What The Babies Are Doing Really

Babies make simpletons of us all, even of old Ralph Waldo Emerson, who I fell in love with all over again yesterday morning on reading what he had to say about his own little ones.

It’s funny because you think of Emerson as this very grave man, with his  great nose and his sad wise eyes and those sloping shoulders you see in every portrait and bust ever done of him;  but when he brought that careful attention to his babies’ doings, something so delightful emerges, I just had to jot some of it down here.

For example, he recorded that at four months old  his baby “studies Manipulation, and Palmistry and Optics.”

Wh-a-a-a- at? I thought at first – until I realized that of course! Those are exactly the topics all babies are puzzling about on first coming awake in the world.

Optics: ‘Well it’s certainly much brighter here than it was in my old apartment and things appear to be more ‘layered’. I mean here’s my terrycloth bunny that seems much larger than that that chest of drawers over there. Yet the chest holds all my clothes!’

Manipulation: ‘And what are these two waving appendages that go wherever I go and can I get either one of them into my mouth?'”

Palmistry: ‘Ah yes, here’s one now, right near my mouth and almost in it, a knotty-appearing  thing that opens and closes like a day lily with five smaller and more wiggly appendages attached. Hmmmm.’

A few years later when a little sister came to Emerson and his wife, he wrote that she “slept incessantly – hands up, as for defense.”

Later, as she was learning to walk he wrote of “little balancing Nelly, moving with forthspread arms and smelling as delicious as a cake pan.”

Delicious as a cake pan:  I love that. I love that he said his little son was ” as handsome as Walden Pond at sunrise.”

And I really love that I live just 20 minutes from Walden Pond and drove past it at 7 last night – past its deep waters, and the  exiting pilgrims who had come to see where Emerson’s great friend Thoreau built his cabin and lived deliberately; past the train tracks whose shuttling commerce back and forth from Cambridge to Fitchburg at first so alarmed the denizens of sleepy Concord.

I was returning from a family event where our own new baby herself kept busy studying Manipulation and Palmistry and  Optics. I felt so glad of my morning reading, which let me look at this first granddaughter with a whole new set of eyes, and isn’t that what a good writer does for us every time.

Maybe little Callie will write one day herself. What fun to see if what SHE has to say! What fun to learn of any new person’s ‘take’ on the world !


The Sun is Up and the Air is Cool

The sun is up and the air is cool. My mate got up at 5:30, disappeared downstairs for 20 minutes and came back into the bedroom muttering.

“It’s freezing out!” he said and fell back into the bed in a sort of spiraling pirouette, like Holly Hunter does in The Piano after that meanie husband of hers cuts off her fingers with an axe.

It’s not freezing but it is just 60. And we had every window in the place open last night against all that humidit,y which made the air feel like the breath of an overheated dog.

Dave is asleep even as I write this now, at 9am. Needless to say, the teenage boy staying with us for these weeks is also asleep and will be until at least noon if the past weekend days are any predictor.

All of which I find pretty great because here I am with the morning all mine; the sun streaming on the windows of the screened-in porch mine; the day mine too, well at least for the next hour or so when I have to go buy a pork loin and giftwrap big enough to cover the box that fills the whole back of the Red Dragon, as the teenager calls my sweet elderly van.

To celebrate this sunny Sunday feeling I just drew from the shelves a book about Ralph Waldo Emerson.

 I remember the day I bought this book. My kids were 6, 11 and 13 and it was the first day of summer.

In my ever-flowering optimism I actually thought I’d have time to read this 600-page tome about the life of one of my heroes.

I also recall vividly how I was walking through the mall parking lot already greedily paging through it when – wham! – I walked right into a bundle of two-by-fours protruding from the back of somebody’s pickup truck. I saw stars just like they do in the cartoons.

What does it mean? I thought at the time though I found out soon enough. It meant with kids 6 and 11 and 13 and no school for them to go to because school wouldn’t be in session again for months my future probably did NOT include a whole lot of lounging around reading the words of Emerson.

All that seems like it was just a second ago but it happened in 1990. Now, 22 years later, I pulled out the book and here in its pages are the sweetest little accounts the man wrote about his children as babies. I had no idea he had such a tender side.

I can quote some of them here tomorrow. For now, I can’t stop reading, because you know old Holly Hunter in his sweatshirt could get up any minute.

Dig It

When you say you like one thing and then say you like another, you’re just doing what great minds have often felt free to do. Didn’t Emerson call a foolish consistency the hobgoblin of little minds?

I love Emerson’s writing and was thrilled to receive a pewter bust of him for Christmas. Still, at the same time I’m often sore at him, for all kinds of reasons, like changing his wife’s name to something he found more “classical-sounding” , and withdrawing into his books when their little boy Waldo died, leaving the poor wife doubly bereaved. I also feel like “Oh easy for him to look down his long nose at the littler minds, he who never made a bed or picked up after tea!”

But that’s how it was to by a gentleman of the comfortable class in the 19th century. They never carried their full chamber pots down the stairs mornings. They never hauled a hundred pounds of boiling water up the stairs for anyone’s bath. Invisible and nameless others did that for them.

So see? You can admire someone on one level and be mad at him at the same time. (Think marriage, any marriage.)

And remember that other famous quote from Emerson’s same century? Give ya five bucks if you recognize who said this one:

“Do I contradict myself? Then I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes.”

Yup. That was Walt Whitman, whose genial free spirit made stuffier 19th century types almost burst their corset buttons. Word of him even reached quiet Emily Dickinson in her seclusion who said never read his book, but was told it was “disgraceful.”

But that’s what you have to love about the guy. That maxim “Nothing human is alien to me”? That was Whitman all over. He could sing the praises of a pile of Plague corpses if you caught him in the grip of one of is ecstasies. (Could and did just about. Remember the “beautiful uncut hair of graves”? Remember him happily enriching fthe soil with his own lifeless body?)

I admire Whitman very much. I guess I’m more like him than I am like Emerson. One day I would love to visit his house in Camden NJ, but until I get to do that it might be enough to just go outside and dig things the way he did.

Hmmm looking outside here. Cloudy right now with a sky that looks like cake batter ladled into the pan. Like dirty snow. Like soiled bed linens. And yet an amazing radiance just at the horizon.

Dig it. It’s all God asks of us.

Creepy But Cool

Below a video of my man Ralph Waldo Emerson, here reanimated in as hideously compelling  way as the famous stuffed corpse of old Jeremy Bentham. He was gentle and good, was Emerson, even though he did make that poor second wife change her first name. Even though he did shut himself so thoroughly up in his rooms after their little boy died she must have felt doubly bereaved.

His first wife had died in her early 20s. This was before he walked away from the ministry to start mixing up the tasty pie-filling known as Transcendentalism. He had her dug back up, you know, just so he could gaze once more upon her face. Abe Lincoln did this too, after his little boy’s death in the White House years. It must make sense on some level to us the left-behind. We just can’t believe they are gone.

Anyway, I love to visit old Waldo’s house. I love to study his mild kind face with its deep-set eyes. It’s true I was a tad unsettled when I first saw this clip but strangely comforted too,  maybe at the thought of them all still alive just on the other side of that mirror, talking away; trying so hard to give tips to us the living ,so heedless and so deaf …..