"From the few years of my life before our move to Ohio, I can bring back only a handful of moments, including those I have recounted here; yet I was shaped, as any child is, by every hour of every day. It's often said a young child is like a sponge, but that seems to me the wrong metaphor, because a sponge can be wrung dry, while everything that goes into a child stays there. A child is more like a forest, gathering every drop of rain or flake of snow, every fallen leaf, the slant of sunlight and glint of moonlight, the fluster and song of birds, the paths worn by deer, the litter of bones and nuts and seeds, and whatever the wind delivers, taking it all in, turning everything into new growth.
"When my own children were young enough for their ages still to be reckoned in months and half years, I often thought, with a pang, how little of what they were experiencing they would ever be able to remember. I might be standing on a bridge overlooking a waterfall, holding Eva in my arms, feeling the thrum of the current through her body and mine; or I might be lying on a blanket in the park next to my second child, Jesse, the two of us watching clouds by day, stars by night; or I might be playing the guitar and crooning beside the tub while Ruth gave one or the other of them a bath; and I would realize that this moment, so memorable to me, would vanish into Eva or Jesse, beyond recall.
"Recently I've been feeling this pang again as I look after my granddaughter. At seven months, Elizabeth gazes boldly at everyone she sees without caring if they gaze back. She reaches for everything within the span of her arms, feeling it, gumming and licking it. She notices every sound, from a siren in the street to the cluck of a tongue. Her senses are like rivers pouring into her constantly, even in her sleep. When Eva comes back from her job and sits on the couch to nurse the baby, I often stay to visit. Sometimes Elizabeth will suck avidly, but other times she will loll on Eva's lap, distracted by our conversation, and then I put on my shoes and walk home. I must leave the baby in peace to drink in the smell and sound and feel of her mother, along with her mother's milk.
"My dearest wish for Elizabeth, as for Eva and Jesse, is that she will never lose touch with the wonder of being alive, that she will never cease to be amazed by the sensations flowing into her. Right now she meets the world without preconceptions, without carving it into categories, without dismissing anything as already known. She has no habits. While her beginner's mind will cloud over as she grows, I pray that she will never forget this clarity of perception. I pray that throughout her life she will find ways of recovering a newborn's freshness. What 1 wish for Elizabeth, for my own daughter and son, and for all of us blessed with consciousness is not that we remain children forever but that we remain forever awake to the astounding isness of things. Why this apple, say, gleaming in sunlight on a pine table carved with lovers' initials, why this sound of a cello and fragrance of lavender filling the air, why this flow of breath, this mind absorbing it all, this planet hurtling through space, this universe unfolding? The moment we begin taking this skein of miracles for granted, we cease to live, no matter if our hearts still beat.
"Knowing this, I still sleepwalk through much of my life. But I recognize it as sleepwalking, I keep struggling to wake, and when I do occasionally wake, a rush of awe dissolves the boundaries of this I, disclosing the borderless, luminous, abiding ground. Although some of my hunger for awe no doubt derives from genetic inheritance, I suspect that most of it was determined by what poured into me during those years in Tennessee. How my parents held me, spoke to me, sang to me; how my sister played with me or fussed over me; how friends of the family kidded or ignored me; the food I ate and the water I drank; the chance remarks of neighbors; the company of animals and plants; the skies, the weather, and the lay of the land; the signs and goods in shops; the music or voices on the radio; the scraps of news fed into my ears; the books read aloud to me, and the beginner's books I read to myself; the very air I breathed, spiced with cotton poison and gravel dust and manure all of these influences, and more, rode along inside of me to Ohio."