Monday, July 11, 2011

The Cathedral Space of Childhood

A while ago -- three months! -- I wrote "When there's something you can't write, there's usually a reason why you can't write it." And then I went on to try to explain what I meant--still not writing about "it" -- and got lost in the whole life-as-film reel/cyborg post about the Jesse Eisenberg run-in. And it's still out there, something I want to write but can't. I didn’t think it was a loaded topic. Not an example of what May Sarton describes in Journal of a Solitude when she says, "…at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth.” It's simply a post about the street where my mom grew up that I began writing in February, when Wally and I were in Massachusetts visiting my parents. 

I had time that end-of-winter trip to pause in front of the woods where my parents live now, to remember the ones from my own childhood and contemplate briefly the tendency to hold onto memories of an idyllic past, string them together like rosary beads, turn them into a kind of devotional. Like fiction, the memories are emotionally true if not empirically so, subject to a mysterious process of transfiguration that attempts to recreate how something felt, not what it was. It is a constant, hounding specter, that cathedral space of childhood, open to endless visions and revisions.*

All in all the topic felt bigger, and led me to the misrepresentation of American childhood in general and to Steven Mintz’s attempt to see past the myths with his exhaustive account of its various epochs in: Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, which I only finally read a few weeks ago.

I was interrupted writing that post about my mother’s childhood street, then we returned to New York and the preschool search and the abandoned winter playgrounds. What I had written that February day in Massachusetts fell out of sync with the day-to-day rhythm of a blog with its essential vow: this is what is happening in my life, now. So I left it behind. But it nags at me, and before I can get to what I want to say about what’s happening now, I have to first explain what happened then.

This is what I had started to write on one of the last days there while Wally was sleeping.

February 
Until last year I'd never visited the house where my mother grew up, but the name Buddington Road circulated around the blurry edges of the woods of my own childhood, like Citizen Kane’s rosebud, a kind of benchmark of what growing up should be. Up a hill from the little manufacturing river town of Derby, Connecticut my mom and her siblings lived in “the sticks” where once in a while cows poked their heads down the road a bit and only one other house was visible from their property, even then only in the winter, when the trees were bare. 

Based on the stories my mom and her siblings told us, Buddington Road meant children free to wander, to climb inside fallen trees, gather leaves, wade in swamps, make forts, dig up treasures, hide inside Concord Grape vines, pick apples, peaches, and cherries and happily eat them with abandon. An all-American childhood if ever I heard one. Even little Billy, the youngest, at Wally’s age now, happily bobbed around unsupervised at the edge of the woods while the older three kids disappeared for hours at a stretch, as long as he stayed where he could be heard yelling back when they called his name.

When I drove past the house with my aunt last spring I was amazed at just how much land there had actually been and how imposing the woods still appeared. One never knows how much to trust the Mercator projections of childhood geography. 

The current owners let us inside the house, which had been added onto in ramshackle ways. I stared out the back porch into the backyard. I could easily picture my mom, aunts and uncle hanging from tire swings, picking raspberries and chasing each other through the trees with red-stained hands.

By the time my sister and I were born my grandparents had moved to a bigger house with smaller woods and finally retired into what had been their summer place; “the cottage”, a little red house near the beach. That house was Riordan-family central, so for me, family holidays and folklore naturally centered on the sea. Our Christmases blended together in those years with verses from a Child’s Christmas in Wales (close enough) always on a shelf that I could reach. But for my mom and her siblings the defining feature of their personal mythology had been the woods of Buddington Road. And the rest of us believed what they told us about the close and holy darkness that they found in that wilderness cathedral.  

It was in the sun-drenched kitchen of the cottage a few Christmases ago when the Buddington Road utopia began to unravel. My mother’s voice rose above the usual intersecting conversations, leading the kids in a chorus of “Jack Miller, the killer must be found.” It’s a chant from an old Western. As a child, she’d gone around the neighborhood hollering it when a killer was on the loose there. He was never found. A killer on the loose? That doesn’t sound like what we pictured. Buddington Road morphed into Wisteria Lane as stories poured out about suicides, jilted lovers, strange hunched-over neighbors in dark kitchens who never ventured outside, a house a father built for his son as a wedding present that was never lived in and slowly collapsed beside the main house into a dilapidated testament to lost dreams. 

Those of us who hadn’t grown up there exaggerated its dark side, conjured up spooky voices to intone “The Horrors of Buddington Road”, making fun of the deceptive way the stories about it had always left out its David Lynch underbelly. Not that you can’t miss a place that isn’t perfect. And not that terrible things don’t happen everywhere. Perhaps it is even to my mom's and her siblings' credit that they focused on the good things. Yet I wondered, still, about the way we look back, both to our own childhoods and to some now out-of-reach (invented?) ideal of an authentically American one. 

As my aunt and I drove away from the house last year she reminisced about how much better things had been then, how much safer, how no one ever worried then about strangers (even killers on the loose) or about having to lock your door.

But 

…there was the Cold War. The Korean War. The atomic bomb. Corporeal punishment in school. Weren’t there air raids? Polio outbreaks? The McCarthy witch hunts? Wasn’t there segregation and civil unrest? Better for whom? Safer for whom? Surely not for Japanese, Jews, blacks, gays, housewives drowning in vodka and valium, children living in poverty. Better for some people, yes. Which brings me to Steven Mintz’s book, to 400 exhaustive pages documenting the hardships children have always suffered in this country. There was, he says, in the middle of the last century, a time when enough progress had been made to grant children freedom from adult labor and more protection, which converged with peacetime, and the possibility of supporting a family on a single income, to create the arrival of the middle-class childhood. Yet toward the end of the book Mintz touches on the fact that we’ve now gone so far in removing children from the adult world that we’ve turned childhood into a “project” for adults. Hoping to protect children from being subsumed too quickly into the adult world of work, we’ve “created the polar opposite of the ideal embodied by Twain’s novel” which was childhood for its own sake, not “merely as preparation for adulthood.” The challenges facing children today are not the focus of his book. He skims over the achievement obsession, helicopter parenting, kids-getting-older-younger (in fashion and awareness), and marketing to children as an enormous part of the consumer base, hoping we can create alternative paths for development. His aim is primarily to debunk myths of an idealized past while highlighting the persistence of a certain kind of freedom lacking today. In his final line he admits to the ghastly truth of Huck Finn’s own existence, while emphasizing the one thing Huck had that children today largely miss out on: adventure.

“Huck Finn was an abused child, whose father, the town drunk, beat him for going to school and learning to read. Who would envy Huck’s battered childhood? Yet he enjoyed something too many children are denied and which adults can provide: opportunities to undertake odysseys of self-discovery outside the goal-driven, over-structured realities of contemporary childhood.”  


Then Wally woke up. 

April
I had planned to take him to a nearby indoor play space in the afternoon. First I had to make a quick stop at the post office. As we walked back to the car the sun came out for just a second—the first and only glimpse of it that day. Yet it seemed so inviting. Maybe there will be sun. We should play outside.

So we drove instead to the nearest playground, but as we pulled up Wally remembered the train station was nearby and demanded to go “look some trains”. The sun had not reappeared and it didn’t matter one way or the other to me so I drove to the train station and walked around, lucky enough to see two that day, one in each direction.

Enough trainspotting. Too late, then, for the play space, too dark for the playground. Next plan—bring Wally to a library that was open late in a neighboring town, about a fifteen-minute drive from where we were. 

Meanwhile in the background all day was the slight anxiety of phone tag from the director of admissions at one of the preschools I was hoping to be able to tour. When I started calling these schools in the winter after we met with the Board of Ed many said it was too late to apply, that they’d call if a spot on the waiting list opened up. I had already missed a call that day from this woman—and you just don’t do that with these kinds of calls — so I had my phone there at the ready, in the car on the way to the library. And of course the phone rang as I was driving. It was her. I swerved to pull the car over and picked up. Just by chance I pulled into the street where my parents live.

So I had the slightly anxious conversation in their neighborhood, with Wally in the back now demanding to see Mimi (my mom) because we were just a few houses away. Trains and Mimi. His two favorite things. You can’t be within a stones throw of either one and not say hi. I had wanted to give my mom a little more of a break, to bring Wally home a little more worn out before dinner, but I myself was too worn out to keep pushing and schlepping, this time against his will. So we pulled into their driveway. Mimi was cheerful in the kitchen window and totally fine with us being back earlier than expected. 

She took Wally outside to feed the birds. I could see them from the basement window, scattering birdseed like confetti, my mom’s white coat blending in with the remaining snow. Wally was a little blue elf beside her, skipping around. Periodically he’d put one foot out over a little stream, looking back and waiting to be told, “Be careful”. It’s the same thing he does when he’s standing on high places, one foot over the edge, laughing. “Be careful”. He’ll say it if no one else does. This is progress. Now it’s usually done for show.

July 7, 2011
Up until recently these little outdoor scenes couldn’t happen. Wally would just drive my mom crazy by tugging at other people’s car doors or running into their gardens or pulling at stakes in the ground. It was like taking a cat for a walk without a leash. Hopeless. Now here they were side by side. It’s a new thing to see. My mom can watch Wally, without simply watching him run off. She can show him a cardinal, take him over to see the crocuses that have already popped up. She’s at home in the woods and Wally is too; children are naturalists by nature. 

I decided to take the chance then to run, now that I could actually leave him with her. I shot in the opposite direction, around to the Arbor Glen path. It was a perfect cold that day, the kind that might bother you when you don’t have enough layers on but as soon as you face it you start to defy it, rise above it. I ran past the fields and the stonewall, up toward the outer edge of the apple farm, out to the street then back to the edge of the woods, down a stretch from where my mom and Wally had been playing. I didn’t see them. They must have already gone inside. I felt alone in that wonderful way that the woods allow you to feel, alone but surrounded, listening to the wind in trees like vespers in that last blue stained-glass light of a winter evening. 

I like the silent connection I feel after each run to my physics professor friend, the one training in Chicago for the half marathon we’ll run together in the fall in Vermont. The next day Heather and her two boys were coming to visit. The older one, as Heather points out, is nearly the age we were when we met in first grade. The world felt connected, like someone had carefully joined the dots on a dot-to-dot drawing, those friendships from childhood had somehow persisted along with those other ineffable things we remember, Cynthia Ozick’s “permanent ghosts, stamped, inked, imprinted, eternally seen.”

Yes—I thought, catching my breath by those woods so close to the woods Thoreau wrote about in Walden—Yes, Wally needs to spend a lot of time out in nature, near the ocean, and in the woods, listening in the near-spring to Thoreau’s “cheerful music of the tinkling rills and rivulets whose veins are filled with the blood of winter.”

But which woods? I asked myself, making a weary half-circle back to the house. The ones at Buddington Road where paint cans were dumped out in the swamp where my mom and her siblings played? 

Those paint cans--that is what is scary, really. Not Jack Miller, not the jilted lover, the brooding neighbors, the rotting house— “I always wondered if those would come back to haunt me,” my mom said about the cans later that night. The ones someone had carelessly left, in those lovely woods, those cathedral woods; who knows what other toxins were already leaking? What thousand other resources other neighbors felt it was their right to destroy in tiny, insidious, invisible ways?

Or to which ocean should Wally grow attached? To the one down the street from the little red house we called the cottage, where my Dad and I coughed up our lungs when I was 11? Where the next day it was closed off with a skull and crossbones signs propped up just in case you didn’t get the hint that it wasn't safe to swim there? The one often full of parasites because of changing tide patterns? Damaged ecosystems? Rising sea levels? Remember slowly, nearly invisibly, the most pernicious and persistent kind of change. There is, of course, the Grand Canyon to remind us of what infinitesimal accumulated change can do. Is it true that mighty Colorado River, the one that made that canyon, no longer reaches the sea? Could Cort├ęs have ever imagined that? I just read this in Robert J. Kennedy Jr.’s foreword to Not a Drop to Drink and I can hardly stand to believe it. 

What ocean and what woods, I kept asking myself—the woods from your childhood? That you like to gaze at in memory, where you dreamed of craters and crocodiles, where you built forts and buried your cat? Where you ran along train tracks and gathered sticks and jumped in canopy leaves? But you were just steps away from Grace Company—you could see it from the trees that you climbed. That horrible barren land surrounding the nefarious company that forced the town to close two aquifers forever? It was a Superfund Sight, for Godsake, a patch of land so poisonous the Federal government put it on a National Priority List for hazardous waste. Don’t you remember there were apples in the backyard—the communal backyard, the one you shared with your neighbors—but you weren’t allowed to eat anything that grew on that land. You would have sooner put your mouth around a razor. 

July 8, 2011
Clearly sacred spaces are not immune to contamination. The fairy-tale spaces of childhood are as dark and full of undercurrents as most childhood pasts. I remember walking into a lecture given by Professor Pease who later became my thesis adviser. I was just visiting and missed most of what he said, but what stayed with me was the paradox of our canonical stories of an idyllic American Childhood—those of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn—being full of violence, abuse, blood, death, slavery, dead men floating, and even murder. 


And now, immersed in children's literature, it occurs to me that the fairy-tale space of childhood is as dark as the nursery rhymes and fairy tales we grow up hearing in the hours before we sleep. 

Not just spiders appearing during picnics but the collapsing bridge, the falling baby, (cradle and all), the wolf that eats the grandmother, the mice tails cut off with a carving knife, that ill-fated humpty dumpty, the maid's nose snapped off by a blackbird, the ladybird whose house is on fire, the bells of St. Clement's that ring in the chopper to chop off your head, the glass coffin, the Queen who thinks she’s eating Snow White’s liver, the suicidal Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel about to be cooked, the village teeming with rats, the children who follow the pied piper and drown. In both truth and fiction, childhood for most children has always been more of a horror show than a fairy tale. Like the nature channel showing lions tearing through the necks of hyenas. You'll find very few baby cubs frolicking together in the sun. Not to mention our real-life cathedrals. A dominant religion with a promise of everlasting life that holds up as its central the image of savior dying the most gruesome, horrible death? With its sacrament that invites worshipers to eat his body and drink his blood? Forget the Twilight saga. We are our own vampires. The shadows are everywhere. 


July 11, 2011
I am thinking now about that moment at the woods, about what it's calling me to do. With children—even just one—it’s  harder to stumble upon those solitary moments where past and present seem to converge and your the task ahead of you becomes clear.

By any intelligent measure, the ones I describe were the landscapes of ideal childhoods, settings for experiences so peaceful and full of privilege less than one percent of all the humans who live or ever lived could hope to enjoy anything resembling them. City or country, days packed with activities or full of time to wander,  playgrounds teeming or empty—there is little more one could ever ask for. 

So it is really my duty, given that, to insist on the continued cathedral space of childhood for other children. It can be inside or out, but it has to be expansive. It can be in books or journals or real-life journeys. But it has to give what Steven Mintz says we are largely denying children today—the voyage downriver, without us. It has to offer time to dream, to wander, to explore, ask questions, to imagine. 

What variables converged to give me that moment alone at the woods that day, the moment that felt so entangled it has taken me all these months to entangle it, to unravel the beauty and horrors of Buddington Road, to expose the environmental dystopia of my own utopias? It was that single sliver of sun that changed my plans from indoor play space to outdoor playground. Then being near trains—for this three year old who was “born on trains”—naturally led to trainspotting instead. Next, the odd timing of the phone call that led to the swerve into my parents’ neighborhood. 

The hint of sun had been on the walk to the post office to the car. What had I been mailing anyway? A package to a friend of mine from college. I had tried twice before to send it out. Once it was returned because the packaging fell apart (so much for trying to be green—using only a paper bag instead of a padded envelope). The second time for the wrong address—the wrong state even, the one she’d lived a few years ago. 


In the intervening time this friend had lived in another continent. You think I would have gotten that straight. Now she’s in Virginia. How do you forget that? Land of your birth. And even your father’s. But both those births—their location—were sort of by chance. No one ever lived in Virginia very long. Yet we were both born in Virginia, my mother in Georgia, my sister in California. Pieces of a narrative that point to such a different story from the truth. We were all raised, born from parents born and raised, all of us blood-tied the Northeast. It is home, in feeling and in fact. It is a great place to grow up, to return to, to try to restore. In her Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton asks, after a visit to New York, one that wears her out immeasurably: “What is essential?” She believes the source of whatever it is is in childhood. So we have to go back there, no matter how contaminated the landscape. Maybe what’s calling out to me is not only the memory but the mandate to help address that real contamination that will undermine childhood for those setting out on their adventures today. That is what I had set out from home so many years ago, to do.





*Virginia Woolf, “That great cathedral space which was childhood”
**T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, “Time for you and time for me/And time yet for a hundred indecisions/And for a hundred visions and revisions/Before the taking of a toast and tea.”
***Thoreau, Walden
****How my friend Vince describes Wally, referencing Magnetic Fields


I am far from the empty garden now, fathoms away from “You didn’t have me at hello”-type posts from last summer. So much so that I keep wondering if I should erase those old blog posts, ones I no longer relate to, dashed off in haste, cringe when I think about. And yet I want the path to be clear, the markers to be obvious. There was a path I took to get here, and it wouldn't be fair to make it seem like I was here all along.