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.”  “

 

REHEARSAL

I’m past the midway point of my life (at least I hope the fraction isn’t much bigger than that), and it still happens to me.

I’ll arrive home, get out of my car, head to the door, pull out my keys and, just as I’m sliding the right one into the lock, I’ll feel like I’m nine years old again, and that I’m playing house. I’ll remember how that felt, and how many times I repeated those gestures in play with my mother’s old purses and bits of junk that I collected: old lipstick tubes, random keys that had lost their use and discarded change purses, that created a simulacrum of the trove my mother had stashed in her own hand bag (minus the kleenex!).

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I’ll recall how the adult world seemed like a giant set piece. And in spite of the fact that I’ve been an adult woman for decades, there’s still a part of me that feels that it’s unreal and extraordinary that this is really my life, and not make-believe.

It can happen when I’m driving and I think: Wow! You’re really doing this!, or when I’m cooking and feel, briefly, like I’m aping TV cooks; like I’m playing.

It happened, of course, when I travelled to France and to London, England:  brief moments of stepping outside of myself and observing where I was and how close to fictional it all felt.

The term imposter syndrome comes to mind, but that isn’t right, because I don’t feel any sense of embarrassment or inadequacy. What I feel is closer to genuine delight and astonishment.

Showtime! With my grandson Graeme.
Showtime! With my grandson Graeme.

How do I do this? How do I simultaneously straddle the past and the present without feeling unnerved? What is this all about? It isn’t déjà vu. That’s more confusing. Déjà vu comes with a kind of a psychic whoosh, and a sense that the flow of time has been disturbed in a way that’s slightly jarring and puzzling, like a music track that skips.

I suspect—I hope—that I’m not alone in experiencing these moments.

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Princess Penelope. Who else?

I like when they happen. They usually make me smile (at least inwardly). I realize that I’m still that same girl—or at least, that she is still in me. Which feels impossible, because most of the time, I’m rather under the impression that I’m no longer even the person I was at 30, let alone 20 or 10…

This is some kind of paradox, I guess. That I can know that I am changing all the time and that I can never retrieve or return to what was and who I was even a few months ago, while at the same time knowing that I am still that child I remember.

 

Quantum theorists might have all kinds of ideas about this «phenomenon». Philosophers, metaphysicians or psychologists might approach it from the perspective of the nature of the self, or of consciousness or perhaps even of the soul.

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I was struck by the notion of play, as in play-acting.

Watching my son Christian go through the process of preparing for a production of Macbeth at a small downtown theatre, where he is presently performing, has got me thinking.

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Scenes from Macbeth, a Raise the Stakes Theatre production. Here: King Duncan and Lady Macbeth
Malcolm and Duncan, from Macbeth.
Malcolm (Christian) and Duncan, from Macbeth.
Macbeth and Macduff
Macbeth and Macduff

In spite of being a passionate reader and writer, as well as a devoted cinephile and lover of music and the visual arts, I’m steadily coming round to the idea that the greatest of all arts is drama.

The stage.

And not simply because of the glorious, vital, engaging, in-real-time feat of the end result, but much more because of the process of getting there.

Since December, I’ve watched the director and players at Raise the Stakes Theatre produce Macbeth from scratch (well, from the bare bones of Shakespeare’s words—a pretty great starting place).

 

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The planning, the audition process, the casting, the first meetings of cast and director, the first read-throughs, the acquisition of the text by the players, the rehearsals held in spaces rented all over the city, more rehearsals and more rehearsals, moving into the theatre space, the sets, the props, the costume fittings, tech rehearsals, dress rehearsal…opening night. And, blessedly, multiple performances after that, to fine-tune it; to make it better and better. To come as close as possible to an almost perfect work of art.

 

So many of these steps are repeated again and again and again, some from one dramatic production to the next, some within the same play. Over and over, the actors work. Rehearsing lines that are the same, but are expressed slightly differently each time; felt slightly differently each time; creating new moments and new ground within the familiarity of a process repeating itself.

The traces of each rehearsal superimposing themselves on the previous ones.

And we call them players.

How much of what they learn from their craft do they carry into their private lives? How different is this from what we all transpose from our past to our present, or from our private to public lives?

 

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I love to think that each moment that I live is simply a rehearsal for what will come next. And so on.

It feels right to think of life this way.