[Excerpted from Wisdom: A Love Story]
When I was in grade school, one of my favorite places was the Boston Museum of Science, where I habitually gravitated to the same two exhibits, both three-dimensional dioramas. The first consisted of a series of panels that cross-sectioned a woman’s insides to reveal pregnancy from conception to birth. Early pregnancy was no bigger than a grain of rice inside a dime-sized amniotic sack that soon grew into a thin-limbed being more alien than baby, its umbilicus gray and lifeless. The last panels showed a belly full of fetus, its limbs crisscrossed and eyes squeezed shut as it passed through the pink pipe of the birth canal, its head squeezed into an oblong balloon. I remember pressing my face against the glass and thinking or maybe even saying the newborn baby in the last panel looked exactly the same as the one in our church’s manger. Made of pink plaster, with creased lids around glass eyes, neither Jesus nor the museum-baby resembled the fuzz-headed newborn lying in a bassinette in my parents’ bedroom. There had been three babies after me, but I didn’t connect the exhibit with my mother, who hustled me along to avoid questions about how the baby “got in there” in the first place.
In the other exhibit, a series of panels also presented cross-sections, this time of a chipmunk’s den in each season. In summer, the ground above its linked underground caves was fringed with grass and flowers, the caves mostly empty as the rodents went in search of nuts. In fall, the ground was strewn with yellow and orange leaves, and the caves below showed growing stores of food for winter and a nest of dried grasses and leaves. My favorite was the winter panel that depicted a family of chipmunks sleeping, nestled together, a short distance from another cave full of acorns and seeds. Didn’t they get cold? I wondered. A description on the panel told how the chipmunks dug down below the frost line, where it was warm and dry, and slept until spring. I thought how cozy it must be to snuggle against other bodies, protected by a couple of feet of hard ground from snow, ice, and predators, and from hunger by a winter’s worth of food.
Fascinated by the unseen, I was trying to make sense of things. How a husband and wife who fought so bitterly could keep making babies. Why the same winter that brought the tranquility of snow carved an angry V between my father’s eyes. Why there was never enough food to fill the emptiness in my belly. That squished museum baby depicted the pain and vulnerability of becoming human and those burrowing animals, the reality that life without a family refuge was a life driven by want.