Traipsing Along Like a Child

“The mind of a child is like a kiss on the forehead—open and disinterested. It turns as the ballerina turns, atop a party cake with frosted tiers, poisonous and sweet.”
Patti Smith

“Think…as a child might…,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke bade us when dispensing advice on how to improve creativity. There is no shortage of applying wonder, curiosity, ease—traits we associate with childhood and a childlike mind.

But what is the mind of a child as it registers the world? Can we access it as adults?

Maggie at play featured in "Traipsing Along as a Child" on the Examined Life.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I watch my daughter register her senses. What makes her run, what stops her, what draws out her hand from the safety of a pocket and back in again with chosen treasures? Trust? Newness? Innate coolness of things?

Biologist Rachel Carson delighted in showing nature to her young nephew, and as she watched him traipse about on Maine’s shores, she noted:

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. […] There is the world of little things, seen all too seldom. Many children, perhaps because they themselves are small and closer to the ground than we, notice and delight in the small and inconspicuous.

I think of a young David Attenborough traipsing along in the fields “just turning over a stone and looking at the animals beneath.” Stones that Mary Oliver lamented sat deep beneath the surface, waiting to be touched.

When naturalist Gerald Durrell was nine, he moved with his family from Britain to the Mediterranean island of Corfu. Unburdened by school or supervision, he began his great love affair with the out of doors. Durrell became a professional writer and naturist, and even as an adult his books are flooded with childlike wonder and delight.

At first I was so bewildered by this profusion of life on our very doorstep that I could only move about the garden in a daze, watching now this creature, now that, constantly, having my attention distracted by the flights of brilliant butterflies that drifted over the hedge. Gradually, as I became more used to the bustle of insect life among the flowers, I found I could concentrate more. I would spend hours squatting on my heels or lying on my stomach watching the private lives of creatures.

A child-like mind registers the world with interest, energy, and an overall lightness of being.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

What allows that? Free time, unstructured play, unburdened by feelings of consciousness?

Physicist Richard P. Feynman makes the case that it is the desire to know that can drive children about (and that this “pleasure of finding things out” lingers, if nurtured, in adults too).

It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe beyond man, to think of what it means to be without man – as it was for the great part of its long history, and as it is in the great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of the universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is rarely described.

But knowing as a child is not nearly the same thing as knowing as an adult.

Rachel Carson saw first-hand that childlike knowledge centers on how things relate to what the child already knows. My daughter reminds me of this as she tells us a van, tree, telephone pole, and even cloud is either a “Mommy” or a “Daddy” specimen, occasionally “baby.”

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Children seem to possess highly curious minds coupled with tunnel vision as they grasp knowledge and enter it into a puzzle that adults have formed: a sense of self, a sense of the world, a sense of the people they know.

“For children, it’s the distance that holds little interest,” observed Rebecca Solnit.

There is no distance in childhood: for a baby, a mother in the other room is gone forever; for a child, the time until a birthday is endless. Whatever is absent is impossible, irretrievable, unreachable. Their mental landscape is like that of a medieval paintings: a foreground full of vivid things and then a wall.

When British writer Laurie Lee mentions tracing the knots on his bedroom ceiling and how that space was his entire universe, it was the entire universe, it shows not only Lee’s absorption in the immediate but also his disinterest in everything else.

These knots on the bedroom ceiling were the whole range of a world, and over them my eyes went endlessly voyaging in that long primeval light of waking to which a child is condemned. They were archipelagos in a sea of blood-coloured varnish, they were armies grouped and united against me, they were the alphabet of a macabre tongue, the first book I ever learned to read.

To me that narrow scope is the essence of Patti Smith’s few lines: “The mind of a child is like a kiss on the forehead—open and disinterested. It turns as the ballerina turns, atop a party cake with frosted tiers, poisonous and sweet.”

The connections we might make as an adult—we see a flower, which tells us it is spring, which tells us the days will be longer, which tells us we might be happier… etc. etc.—for a child becomes I see a flower, I will grab it! (And invariably I will bring it home with me!)

So, can we adults ever narrow our universe and traipse along like a child?

“My child self is unreachable,” Penelope Lively wrote in her generous study of memory, a sentiment echoed by Wislawa Szymborska in her beautiful poem about reaching out to her younger self, a self that will neither listen nor understand.

Of course, these writers are writing as mature adults about childhood, not within a state of childhood. Excellent memories and reality notwithstanding, it is imagination that fuels their narrative. Imagination and memory.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

A childlike mind is a bitterly beautiful thing that is unreachable, but that does not mean it is unavailable.

Rather than look at it as “I was a child, now I am an adult,” like it’s a past we have to claw forward, what if we look at our current selves as children to the future?

More specifically: What if we imagined ourselves ignorant?

What if we acknowledge our limits of consciousness and embrace them? What if we traipsed into the complex field of the unknown slowly, eagerly, with narrowed focus? It is exceedingly difficult as an adult to accept not knowing something. But might it happen if we did?

I don’t know. Do you?

The Unlikely Strength of Corners

“Build a corner.”
Dani Shapiro

Imagine the sturdy security of a wall doubled and joined to form a corner. Every human knows a corner, is near a corner.

But what do we know of them? What do we think of them?

When Henry David Thoreau hand-built his shack on Walden Pond, it was not much more than four corners and a roof. “With this more substantial shelter about me, I had made some progress toward settling in the world. This frame, so slightly clad, was a sort of crystallization around me.”

Thoreau’s four corners is the introduction of shelter. His spirit, feeling safe and secure, lurched into life.

Similarly, in her book on her writing life and creative fragility, memoirist Dani Shapiro advises it is from a corner that we approach massive, daunting tasks.

Build a corner, that is what people who are good at puzzles do, They ignore the heap of colors and shapes and simply look for straight edges. They focus on piecing together one tiny corner. Every book, story, and essay begins with a single word. Then a sentence. Then a paragraph.

I have never begun a puzzle at a corner, but I do position my writing desk in a corner, sometimes facing in, sometimes out, depending on my mood. I know what Shapiro means: A corner brings requisite security for that first step.

And what about the beautifully, rich depiction from essayist Durga Chew-Bose:

I don’t require much to feel far-removed; to impose my wanderings on what’s close. Because of this, my friend and I have started calling ourselves nook people. Those of us who seek corners and bays in order to redeploy our hearts and not break the mood. Those of who retreat in order to cubicle our flame. Who collect sea glass. Who value a deep pants pocket. Who are our own understudies and may as well have shadowboxes for brains.

What these remarkable individuals have in common is a view of a corner as a space for protection, repose—a cuddling and warming of the spirit, one might say.

“The corner is a haven that ensures us one of the things we prize most highly—immobility,” argues Gaston Bachelard, guardian of our psycho-physical spaces and guide to what these spaces mean to our psyches and our lives.

Every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room or of a house.

[…]

Consciousness of being at peace in one’s corner produces a sense of immobility, and this, in turn, radiates immobility. An imaginary room rises up around our bodies, and we think we are well hidden when we take refuge in a corner.

Praesidium (Walls that Protect) ceramic sculpture by Isobel Egan. Featured in "The Unlikely Strength of Corners" on the Examined Life.
“Praesidium” Walls that Protect, 2016 by Isobel Egan. Egan’s work consistently studies the space divided and contained by strong yet translucent porcelain. Here the porcelain forms protective walls and corners.Photograph by Philip Lauterbach.

Bachelard reiterates the “safety” of a corner and even goes so far as to call it a “chamber of being.” But by admitting it “negates the universe,” he also alludes to a darker, even sinister aspect of corners.

To be in a corner, we must withdraw from externalities like other people, humanity, and the “doing/having” parts of life.

From this originates the concept of shrinking into the corners. I imagine naughty school children on stools or those round houses of early Puritan settlers: no place for the Devil.

“Death reigned in every corner,” observed Daniel Defoe, an English journalist and novelist who wrote the finest journalistic account of the plague of Europe in 1665.

"Ennui" 1914, by Walter Richard Sickert featured in "The Unlikely Strength of Corners" on The Examined Life.
“Ennui” 1917-18, by Walter Richard Sickert, the last of five paintings, each the same vignette, different colors and tone but always of a couple in a corner. Learn more. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Physically and even intellectually, corners hide and obscure. More than 2,000 years ago, Roman senator and philosopher Seneca noted, “Some men have shrunk so far into dark corners that objects in bright daylight seem quite blurred to them.”

Corners are ends. Bachelard touches on this when he writes, “from the depths of his corner, the dreamer remembers all the objects identified with solitude, objects that are memories of solitude and which are betrayed by the mere fact of having been forgotten.”

Have you ever been forgotten in a corner?

"Slabworks" 2019, Anthony Gormley. Featured in "The Unlikely Strength of Corners" on the Examined Life.
“Slabworks” 2019 by Anthony Gormley. One of fourteen figures all positioned in somewhat collapsed “whole-body” poses, this figure was crouched and cornered. It immediately drew my empathy. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana at the Royal Academy of Arts.

I recall the most tender and sympathetic thing my mother has ever said. My husband and I had just moved to London, the tea and crumpet fancy had faded, and I felt quite alone. A chronic depression stirred, well, in the corners of my spirit. “Oh Ellen,” she said during a particularly weepy phone call, “promise me you’ll stay out of dark corners. Stay in the center of the room where you are loved. Can you do that?”

Her embrace, that utterly meaningful metaphor spoken by one not prone to metaphor. A corner’s embrace can firm up against your shoulders and back, but it is no substitute for human arms.

Illustration by Rupi Kaur. Featured in Kaur's "Milk and Honey" in the Examined Life Library.
“The idea of shrinking is hereditary.” writes Rupi Kaur in Milk and Honey, poetry on pain and love. Illustration by Rupi Kaur, courtesy of the book.

As in most of my writing, my point of departure on corners is from the self. A tendency of introverts, I believe. I am in a corner or out of one, I am the agent. I think, what do corners mean to me and, thus, you?

Imagine my surprise, then, when I mentioned this post to my aunt, who is one of the most extroverted individuals I know, and her response was: “Well, it’s the intersection of two things, isn’t it? Things coming together, intersecting at that point.” She interlaced her fingers to form little corners.

This remarkable woman, a professor and leader of cultural diplomacy at Georgetown University, who taps into the fluid currents of humanity—and the culture that arises from that humanity—to form passage through the waters that divide us: this woman doesn’t go into corners, she is the corner.

She brings things together. What a generous expansion of self.

A corner is where things come together in all their complexity. A shelter, a gathering place, an embrace, a hide. If you go into one, don’t forget to set the alarm, to tie a tether around your waist.

Don’t forget to return to the center of the room, where you are loved.

Hands Outstretched and Met

“Everybody struggles with asking.”
Amanda Palmer

If December is the season for giving, what is the season for asking? Let’s outstretch our hands and make space for our needs.

Please help. Please notice. Please pick up my shattered pieces and carry me for a step…

Charlie Mackesy's illustration for "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" featured in the Examined Life post "Hands Outstretched and Met."
“You fell – but I’ve got you.” from Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. Courtesy of the book.

For years, to supplement her artist income, musician Amanda Palmer stood dressed as a bride near Harvard University campus. Completely still. Coming to brief life when a passerby gave her a buck.

Almost every important human encounter boils down to the act, and the art, of asking. Asking is, in itself, the fundamental building block of any relationship. Constantly and usually indirectly, often wordlessly, we ask each other—our bosses, our spouses, our friends, our employees—in order to build and maintain our relationships with one another.Will you help me?Can I trust you?Are you going to screw me over?Are you suuuure I can trust you? And so often, underneath it all, these questions originate in our basic human longing to know:Do you love me?

Charlie Mackesy's illustration for "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" featured in the Examined Life post "Hands Outstretched and Met."
Courtesy of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.

Palmer perforates the thick space between herself and strangers, if only briefly.

I imagine young Ernest Hemingway when he stepped into Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment and asked the established writer to review his stories.

She said that she liked them except one called ‘Up in Michigan.’ ‘It’s good,’ she said. ‘That’s not the question at all. But it is inaccrochable. That means it is like a picture that a painter paints and then he cannot hang it when he has a show and nobody will buy it because they cannot hang it either.

In his capacity as an editor, T.S. Eliot gave succor to a young, extremely talented Marianne Moore, persuading Moore to publish a collection of poems though she doubted her ability.

Years later, Eliot also met the outstretched hands of Denise Levertov — the British-American poet who, at the age of twelve, sent poems to the American-British poet, Eliot, who replied with a two-page type-written letter of encouragement.

I imagine his largess owed to his own need; early in his career Eliot himself had two open palms. Fellow poet Ezra Pound cobbled together a “Bel Esprit” fund to support Eliot as a full-time poet. Hemingway donated.

I think of President Ulysses S. Grant at the end of his life. Former President and General, yes, but of late a failed businessman with failing health. He happened to throw some memoir notes by his acquaintance Mark Twain, who immediately became involved when he realized Grant was floundering. Not only did they form a deep friendship, but Twain edited and published Grant’s superb memoirs and earned both men a good sum of money.

Palmer reminds us: “Everybody struggles with asking.”

Charlie Mackesy's illustration for "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" featured in the Examined Life post "Hands Outstretched and Met."
“What’s the greatest thing you’ve ever said?” asked the boy. “Help,” said the horse. Courtesy of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.

Or consider the righteous James Baldwin, who had left America’s feckless social laws and ingrained bigotry to settle in Paris, but who was persuaded (Baldwin’s words) by his childhood friend editor Sol Stein to return to America and pen ten astoundingly important essays that became Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son.

And then there is my beloved Henry David Thoreau, who went to “live simply” but could only do so on his friend Emerson’s land.

This Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote a letter of encouragement to Walt Whitman after Whitman’s epic poem “Leaves of Grass” was poorly received. And all three of these cosmic marvels, in some way, influenced poet Mary Oliver two centuries later in poetry, in mind, and in her endless quest to sit in eternity.1

From all these outstretch hands I suppose more than the “asking” connects each story. It is a deep, unspoken desire to be seen, to connect. At various points in our lives, we want someone to tell us “I see you. You embodied spirit. You matter.”

We want to say those words to others.

Palmer reminds us: “All humans… want to be seen; it’s a basic need.”

Charlie Mackesy's illustration for "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" featured in the Examined Life post "Hands Outstretched and Met."
Mackesy’s simple, elegant drawings tell the story of support between these unlikely companions. “They are all different, like us, and each has their own weaknesses” writes Macksey. Courtesy of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.

Of course, this brings me to Rilke. Although his poetry can satiate any appetite for profoundness, Rainer Maria Rilke is well-known today for a series of letters he wrote to an aspiring poet, Xavier Kappus, who outreached to Rilke in hopes of guidance.

Your letter only reached me a few days ago. Let me thank you for the great and endearing trust it shows. There is little more I can do, I cannot go in the nature of your verses, for any critical intention is too remote from me. There is nothing less apt to touch a work of art than critical words: all we end up with there is more or less felicitous misunderstandings. Things are not all as graspable and sayable as on the whole we are led to believe.

In response to this great endearing trust handed to him, Rilke corresponded with Kappus for a decade, providing gentle thoughts and subtle illumination.

You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me that. You have asked others, before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you worry when certain editors turn your efforts down. Now (since you have allowed me to offer you advice) let me ask you to give up all that. You are looking to the outside, and that above all you should not be doing now. Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.

Charlie Mackesy's illustrations for "the Boy, the mole, the fox and the House" featured in The Examined Life Library.
“Life is difficult but you are loved.” Courtesy of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.

“Virginia Woolf is my teacher,” admits American memoirist Dani Shapiro.

I keep her near me in the form of her A Writer’s Diary. I flip open the book to a random page and encounter a kindred spirit who walked this road before me, and who—though her circumstances were vastly different from my own—makes me feel less isolated in the world.

I feel less isolated when I read John Steinbeck’s journals. I open them often, asking for something. I sigh at his great sorrow and self-doubt.

Ultimately, that is what we seek with outstretched hands. Not answers nor resources, nor avenues to greatness, but rather to announce our self and be seen. To connect and commune.1

What if we did this more? What if we met each other through this essential human need? Rather than affiliations based on geography, opinions, or accomplishments?

What might happen?

Charlie Mackesy's illustration for "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" featured in the Examined Life post "Hands Outstretched and Met."
Mackesy also gifts his books and drawings around England, where they will be seen and where people will feel loved. Like this one in London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I’d like to close with a quick note on a beautiful relationship.

In his considered book about our death anxiety, psychologist Irvin D. Yalom expresses gratitude towards his mentor, Rollo May: “Rollo May mattered to me as an author, as a therapist, and finally, as a friend.”

May was one of the foremost psychologists and authors of the 20th century, known for augmenting the discipline with a philosophical concept of “being.” Yalom was inspired by May’s words and aligned his career with May’s thinking.

The nature of their relationship, initiated by Yalom’s request for professional guidance, grew and crested in many forms but was always characterized by May giving succor to the younger Yalom. As May aged and eventually deteriorated in body and self, Yalom in his professional prime stepped into the more supportive role, eulogizing the great man and speaking his memory to the world.

To see humanity in others, we must embrace it in ourselves.

Go on. Stretch your fingers and lift your palm. Extend your arm in a long, raised line. Breathe deeply and exhale. Now for the hard bit: stand there. With your hand open.

For as long as it takes.