I took C. Kenneth Meese’s Theory of the Photographic Process with me into the Army when I was drafted. I’ll bet no other draftee has ever chosen that particular book to take with him into the service. But the choice made sense to me because I wanted to know how light striking a light-sensitive emulsion could produce a photographic image.

Kodak made emulsions out of cheek pieces of cattle obtained from slaughterhouses. The makeup of those cheek pieces depended on what the cattle had eaten in the fields they had lived in. The sensitivity of the photographic emulsions invented by George Eastman depended on the amount of sulfur from mustard weed the cows had ingested.

Kodak film came to depend on very strict quality control of the diets of cows whose cheek pieces went into the gelatin from which that film was made. Who could have known, or even suspected? I loved it, reading that book by flashlight after taps during basic training. The Army didn’t own me completely; by clinging to such idiosyncratic engagements, I was still my own man.

So here I am today, writing about the exploration of my own mind, trying to finish this project before I die, continuing a tradition begun so long ago under the influence of the family I was born to as middle male child out of three. I loved my parents, but felt distant from them. My older brother had my father’s attention; my younger brother was my mother’s chief concern. I turned my engagements into the world of nature and discovery. Given the family I was born to, I didn’t know what else to do.

Here I am, still at it, but with a twist. Looking inward because so few others have taken that path, and among all choices, that is the one that intrigues me the most. The real action is not in the world or its universe. It is in the miracle of our own minds that dare entertain such mysteries.

Einstein’s famous thought experiments were all in his mind, as current theories of how the universe works are in the minds of modern cosmologists, astrophysicists, and astrobiologists. I can’t understand taking on the universe with an incomplete grasp of the primary tool I use to observe its features. Talk about carts before horses, that strikes me as insane, employing a mind you don’t understand to probe the biggest mystery of all. The blind leading the blind. Trapped in worlds of conjecture and opinion.

All going back to the families we were raised in, to our primal engagements, and the lifelong habits we build around them. To the situations we found ourselves in early on and tried to understand. And to explain, often mainly to ourselves. The very selves we have to understand in getting beyond our limitations to a true appreciation of our place in the cosmos.

The development of our minds begins in our families where we catch on to the trick of linking perception to judgment to acting on purpose, then extending our reach into nature, culture community, and back to us in our families. Taking full responsibility for such loops of engagement, we can begin to understand features of the universe beyond our true grasp.

This post concludes my series not only on family engagements, but engagements with nature, culture, and community as well. I now switch to considering three examples of engagements that distinguish us as a people: our engagements with baseball as our national pastime, Roget’s Thesaurus as a reference on every writer’s bookshelf, and with the stars which serve as a luminous slate for projecting our deepest needs into the mystery of the night sky.

To play the speech game you have to take turns. There’s a beat to it. You have to enter the rhythm. Say something, wait for a response. Pulses of meaning going both ways. Your turn, my turn, your turn, my turn. Incoming, outgoing, incoming, outgoing. Perception alternating with action again and again.

I am with you; you are with me. We are together. Two worlds as one in alternation. Subject and object combined as one. Agent and recipient forming a unity. Acting, being acted upon. Speaking, listening. I hear you; you hear me. I see you listening to me; you see me listening to you. All joined by a thread of meaning without end.

Your words spark something in me; my words spark something in you. Together, we create something new. Something different from either of us alone. We expand each other. Our mutual understanding grows larger. You build me; I build you. We are a dynamic duo in a relationship. That relationship is bigger than me, bigger than you. It is the two of us being bigger than ourselves. Creating a world we can both live in. A world of our own making and to our own liking. A world of shared understanding we can’t live without.

Families create spaces where such things can happen. People can get to know themselves in the company of others whom they trust. That company and those spaces are powerful. Like traveling through space to visit another planet. If you learn such ways in your family, you can try the same method outside with others.

I have a family behind me; you have a family behind you. Let’s get together to see what happens. See if we can make it work for the two of us. We’ll start slowly, taking turns. You go first. Then I’ll go, then you again. We’ll compare families. Compare worlds. Discover new planets. Off into the universe of possibilities before us. Whooee, this is fun. I’m having an adventure. How about you?

Engagements aren’t only with people. They can be between people and animals, animals and animals, people and things, people and places, people and weather, people and music, people and art, people and games, people and ideas, people and fantasies, people and dreams.

The common thread is a flow of action unto perception, perception unto action, again and again, for as long as it lasts. Each round sets the stage for the next, and the next after that. As each day leads to the next, each week, each month, each season, each year, each life leads to the next. The flow is the essence of engagement, the moving ahead. The wayfaring, the adventure, the prospect of discovery. Anything but the same old, same old. Orthodoxy is the death of engagement.

Under the spell of a biography of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, as a kid I unwound countless transformers to see how they were put together to solve the problem of electrical energy being wasted as heat in the magnets that stored that energy from cycle to cycle. The solution was to build transformers out of thin insulated layers of iron to break up the currents stealing energy out of the system.

I was entranced to find how such an idea itself could be transformed into a design that solved a problem. In a word, I was engaged. As I have been with one thing after another my whole life. One discovery after another, one project after another, one challenge after another. Each discovery leading to a new challenge. The flow never stops. One engagement leads to the next. As one footstep moves us ahead on our wayfaring journey. Who know where it will take us?

Once the process of engagement is discovered in childhood, there’s no telling where it will lead. To the knitting of mittens. The baking of apple pies. The washing of cars to look like new. The repair of roofs. The discovery of vacuum tubes. The discovery of transistors. The discovery of planetary disks around stars throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

Like footsteps one after another, our engagements lead us on and on. Once the process of engagement is discovered in childhood, there’s no telling where a given thread will lead. Our families give us a start, the rest is up to us on our own. Forming ongoing relationships, raising families, working on projects, making discoveries—being ourselves all the while.

What else are we here to do but discover who we are and the range of engagements we are suited to? The rest—doing the work—is up to each of us individually. Together, we will build the new world our children will grow up in. As generation by generation, our ancestors once built the world we inherited at birth.

Memory is at the heart of learning through trial and error. We are born knowing very little; it’s all uphill from there. Families give us a leg-up by not having to be feral children dependent on instinct. They give us enough leeway to own what we learn.

And what we learn is what to expect next time. Expectancy, recognition, identification, meaning, and understanding are gifts our sheltering families make available to us. Leading to judgment, which opens the way to appropriate behavior.

All courtesy of the families that give us room to fall on our face, pick ourselves up, and have at it again. Getting that one more chance makes all the difference because we remember the last time, and vow to do better. Our efforts add up as we go. Practice makes, if not perfect, at least for improvement.

Families give us the chance to engage through successive approximation, so that what we aim at, we eventually attain. Not trial and error just once, but again and again, showing incremental improvement each time. If we put in our ten-thousand hours of consciously appreciating those decreasing increments, we find ourselves right where we wanted to be two years ago. Courtesy of memory, room for experiment, the wisdom of patience, and the willingness to try.

Join all of the above to the life force that urges us on from every one of our cells because we need to do something with all that energy our mitochondria provide, and we have the formula for success via one earnest attempt after another.

Knowing almost nothing in particular at birth opens the door to the possibility of adapting to unanticipated conditions and situations. If we were born fully equipped with everything we needed to know, the first surprising change we encountered would throw us off our stride. We’d have no way of coping with novelty, and it would be our downfall in the end, which would come sooner rather than later.

No matter how trying family life can be, real life is far worse. Family life is a trial run for the time when we must face every challenge on our own by standing on the two feet we were born with and that our families have encouraged us to develop into an asset. Thanks, Mom; thanks, Dad; we owe it all to you. Oh, yes, and to the kids who grew up alongside us, no matter what pains they were to us at the time, or we to them.

Families are our first schools. In that sense, we all start out being home schooled. What do we learn? To be ourselves. To speak our native language. To engage. To babble, then invent our own patter. To discover meaningful speech. To understand others. To understand ourselves.

It all begins at mother’s breast while we are fed, warm, and safe. She smiles; we smile. She laughs; we laugh. She oohs; we ooh in response. Then we ooh meaningfully at the sight of her smile. She giggles; we giggle. Peek-a-boo!

We sense we’re onto something. We play off against her; she plays the same game. Back and forth; forth and back. There’s no stopping the banter. Then the flow of talk. Her turn, our turn. Then the full exchange, the loop of engagement of perception and action at the same time. She playing her part; we playing ours. Equally engaged. Paying attention. Watching, listening. Being watched; being listened to. Taking turns. Conversing. Being ourselves with each other. Not alone anymore. The biggest discovery of our lives. Or not, if there’s nobody to play the game with to get us started.

 

452. Was I Ever Young?

March 9, 2015

Looking back from the vantage of being eighty-two, I wonder, was I ever young? Was I ever! Young, that is. I have a bank of memories to prove it. Too many to count, so I will bullet a few.

  • Falling over the edge of a hayloft, hitting the floor between two pieces of heavy farm machinery, breaking my wrist.
  • My Vermont grandfather scolding me for sneaking into his workshop, messing with his woodworking tools.
  • Watching my grandmother talk through fingers screening her lips to keep her false teeth from flying out.
  • Lying in bed listening to steam locomotives pulling out of the station on wintery nights, hearing them try to gain traction on icy rails, slipping, then slowing, making another try, and another.
  • Auntie Viv giving us a dog that chased cars in Buffalo, and promptly chased cars in Hamilton, never tiring of attacking noisy tires.
  • Feeling heat from the fire in the boiler at the basket factory, hearing the machinery.
  • Crunching on broken glass, hearing whining complaints from sheets of galvanized roofing clanking in the wind at the old observatory on the hill.
  • Holding my nose among the bodies of cats pickled in formaldehyde at the gut lab, stiff legs poking under lids of their metal coffins.
  • Ogling a man’s head in a jar, donated the label said for research, skin stripped from half his face to show veins and arteries filled with blue and red rubber.
  • Watching a meteor shower with Norman Stauffer.
  • Finding fossil trilobites in layers of slate.
  • Getting stung by yellow jackets.
  • My father tapping his pipe out the car window, sparks setting tents lashed to the running board on fire.
  • My fifth-grade teacher’s heaving bosom as she sang Gilbert and Sullivan in the gym.
  • Brass spittoons among the ferns at the barber shop.
  • Crawling out over rafters holding up the tin ceiling of study hall at school, poking a balloon through a rust hole, bending down, braced between taut arms and legs, blowing it up for all to see—except nobody looked up.
  • Stealing a bike adornment with five flags from the dime store.
  • Peeing in a jug for a week to put on the neighbor’s porch.
  • Kicking a soccer ball on an icy sidewalk, legs flying out from under me, landing on the back of my head.
  • My tongue freezing to the metal steering bar of my Flexible Flyer.
  • Poking sticks into muskrat traps set in Payne Creek, the trapper yelling at me on the street.
  • Breaking into a barn, stealing an upright telephone and jewelry, wearing the pins under my sweater at school until my mother found out.
  • Mother spanking me with a canvas stretcher for yelling “I’m going to murder you” at my little brother for knocking down the tower I was building with wooden blocks.
  • My father making me give back the jackknife I stole from Dickie Wet-his-pants in second grade.

Was I ever young? Which tells you why I am now an empiricist, studying my own mind by direct observation and personal experience, shunning theories and mathematical models like dengue fever, dwelling contentedly in my subjective black box, taking full responsibility for my engagements with the world. Learning everything I know from my mistakes.

At birth, we are naïve about the ways of that world. The point of memory is to free us from our ignorance that we might have some chance of survival. Childhood is given us to learn as much as we can by trial and error in a somewhat protective environment. Now I know that pottery breaks when I drop it. Splinters lie in wait for me to rub my hand across rough wood. In the days when tires had inner-tubes, and I was old enough to drive, I was sure to get a flat tire if I didn’t carry a jack in the trunk.

It isn’t the taming of fire that gives humanity an edge on survival, spoken language, or even humor. It is memory that lets us learn from careless mistakes so, if we’re lucky, we can eventually work our way around them.

 

The essential benefit of families is to give children a chance to build a store of memories that will serve to get them started in life, and perhaps see them through to the end. Love, liking, sex, companionship, respect, and cooperation help parents bond with each other as essentially different people. That bond is a gift they give their children who, born wholly naïve to the ways of the world, need early engagements with others to build memories, habits, and skills that will help them to stand on their own legs as capable adults when the time comes.

Whether heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or other, adult pairs that complement each other can provide the stimulation and stability necessary to maintain a functioning family that benefits children directly or indirectly during the restless journey to adulthood.

Couples don’t need to justify their existence by having children. They provide the same services by engaging each other so that, having a shared home to return to that restores them, they can go forth and do the work of the world in turning solar energy into deeds.

This benefit also spreads throughout the neighboring community. It takes true, skilled, generous, and reliable engagements to run the world, not the union of one man with one woman, which is only one example of a wide variety of productive human relationships.

There are as many kinds of marriages as there are couples. The essence of family is stability through mutual engagement, not any one particular kind of relationship. If we over-specify the nature of families based on a particular personal preference, morality founders on the sharp rocks of that heedless specificity.

Children don’t need orthodox beliefs to grow into competent adults, nor do any partners who already function on that level of competency. Expressions of mutual love help, along with enough healthful food to fuel the currents flowing through minds both young and adult, endowing them with coherent thoughts and meanings.

The essential thing in a family is to build a core of common experiences that stimulates the growth of all members on their respective levels of attainment. This requires a certain flexibility of expectation, not the rigidity of preordained results.

When I was two or three, the bed of an old canal that passed at the rear of our back yard in Hamilton, New York, was selected as the route of a new sewer. Big sections of concrete pipe were lined up along the banks of the canal, ready to be rolled into place. Walking unattended as a very young child along that line of pipe, I came to its end, which I immediately crawled into.

I remember the feel of the rough concrete surface on my hands and knees. My way into that tube of darkness grew ever dimmer, without any sign of light ahead. The pipe was too tight around my crawling frame to let me turn, so I tried backing up, which didn’t work. I had no choice but to keep crawling into the depths. Crawling. Crawling, scrape after scrape. I got worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a way out.

The separate sections of pipe were pieced together so tightly that only faint hints of an outside world glowed dimly here and there. I was firm in my conviction that the only way out had to lie ahead. At a slight bend, I suddenly saw a faint shimmer from a wider gap in the distance. I kept crawling, and came to two sections of pipe that had not been closely fitted together, leaving a six-inch gap flooded with daylight. This was my chance! I scraped my way through that gap, drawing blood and white scratches along my arms and legs. I wormed my way upward toward the light, and stood free in the open air, taking the coolest, freshest breaths of my life.

Only then did I admit my stupidity in crawling into that line of pipe as if the dark opening had invited me in. I recognized taking that initial move as the bad idea it had been. I remember scolding myself never to do that again.

A certain lack of parental supervision in my case as middle child led to many subsequent episodes of my learning about the world on my own. I became an independent thinker. Whenever I could, I roamed the hills around town, getting scratched, wet, tired, and cold, but never cutting back on my roving explorations. I was on the path to adventure, realizing that if I was under anyone’s supervision, it was my own.

I see those qualities now as the gift of independence that my father took from his birth mother’s not showing up when he needed her. Turning bad situations into positive outcomes is an unsought but necessary result of living through tough times. Finding that positive way is up to those who suffer neglect, abuse, bullying, cruelty, or deprivation. If others torment us, we always have the ultimate option of going it alone under our own recognizance.

Here I am today, facing into the tunnel of introspection so surely shunned by respectable science. Well, so be it. Some may regard it as a sewer pipe; I see it as my way to revelation. My path of life lies precisely into this particular darkness. I’ve already seen many faint shimmers of light, and have no intention of turning back. This Web log is the record of my adventures so far. If I don’t take this particular path, who will? The way is not obvious, but I judge it to be essentially positive. It happens to be the route I’ve followed since earliest childhood.

Thanks for checking it out.

450. Family Story

March 6, 2015

My grandmother died of a heart attack in 1896 after giving birth to her only child, so he, my father, had never know her, his own mother. He was christened at her graveside. And as it turned out, his own children never knew him, our father. To us he might well have been a cobbler hammering at his last in some distant workroom across town.

But we loved him in spirit because he often read to us before bedtime. In the end, he pipe-smoked himself to death at age sixty-four. When he said good night, he smelled like an ashtray.

Though famous in a professional sense, he never found the engagement he missed-out on when the one person destined to be there for him never showed up. He never engaged her, his own mother, so never had a chance to respond to her personal qualities, and so never developed his own. He was a presence notable for its absence due to professional duties. Throughout my life, he was always this bemused man in the background.

In retrospect, I see him as a good provider, but, too, as a kind of silent partner, a sort of blank to be filled-in upon later reflection. That is what I see myself doing in writing this blog using the English language to write about the one mind I have to work with. And saw my two brothers doing late in life before they died, putting themselves into typing out plays and poetry, respectively. Reminding me of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, children of the John B. Watson era of child abuse by means of edicts issued from academia.

My father’s great gift to his family was Burying Island, which my mother brought to family attention as a memory from her childhood, presented to her in a dream she had in 1937 of a time she and her father had rowed to the island to pick raspberries. Talk about family engagements: I have spent almost my whole life interacting with that island on the Maine coast, and I am sure that connection explains why I moved to Maine in 1986 to become an inadvertent environmentalist.

My love for that island goes back to its meaning for both of my parents. For my mother it was a living remnant of her relationship with her father; for my father is was a fantasy remnant of a relationship with the mother he never knew. For me, it was the setting of the happiest days we enjoyed as a family before we went our separate ways into disparate worlds of our own.

I now manage Burying Island LLC for the three families that used to own it in undivided shares, but together formed an LLC to assure protection of its ecological integrity for the foreseeable future. A good part of my life’s energy has gone toward protecting that island from innocent degradation by well-meaning family members. That island is at the core of my creative life as Steve from planet Earth.

Mind, self, island, planet—I can’t keep them separate because in my experience they aren’t separate at all. They are levels of life on Earth as expressed through my lineage. I had to live my whole life to this point in order to write that sentence in the context of this reflection.

That is how my mind works. And I would now say how minds work in general. Ultimately they are expressions of the planet that bore them, their families, communities, cultures, and natural surroundings, at root based on sunlight and water joining forces with soil to create mindful life.

Our families provide a core around which our engagements are wrapped, giving shape to our actions, judgments, and perceptions. Here I am connecting the words in this blog to the situation I have created for myself by undertaking this project as an expression of my family history as kindled by my mother and father all the way back to the founding of one-celled life in ancient waters and soils pooled together and both warmed and lit by rays from the sun.

This is my story as dictated to my fingers by my mind. All told by trusting my situated intelligence to find coherent meaning in the many currents of thought and feeling that make up the mind that I am.

Can you feel it—that flow? That’s who I am in alerting you to that flow in yourself, to give you encouragement to keep your own flow flooding through your mind and activities as a vehicle for your family’s history of turning sunlight and moisture into deeds that perpetually flower in the guise of your creative engagements.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, that is why I undertook the project of writing this blog—to earn the right to say what I just did in these last few sentences and paragraphs.

 

449. My Parents

March 5, 2015

Surprising as it may seem, parents are people. They are who they are. They can’t be all things to all children, who tend to draw closer to one or the other. Sex hormones may be one draw, a sense of shared identity or “identification” another. I’m with him, mister active who plays catch; I’m with her, the listener and supporter who gives me a hug now and then.

I grew up under the teachings of John B. Watson’s recent (1928) book, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, which advised raising children at an emotional distance as if they were young adults, shaking hands with them, but not hugging or kissing them lest they be spoiled. Young academics were apt to accept Watson’s doctrine as the authentic voice of scientific reasoning, so got suckered in to Watson’s “method,” while more loving parents remained skeptical.

The only time I can remember my father holding me in his lap was once on the front porch when he helped tie my shoes. The incident stands out because it was a unique event. Late in her life, my mother admitted that most people in Hamilton didn’t approve of how she was raising her three boys.

However family attachments are formed, they stir our engagements much as loving hands turn a prayer wheel in Tibet, or, as in my case, dutiful hands dress a child for school to meet community standards of approval. I have always seen my childhood as Platonic in being based on ideas and not feelings. I can’t recommend such treatment to anyone.

After all, it takes only a gentle pressure now and then to keep family relationships active and alive. Like prayer wheels, family engagements are made to spin, two partners in mutual orbit. To endure, they have to spin one around the other. In most families, parents trade off in keeping things going. Both are active while doing different jobs that have to get done every day. Like working for a living, getting dinner on the table, cleaning house, or watching a movie together.

When my parents got married in 1926, my father laid down the law: this is to be a one-career family. My mother was working on her doctorate in geology, so had to switch tracks mid-course. Her father had been a granite worker in the quarries of Sullivan, Maine. It was only natural for her to follow his lead. I remember she kept a few mineral samples in a bowl on her dresser, each labeled with its scientific binomial. In 1923, she did geological research at Acadia National Park. That was the year her father died of silicosis.

In the mid-1920s, her future husband showed up on her doorstep in Sullivan, seeking a rest stop on a hike from Middlebury to Nova Scotia. That was the end of his solo journey. My mother grudgingly learned to specialize in childcare and homemaking, developing a sideline of easel painting on Sundays, her day off.

I remember her boiling the laundry in a huge copper laundry tub that fit over two burners of the coal stove in the kitchen. She was a highly visual person, with marine artists in her family background. A Maine native, she loved the outdoors. In Seattle in the 1940s, I remember her saying after a long spell in the house, “I want to go out and touch trees.” She sent many signals that childrearing was not her chosen thing. But she worked at it as best she could because that was her family role. When she got more free time as her three boys got older, she took up flower gardening as a suitable pastime for a faculty wife.

My father was a distinguished college teacher of English. As far as I could tell, his toolkit consisted of pencils, paperclips, a stapler, pads of paper, and a zinc writing board with a bent corner. His main tool was an upright Underwood typewriter that made clickety noises through the closed door of his study after dinner, starting promptly at seven o’clock.

Each of us three boys had to invent himself for lack of an explicit model to engage with. Career-wise, we each did a lot of flub-dubbing around. Both my older and younger brother had great trouble finding a way through the halls of higher education. Both of them got lost.

Suspended between science and the humanities, I, too, got lost, but as a middle child with lesser influence from both parents, in my late forties I eventually stumbled my way to a doctorate in humanistic and behavioral education from Boston University School of Education in 1982. On the secondary level, I taught English for a time, and poetry, along with creative photography, art, and the humanities. Then I moved to Maine to write my great book, became an environmentalist, made a life for myself, and discovered wayfaring as my true profession. So did I resolve the misguidance of John B. Watson’s early and longstanding influence on my life.

448. Family Engagements

March 4, 2015

How do families form? How do they work? How do they stay together? How do they fall apart?

Some would say the driving force is the binding power of religious belief. Others would say, cultural tradition, civil authority, paternal or maternal consent, and so on. Still others would maintain that families are formed in response to the abiding and mutual attraction of two people in love.

Many would agree that it takes a public act or ceremony to instigate a family, attended by as large a sector of a community as can be gathered together, adding the weight of many hearers to any vows that might be exchanged. And incidentally forming a base of well-wishers right from the start.

But in fact, families form whenever and wherever conditions are present in the right proportion to support individuals in committing themselves one to another, as construed by the minds of those concerned.

Sexual engagement may be involved before, during, or after any such pledge of commitment. Women like to be wedded and bedded; men like to bed and be fed. Most agree that families require consummation at some point to become sufficiently binding to enter into the books that make families official or legal in the public mind.

But there are a great many extra-legal ways to start a family, one being a shotgun wedding enforced by the male parent of a fallen maiden, or simply by mutual consent of the people (not necessarily of different sexes) involved with no additional requirements.

From the standpoint of children within a family, we know our families from the unique perspective of our unfolding minds, never twice the same two days in a row. By definition, we are developing all the while, every hour of every day. We are not yet fully human, and have far to go before we achieve an identity worthy of that honorific title. But day by day, wayfarers that we are, we head in that direction.

If the question could be put to us early on, “Eat and poop, poop and eat, when are you going to stop being such an animal?,” our behavior would answer for us: “Bear with me, I’m working on it.” By the time we are thirty, forty, fifty, or eighty, all will be revealed.

As children, our repertory of developing gifts is influenced by a number of factors: genetic heritage, diet, skills we work on, engagements we strike up, character traits of those around us—parents, siblings, relatives, friends, pets, and neighbors. We’re all working on it by providing a stimulating and supportive (and somewhat stressful) family setting matched to (and a little ahead of) our respective levels of competence.

Think of the young Mozart, Tiger Woods, Serena and Venus Williams, following the examples provided by attentive, encouraging, and often demanding parents. Prodigies are made, not born, by seizing the occasions they are given for grappling to achieve what they see others doing with polish and ease.

Infants thrive on repeated awareness of warmth, tenderness, milk, and sonorous engagements suited to their needs and abilities. Reassured by their initial contacts, they seek a greater range of challenges through more demanding engagements. Cooing sounds become hummed tunes become lullabies become rousing songs. Babbled syllables become recognizable words; words in a row become sentences. Eyes open, heads lift, arms reach, legs push, ta da—we’re crawling, and about to rear up on our hind legs and really get moving so we won’t be late for our first speech.

Five factors are crucial to our childhood development: our unique genome, the ages of our parents, spacing and birth-order of all siblings, and the sexual identity or preference of all concerned. Volumes have been written about the details of each. Relative not only to our brothers and sisters, but to our parents, whether they be nurturing, encouraging, challenging, preoccupied, overprotective—whatever.

Father is often the active one who physically challenges us; mother the caregiver who supports (while shaping) our every endeavor. It could be the other way around, or neither, or both. We respond to the adults we are born to, or acquire thereafter, whatever their gifts and limitations at the time, however we are able to engage them.

We respond differentially to their example according to our needs, interests, desires, and abilities. These first mutual interactions set the tone for all that follow. We bask in the attention, and strive to keep up by doing our best. The bar rises higher and higher each time, the effort goes up, the satisfaction climbs. We grow into ourselves through personal exertion, putting ourselves out to become who we strive to be. No one can do it for us.

Every step is earned through hard work and determination. Given time enough and stamina, there’s no limit to how far the life force might take us once we achieve lift-off within our families and our flightpath is subject to personal control.

But our families can engage us so that we keep striving on our own with their help. Together, we can make it happen. Apart, we can only get so far on our own because engagements take two or more players, and it is the flow of ongoing interaction that counts, not merely token glances, smiles, or frowns. They are for later once we’ve learned to meet our own standards through disciplined practice again and again.

We get good at what we actually do, not what we promise but only half-heartedly try.

In coming posts I will speak largely from the perspective I have on my own family, since that is the only one I can address with the authority of personal experience.

We acquire our genetic parents at conception, but achieve our dreaming and waking minds in the womb as distinct from those of our parents. We are each born to our most rudimentary families, such as they are, with a mind formed by a particular course of events in utero. We bring that mind with us at birth as our basic tool for engaging the hereafter as it gradually unfolds in our particular case. That unfolding may strengthen or weaken the mental pathways we are born with.

The rest is history as told in our expanding autobiography. Though there may be general milestones, there are no laws of child development. Laws are cultural, not natural, artifacts. Collectively and individually, each family is an experiment containing a mix of experiments that proceeds by trial and error as proven by developing relationships among grandparents, parents, selves, children, and grandchildren.

That haphazard process reflects evolution’s wisdom in not attempting to anticipate the conditions we will be born into, so not committing us in advance to ways of engagement which might prove ineffective or even harmful.

In truth, subjective judgment is evolution’s gift to us all in being formed in response to the specific situations we actually confront in family life, not some archaic set of Paleolithic challenges we are supposedly destined to face.

Whether nurtured by our families or not, the judgments that we ourselves make as based on our unique life experience is the crowning glory of evolutionary achievement. Evolution does not lay down the law, it allows for and opens us to the possibilities we might actually meet on our own.

I used to believe that matter obeyed Newton’s laws of motion, or that electrons heeded Ohm’s law. But the universe is not driven by obedience. In every case, the specific conditions in each situation determine the outcome of what happens next. Situations flow from one state of being into the next because conditions are right for that to happen, not by decree, but because each situation spontaneously governs itself in inventing itself on the spot in response to its state at each instant.

There is no such thing as an overall universe governed by laws; there is only the resulting configuration of matter continuously being what it must be right where it is in response to the set of conditions currently affecting its state of being.

Just as the universe is in a continual state of readjustment, so are we, its progeny. Like the Higgs boson, each family is the next state of matter that arises from the conditions that lead up to it. It appears as it does, not in response to a causative or descriptive law of physics it has never heard of, but because, under the circumstances, it balances itself in the moment as best it can.

Just as each point in the universe does as it does on its own in its unique situation, each family member is on her own in the bosom of her family. She is as she does in response to the conditions comprising her situation at each instant of her experience. She can’t help it. She is as she does from her point of view in the context she is in, which sets up a new situation, leading to the next resolution, leading on to the one after that. That’s the process we call development, which includes each individual person and the context of forces in which he or she occurs.

Our lives end up being the summation of each instant of growth as it occurs in the context of all that has happened before, both within and around us. That’s us: Works in progress. Getting it right or wrong by doing it right or wrong in an endless series of ever-changing situations.

As I said, development is not a matter of law. That’s why there are no universal guidebooks to child development. Lives are nothing more nor less than what happens in the situations leading up to conception, then as those situations further evolve after that until we wear out.

Our job as children is to deal with what comes our way the best we can, which we all manage to do more-or-less well. Put that way, it doesn’t sound very romantic. But as I keep saying, we are wayfarers by nature, and blaze our own trails. In contrast, imagine living life as a puppet on strings with a set storyline and guaranteed ending. Which would you choose, your own journey, or that as scripted by someone else?

446. For My Eyes Only

March 2, 2015

Early on in childhood, I developed a strong sense of what was family fare and what was not. If my parents had never mentioned or even alluded to such things, that made me hesitant to make the first move. If my brothers hadn’t spoken up, I was sure to keep mum. There was a strong code of forbidden topics based on conjectures that my parents didn’t want to hear about matters that they couldn’t or didn’t want to talk about. Mimicry was safe; taking the initiative was scary.

In my early years I had a recurring nightmare, which I never shared with anyone, not inside my family, not outside. It was my secret.

In the dream, I was slowly slipping toward a glow in the lower right of my visual field, the rest of the field being a featureless black. The thrust of the dream was a deep, rhythmical beat in the background, relentless force moving my body, and a strong sense of helplessness in resisting movement that was not of my doing. When I woke up, I would be crying.

I could feel that dream coming on with a kind of pressure and sense of dread. I suffered that same dream periodically (weekly, monthly?) for several years, then after some time I realized I wasn’t having it anymore, but could still recall the details and the intimate horror at will. What sticks with me today is the feeling of that dream coming on, my being helpless to stop it. Relentless dread, that’s what I felt. Of being in the power of something I couldn’t understand because it wasn’t like anything else in my experience.

Later, when I was several years older, I had another recurring nightmare that conveyed much the same feeling. I could tell from the opening scene how it would play out, and, again, I couldn’t stop it.

In that second dream, I would crawl under a brick wall at the back of a building into a dark room with a pitted, earthen floor. From that room I would go into the streets at night when everyone was asleep, enter the house of a stranger, go upstairs into a bedroom and kill (I’m not sure by what means) a sleeper picked at random. I escaped by retracing my route back into the earthen-floored room and then crawling under the wall into daylight.

Two feelings always accompanied that second dream: the horror of what I was about to do—and then actually did—and the fact that no one would ever know that I had done it. It was my guilty secret.

Once begun, both dreams unfurled true to form, and I could not avoid the fear of what was sure to happen. I mention the two dreams together because they both incited the same feeling of helplessness and horror in facing into their respective inevitabilities. I was trapped and couldn’t help myself.

Looking back, I see both dreams as variations on the same theme. It was their unwinding to a sure end that they had in common, though the details were very different. I see the first dream as meant for a younger audience, the second for an audience familiar with village life and language. In the first the action was done unto me; in the second I was the actor responsible for what I did.

I never told anyone in my family about such dreams. They were for my eyes only, a note passed from me to myself.

Writing this post brings to mind another secret from early adolescence that I kept from my family. When I was a sophomore in Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, we’d often drive into the Sierras on a Sunday afternoon to visit Snoqualmie Falls, Lake 22, or some other scenic destination. On one return trip on a sunny spring day, my father let me practice my driving skills on the winding, hilly road through the mountains, steep cliffs rising on the right, an abrupt chasm dropping beyond the roadside barrier on the far left side of the road.

I remember realizing in one instant as I drove that if I made an abrupt turn to the left and crashed through the steel barrier, my entire family, including two dogs in the back, would be wiped-out. It was a moment of realizing the responsibility I had in my hands in learning to drive. I was horrified to find myself thinking such a thought.

Needless to say I didn’t turn the wheel on impulse, but the thought did occur to me. I’ve been a reasonably competent driver ever since. But that sudden connection in the depths of my brain when I was fifteen was both a realization and a warning. Had I been more of a risk taker, I might have veered briefly into the other lane just to give my family a scare they would never forget, reminding them of the truely intimate power I held over their lives.

I see child soldiers and young terrorists armed with automatic weapons as succumbing to such impulses because the brutal climate in which they live paints pulling the trigger in a favorable light that differentiates heroes from losers. Getting past that point in my growing up has made all the difference. We see every day in the news stories about those who swing the other way when opportunity arises.

Perhaps unwittingly, families convey nonverbal attitudes that are the forge in which children are worked into the shapes they will assume as mature adults. As I said in my previous post, families matter. Children learn to talk in a family setting; they also learn when to stay silent.