Sunday, July 19, 2015

And So the Young Are Taught

There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day,
or a certain part of the day,
or for many years,
or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories,
and white and red clover,
and the song of the phoebe-bird
(Walt Whitman)

I spent last week with children and grandchildren, breathing in blue sky and birch trees and moss and hemlock. We paddled around a quiet lake, naming the little coves and landings: “Boulder Bay,” “Forest Fort.” We hiked some trails along running water, freed a fish caught in a rocky kettle.

I’ve been thinking about Whitman’s notion that what we look on and respond to as children becomes inextricably part of us. Maybe even part of our children, and their children. Recent study of the brain seems to support this: childhood trauma can cause lasting emotional, cognitive, relational harm. Exposure to violence, even in very young children, can yield symptoms of  post traumatic stress disorder, including hyper-vigilance, anxiety, inability to focus, aggression, anti-social behavior. 

There’s a generational aspect to brain development and mental health: we’re shaped by those before us, and we pass on what we’ve been given.

Yet there’s some choice in this, some ability to redirect, rebuild, re-channel.

If what we do as children builds connections in our brains, strengthens some regions, by-passes others, then surely it matter where our children turn their attention, and the time we spend helping them to see beauty, health, kindness and joy can shape the adults they’ll become.

I grew up with a grandmother who paid attention to nature.  Squirrel antics, bird calls, unfamiliar wildflowers, strange cloud formations: she treated the small occasions of nature like personal treasures. I can remember going to visit when she was in her seventies and eighties. She’d have things to show, discoveries to share: a new groundcover blooming behind her metal shed. An unusually shaped tomato, warm off the vine.

Those gifts of attention stay with me and shape the way I view the world. I remember the afternoon, back in the sixties, when she pulled her Chevy convertible to the side of the road to stop and see where the mockingbird was: she hadn’t heard one since her childhood in Oklahoma. And there it was, on a telephone line, singing its unmistakable song. I still think of her whenever I see, or hear, a mockingbird.

I’ve done my best to share that attention with our kids. They accuse me of dragging the family to “squirrel  museums,” and laugh that I signed them up for “nature tots.” I confess to both accusations. Now there’s another generation to pay attention to, and with. We prowl through Black Rock Preserve, searching for fossils, or poke sticks in the Black Rock pond, looking for fish. I’m regularly presented with unexpected gifts: a painting of a backyard bird, a well-preserved snake skin, a fragment of an abandoned nest. We investigate the contents of our decades old “nature bowl,” sharing stories of some of the more intriguing specimens.

My grandmother also taught me to pay attention to need: to look beyond myself and see the pain of others. There was nothing easy about her life, and yet I don’t remember hearing her complain. Instead, I remember her calling attention to the generosity of others, and insisting on kindness toward those in need around us. Skippy, an odd boy years older than us, mentally challenged in ways we didn’t understand, was always welcome in our yard. And if he invited us to his house, a block away, to see his monkey, or swim in his pool, a glance from Grandma would quiet our objections.

A multitude of pets helped me learn to pay attention. So did younger cousins. Children who have nothing to care for, no smaller living things to attend to, can miss the joy of empathy. Learning to make a cat purr, taking time to tame a parakeet, facing my own fear of the dark to go out at night to reassure an anxious duck, entertaining cousins while the grownups talked on and on: those were skills of attention I’m thankful to have learned.

And so I look for ways to pass those skills on to others. The parakeet and duck are incidental, but the ability to see what pleases another creature, and then provide it, seems essential.  The ability to see what’s needed in a situation, then finding a way to offer it, doesn’t come naturally. It comes through the trial and error of caring for a smaller sibling, friend, or cousin, the afternoons spent cutting and pasting to make a card or gift or other offering for someone sick, or sad, or lonely. It comes from helping to plan and prepare for a party or celebration, thinking about what might please the guests, then feeling good when everyone has fun.

Attention to words was another gift I was given. God’s word, primarily. My grandmother kept her Bible open on the kitchen table, wrote notes in the margins. “Read this!” she’d say with quiet excitement. “Then look at this! What do you think it means?” Surface interpretation wasn’t what she was after. She saw such riches in the words I found myself memorizing passages, puzzling over them myself, carrying them through life like a treasure. Holding the health of certain passages against deep hurts and turning my attention toward a story far beyond me.

My husband grew up with a tradition of bed-time questions, and I learned a similar practice of reflection at a camp where I worked: What did you learn today? What was a thing of beauty? What are you thankful for? Quiet conversations at bedtime can prompt attention throughout the day. There are always new things to be learned, new beauty to celebrate, gifts to be thankful for, if we take time to pay attention.

It’s easy to focus our attention on the burdens of the day, or to allow our thoughts to be clouded by the loudest voices around us. Easy to turn our thoughts to difficulty and pain and what we wish and what we never had.

Yet, when my attention slides in harmful patterns, I hear my grandmother’s voice:

“Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

I am thankful that I was taught to think on, attend to, celebrate the beauty and grace of the world around me, the things of good report, words of health and goodness.
I’m thankful to spend time with the next generation, and the next, shaped, and continuing to be shaped by choices of attention in the generations before us.

We are people of open water and small boats, birch trees and birds, quiet conversations around blazing fires. Attentive to each others’ needs. Thankful for God’s kindness.

   I tremble with gratitude
   for my children and their children
   who take pleasure in one another.
   At our dinners together, the dead
   enter and pass among us
   in living love and in memory.
   And so the young are taught. 
                       (Wendell Berry)

[This is a revision of a post from 2011, Paying Attention, Next Generation. I'm reworking some earlier posts this summer, as travel and time outside limit my time for blogging.]

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