I was a baby once.
Now I’m a grandma learning to write about childhood while holding my grandson.I remember Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Mortality” (1803)
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting And cometh from afar; Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
From Wordsworth I am reminded that the joy I knew as a child, before I developed this shell around me I call my “self,” still exists. None of us, except possibly Vladimir Nabokov in his memoir Speak, Memory, remembers his or her infancy. Whatever happens in our brains to bring us consciousness seems to erase most, if not all, memories of life in the first two-three years. Try as I may, I can dredge nothing from my early childhood until the birth of my brother when I was nearly three years old.
But fortunately I have my own teacher. His name is Owen, he’s my grandson, and he’s four months old. By holding Owen in my arms, feeling his supple openness to the world, placing my eyes next to his eyes, my ears next to his ears, my heart next to his heart, I can feel the “clouds of glory” that are still “trailing” him. I can feel the heaven that lies about him.
Writer Kathleen Norris, whose book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography was among the first to inspire me to want to write about the land that formed me, has experienced a similar connection to a child: “I recently spent some time with an infant who is four months old, and I would say that her work is learning the world. She approaches this daily task with a focus and cheer that I find inspiring. The ability to focus, to be still and listen, is a gift we may receive as infants, but have to learn all over again as adults who are easily distracted. Yet the gift of attention is one we need if we are to write works that are meaningful to others.”
Babies lack a sense of separation from the rest of the world. They don’t even “know” they have body parts. They soak up sense information but have to be taught that they have eyes, ears, nose, throat, mouth, hands, and feet. Awareness of the mouth and the sucking function comes first.
But hands and fingers? Some of the early music classes for babies name the parts while touching them. The teachers talk about proprioception–awareness of the body in space. As one sings to a baby, one’s own hand becomes more magical, as in this 20-second video.
Again from Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality Ode, this time near the end:
Though nothing can bring back the hour Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower; We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind; In the primal sympathy Which having been must ever be; In the soothing thoughts that spring Out of human suffering; In the faith that looks through death, In years that bring the philosophic mind.
Listening, paying attention, re-connecting to the glory that existed before our birth and that we may enter as we look through death, these seem worthy pursuits for the writer. If you have a four-month old child close by, I encourage you to be amazed all over again. What have you learned about life or about writing from babies or young children?