"What can we make of the inexpressible joy of children? It is a kind of gratitude, I think- the gratitude of the ten-year-old who wakes to her own energy and the brisk challenge of the world. You thought you knew the place and all the routines, but you see you hadn't known. Whole stacks at the library held books devoted to things you knew nothing about. The boundary of knowledge receded, as you poked about in books, like Lake Erie's rim as you climbed its cliffs. And each area of knowledge disclosed another, and another. Knowledge wasn't a body, or a tree, but instead air, or space, or being- whatever pervaded, whatever never ended and fitted into the smallest cracks and the widest space between stars." Annie Dillard, from her memoir An American Childhood
I'm currently reading An American Childhood, Annie Dillard's account of growing up in Pennsylvania in the 1950's which triggers a bit of inward groaning in my spirit- both because the book is better than all the other books and because her childhood seems better than all the other childhoods, especially these modern day ones. No longer do children ride bikes all day without checking in with parents, putting pennies on streetcar tracks and finding corners of forests to explore alone. No longer do kids roam unsupervised, screen-less.
I bemoan this.
And yet the magic of the waking that happens in childhood endures. Even now.
"Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along; is this sad? They wake like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning: in medias res, surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills. They know the neighborhood, they can read and write English, they are old hands at the commonplace mysteries, and yet they feel themselves to have just stepped off the boat, just converged with their bodies, just flown down from a trance, to lodge in an eerily familiar life already well underway.
I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again."
Does this process really end? Do we stop with our waking?
This morning I sat on my back porch and noticed the four part harmony of the morning songbirds, the distant roar of the interstate, the trill of insects, and the hum of our air conditioning unit. A couple of days ago, I explained our health insurance system to my curious 12-year-old. I stood on the geysers of Yellowstone last year and began to understand the immensity of our country's super volcano. Maybe it's just for 10-year-olds, but I don't think so. To the extent that we pay attention, our waking up is ongoing.
Photos: Elise Harper during her family's day-in-the-life session last year. Like Annie Dillard, she inspires.