Learning from a Baby: A Memoir Writer’s Teacher

My daddy offers me support before walking, 1949,

From William Wordsworth’s Ode, “Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood” (1803-06):Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,   60
        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   65
        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 our 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.” You can read her full essay here.

Grandson Owen before proprioception. Moving with the whole universe in the eternal Now.

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.

My teacher Owen as I try to acquire a "philosophic mind."

Again from Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality Ode:

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
      We will grieve not, rather find
      Strength in what remains behind;  185
      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,  19
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?


About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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18 Responses to Learning from a Baby: A Memoir Writer’s Teacher

  1. Hi Shirley,
    I’d like to suggest a new category of memoir for you – “Memoirs in Dialogue.” I just finished reading Rhonda Langley’s “Mennonite in Blues Jeans,” a memoir written in dialogue with “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.” Rhonda and Rhoda grew up in the same community, at the same time. Their fathers taught in the same Mennonite College. Though they are both writers, their lives have taken different directions. And they have different relationships to what it means to be Mennonite. It could have easily become “Dueling Memoirs” but Rhonda takes a respectful and Anabaptist approach – sharing her life and thoughts with a few overlapping scenes with Rhoda that feel like dialogue rather than duel.

    • Shirley says:

      Welcome Mary Anne,Thanks for this suggestion and the ordering info for Mennonite in Blue Jeans. Many readers of this blog were stimulated to write about their impressions of Rhoda Janzen’s book and they may be interested in a new take on the same community..I’m going to put the review link here and suggestion that you put the same comment on this post that you left on the current one. http://100memoirs.com/2009/11/21/mennonite-in-a-little-black-dress-an-old-mennonite-review/ This review still gets “hits” on the blog, and some people are signed up to receive new comments.

      I will be interested in tracing the responses to another Anabaptist memoir model. Did you see the previous posts here on I Am Hutterite?

      I had to chuckle at the idea of dueling memoirs. You prefer dialogue, but I rather like the irony of the dueling image. Self-publishing means everyone has access to a printing press, which has some ramifications for memoir. Let a thousand flowers bloom!


  2. OMG, Shirley is Owen ever KEE-YOOT! What a beautiful child! Do you just wish you could hold in the palm of your hand one moment with Owen for the rest of your life? I used to feel that way when my boys were that age, and I suspect I will again if/when I become a grandmother. I bet you awake every morning in gratitude for this blessing called Owen… I can only imagine.

    This was a thoughtful post… thank you as always.


    • Shirley says:

      Yes, Saloma, I am trying to really live in each of these moments. So grateful for digital photography! I am loving it in the very depth of my being.

  3. Johanna says:

    Just thought I’d share a sweet story about another 3-4 year old that I heard from a priest at a parish mission: Little ‘Sally’ was the queen in her house, the much loved only child–until the day a baby brother was brought home from the hospital. The parents were nervous what Sally’s reaction would be to the new brother, but were relieved to see her obvious pleasure with the new baby. Still, thery were filled with trepidation when Sally asked to go into the baby’s room all by herself….after much begging they finally acceded, but carefully watched and listened through a crack in the door. To their amazement they heard little Sally imploring the baby: “Please remind me what God is like because I am starting to forget?”
    By Johanna, author of Graffiti On My Soul (see Amazon)

  4. Anne says:

    What a wonderful post. I actually happened upon your blog in search of resources as I ponder writing my own memoir about my “grandfamily.” My husband and I are raising our 3 year old granddaughter. While we could wallow in what we’ve lost by trading our roles as grandparents for that of parents, we try to remain focused on the gift we have been given. We have a real appreciation for every milestone, which is borne of perspective. I’m quite sure I never found my kids quite this hilarious at age 3!

    • shirleyhs says:

      Anne, I am sorry it has taken me so long to respond to you! I am very glad you wrote a comment and hope you will come back again. I started a second blog called grannynanny.posterous.com where I post Owen’s milestones and my thoughts. Did you know there are four million grandparents taking care of their grandchildren on a daily basis in the US? This is a huge group. Blessings to you. You already have the keys–perspective, humor, and gratitude for the second chance at helping to mold a precious life.

      • Anne says:

        Shirley, I just looked at your other blog and let me just say you have touched a nerve! Fly Me to the Moon is a song my husband and granddaughter have danced to since she was born. It’s their “song.” Your Owen is precious. Let’s continue to count our blessings! Whether I ever write a book or not, it doesn’t really matter. Maybe “living your memoir,” by being present in every moment and sharing these experiences, whether by blogging or social media, or whatever, is good enough.

      • shirleyhs says:

        Anne, so glad you enjoyed the dance on video. If you have a smart phone and a Posterous account, you can take daily pictures and videos and keep a complete record of a child’s life with only a few minutes of time every day. Then, if you wish, you can collect the blog posts into a book. A geek could splice the videos into a longer one, but I’m not sure how that would work.’

        The good news about publishing today is that you can easily write your own book. Shutterfly does it with photos and captions. Others do it with blog posts.

        AND, you can also self publish a “real” book of letters to your granddaughter or descriptions comparing parenting and grandparenting, whatever. You could try to have it published the traditional way or do it yourself. So many choices!

        Right now, the job is to live each day to the full–right?! And spend just a few minutes each day recording what you observed and felt. If you do that, you can choose how to share it all the rest of your life!

  5. doradueck says:

    This was a completely new thought to me, but so obvious… That in a way we can recover our memories of infancy through the lives of the infants around us. Thank you! (And what a sweetie you’ve got for your memory-making!)

  6. shirleyhs says:

    Thank you, Dora. It is an honor to offer such a thoughtful person a new thought. Our little sweetie has been through a lot in the last week–an earthquake and tropical storm Irene on the outside. And learning to roll over and pushing out the first tooth on the inside! Phew. So fun to be able to email our children at work with the milestone updates. And even the storm provided the opportunity to head out of the city to my family in Lancaster County, where we had a great time.

  7. shirleyhs says:

    I have to add this URL to this post.Martin Luther King, Jr., tells how his love for his baby daughter made him vulnerable to his enemies but also how it brought him closer to God.

  8. Chelsea says:

    What a sweet post! Owen is so lucky to have you guys in his life at this time, too!

  9. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Chelsea. Without you, (and Anthony) there would be no Owen. And without your collective trust in us, we wouldn’t have this wonderful opportunity!

  10. Pingback: Thomas Merton, Sainthood, and Writing About One’s Own Life | 100 Memoirs – Wordpress.com

  11. Hi Shirleyhs:
    I am a grandmother of 7, former Montessori school director and am currently writing a spiritual memoir. I just wanted to share a couple of tips I’ve learned for communicating with children.
    -First of all, when I am with babies I try to remember that they know more than I do. They are my teachers always. They really respond to the respect.
    -Secondly, I know from experience that I can communicate with them best in the form of thought transference, at least when they are quiet. Here is an example of something I said to my grandson Ethan when he was about 2.

    He was seated beside me, but looking out the window. “Allowing Ethan,” I said in my mind. ” I noticed that you did not seem to like it when your father kept telling you to name the colors of various things. Did you resent being asked to ‘perform?’ at least too many times? ” At that, his head whipped around and he looked straight at me, with eyes lit up and with a smile of gratitude in his face!

    You can try it yourself with children you know and don’t know. It’s best to use the word “allowing” when addressing them. And if you sense they don’t like being spoken to “underneath,” then stop right away.

    Also, this “thought talk” works with them at any distance. I often talk to my grandchildren lovingly in this way–even though some of them live hundreds of miles away! I know they “hear” me. One grandbaby grabbed me and gave me a huge hug and kiss when we met for the first time! His parents were astonished, he was usually shy with everyone new. I was delighted, for I knew he had clearly “recognized” me.

    One caveat: it is very important to speak to the child as you would another adult–with full respect– that is. I don’t tell them what to do, but if I have a suggestion I say, “Allowing you can do this (negative behavior that is hurting them) but it is also allowed that you could try that… (positive behavior that allows them complete freedom.) In other words I try not to impose my values and mores on them.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Brenda, I really appreciate your taking time to share this wisdom with us. I too believe in “thought talk.” I practiced it today with Owen. And it’s a comforting thought that when the day comes for us to leave New York, we will be able to continue communicating, even when we’re not using Skype. If attention is a form of prayer, and I think it is, then we can send the children in our lives much love through our intentional attention. I like the term “allowing.” Thank you for it. And come back again!

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