I’ve always believed that I have a great capacity for fascination…until a few days ago when I began to read Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. She has it in spades, and has always had it, in a way that makes me feel distracted and dull by comparison. Here’s an excerpt from that memoir:
“Our parents and grandparents, and all their friends, seemed insensible to their own prominent defect, their limp, coarse skin.
“We children had, for instance, proper hands; our fluid, pliant fingers joined their skin. Adults had misshapen, knuckly hands loose in their skin like bones in bags; it was a wonder they could open jars. There were loose in their skins all over, except at the wrists and ankles, like rabbits.
“We were whole, we were pleasing to ourselves. Our crystalline eyes shone from firm, smooth sockets; we spoke in pure, piping voices through dark, tidy lips. Adults were coming apart, but they neither noticed nor minded. My revulsion was rude, so I hid it. Besides, we could never rise to the absolute figural splendor they alone could on occasion achieve. Our beauty was a mere absence of decrepitude; their beauty, when they had it, was not passive but earned; it was grandeur; it was a party to power, and to artifice, even, and to knowledge. Our beauty was, in the long run, merely elfin. We could not, finally, discount the fact that in some sense they owned us, and they owned the world.
“Mother let me play with one of her hands. She laid it flat on a living-room end table beside her chair. I picked up a transverse pinch of skin over the knuckle of her index finger and let it drop. The pinch didn’t snap back; it lay dead across her knuckle in a yellowish ridge. I poked it; it slid over intact. I left it there as an experiment and shifted to another finger. Mother was reading Time magazine.
“Carefully, lifting it by the tip, I raised her middle finger an inch and released it. It snapped back to the tabletop. Her insides, at least, were alive. I tried all the fingers. They all worked. Some I could lift higher that others.
“That’s getting boring.” “Sorry, Mama.”
“I refashioned the ridge on her index-finger knuckle; I made the ridge as long as I could, using both my hands. Moving quickly, I made parallel ridges on her other fingers — a real mountain chain, the Alleghenies; Indians crept along just below the ridgetops, eyeing the frozen lakes below them through the trees.”
What rare child in this century, surrounded by electronic stimulators of all descriptions, would spend a half an hour fascinated by her mother’s hand, I wonder? I had the chance to meet 56 kindergarteners at the Wehr Nature Center this morning. This is what we brought out to fascinate them:
Now that’s an ancient face I could stare at for hours! Meet Boxy, the ornate box turtle. Her species is found primarily in southwestern Wisconsin, where there are sandy prairies and is currently endangered and protected. She came to the nature center about 25 years ago; she may be about 10 years older than that. How do I know to call Boxy ‘she’? Brown eyes. Male box turtles have red eyes. Also, Boxy laid some eggs a few years after she came to the center (not that she had been with a male while she was there). Occasionally, Boxy has her beak trimmed. It can get overgrown because she’s not in the wild digging and wearing it down. I wonder if the vet has ‘styled’ her expression…she looks sad to me. She was quite chipper this morning, though. It’s noticeably warm for this time of year. She and the other reptiles were moving rapidly and eagerly in their cages. We put Boxy down in the middle of the circle of children, and she set out at a brisk pace to examine the perimeter, craning her neck up at the faces around her. She is a bit of a celebrity, as she meets about 10,000 kids every year. She may live to be as many as 70 years old. I wonder if the Nature Center will still be around or if she’ll live out her last days somewhere else.
Boxy has her own beauty, her own fascinating skin. ” 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….Standing on the bare ground, –my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God…I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
What uncontained and immortal beauty will you discover to love today?
My generation is not utterly insensible to the fascination of older skin. Remember the “mozart’s mother” incident?
Wasn’t that about hair?
I love the “ancient face” My dear mother always had a large open pore on her chin ( she still has) and I remember that my children were utterly fascintaed by the “hole in nannies chin” and would endlessly poke and stare at it..
Ah, yes; my father had “wens” and now I have a few, too.
My powers of description aren’t nearly as eloquent as Ms. Dillard’s are, but I recall watching in absorption as our grandmother brought the burning cylinder of her cigarette delicately to her lips and inhaled. She would pause, mid-phrase, clench her teeth as the smoke curled out between her open lips, then open her teeth to run her tongue over them. The whole ritual finished with a resounding click as she brought her teeth together again and she would rest the hand with the cigarette on the table or armrest beside her. I was neither attracted nor repulsed, just spellbound. This watching was the most intimate connection I had with her, a way of knowing her by her motions, though ironically, they may have been the least conscious of her behaviors around me.
I do remember that ‘click’, also the face powder that accumulated in the creases on the side of her nose.