Childhood Recovered at Will

By Tim Donahue

I am led by two extracts of wisdom, both acquired while sitting on porches. From Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.” From Charles Baudelaire: “Genius is childhood recovered at will.”

My intention this summer is to spend as much time as I can on a porch recovering this genius and this nature. Depending on how you see it, I have an advantage for this — a new daughter born in June. A week after she emerged, we left the gathering hum of New York City air-conditioners and were here on this porch that wraps around our small cottage in Lazy Point, Amagansett.

The timing of this is fortunate: My teacher’s vacation nearly matches my wife’s maternity leave, which frames the entire summer. In the leafless days of still-windy March, we imagined what three months of time away would be like. I even thought of buying wind chimes to hang on the fire escape to up the anticipation.

But beyond this calendar coincidence, a deeper connection is growing. In our emergence from our respective wombs — my small, airless city apartment stuffed with emails, her viscous sac; in our afternoon sways in the hammock, and in our appreciation of being peacefully swaddled — we are emerging into the real world.

Every nap of hers offers a lesson. When I first take her onto my chest, she is all mouth, bobbing her little head and pecking at my sternum, slipping down the side of me, clenching, de-clenching, grunting, yawning, clenching, and wriggling dozens of new muscles to do it all again. Sometimes it takes walking a few lengths of the porch, sometimes singing, but then her 8 or 10 pounds (all of them!) settle into a puddle and the weight goes away, like sand that clings and dries into the whispers of the wind.

Her sleep is so deep on that porch she can fit the whole outside into the rhythm of her breathing. A gust of wind that blows the sea grass back, a truck hauling a house-worth of lumber, the distant whine of a leaf blower — that halo of her head is in its own land. Still, I don’t want to risk the journey to the kitchen and disturb this downy newness, so I can do nothing but sit and stare, and go through a de-clenching of my own.

I look at the line the tree trunk makes against the telephone pole, follow this down to the salvia I’m also trying to bring into life, which leads to the bumblebee, and along its wing into the woods across the street, where it disappears into the thorny twines, and the world becomes edgeless and unbounded, a continuous realm of lines waiting to be connected.

Eventually, she opens her eyes. Right now (we are told), she can see faces and checkerboard contrasts, but quite literally the scope of her vision grows by the day. Even the color of her eyes will change, from dark gray to another surprise. Of course, I have watched this all evolve with her sister, who will soon turn 3 and suddenly seems like a giant. She is all eyes now, hoping each dusk to go out and look for deer.

And so I put her on my shoulders and we sneak into the meadow across the way to look for anything moving. She brings a focus to this that I sometimes forget can happen. Deer are probably the only thing she is thinking about. At her request one night to go farther into the field, I nearly walked into a wild turkey. It jolted up with a horrible squawk and wide and unfamiliar wings and took a couple of steps right at us, perhaps protecting babies of her own.

It was a terrifying shock to the senses; I’m certain the moment was as new to me as it was to her. This meadow became not just a place to perhaps see a deer, but a vital habitat for lives otherwise known only from storybooks. I felt as small as I do walking on the beach in February.

But the biggest surprise of this summer, so far, has been how much things have actually slowed down with this addition of another child. True, there are more diapers and there is less sleep, but there is also more porch time, where the “inward and outward senses still truly [adjust] to each other.” Vacations like this are an anomaly; the aim is always to re-treat “normal life” with as much relaxed vigor as can be sustained. But with the baby now, we have another source of discoveries.

Since coming here a few weeks ago, she has begun to look and sound less pterodactylian. Still, her face sometimes gets that drunken daze you see outside the Memory Motel, and her brow furrows at the shock of this new world, but over all, she shows the milk of human kindness. Her wrinkled flesh is smoothing over, her dry skin is flaking off, she has the suggestion of hair. Things are better for everyone on the porch.

Tim Donahue is a high school English teacher and writer from New York City who comes frequently to his house in Lazy Point, Amagansett.