‘I stand here ironing,’ declares the narrator of Tillie Olsen’s much-anthologized short story of that title. Me, I sit here rocking – in my two-dozen-year-old swivel desk chair at my forty-plus-year-old worktable, between strokes of my Parker (1951 fountain pen) in the seventy-year-old loose-leaf binder (picked up during my freshman orientation at Johns Hopkins in 1947) in which I’ve first-drafted every apprentice and then professional sentence of my writing life, up to and including this one – my now nearly nine-decades-old body taking idle comfort in the so-familiar oscillation that has, this workday morning, caught the attention of its octogenarian mind.
Nothing vigorous, this rocking: just a gentle, intermittent back-and-forthing as I scan my notes and exfoliate them into these sentences and paragraphs. Notes, e.g., on the ubiquitous popularity of rocking chairs (including the iconic John F. Kennedy Rocker), porch swings, hammocks and the like: a popularity surely owing to our body’s memory of having been calmed and soothed through babyhood in parental arms, cradles, infant slings – a bit later on rocking horses. And in adulthood, a particularly delicious feeling for my wife and myself was the gentle rocking of our cruising sailboat at anchor in one of the many snug coves of Chesapeake Bay. These calmative effects no doubt derive from our prenatal rocking in the womb as our mothers went about their pregnant daily business, themselves rocking in chairs now and then to rest between stand-up chores and to lull their increasingly active cargo. We are not surprised to hear from neuroscientists and physicians that rocking releases endorphins, which abet our physical and mental health – though one also remembers the furious, feverish rocking of the never-to-be-soothed protagonist in D.H. Lawrence’s ironically titled ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’.
Old-timers, especially, favor rockers as they circle toward second childhood, and nursing homes, particularly ones for patients with dementia, are more and more using rocking chairs as therapy: thus from ‘Rock-a-Bye Baby’ we rock and roll our way to Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Rockin’ Chair’.
‘Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,’ writes Walt Whitman of the waves of Long Island Sound, ‘I . . . A reminiscence sing.’ A boyhood beach memory, it is, of his having sharply pitied the keenings of a male mockingbird bereft of its mate: desolated love-cries that the Good Gray Poet is pleased in retrospect to imagine having inspired his whole ensuing poetical life’s work. And that he now ‘fuses’ with the sea’s ‘low and delicious word’ – ‘death, death, death, death,’ – to arrive at an intellectual acceptance and emotional transcendence of The End. Not for us to question whether, in Whitman’s case, the poem’s conclusion declares a psychological accomplishment on its author’s part or merely raises a hopeful/wishful possibility.
In my own case, as befits a mere novelist, the out-of-the-cradle-rocking reminiscence is more prosaic: for the first seventeen-and-then-some years of my life – from babyhood until college – it was my fixed nightly habit to rock myself to sleep. Left-side down in bed, I would roll gently back and forth into oblivion at a rate slightly lower (so I’ve just confirmed by comparing kinesthetic memory, surprisingly strong, with my watch’s sweep second hand) than my once-per-second normal pulse. About 1.5 seconds per rock it was, by my present reckoning, or forty rocks per minute – which I now further discover to approximate my most natural-feeling frequency for desk- and rocking-chair rocking as well. Try it yourself, reader: once per second feels frenetic, no? And once every second second a bit laggard? When ‘restive’ (odd adjective, that; it sounds as if it ought to mean rest-conducive rather than rest-resistant), I would rock even in partial sleep.