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