Category - Thoughts
Essay by Patricia Hampl

"What were you thinking?" My Mother glowed with outrage. She held the evidence: a narrow red leather book of poems, one of her few treasures, which I had just finished attending to with a leaky ballpoint. Blue ink loped and clotted its way from page to gilt-edged page. I had circle the columns of each poem's stanzas. The broad margins of the pages were festooned with stars and suns, flocks of V-shapes (ducks in formation), sharp-petaled tulips, dogs with alarming tails, and - my greatest conception - a cat crouched on the final page with peaked ears and very wise whiskers.

Essentially, it was a deeply thoughtless business. But looking back, I realize it was not simply a whim that drove me to what my mother saw as desecration. I wanted to make contact, to communicate with those luscious cream pages and, especially, with the black markings I understood were words but which refused to yield to me in any way. I was not quite five, and I resented the fact that I couldn't read. Everyone else in the family could. My pure motive, as I see it now, was to insinuate myself on those pages, to inscribe my thoughts - visually as they still had to be - next to what I knew were someone else's thoughts stacked atop each other in tidy black rows.

What was I thinking? Ah Mother, it was the effortless float of the mind over sensation, making this, making that - making sense (also nonsense) - the ballpoint trailing the drift of the mind on the page. The cottage industry of thought had begun - how the dog's tail, tickling back and forth, looks sharp, how the tulip is a cup with spiked sides, and the cat is nobody's fool. Once they existed as objects in my mind, these images had to be conveyed.

It was worth the punishment.

Later, there was another red leather book. This one was mine - and I was supposed to mark in it any way I liked. My first diary, a gift for my tenth birthday. It was outfitted when I was ten, I had lost the exuberance of thought. What on earth was I supposed to write about? What was there to say, to think, about any given day? "Went to school today. Had dinner at home, hamburgers and mashed potatoes." I crossed out "potatoes" and wrote in "spuds" - a word I'd heard my uncle use. If we ate "spuds" instead of "potatoes" maybe that made them more interesting?

How strange; now that I was invited to have thoughts, to write them down (it was my mother; the injured party of the earlier red book episode, who had given me the little diary), I had nothing in my barren mind at all, it seemed. I was consigned to a lifetime of recounting dinner menus.

In spite of this strange childish writer's block, I loved words already, the sound of them and the stories they brought, my mother reeling out "Charlotte's Web" one summer on the dock by the side of the lake, tears streaming down my cheeks for the death of a spider. Words did that! And words, I knew, were where thoughts lived.

Thoughts are our most private possessions, unreal estate we cleaved to like a native patch of earth, no matter how barren or fugitive the landscape appears to an outsider's cold eyes. The inner life, seething with private thoughts, is a diva's life. But these intensely private thoughts resist the public arena of language.

The thoughts of childhood have an especially fateful fascination. This is where the habit of framing sensation began. It is out ancestral home. Here, we can't help believing, is the key to it all - if only we could get back to it. If making thoughts is such an idiosyncratic occupation, then surely the pattern of our peculiar attempts to make sense (or simply to make something) starts here, in the filmy moments of waking consciousness. We go back in memory to retrieve that early mental territory that we have forfeited over the years to the colonizing intelligence of adulthood. We trust instinctively what we find there. The archive of our thoughts is not only our truth; it is our integrity.

The earliest thought is the holy grail of memory. We seek it like the lost sacred thing it is. We seek it like the lost sacred thing it is. Childhood is the source, we all seem to know, of this human habit of thinking - and creating - our way through time.

In an autobiographical sketch Virginia Woolf wrote privately, just to amuse her friends, she, too, turns instinctively to her earliest memories. She is looking for that first instant of consciousness. Her first memory, she says, had been "of red and purple flowers on a black background - my mother's dress."

But before she had gazed at this floral pattern an instant in memory, she is drawn down another shadowy corridor of the mind. The real first apprehension of thought, she decides, is "of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one two ... It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive."

The rapture is real. It is a child's transcendence, but it lasts a lifetime. The bliss is self and overwhelming world approach each other and cohere for a wavering moment. The world agrees to humble itself for an instant, to have its picture taken. Our camera keeps snapping and snapping the world. We can't get enough of it - that's how a self is made.

I am talking to my granddaughter Lucy. She is four - "four and a half," she says, already a detail person. I tell her I am writing about the thoughts of children. What should I say? "Birds, she says without hesitation. "Tell about birds. They're part of the environment."

We are the supermarket in Austin, Texas. I offer to buy her a doughnut. "I'd rather have an empanada," she says cheerfully, at home in the great globe of foreignness.

Her world is opening wide, wide. It's already bigger. more inclusive than mine. When did I first understand the concept "the environment?" Sometime after collage, certainly. She gives me a bite of her empanada so I'll know what it taste like. "Good?" she asked, glad to introduce me to the larger world, hoping I will like it as she does.

But we start thinking in the same place, she and I. We belong to the poet's tribe. We subscribe to William Carlos Williams' famous manifesto; "No idea but in things."

Our thoughts begin with birds, with jagged stars and lopsided suns, with a cat's wise whiskers. An empanada is a concept, and the birds, after all, are part of what we're part of - "the environment." Abstract concepts must have colors and feathers to matter. A thought, a child knows, must have a pulse.

Thoughts begin in sensation. But they reach, like birds, for the flight of the mind. As Lucy is saying now, "The thing about thoughts - when you have them, you aren't lonely."

"Thoughts are friends?" I ask, nudging the idea forward.

"Sort of," she says vaguely, not signing up for this package deal. Hopping away from me, with her empanada, a mind of her own.


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