Just Like Magic (3)

One Monday morning at the end of January, I was standing at the new espresso machine making myself a cappuccino, when Rebecca came up behind me. She was holding a moka pot and a can of shaving cream, and broke into a huge grin when I saw what she had: Coffee with foam!

Rebecca enjoyed playing with my moka pot, which is how I’ve made coffee since college, and so it was on the floor in the dining room, easy to grab.  I was more surprised that she’d remembered the shaving cream my brother had used when he visited at Thanksgiving, when she was 13 months old, and that she knew where we’d stashed it.  And I was the most surprised that she’d put them together.

What do you call it when a kid makes a connection like that? A joke? A poem? A request? A midrash on coffee making? It’s not exactly playing pretend, because she wasn’t trying to do anything with either piece.  Before I became a parent, I didn’t realize how complex non-verbal communication with a toddler could be. The scuttlebutt I heard implied that your pre-verbal alternatives were babysign or inarticulate screaming, and I wasn’t looking forward to either one. But Rebecca’s nonverbal communication is magic and I love it.

Now, when I say that seeing Rebecca make connections is magical, that’s not just hyperbole.  What I mean is, she’s using the same principles of magic that J.G. Frazer laid out in The Golden Bough. Rebecca expresses thoughts and desires by invoking something that resembles what she’s thinking about (shaving cream for milk foam) or that used to be connected to it (the moka pot for coffee). On the practical side, Rebecca gets a cup when she wants water. She brings me a pair of shoes when she wants to go out, and metaphorically, sometimes she used to plunk them down on the bed when she wanted me to get up in the morning. What’s going on is that Rebecca’s noting a pattern and trying to get the whole thing to repeat by repeating some part of that pattern. Once we were at the house of a friend who was potty training, so I took Rebecca’s pants and diaper off, too. After an hour or so, she laid down on the ground where I’d taken her diaper off and stuck her feet up in the air, the same way she does when I change her. “Oh, do you want your diaper back on?” She did. Getting diapered wasn’t something that Rebecca’d ever requested before, and she didn’t have access to the object she wanted. But she got her it anyway, by sympathetic magic.

Err, magic? I doubt Rebecca sees its results as automatic, the way Frazer thought that practitioners of folk magic would. She knows that sometimes I respond how she wants and sometimes I don’t. I think much of Rebecca’s pattern-making isn’t as goal-oriented as Frazer thought folk magic was, either. You could say, as Alison Gopnik does, that Rebecca’s use of objects might sometimes be more like scientific exploration. Last time I had my shoes on, we went outside, so if I pick up a shoe, will we go outside again?

But both the science analogy and the magic analogy fall down for the same reason: they leave out the personhood and relatedness of the people involved.  I’m not just the mysterious mechanism that furnishes Rebecca’s desires or whose responses she’s creating a mental model of. My behavior isn’t only output; it also provides a basic schema for Rebecca to use (imitate) as she interrogates the world.  When Rebecca grabbed my shoes or tried to put them on, it was an imitation of something we’d done previously, not just picking up an object associated with going out. The analogy she’s making isn’t only between the objects involved, but between her and someone else, connected entities. That’s why it was important to her that I saw what she was doing with the cappuccino.  Many times magic is communication–and communion–as much as it’s anything else, and we as parents are part of the spell.

It’s a little unfair that I’m using words to tell you about Rebecca’s nonverbal communication, instead of showing up in person to drop a shoe on your bed. You don’t get the real impact when you’re only reading about it.

Apart from parenting, the place where I see the difference between physical and verbal communication most clearly is in ritual. What you get out of doing a ritual isn’t the same as what you get out of imagining your way through it in your head, and sometimes things that sound deceptively simple make the most powerful rituals. For example, one day after my mom died, I went home from teaching, cast a circle in my hallway, lit a couple candles, and covered my face in flour dough until I had a visible representation of my grief. I can’t tell you, it was such a relief to look at myself in the mirror and see something totally grotesque and powerful flickering back at me. I’d talked to people about how I felt and I’d written about it, but neither of those reached me on the same level. Even though I was alone in my hallway, I felt seen and whole.

This example of mirroring my grief back to myself uses the same process that babies do when they learn to recognize their emotions. According to Sue Gerhardt’s synopsis of existing research in Why Love Matters, one of the main ways that babies learn to identify and process their feelings is by seeing their parents mirror those feelings back to them. Typically parents use exaggerated vocal and facial expressions when they imitate a baby, and that exaggeration helps clue in the baby that he’s being imitated. Feelings that the child sees reacted to and represented externally become something that she can handle. Feelings that aren’t represented or acknowledged don’t disappear so much as they turn into an amorphous tension, your heart beating faster, so many physiological signs of stress.

So seeing part of yourself externalized can bring you understanding deeper than words. There’s power in externalizing for someone else, too, because human mirrors not only experience part of what they’re mirroring–the same parts of the brain fire in both people–they also shape and nuance their subjects as they reflect them. But Rebecca’s toddler antics are a step removed from that basic emotionality. What’s the power there, and why does seeing Rebecca with the moka pot and shaving cream have such a different impact on me than if she’d said what was going on in words?

I’m going to turn to an analogy with ritual again, because Rebecca uses objects and pattern-sense more heavily than everyday adult communication does, and the other place I have experience with that is in pagan ritual. In a pagan context, that sort of communication is part of a deliberate shift in consciousness. Ritual attention is closer down the spectrum of consciousness to what the Reclaiming tradition calls starlight vision or dropped and centered awareness. It’s about seeing patterns and connections first, and imputing meaning to them within that context, rather than isolating particular words or foci of attention from the whole. In life outside ritual, it’s easier to be consumed with managing specifics and not pay attention to the whole until you hit a bump.

In The Philosophical Baby, Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik argues that babies’ consciousness may be similar to the rich, fragmented state adult consciousness tends toward when we turn off executive control and free-associate. She also suggests that small children’s attention is diffuse, like the ritual attention I just described. Instead of focusing tightly the way adults normally do, munchkins’ attention is absorbed in everything at once, which is right how you want it to be if you’re scanning as much information as possible for patterns. The upshot is that babies’ consciousness looks like things we might associate with unconsciousness, but the material they’re thinking about isn’t invisible in the same way as something that’s repressed. It’s a form of thinking that can be actively experienced and that shades into other forms of thought by degrees, as the brain develops.

What Gopnik doesn’t say–because she’s primarily interested in the problem of how babies learn about and experience the world–is that this mode of communication works best if Rebecca’s interlocutor practices a similar sort of thinking. To understand her, you need both knowledge of the patterns she might be invoking and a statistical sense of what sorts of things she normally does. Having a sense for what’s normal lets you pick out which behaviors are out of place, figure out what pattern they should belong to, and complete it.

In contrast to language proper, objects Rebecca’s using take on meaning solely based on their place in a larger structure, so they don’t mean much until you apprehend the whole that they’re part of. Shoes don’t become the equivalent of the word “go,” because Rebecca’s affection for trying on other people’s shoes and for carrying around pairs of things destabilizes their ability to say “let’s go out.” If Rebecca’s got shoes, any or none of the shoes’ attributes and associations could be relevant. You keep your mind open, free-associating a little, waiting for a pattern to register.

The moments when I see what Rebecca’s doing break into everyday life like a burning bush. I’m always surprised. And the surprise isn’t just because I have no idea where she got the shaving cream, or because it might merely be coincidence that she drew pubes on herself in purple marker. It’s because when you apprehend the whole first, rather than piecing together a message from its parts, your awareness of what’s going on happens abruptly. It has the impact of a joke that’s funny when you get it suddenly, but not when someone explains it to you bit by bit. You can’t immediately say how you know what’s going on. You just do.

The structure of non-verbal communication means that it involves the unconscious more openly and actively than linguistic communication does, which means that it feels different.  My background as a pagan gives that experience more positive connotations than it might have otherwise, and makes me more tuned in to subtle shifts in consciousness.  But I’m curious, has anyone else had this kind of experience with a mostly non-verbal toddler, and are there other factors I might be missing?

There are days when living with someone whose every move is potentially symbolic thaws something in the back of my mind. The boundaries I’d normally draw between communication, instrumental action, playing pretend, and exploratory play don’t exist. It’s as if quietly, in the background of everyday life, the world has exploded into poetry, like all the ordinary parts of my house are rough with the stubble of ideas and perception. It would be easy to overstate this–we’re talking stubble here, not a full beard–but something is different.

4 replies on “Just Like Magic (3)”

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