To Be, For Five Minutes, a Baby Again

IMG_0199millipedeBaby580“What if” I wonder, more often than not, outdoors. Daydreams, I guess you’d call such wandering, wondering moments.

What if I could BE the millipede crawling over my boot on a spring day. What would I come back and report about the experience of a millipede? What was it like to coordinate all those appendages in waves of propulsion, segment by segment? Does the April sun feel hot on my chitinous armor?

But then, such a creature, at a far far greater gap from me neurologically than the family dog, has experiences that cannot be expressed in language or even thought, I suppose.

And so my imagination ends there at the point where I come back from my arthropodal experience to report where and what I’ve been. There may not be a way to translate invertebrate experience into the vertebrate brain.

But what if you could exist in the world of YOU at 14 months, say–then remember what it felt like, what your thought world was like, and be able to write it down or speak it out just after. What would that look or sound like?

At least the process of vision and hearing and touch and smell, if not comprehension, are common currency between the NOW you and the THEN you. Given, the rational comprehending parts would be rudimentary, but not entirely foreign–at least not utterly strange and ineffable like the millipede experience.

And yet, the baby’s sense of self and relationships would be preverbal (though our 18 month old has a language all his own.) How then to tell the baby’s story in words before he could make them in his own mind?

Would the story be one of “a general sense of wonder” or of fleeting fears of falling or separation, or one of sheer confusion? Did Baby You experience the world as so many pictures or melodies, voices, hard or soft things, things with and without eyes; known and unknown things?

How did it feel when you saw the face of your mother? a sibling? the family dog? your favorite blanket?

How important is smell and touch–of a soft “bankie”, your pacifier, the sofa by the fireplace, the warm rug and the cold linoleum?

Is this experience anything like what you would today describe as a dream? a hallucination? as fantasy or dementia?

What were your impulses: to be good or to be bad? Did you have a sense of ME-ness, of self versus the rest of that world?

I wonder if the chasm of difference between mature human experience and baby human experience is so vastly different in kind that this explains why we “don’t remember” that time in our life. Maybe we remember more than we think. There are simply no words–only a kind of vague haunting empathic imprint of a reality we harbor, but cannot, after language becomes our currency, quite bring to the surface.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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