, moving smoothly toward the opposite shore, their means of locomotion invisible below the surface of the water. “It’s beautiful here,” Elina remarked.
This was true, although I had not noticed it before. After a while, I made Elina get out and dry off. I got her a bottle of Snapple and we sat under a tree, next to Foster dormitory, not twenty feet from the window that I used to climb through every night, thirty years ago, when Lily was my girlfriend. Elina sipped her drink and gazed into the distance. I was still taping her when she mused: “Life has many stages.”
“Does it?” I wondered what an eight-year-old’s take could possibly be on this profound topic. “What are some of the stages?”
“Well,” she said, “Okay.” And she began to enumerate them. “First? You’re born and you don’t know anything. Then? You get to be a little kid, like three and four and five and you know some things. Then you get a little older, six or seven, and you know more things. After that you go through another stage, which is eight through ten. Then comes eleven and twelve.”
At least she could count. “Eleven and twelve is another stage?”
“Daddy! Eleven and twelve is a whole other stage, because after that you get to be a teenager and you go to high school.” She paused to take a sip of Snapple, and I figured she must now have cited all the stages an eight-year-old could imagine; but no, she was just getting started. “Then you go to college…” she ruminated. “College is a whole other kind of work… you leave your family then. You start living on your own. You’re almost an adult. And after college, you’re pretty much considered an adult, and you have the hard job of finding a job.” She frowned over this unpleasant necessity, until a sunny new thought struck her. “If you’re lucky, though, you have kids! And if you’re really lucky, you got married a little before that.”
“So you get married before you have kids, usually, you think? Not after?”
“No. Not if you’re lucky, because it’s really hard to have kids if you’re a woman and you’re single, it’s really hard, you know, ‘cuz you have to get money somehow, you have to find a dad for your kid, and it’s hard to go dating when you already have a kid. If you’re lucky, you’re at least together with someone before you get your kid.”
“Like your mommy and me. So what happens after people have kids? Any more stages after that?”
“Then you just go through the stage of raising your kids, Daddy.”
“Which is the stage I’m in now.”
“Yup. That’s your stage now. And once your kid is an adult—you go through the stage of missing your kid.”
“What are you saying? As soon as your kid is an adult, she’s gone?”
“Yes,” Elina explained patiently. “… kids grow up and go away … and after they’re gone you’re wondering if you should be relieved that you don’t have to go through so much work and stuff, or should you feel just really sad… ‘cuz your kid is gone.”
“But then you’re in the stage where you can go to Europe.”
Elina allowed me that one. “Yeah… And if you’re smart, you choose to miss your kid but just go on with your life.”
“But what is your life, if you don’t have kids?”
“Hmmm.” She gave this a few moments of intense but fruitless consideration. “Yeah, that’s weird. I don’t know what your life is like with no kids. There wouldn’t be much to do.”
“Well, you could go to movies in the afternoon,” I suggested.
“But your kids—” she protested. “You have fun with your kids. You like your kids!”
“Of course you do, you love your kids,” I assured her.
“Anyway…” she went on, “after you’ve chosen what you want to feel like, you go into being a senior citizen. You probably retire.”
“But now you’re in a stage where you don’t have kids and you don’t have work. So what do you have?”
“You have,” Elina declaimed, “time … You have time to do what you want. And if you’re lucky, you’re still together with someone, if not married. And so you do what you want with your husband or wife or whatever you have. Then you get old and … ” She gave a last diffident little shrug. “You die.”
“And that’s pretty much it?”
“That’s pretty much it. But all these stages go on for a very, very long time.”
“But if that’s the case, does it feel like: what a waste? Why even bother?”
“No,” she chuckled, “because you have fun in all those stages.”
“That’s true. It’s a pity you can’t live twice.”
“It’s a pity.” Elina took another long swallow of Snapple and pondered the pity of it all. “Some cultures,” she mused, “believe that you live again and again. Of course they believe you come back as something else.”
“Like a snail, perhaps? Or a toad?”
“Well, if you’re bad! And if you’re really bad you come back as a plant.”
“Would that be so awful, though, coming back as a plant?
“Well, you wouldn’t have a brain!”
We were sitting under an ancient tree at that moment. It was toweringly tall, its gnarled bark full of whorls and rough spots where bugs had burrowed in. Its tough old skin felt good to stroke or lean against. Above us, leaves shimmered in the pleasant breeze and the light shining through them bathed us in chartreuse. “What if you came back as this plant here—this tree? Would that be so bad?”
“Not too bad,” Elina conceded, “but still—you don’t have a brain!”
“Or those ones there.” A line of smaller trees marked the ridge of a gentle hill. “Those are beautiful, don’t you think? It’s true you wouldn’t have a brain—“
“You’re just a thing.”
“Well—not really. If you’re a tree, you’re not just a thing. You’re alive.”
“You’re alive but you can’t think, can’t move, can’t talk. Can’t communicate with anyone.”
“That’s all true, but isn’t there something good about being a tree also? I mean, what is the experience of being this tree? Isn’t it having, in a certain sense, a good time? A peaceful time? You know, it’s got strength. Look at those limbs. You’d never guess they weigh a thousand pounds a piece, all that wood: the tree is holding them out like feathers. And you’d have this nice rough bark.”
“And you give a home to animals,” Elina mused, “and you give shade to people,” she realized. “And also,” she said, lecturing me now: “trees are very beautiful. All trees.”
“They really are!”
“And everyone gawks at you and says ‘Oh, how beautiful! How lovely!’”
“Well, sometimes they do that if you’re a human too.”
Elina scrunched her nose up in another frown. “That’s true. Some humans. But it’s not like that for all humans…It’s a pity.” She finished her Snapple and jumped to her feet. “Come on, Daddy. Let’s go.”