CARRYING YOUR CHILDHOOD WITH YOU

Alexander Milov’s “Love”

“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.” 

Abraham Sutzkever

 

I came across this quote one morning.  Scanned it in a flash. It felt so familiar. Almost toss away. A well-worn reference to being young at heart, or to the importance of cherishing my inner child. Trite.

 

And then I read it a second time, and noticed that where my eyes had registered child, they should have read childhood.

It was early and I sat staring at the screen, bothered by the way that word altered Sutzkever’s message.

What did he intend? What does it mean to “become older” ?

I looked him up, and learned that he was a great Yiddish poet and survivor of the Holocaust. Born in Belarus in 1913, he later lived in Lithuania and was sent to the Vilna Ghetto during World War II.

And I thought: well of course, he was 26 when the war began. Memories of his childhood would have sustained him; he would have drawn deeply from that well of familial love, protection and relative innocence—and then the words “you never become older” : those foundational memories acting as a talisman of sorts, warding off the damaging effects of disillusionment, cruelty, suffering and despair in a world made by adults.

Alexander Milov’s “Love”

I’m not sure of any of this. I don’t even know whether he wrote this or spoke it. And so, what I have is what his words mean to me and might mean to anyone else.

I’m puzzled by the phrase.

“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.” 

IF ?

There’s no if. We all carry our childhood with us. What matters, then, is only whether its weight supports and grounds us or instead burdens us—and if so, how heavy the burden is.

If I polled a bunch of people asking them to list the distinctive elements of childhood, what would they come up with? Maybe something like:

 

It’s precious because it’s over so quickly;

It’s the most carefree period of a human being’s life;

It’s usually the healthiest period, too;

It’s when humans change the most rapidly;

It’s when we’re most curious and able to learn;

When our minds are most plastic;

It’s the only age of innocence;

It’s when everything seems possible.

 

A positive list. But few of those elements can be carried forward into the future because time runs out on them.

I’m bothered by statements like Sutzkever’s that are predicated on the notion that childhood is the space-time of optimistic possibility from which we slowly but surely lose our way.

I’m bothered by the unintended pessimism of it.

Władysław Wankie. Alone in the Park. ca. 1900

Childhood is frequently the place of our deepest wounds and traumas, and when this is so—especially when this is so— it  becomes either the crushing burden that stunts us for life, or else a powerful agent of resilience; of growth through experience.

I resist the implications of Sutzkever’s message and others like it because I don’t believe that a happy childhood is a sine qua non for a happy life.

I think it’s probably true that:

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

― Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

The wryness of this makes me smile.

I see childhood as a crucial period of growth on a lifelong transformative continuum.

Penelope and Graeme, photo by Anne Hildebrand

We speak of childhood as an idyll, but I think that our vulnerability in childhood is one of its most poignant dimensions.

Watching my grandchildren Penelope (four), and Graeme (two), grow up is a daily reminder of this. While I feel all kinds of strong impulses to protect and shelter them, I believe that this same vulnerability  is childhood’s precious bridge to adulthood. From our places of shelter and support, we learn to go out into the world and live fully.

Why wish to never become older?

Just a few months ago, as her father—my son Jeremy—was putting her to bed, Penelope had a moment. Lying above the blankets, her lovely eyes welled up and she turned to her father and said:

“I miss myself when I was a baby.

Oh papa, I’m so tired.”

Imagine that.

Maybe she felt old that day.

Maybe she has already begun to understand that she’s leaving her childhood behind a little bit every day.

The next morning, she woke up rested, happy and looking forward to what the day might bring. Four years old and fresh as a daisy.

She and her brother do this every time they go out into the world and gather experience, as they, like their parents, constantly reinvent themselves and grow older together.

Penelope and Graeme looking for the squirrel, fall 2015, photo by Anne Hildebrand

 

Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along―the same person that I am today.”

― Orson Scott CardEnder’s Game

A note about the photos of Alexander Milov’s gorgeous sculptures:

Gripping Sculpture At Burning Man Reveals The Harsh Truth About Adulthood

Published sept. 2015

“This year, the “Burning Man” festival in Nevada featured its first artistic piece from Ukraine. Alexander Milov’s “Love” was the first Ukrainian piece to receive a festival grant in 30 years. The sculpture consists of two hollow, metal frame human silhouettes, one man, one female, sitting back to back. Sculptures of children touch inside of them (and light up at night).

“It demonstrates a conflict between a man and a woman as well as the outer and inner expression of human nature,” Milnov explains. “Their inner selves are executed in the form of transparent children, who are holding out their hands through the grating. As it’s getting dark (night falls) the children start to shine. This shining is a symbol of purity and sincerity that brings people together and gives a chance of making up when the dark time arrives.”  “

 

GETTING MY GEEK ON AT THE STAR TREK ACADEMY EXPERIENCE

 

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I was a little girl when the first episodes of the original Star Trek series aired.

Sometimes I think that it was a miracle that I ever found it at all on TV because ours, which sat atop the piano (or some other high piece of furniture in the livingroom that forced me to look up, much the way people do now with their big screens mounted on the wall), was strictly controlled by my mum, who at that time was 100% stay-at-home and always vigilant.

But there must have been a day when conditions were right and I managed to watch it.

Like almost everything else about my childhood, I can’t recall any of the details of this exactly. My memories aren’t stored in neat episodes. They’re mostly telescoped inside my mind, and tugging on any one of them pulls several out in one long tangle.

What I’m left with, though, is enough. I remember watching the first season of Star Trek and feeling pure wonder and happiness. Like it was a miracle. Like I had found a place outside of every other part of my life that was populated by people who saw the world a lot like I did—that is, with openness and optimism. I always left the Star Trek universe reluctantly.

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I think what I had found, really, was the first TV show beyond my favourite children’s programs that conveyed the same essential benevolence and yet was ADULT.

This was perhaps the shocker for me. To discover that there were people like Gene Rodenberry who unabashedly adored life and the human race and refused to succumb to what, eleven years later in another imagined universe, would be described as the dark side. Pessimism, cynicism and disguised despair.

In these memories, it feels like I was watching the show alone, but that’s unlikely because our house was small; my sisters must have been nearby. But I don’t think either of them felt the way I did about Star Trek.

My mum, well, she was listening in from the kitchen.

I remember that she didn’t GET IT. My very bright mother— the product of the post war years in Quebec, which were profoundly traditional and Catholic, and who reached her twenties in 1955—couldn’t help herself; she just felt threatened by the show.

She saw in Star Trek a menace to her faith and thus my faith, and she said this to me in exactly those words. I think it may have been her first serious exposure to science fiction, and it unsettled her. She couldn’t see how something that expanded our view of the universe and our role in it, the way Star Trek did, could be compatible with Catholic cosmology.

My memories of how this made me feel are very clear: I desperately wanted her to see what I saw when I watched Star Trek. Rodenberry’s future contained all of the recognizable evils and suffering I was already aware of: illness, death, poverty, war and destruction. But in this future, the predominance of diversity, inclusion, cooperation, benevolence, sharing, acceptance and understanding were matter-of-fact.

Enlightened, essentially good people would always strive to bring everyone on board. The power-mad and the destructive would be dealt with swiftly and justly.

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What young mind wouldn’t be swept up in a world that presented endless what-ifs and ways of being, and then threw Captain Kirk and his crew into the mix to see how they would all make it through?

Even as a grade schooler, I felt vindicated by the idealism of Star Trek.

I also had a mad crush on Captain Kirk.

That’s how Star Trek entered my life, sharing space with Batman, Barbie, Willy Wonka and Thierry la Fronde.

I don’t remember how many of my friends were Star Trek groupies, but I do remember ersatz communicators  turning up in our play, sometimes fitting into our improvised Batman-inspired utility belts.

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The Star Trek universe and I grew up together.

A dry spell followed those years of my childhood, and when the next great wave of space adventure hit in 1977, I was just emerging from adolescence. When I exited the cinema after seeing Star Wars: A New Hope for the first time, the only sounds I could muster were: WOW!

WOW.

We forget that these were the VCR years, when Sony Trinitron TVs were considered hot stuff.

No one had ever seen anything like it.

The original Star Wars movie was one of the first things I ever taped on our VCR, in 1986 or ’87, when the twins were 3 or 4 years old. It was a version dubbed in French (it was a great translation!), that they watched over and over and over and over till the cassette wore out (is there a little boy alive who can’t make legit lightsaber sound effects?).

And THAT was the beginning of my sons’ slow indoctrination into Star Trek, Star Wars and everything sci-fi/fantasy/geeky.

I’m the resident sci-fi and fantasy buff in the house. My husband, who was also wowed by Star Wars in 1977, is nevertheless made of different stuff. There isn’t a nerdy or geeky bone in his body and he isn’t prone to even the shortest flights of fancy.

Happily, it fell to me. They’ve taken up the torch with a vengeance, and have outpaced and outstripped me by light years.

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Cut to last Wednesday, when my son Simon (Twin One) organised our trek to the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa with Christian (Son Three) and our friend Cindy, so that we could share The Star Fleet Academy Experience.

 It wasn’t lavish or super-impressive. It was a straightforward interactive experience in a setting designed to be boxed up and moved to a different city every few months and it was a blast.

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Data and Captain Picard on the bridge: Star Trek, Next Generation
Simon and Christian on the bridge
Simon and Christian on the bridge

It featured animations and quizzes and simulations and when I was done, I received an evaluation that was later emailed to me:

Thank you for taking part in the Starfleet Academy Experience at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.


Attached to this email you will find:

  • Your Starfleet Recruitment Certificate
  • Your Starfleet Personnel File
  • Your Species Selfie
  • Your Transporter video

We hope that you enjoyed your visit.
Live long and prosper.

How cool is that?

I wasn’t shocked to read that Star Fleet Academy had accepted me to study in the field of Communications.

Data commands the bridge: Star Trek-Next Generation
Christian commands the bridge

Pumped and in full geek mode, we passed the time during the drive home quizzing each other.

Questions started like this:

Who’s your favourite Star Trek main character? Secondary character?

There was lots of debate: Do you mean just the shows or are the movies included? All of the series?

Answers included Picard and Kirk, of course; Data—well yes (sigh); Ensign Ro, the Traveller, Q and a host of stragglers.

Favourite Star Trek movie?

Wrath of Khan dominated, but emotional responses also supported The Undiscovered Country and The Voyage Home; and I have a soft spot for Tom Hardy’s stunning performance in the role of Shinzon, going head-to-head with Patrick Stewart in Nemesis.

Then we veered off into the superhero cannon: Captain America or Iron Man?

(is that even debatable? Of course its Captain America; I have reasons coming out my ears!)

Which was worse: The most recent Superman or Batman VS Superman?

I hated the latter and had been warned by my sons not to see the first, but it was the winner of that debate.

We of course veered all over the place, and there were all kinds of leaps from genre to genre and medium to medium (how could any of us forget books, graphic novels and comics?), and the 200 km drive home passed in a flash.

I’m a lucky woman indeed. I can now boldly go where no one has gone before–into the undiscovered country– with a crew that includes family, friends and soon, my grandchildren, Penelope and Graeme, who are gently being brought into the fold.

I hope to live long, and have already prospered beyond my wildest dreams.

Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”
Gene Roddenberry

 

 

 

 

SOUNDSCAPES

There are many ways to mark the seasons, rhythms, places and moments of my life, and one of them is by its soundscapes.

Put simply, I live—like most of my fellow Canadians—half the year with the windows open and half the year with them shut.

I’m reminded of this when May rolls around and finally, FINALLY, I’m able to open them wide and welcome in the fresh air and the accompanying sounds of the world outside my cocoon.

I do it with gusto. In that moment, it feels like my house and I are inflating our lungs together as we take in a big broad breath of outside air. One breath in….and then aahhhhhhhhhh!

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There’s that first waft of unheated outdoor air which is followed by a sense of expansion, of everything opening up. The accumulated household scents and dusts of fall and winter are swept up and whooshed away—or at least that’s how it feels.

It’s a moment of reconnection with the world outside, but especially, with the sounds of the natural world.

I thought of all this in early June as I listened to Bernie Krause describe his life’s work on CBC radio.

Krause is an acoustic ecologist who has been listening to the natural world since he was a young boy. Afflicted as he was with, in his own words: “a terrible case of ADHD”, Krause discovered that the only thing that seemed to make a difference and mitigate his feelings of stress and anxiety was going out in the field and listening to natural sounds. In the CBC interview, he relates how the sounds of nature calm him and focus him, an effect which he describes as analgesic—literally relieving his pain.

 

Bernie Krause at work
Bernie Krause at work

Krause has dedicated his life to recording the sounds of nature and now possesses a priceless archive of soundscapes—many of which have since gone silent.

I was moved by the urgency and eloquence of Krause’s ecological message.

I was also taken up by his view of a world in which every living creature strives to establish its own acoustic territory, to express its “voice”, with or without vocal chords.

In the sonic universe Krause has spent a lifetime capturing, the soundscape is “a different way of experiencing the living world around us. […] It’s a narrative of place”.

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Krause has dedicated himself to archiving the sounds of the biophony—that is: “the sounds made by living organisms collectively”.

But we also live and share space in the geophony, which simply means earth sounds such as the wind, as well as in the anthropophony, which includes the controlled human sounds of music, as well as the chaotic noises our technologies produce.

This is a wondrous world view that brings me back to the soundscapes of my home with its opening and closing windows.

 

I’m very sound-sensitive. It’s why I love the radio: it’s the closest thing to having someone read to me. I don’t turn on the radio for background noise— I listen to interviews and news and documentaries and music that engage my mind, my imagination and my emotions while I’m cooking or cleaning or driving around. Sometimes, like when Bernie Krause spoke, I just stop and listen.

It’s this same sensitivity to sound that makes the arrival of spring so thrilling. I miss the birds terribly over the winter. Come open-window season, the first whistles and trills of cardinals make me want to sing.

My very early mornings are less lonely because I can listen to the robins—my favourite sentinels of the sun—who return at dusk to sing the giant star to sleep. Throughout the day, I can sit and write or work with an ear tuned to the activity of starlings and grackles and red windged blackbirds and blue jays, chickadees, sparrows and occasional woodpeckers nearby.

I noticed just a few days ago that the cicadas have already begun their metallic, vibrant song hidden away up in our maple trees, signalling the arrival of true summer heat and reminding me that the countdown to autumn has already begun. They’re early this year. The Earth is warming.

 

There are other living outdoor sounds that bother me.

 

When I hear the frantic chittering or screeching of a squirrel, I can’t help but wonder which predator is causing it distress. And cats mewling in the night is awfully disquieting.

There’s also the occasional tapping of insects against the windows, and the violently ugly BANG of birds smashing into them as they hunt mayflies—a particularly ominous sound, I think.

 

Most of these sounds I owe to the trees that shelter them and envelop our cottage. Stripped of their voices in late fall and winter, the maples in my yard have now recovered their leafy sibilance and hiss gloriously on breezy days, reminding me of the sea. When it rains, it sounds like millions of tiny marbles are falling through their foliage.

 

The soundscape of trees means everything. We should listen more attentively, I think.

It got unseasonably cold last Sunday: the temperature dropped to 15 degrees Celsius (from 30 just days before) and I found myself having to shut the windows, which had the effect of shutting out all of the sounds from outside. The house sounded like fall. And winter. It didn’t feel right.

 

Winter’s quiet. Outdoors, it’s the sound of silent, open space. Of mute trees and fauna. Of an environment acoustically dampened by snow.

Indoors, it’s a shut-in soundscape. Anthropophony [the stress is on the third syllable].

Like so much else about our environment, we aren’t mindful of the soundscapes of our homes. But close your eyes and sit still inside your own house or apartment and be attentive to all of its sounds.

Depending on the floor and the room I’m in, I can hear:

 

  • The hum of the refrigerator compressor or the percolating sounds of its dehumidifier;
  • The scale of tones and pings produced by my Iphone as it signals a message dropping into my email or Facebook account, or a more insistant text message warning, or else a phone call, which on my phone is the classic marimba ringtone;
  • The television in the livingroom—turned on far too often;
  • The sounds of my son Christian’s laptop emanating from his room: tinny and scratchy from a distance—superficial;
  • The radio, my acoustic window on the world;
  • The rotating floor fans cooling the house at this time of year;
  • The low bangs in the water pipes encased inside the walls, heating the house in winter;
  • The whistling kettle;
  • Youtube, somewhere in the house;
  • The spin sounds and beeps of the washer-dryer down in the basement.

 

And depending on the intensity, with or without the windows open, I can also hear:

  • The trains with their lumbering diesel locomotives, and occasionally, like last week, the deafening and nerve-shredding blare of their horns—sometimes in the dead of night;
  • The airplanes—mostly in the summer, taking off (only when seasonal repairs are being done on one of the strips);
  • The automobiles on highway 20—even the lush trees can’t completely muffle their distant drone.

 

Yesterday, the quiet of my office upstairs was invaded by the sounds of a circular saw and other power tools next door, where renovations are being done, and by a landscaping crew with their blasted leaf blowers.

I think that Bernie Krause is right about the importance of our soundscapes. His acute connection to the biophony makes his voice important, and his work makes me wonder and worry about our twenty-first century retreat behind earbuds.

 

What does it mean, that so many of us prefer to pipe recorded sounds directly into our ears, effectively shutting out everything and everyone else, including the sound of our own voices?

 

It probably says something about wanting to scale down the soundscapes of our lives. It probably says something about our desire to carve out an acoustic niche of our own design, wherever we go. It may also signal our turning away from the noises and sounds of others.

This last one distresses me the most. What if the natural world went silent?

What if the sounds of human voices, especially those of my loved ones, were to disappear?

Listening to the sounds we make and those around us tell us a lot about who and where we are. I’m a language teacher, dedicated to the human voice and its varied expressions.

 

There is in souls a sympathy with sounds:

And as the mind is pitch’d the ear is pleased
With melting airs, or martial, brisk or grave;
Some chord in unison with what we hear
Is touch’d within us, and the heart replies
.” —William Cowpe

* * *

I collect words—they are sweets in the mouth of sound.”
― Sally GardnerMaggot Moon

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