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.

Persistence.

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.

Showing signs of wear, my copy of the book, along with journal and iPad, which allow me to digest and research material as I read.

Showing signs of wear, my copy of the book, along with journal and iPad, which allow me to digest and research material as I read.

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.”

Lydia seems very interested in Annie Dillard also!

Lydia showing her private passion for Annie Dillard’s book. She would eat it if I let her!

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?

Shirley Showalter

19 Comments

  1. Delmer B. Martin on January 31, 2018 at 12:34 am

    Excellent and Thought Provoking and I respect that you are sharing your wisdom and experience with us at this point in your life! I cannot help but think how babies are just so innocent and all babies are born GOOD (and not evil). Babies and young children are just so pure and beautiful because they have not been corrupted yet by serious free-will decisions, no wonder Jesus absolutely loves children. I passionately feel that the children need to be inculcated with discernment right up to adulthood regarding specifically ; good vs evil analysis and decisions in a way that is far less confusing than the ways and means that are being employed on average nowadays in the standard curriculum’s. On the other hand it is just as important that respect is extended to the goodhearted and wise older teachers who have so much to offer. I may only have a formal grade 8 education but at my age I know for a fact that it is far better to learn from a goodhearted wise older person/teacher or a GOOD Book, than to learn the “hard way” way by personal experience. (it is also far less expensive/painful) Being raised in the old order Mennonite community by Elmira-St. Jacobs and one who later experienced “the rest of the world” I now have come complete circle and passionately advocate the Biblical approach for our children and their education. I passionately believe God loves children AND the goodhearted wise teachers. Charlotte Thompson Iserbyt served as the head of policy at the Department of Education during the first administration of Ronald Reagan and this lady’s interview is bombshell. Check out her extensive video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGzVx4onCqw

    May God Bless our dear innocent children and PROTECT them from evil.

    Best Regards;
    Delmer B. Martin
    (Elmira Ontario CANADA

    • Shirley Showalter on January 31, 2018 at 2:02 pm

      I share your belief in God’s love for children, Delmar. And in God’s love for all of us in sending his son. The Christmas after I became a mother was the most meaningful one for me. Imagining the giving up of a beloved son went beyond my heart and soul.

      I have indeed checked out the lengthy interview with Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt, but I haven’t had three hours to watch it! I did learn a bit of her story in the first 20 minutes, and I’m intrigued. Her point of view is more conservative and conspiratorial than my own, but I still enjoyed listening to her. I hope to get back to the video later.

      In the meantime, I join you in praying for all our dear children.

  2. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on January 31, 2018 at 1:15 am

    As the oldest daughter in a family of eight children I always had babies around me. My sister (two years younger than me) and I were expected to look after them. I was a dreamer, my sister more practical. We have a picture of my sister and me with our baby brother (who was big for his age). I am seven, she is five. She is totally holding him rather desperately as he almost slips from her grasp. I am serenely posing for the camera! I wasn’t ready for the responsibility, and when I got married I wondered if I would be a good mother. It turned out that I loved motherhood and treasured each of my four children to the point where I would have died for them. I have learned from them that motherhood was the best experience of my life (teaching and reading are next, but I did that with them, so it was part of parenting for me).
    Ironically, my responsible sister remained single all her life. She gives her love to her pets.

    Thanks for mentioning Annie Dillard. I have long wanted to read her books, now I will.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 31, 2018 at 2:08 pm

      Ha, Elfrieda. Have you posted this picture? I think maybe you have. In any case, it’s easy to imagine the two sisters and their respective relationships to the baby and to the camera. I would have been looking at the camera right there with you at that age. 🙂

      Our destiny’s can’t be totally predicted based on our youth. Some of the very things that made us resist premature parenting of our own siblings may have contributed to becoming good mothers, or at least good enough moms. 🙂 That’s all most of us can aspire to. Aiming for perfection is sure to end up in distortion.

      Glad you are inspired to read Annie Dillard. You won’t be sorry I sent you.

      I also am a fan of the BBC program Victoria, which is available on Amazon Prime video. My admiration for Victoria as both queen and mother has risen greatly.

  3. Marian Beaman on January 31, 2018 at 11:36 am

    Joy bubbles up as you approach babies from several angles: mother, grannynanny, reader, and scholar today.

    I enjoyed Lydia’s learning to crawl when I first saw it on Instagram and now here. A reading specialist I know says that crawling helps babies with reading. She says this stage shouldn’t be rushed because it relates to scansion, associated with reading comprehension. Who knew?

    Yes, I’m familiar too with Annie Dillard and her book of Three: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood and The Writing Life. Unfortunately I have only fleeting images of my own babyhood/very early childhood and envy those like her and Mildred Armstrong Kalish in Little Heathens who remember reams of details in early life.

    One reason I enjoy teaching 2-year-olds in our church’s preschool department is that I can see them grow by leaps and bounds. Their babbling turns to decipherable language almost over night and I can see weekly growth spurts inch by inch. Their sense of wonder, persistence and lack of guile amazes me too.

    Lydia will appreciate this precious post in years to come as her parents do now. What a legacy you are leaving here – brava!

    • Shirley Showalter on January 31, 2018 at 2:20 pm

      Thank you, Marian, for your deeply felt responses. I know you are a fabulous Sunday School teacher, and I think two-year-olds would be wonderful to teach. And to learn from. Do we ever learn so fast and so well in the rest of life as we do as young children.

      The scansion idea is fascinating. I never heard that before, although I know experts laud crawling as important. A quick Google search produced this analysis of the benefits of crawling, which make sense to me: http://www.getyourbreakthrough.com/blog/bid/338867/Brain-Development-Why-Crawling-Matters

      So hard to know whether Lydia will ever read these posts. But if she does, I hope she feels the deep love for her and gratitude for this special year.

  4. Laurie Buchanan on January 31, 2018 at 12:36 pm

    Shirley — I’m sitting in the airport in Minneapolis, MN waiting for a home-bound flight as I read this post. I’m sure that everyone in the gate B8 area are wondering what the dickens the face-splitting grin on my face is all about. I LOVE THIS POST.

    I, too, have read Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I love what you said: “Lydia is teaching me what it takes to learn anything. Desire + persistence.”

    My hat is off to Professor Lydia. I, too, have enjoyed being her student today.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 31, 2018 at 2:23 pm

      I hope you had a great time in your bookstore visit to MPLS, Laurie. You certainly are LEARNING what it takes to be a writer.

      In your case, desire + persistence + generosity +enthusiasm.

      Blessings on your second book launch and the writing of your third book!

  5. Dora Dueck on January 31, 2018 at 1:23 pm

    I just love all you bring together here, Shirley. Your interwoven curiosity and research and observation–the way you do life–inspires me.

    I read Dillard’s “An American Childhood” years ago too and still remember how wonderful it was. Isn’t it in that book that she writes about “flying” (arms flapping) past some people? I remember reading that at the kitchen table with two of my kids nearby. Suddenly I just had to raise my arms too and flap them and the kids looked at me like Mom had gone crazy for a moment until I told them what I was doing and they were just delighted with it then and soon the three of us were “flying” around the house and it was just so magical and fun. — Thanks for the memories, and also your evocation of Desire.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 31, 2018 at 2:28 pm

      I laughed when you described this passage, because I read the same passage out loud to Kate and Lydia, right here in the third-floor “clubhouse” otherwise known as Narnia. (There’s a lion knocker on one side of the door and a lion handle on the other side.)

      I see no one has typed out that quote into Goodreads quotes. I’ll do that myself because I LOVE the passage so much.

      Right now, however, I hear Lydia waking up below. So I must flap my wings and go!

  6. June Alspaugh on January 31, 2018 at 7:14 pm

    What have I learned from children? Most recently I had the opportunity to go to Los Algodones Mexico. I got to see children go to work with their parents, I got to see children working, just for a little food. I got to see babies imitating their parents. As the parent was walking down the street trying to hand to something to buy, a child in her stroller had her hand out. I saw a couple of young boys, 4 or 5 maybe, one of the little boys did this little dance, and then gave you a mischievous smile. Children are great imitators of the world around them, the environment that they are brought up in.
    And as much as we teach our children, often though was seems like osmoses, we too can learn from them, if as you said,through desire and persistence.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2018 at 8:01 am

      June, your comment reminds me of how much the children of Haiti and the Ivory Coast in West Africa touched my heart when we were living in those countries with our own children. If they were healthy, they were just like children everywhere. Imitative, as you observed, and full of life and light. Alas, so many were not, especially in Haiti. So painful.

  7. Kathleen Pooler on January 31, 2018 at 9:35 pm

    Shirley, what a beautiful, heartfelt essay. Clearly the granny nanny role is a perfect fit for you. You must feel you are witnessing a miracle unfolding before you as you remain present to baby Lydia every day. I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and have An American Childhood on my Kindle. You have inspired me to move it up on my TBR list😊 Thank you for your lovely reflections.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2018 at 8:05 am

      Kathy, you will be amazed at the descriptions in this book. Many of us remember how light from cars at night made our bedrooms seem strange and a little scary. Dillard can make several pages of drama out of one memory like that. Thanks for stopping by. You are absolutely right about witnessing a miracle. I love that description.

  8. Carol Bodensteiner on February 1, 2018 at 12:54 pm

    You have inspired me to read An American Childhood, Shirley. Your experience as a granny nanny is truly special. While I did not have that opportunity with my grandchildren, I make every effort to watch them closely and learn from them each time they visit. Dillard is always inspiring, and I imagine she will spur me on in considering my memoir sequel.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2018 at 8:17 pm

      I know you will enjoy this book, Carol. And if it inspires your memoir sequel, hurray! You have many readers who would love to follow you to another book about your Iowa life.

      You have the wonderful advantage of living close enough to your grandchildren that you can see them often throughout their growing up years. I don’t have that. When this year comes to an end, and we return to Virginia, we will only see grandchildren on birthdays and holidays. Whatever our environments we can observe our dear ones as much as possible as many ways as possible.

  9. Tracy Karner Rittmueller on February 2, 2018 at 4:23 pm

    I first read An American Childhood when my sons were five and seven, and grabbed Dillard’s idea of map making for them. I encouraged them to draw maps of their “world” (they began with their yard, their neighborhood, their town) and soon were able to draw more accurate maps of the United States than many of the adults I know. Thank you for reminding me how profoundly Annie Dillard’s books have influenced me. It must be time for a re-read soon.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 2, 2018 at 5:28 pm

      Happy birthday, Tracy! Thanks for stopping by with this comment and this great idea. I hope I’ll remember to encourage Lydia to make maps of her neighborhood in a few years. I the meantime, I happen to have five- and almost-seven-year-old grandchildren in New Jersey. I think they could be up for some map making next month when we go visit them.

      I hope you do get to re-read this book. Like all Dillard books, it contains more than any single reading can absorb.

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