Early on Thoreau speaks of Waldo Emerson, the five year old he helped raise and who died suddenly, speaks with affection and mystery of him as a ‘child of the mist.” Years later he speaks of Knowledge (in the essay, “Walking”), and says gently that in facing Knowledge we “are all children of the mist.” The image occurs elsewhere I’m pretty sure. I wonder how to be with this image. I don’t want to do anything to it — pigeonhole it, or take it apart. I want to tarry with it, let its unassertive imponderable presence shadow me; or perhaps I will let myself shadow it. Is that how an image, a picture teaches? It can hold us captive, not in a bad, but in a good way. What is it to be held that way, in a way that releases us rather than cuffs us?
I wonder if that’s an aspect of teaching to notice? Letting ourselves be shadowed by imponderables, and passing on the experience of being shadowed by imponderables, as if that were an essential part of learning in philosophy or literature? I don’t mean thinking hard, and then announcing with verve — “stop here, you’ve arrived at the line, no one will be admitted further, this is the forbidden land of the imponderable!” “Whereof one cannot speak . . . ! ” I mean something very different. To abide with the image “he is a child of the mist” or “we are all children of the mist” opens a door to seeing through a mist, through a darkling glass, becoming like children, seeing more than we had before (not biting our tongues or submitting to the sign that denies entry).
Should a professor or mother or friend or pastor become as a child, dwell in the mist, and invite others to share the darkling prospect — dappled light seeping through? What of the promise of burn off as the sun rises down the road? Of course in the mundane course of things the mist does burn off — even Thoreau knows that. But that can’t mar our tarrying. It would give the imponderables short shrift. To tarry is to be with without getting distracted by anticipations of clarity down the road. (At a mundane level, a mist’s dispersal may show us the banal rather than the extraordinary.) Seeing through the mist may reveal more than seeing without it. To tarry is to shadow the imponderable, not master or disperse it.
At the moment, at this very present between two eternities, we are as “children of the mist,” Thoreau seems to say, happy with wonder, with imponderables. Too bright a light washes out your face, its imponderables. The ordinary includes openness to the mists and the extraordinary. You might think we thereby become shades who shadow the mists, descending into an underworld, becoming as insubstantial as the mist. But somehow Thoreau keeps us fully embodied, as children all-bodied, however much we may also travel the dark and the misted.