I’ve learned a lot from babies. Apparently, I am not alone.
Babies are now becoming teachers in some schools. Meet Baby Naomi in this short video.
She’s exactly the same age as our Baby Lydia.
The school children in this video are learning empathy.
And the value of vulnerability.
Older children learn by gently playing with, touching, and observing, a baby.
One of the great gifts of being a grannynanny instead of just a granny, is that it’s possible to make daily, minute, observations of a baby’s rapid growth, and to do so at a time in life when one is preparing to become more vulnerable in older age, trying to sort the really important from all the chaff of life, and pondering what it is one wants to leave as a legacy in the lives of others.
Right now, my learning is being greatly enhanced by living in Pittsburgh and by re-reading
Annie Dillard’s amazing memoir An American Childhood.
Dillard’s talent for evoking ecstasy and joy has long resonated with me. I read her first book, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, while in Haiti co-leading a group of Goshen College students in a semester of international service learning. One of my responses to that book: “I might have become a biologist if I had ever encountered this way of looking at nature in a science classroom!”
Later, I introduced English majors to their life callings by reading Teaching a Stone to Talk, The Writing Life, and Holy the Firm with them.
I didn’t pack many books to bring to Pittsburgh with me last August when we moved here, but An American Childhood, a memoir I read years ago and a memoir in which the city of Pittsburgh features prominently, was among the cherished few.
I knew the Pittsburgh connection would be especially meaningful in this setting, but it didn’t occur to me that the experience of caring for a baby while reading this book would be an even deeper bond.
When I first read this memoir, back in 2006, I made a list of my own childhood stories, many of which were like Dillard’s thematically: the oldest child, loving baseball and “throwing like a boy,” torn between conformity and rebellion, having a mother who didn’t fit the norm. . . .
Lots of other Dillard details were foreign to me, but I liked those too. I got to glimpse an urban, upper-class background as contrasted to my rural, financially challenging, childhood.
Pittsburgh itself, as a unique place, hardly registered on first reading.
Dillard as a unique human being was visible but only behind her real subject: consciousness.
As Grannynanny reader (in 2018) I have had a great advantage over memoir reader (2006), the earlier self who first encountered the book. I can now use Google Maps to trace the path of what Annie Dillard describes doing at age 9 or 10: making a map of her neighborhood, studying its boundaries, exploring its many options, just as a baby learns to do, starting with its own body.
I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to make my own crude list of real places within walking distance of where I live and know that Annie Doak’s (Dillard’s childhood name) huge questing spirit was nurtured by places I can still visit without using a car!
I am living less than two miles away from all three of the houses Annie lived in as a child.
On my second reading this month, I noticed something altogether new.
Scattered among the stories and lyric descriptions were numerous meditations on childhood itself, including infancy.
No one, I mused, could remember one’s own childhood so vividly. Not even Nabokov. And the many observations about childhood itself seem freshly formed.
Doing the math on Dillard’s birthdate (1945) and the copyright of the book (1987), made it possible biologically that she could have become a recent mother when she first drafted the book.
She could write about consciousness because she was seeing it develop right under her own eyes!
It was harder than usual to confirm this hunch, but eventually I found online proof.
First a New York Times article that mentions her daughter.
Then, an archived People Magazine article written the year of publication, 1987, when her only child, a daughter, was three years old. Here is the sequence of events in the writer’s life, described in the article, before during the time An American Childhood was written.
There Dillard fell in love with another academic—Gary Clevidence, an anthropology professor at Fairhaven College. They moved to Middletown, Conn., where Annie began teaching at Wesleyan University. She and Gary married in 1980. The birth of their daughter, Rosie, in 1984, led Dillard to begin writing about her own childhood.
A 39 year-old new mother would be led naturally to memories of her own childhood.
A mother who was also a writer as great as Dillard would have to learn more and write more and more deeply about life itself,
not only about her own life.
But about all our lives.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to this passage (I suggest you read it aloud):
An infant watches her hands and feels them move. Gradually she fixes her own boundaries at the complex incurved rim of her skin. Later she touches one palm to another and tries for a game to distinguish each hand’s sensation of feeling and being felt.
Look at little Lydia in the short video below and see Dillard’s observations in the flesh. When Lydia can’t crawl, she reverts to the earlier stage of proprioception, where she just touches one palm to another.
Warning: this video may tear your heart out.
What eventually will lead Lydia to crawl? She doesn’t know it yet but she already has all she needs to make the transition to the next stage.
An Apple Store class instructor said recently that the only thing that separates students who “get” art from those who don’t is desire. DESIRE is my word for 2018, and Lydia is teaching me what it takes to learn anything. Desire + persistence.
Or, as Annie Dillard said more eloquently, “You do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself.”
This meditation about the inner life from the month of January got a little longer than usual. In some ways it is the counterpart to my November essay about doing.
Hope you found something here to help or inspire you on your way. What have you learned from children?