At 4:15 PM July 29, 2014 Carly Elizabeth took her first breath. Today, July 29, 2016, twenty-four very short months later I routinely chase her around the bed saying; “You can’t do that! It’s time for your bath.” While she replies, giggling; “No way…”
Is it simply that I am paying more attention? Is it that I have, like an investigative journalist, been chasing what it is that makes us fully human? Is it the experience of having fathered two wonderful and wonderfully different boys’ now grown mature men? The truth is, I’m still head-over-heels amazed at what Carly accomplishes daily, and I have been for the past two years. I share that special wonder Bev Bos described having cared for young children for forty years and mentoring over 6,000 early childhood education workshops.
“The longer I do this the closer to tears I am when I watch children. I can feel that rush. My eyes well up experiencing that freshness, the aliveness, the spirit of children. What I didn’t understand when I first started working with children was how exceedingly interesting every day was going to be. There’s a spirit inside every child and every day it seems to change because they’re interested in new and different things and this has kept me so fully alive. There have been Masters before us; Piaget, Montessori, people who really, really liked children as much as I do. I don’t think you can stay fully alive unless you’re with children. It keeps me grounded.”
Until now Carly did not care much for stuffed characters. They were objects like beans or pillows. Things were things, inanimate. Six days ago all that changed and changed dramatically. Perhaps two months ago, maybe longer, I felt the need to raise the bar on our reading list. How many times can you read Good Night Gorilla? Not knowing much I regressed to my early childhood. As a nonreader I found some delight in Dr. Seuss andCurious George. So, that’s what I got. Dr. Seuss was too weird for Carly. George was just right. Every night, after our bath and bounce on the bed, I would rest cross legged on a futon, Carly on one knee and the book on the other, snuggling tight and turn the pages. Six days ago Carly and Z returned from the toy store located across from our gallery pushing a toy baby-stroller. In it was George. Carly was smitten. George was not a stuffed thing. George is George. This is the power of story. Yes, Carly is using words, two hundred or more and it is changing her brain forever.
We went to the beach, holding both hands, frolicking in the surf up to Carly’s waist. It was exhilarating. Then, Carly was done. She did not say so. It was clear. We walked up to the dry sand. I wrapped her in a towel and shared a fig newton. Snuggling in her red-towel-cocoon she sat in my lap for twenty minutes gazing out over the waves. A pod of dolphins were swimming north. I pointed. “Oooo,” she said and pointed too. What I found so remarkable was the quiet attention we shared and for so long. That quiet attention was full and complete and then it ended. Up she jumped, reaching for my finger. It was back into the surf again.
Being with Carly reminds me of how full the present moment is and how quickly one state changes into another. It feels like there is a fragment of consciousness that is always witnessing. More accurately, this fragment is there whenever we look for it. Looking for it creates the looker, a shadow of proprioception, immediate awareness of the body as it moves in three-dimensional space. We are enchanted by the content of our mind; thoughts, memories and their associations that percolate up like foam on a frosty beer. Content is the tip of the cognitive iceberg however, a stream of transient mental images. Much more substantial is the ‘state’ out of which these content-images emerge. Carly is deeply embodied in the state of each moment. This is where the real action is.
Excited, splashing in the cool ocean is a state. Being frightened when a wave pushes us over is a different state. Feeling safe in my arms is another. Wiggling free, wanting to splash again is another. And all of these exist sequentially dissolving into the next within a few seconds. “Thinking” is an abstraction, distant, a dissociation from this moving flow of states. Thinking steals attention from fully experiencing the present state. It is so clear that Carly is not thinking, not dissociated from the state she is experiencing. The more attuned I am to the state-of-the-moment the more skillfully I can surf that moment with her. When a positive state erupts, laughter and joy – I’m right there. When less than optimum states explode, I use my attunement to help Carly move quickly from fear or pain to a more positive state, releasing the protective stiffening before it becomes locked into a reflex or pattern.
Skillful attunement to the changing states of our relationship is the key. It prevents our relationship from becoming a trigger for negativity. Instead, Carly and my relationship is a sanctuary as nature intended. Without empathic attunement what we call bonding doesn’t happen. No bond, no sanctuary, no safe place, no trust. Chronic anxiety rushes in and fills the space. Out of this anxious state mental images appear. Our self-image fuses and becomes chronic, like the state from which this image emerged.
Some estimate that the mind thinks between 60,000 – 80,000 thoughts a day, 2500 – 3,300 thoughts per hour. Others are more modest; 50,000 thoughts per day, which means about 2100 thoughts per hour. The state of the body-mind however is the wellspring that splashes into consciousness as thoughts and abstract images, especially images of self and other. A single state of fear may engender a hundred or a thousand thoughts. Thoughts are like dreams and you know how crazy our dreams can be. What I learned with Carly today is to give less attention to the thoughts I have and focus on her and my state as we meet the world together this moment and the next. This movement of quiet attention is not a thought and this reflects a state that is highly sensitive. The quality of perception that occurs in this quiet-intense state is very different from the attention that is full of dream-like abstractions. This is where Carly and I meet.
My father loved pineapple cheesecake, something my sister would create for him (and everyone else) each year. Honoring this tradition, honoring my sister, my brother and of course my parents, who like all parents did the best they could, and they did a lot, I bake Carly Elizabeth a pineapple cheesecake for her birthday. Last year, her first, it was as hard as a hockey puck. This year it turned out much better, just like me.