In Process

An addendum to The Two Year Old Thing:

A year ago, Rebecca was in her magical communication phase. She wasn’t talking much yet, but she used things around the house to lay out her ideas or convey what she wanted to do. I called it magic because it invoked patterns via imitation and association, following the same principles Frazer laid out for magic in The Golden Bough. It was also hard to classify otherwise, since it combined play, communication, instrumental action, and quasi-scientific exploration.

Rebecca’s current insistence on proper procedures is the descendent of that sort of magical play, with the addition that she’s more interested in binary oppositions than Levi-Strauss. She’s still focused on enacting patterns: on the steps and the ritual, on the aesthetics and experience, and most of all on acting in harmony with the order of the world. If I interpret Rebecca’s requests as primarily instrumental or goal-oriented, the way I’d understand an adult request–if I approach them as prose instead of poetry–then I’m translating them poorly, and it’s no wonder I’m getting frustrated.

To a grown-up it’s obvious that who gets you your ice cream or puts you in your car seat doesn’t matter, because the end results are the same. But I’m wondering, should that be obvious? What if the only reason it’s obvious is that my mom insisted that those things didn’t matter? What if the only reason it’s obvious is that we’re swimming in the culture of consumer capitalism, which obscures the ways that process shapes product? So, what if Rebecca’s right? What if it isn’t just anthropological wankery to insist that the structures of meaning we draw through our actions are as important as their intended outcomes?

Products basically are congealed processes. If you want a particular outcome, you’re selecting a snapshot taken from a much longer sequence of things that happen before and after, and it makes sense that a toddler would have to learn which moment of the sequence is supposedly the important one. I keep having my own moments, too, when the project of separating things into ends and means seems silly. It’s osmosis from living around someone who’s so focused on process, and it’s the result of spending all day reading her What Do People Do All Day. It’s the effect of being a stay-at-home mother, too, because my hours and audiences aren’t segmented the way they were in grad school. Rebecca and I follow the days from beginning to end and back again, and I enjoy watching slow changes over time.

There’s something reassuring about that point of view. Sometimes the house is cleaner, sometimes dinner has just been plated, sometimes you’re really tired–but it’s all steps in a dance, and the aim is to make the whole process graceful and good, not worry about getting the perfect shot of it. And lately I keep thinking, I need to pay more attention to the ethics of where my food comes from.