Lessons from a Baby

January 25, 2018

William Wordsworth marvelled that he might learn from his toddler son. ’Could I but teach the hundredth part, Of what from thee I learn’ he wondered in “Anecdote for Fathers”. (It’s not his best work. In fact it’s rather droll, but then I find a lot of his stuff just so).  We can learn all sorts of things from kids. But it’s babies that have been teaching me a thing or two lately. Babies are the litmus test of whether you belong. Or, as perhaps I should more accurately posit it, babies tell you where you belong. The lesson is partly a reflection of our times (men dare not risk approaching someone elses child) and an instruction to a middle aged father and grandfather as to where he really stands. The lesson has a context and therein lies the rub. The context in this case is a community quick to profess it’s a family and that we are all family together. All siblings in one big happy communal rumpus room. It’s a sentiment which is not disagreeable, even when it’s expressed in hollow, strained terms. In fact it’s a sentiment I welcome having moved from another part of town, and it’s a message I don’t press against, hoping perhaps there might be some truth in it. Indeed, wanting there to be some truth in it. But test the claims of community in this way – in the context of that professed family try and pick up someone else’s baby and see what happens next. Actually, in the first instance, it is made clear no baby in this faux family is to be picked up. But in the rare instance where it might happen, there’s a quick swoop of blood ties and the baby is ‘rescued’. Pick up a cousins baby or your own grandchild (neither are part of this professed family context) and savour the sweet connection. Though I like to think I am sage enough to rise above it, I confess the taste left in my mouth when someone else’s baby is quickly snatched back has a hint of bile in. Claims of filial connection are truly hollow and it’s taken a baby to teach me the depth of that. Auden springs to mind as he reflects on empty claims of love and connection which youthful ardour professes, but which time (and reality) desiccates and reduces to a crusty cynicism.


As I walked out one evening

Walking down Bristol Street,

The crowds upon the pavement

Were fields of harvest wheat.


And down by the brimming river

I heard a lover sing

Under an arch of the railway:

“Love has no ending.


“I’ll love you dear, I’ll love you

Till China and Africa meet

And the river jumps over the mountain

And the salmon sing in the street.


“I’ll love you till the ocean

Is folded and hung up to dry

And the seven stars go squawking

Like geese about the sky.


“The years shall run like rabbits

For in my arms I hold

The Flower of the Ages

And the first love of the world.”


But all the clocks in the city

Began to whir and chime:

“O let not Time deceive you,

You cannot conquer Time.


“in the burrows of the Nightmare

Where Justice naked is,

Time watches from the shadow

And coughs when you would kiss.


“In headaches and in worry

Vaguely life leaks away,

And Time will have his fancy

Tomorrow or to-day.


“Into many a green valley

Drifts the appalling snow;

Time breaks the threaded dances

And the diver’s brilliant bow.


“O plunge your hands in water

Plunge them in up to the wrist;

Stare, stare in the basin

And wonder what you’ve missed.


“The glacier knocks in the cupboard

The desert sighs in the bed,

And the crack in the tea cup opens

A lane to the land of the dead.


“Where the beggars raffle the banknotes

And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,

And the Lily-white boy is a Roarer

And Jill goes down on her back.


“O look, look in the mirror,

O look in your distress;

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless.


“O stand, stand at the window

As the tears scald and start;

You shall love your crooked neighbour

With your crooked heart.”


It was late, late in the evening,

The lovers they were gone;

The clocks had ceased their chiming

And the deep river ran on.


November 1937.


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