Childhood Is The Kingdom

When I was a child, I read The Wizard of Oz over the course of a few days. I was eight years old and reading still made me feel accomplished. I read it everywhere, from tOortCloudhe top bunk of my bed with the yellow blankets to a tiny balcony of an office building in Ankara, walking back and forth over old leaves on the stained concrete. I tried (but mostly failed) to ration it, to make sure I wouldn’t finish it too soon, because I was already old enough to know that the best things in life should be saved and unwrapped slowly, then savored like expensive chocolate or buttered crab.

I knew that Old Yeller was going to die and even though I wept like a faucet for Where The Red Fern Grows, I didn’t feel cheated and the world didn’t darken. But when at the end of the yellow-brick road, the wizard wasn’t a wizard after all, and the city wasn’t erected of emerald, and there was no fix, no cure, no king, it was a disappointment unlike anything else that had happened to me. I lay awake that night and cried my heart out in the dark and wanted my mother.

Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay in her poem of the same name:

Nobody that matters, that is. Distant relatives of course
Die, whom one never has seen or has seen for an hour,
And they gave one candy in a pink-and-green stripéd bag, or a jack-knife,
And went away, and cannot really be said to have lived at all.

And cats die. But, she says.

But you do not wake up a month from then, two months
A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God!

The obvious thrust of this vivid and unsettling poem is, of course, the part about nobody dying. The expected emotional safety of the very young and the presence of wrenching grief as a distinguishing aspect of adulthood.

But there is something else that stands out to me about this poem. Childhood is the kingdom. The poem touches on more than the absence of death in the lives of children. It speaks to the presence of benevolent power, the irresistible magnetism of monarchy.

There is this thing about a kingdom. Everything is under control. Someone-Who-Knows is in charge of things. Nothing can go ultimately wrong. And isn’t this the essence of traditional childhood?

When we were children, tragedies could happen to us. Like a favorite doll breaking or a bike crash or an unfulfilled promise of ice cream. But nothing could really go irretrievably awry. There were always adults around us who knew what to do. And God, of course, could do anything for us. But we hardly needed Him to. We had parents who had all the answers and when we were afraid, it wasn’t the fear of a best friend bleeding out after a car crash, or wasting our lives or marrying someone who won’t love us forever or dying alone in a dim, squeaky house without even flowers.

DorothyWe were afraid of wasps. Or Chihuahuas. Or timed math tests.

To the skeptics who populate an unkinged world, The Wizard of Oz reflects sad reality. The transition is from trust to an empty truth. There is no one who has any idea what in the heck is going on. We, limited, ridiculous, arrogant and clueless, really are the only guardians of the galaxy.

But I subscribe to a different narrative: that there is a kingdom. And we must become children all over again, for there is no other way to get in.

It’s been awhile since I’ve put any poems up on the blog, so here’s one I wrote awhile back on this subject. It was an attempt to configure all these ideas into a compressed format, but I’m afraid that without this semi-lengthy explanation, it wouldn’t have made too much sense.

LOSS: [after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz]

“Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age
The child is grown, and puts away childish things.”
(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Childhood Is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies)

Childhood is the kingdom.
There are fierce beasts howling in the heart of the forbidden forest
and little people peer at you from cracks in walls
and the stamen-cups of flowers, tittering.
Wily witches will cook you and eat you for dinner
if you let them catch you.
But you don’t.

Childhood is the kingdom.
At the end of the long road through the valley of shadow and poison-flowers,
looms the jubilant city and the great throne room.
There are decrees under hot wax seals,
on parchment, rules that make sense,
and if you do all you have set out to do, you will live
happily ever after.

Childhood is the kingdom.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child,
I thought as a child, I turned the pages of fairyland and found it very good.
Oh, Dorothy in gingham-blue,
your little dog, your simple friends,
there is a green witch after you! But it is alright,
there is a wizard too.

Childhood is the kingdom.
And we are skipping, dancing down the yellow-brick road,
for all our troubles, all our tears,
are bottled for the reckoning and written in the book.
That we are little and helpless is of no account
for we are making our happy way to Oz
the Great and Powerful.

Childhood is the kingdom.
And unless you become as a child, you shall in nowise enter therein.
I put the story down crying when
the man is behind a curtain and is only a man.
I was oppressed by the sudden press of danger and
awoke in a dark bedroom to the thick aloneness
and could not be comforted.

 

On Rubber Bands and Rejoicing, Dark Though It Is

Rubber BandsSo the rubber band that you wear to make you stop speaking useless words? – I can’t keep it on the same wrist for half an hour. I always wondered about that – why it’s so easy to tear things down and so much harder to stack them up. Why are the grim words the ones that draw laughter and why do we flock about the funny instead of crowding in around the kind? Why does mutual irritation bring strangers together when we all know it’s this very bitterness that’s bound to take us apart?

With all the other poor choices I and my kind make, I guess it’s no surprise that we keep getting this thing dead wrong too. But when we come down to it, the creed we hold to isn’t ambiguous or muddied enough to let us make up our own minds. Do everything without complaining and without arguing, it says.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried for the twenty-one days. There’s this idea that words don’t only spill what’s inside but shape it as well – and someone who started thinking about this decided they had better start shaping up their talk. Because to be honest, on a given day a whole lot of us sound something like this:

Oh, me too. And someone who didn’t want to be a fountain of whining said something had to change. (We say it too. Again I will say it: rejoice.) So he put a rubber band on a wrist and every time he caught himself complaining moved it to the other. I moved mine ten times on my road trip Tuesday, driving home to celebrate the dawning of the happiest portion of the year. The goal is to bring that interval up to twenty-one days. Yeah.

I can’t deny that people can be cruel in a pinch or even on the other side of all your kindness. Yes, the highways are clogged with folks who shouldn’t be allowed off of their own driveways. And yes, the times are nightfall and the world riven right through. But don’t we believe that the Sunrise from on high has come to visit us? Don’t we believe in the sky split wide open with light and chorale?

Or do we? Because if we do, won’t it change things? And won’t it make wild sense to talk about this more than we talk about the sorry insufficiency of what’s around? I’m just asking because I wonder. And I guess I’m not the only one.

Three thousand years back in our history, our greatest songwriter said let the redeemed say so, talk about it. We still sing it. Because if everything else falls away, we still have this. And in the bleak world that Immanuel inhabits, can’t we be saying thank you and waving, dark though it is?
Boys-WavingDarkThoughItIs - Copy

THANKS (by W.S. Merwin)

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

On Recent Adventures and Remembering the Bread

P1000235 - Copy
I’m going away from my home now, like a bird leaving the old nest, and I’m fond of home. This room with its four plain walls has opened out into Heaven. Here have I drunk in God, here have I prayed, here have I wept, here have I worked, here have I agonized, and now, Farewell home!”

So wrote Oswald Chambers when, at the age of twenty-one, he packed his bags and went out without knowing.

It’s astonishing how you can be at one time gladder than you’ve ever been and also laboring under a sorrow as wide as loneliness, a grief that’s past mending. No one told me it would be like this: that triumph and desolation walk side by side, that life is so fast and so dangerous.

I’m in my first home away from home, where some things are missing: such as the narrow green stairs and the big picture windows over the pond and the pastures. Such as paychecks and darkwalks and checking the rain gauge. Such as family games and supper-table politics, and my little brother coming into my room to say goodnight each and every day of my life.

And some new things have come about, which have never been: such as big happy lunches at tables crammed with acquaintances, and cycles of cards in the lobbies and frisbee on the lawns. Such as sunset over the bleachers, and the printer humming ceaselessly, and the silent camaraderie of the library. Such as our faces lighting up when we recognize each other across the streets. Such as my little brother’s letters in the mail, sealed with rubbery wax.

Everyone says you learn so much away from home, and I don’t know about that, but in my short two weeks away, I can say I’ve learned one thing: out in the big world, what matters most isn’t education, experience, classification or credits, but kindness and the people who put the courage back into you. That isn’t what I expected, really. But it’s what I’ve found.

Because you can have every qualification in the book, and be far from qualified to do life. You can possess much valuable knowledge and yet be worthless in the scheme of things. Because what counts is to have your eyes open, to look outward and be awake, to smile at the evident and dormant beauty of people, to get out from behind the tyrannical lens of I, to see the world for what it is instead of for my place in it.

And if I have not love, I am nothing.

In the midst of all the changes and the new things, some kind people have made time for me, and last week invited me to a service where I heard something which particularly spoke to this condition of unsettledness. The pastor went to the grocery store to get just one thing that his wife asked for – bread. He got oreos and ice cream and fruit juice and chocolate milk, and filled a cart with good things and purely out of absentmindedness and distraction, he went home with no bread.

Abandoned_City__Matte_Painting_by_MarcoBucciIn the world I come from, there are altogether too many choices, too many possibilities of delight, too many potential disappointments to fret about. And something happens to obscure single-heartedness and urgency. It’s all too easy to find ourselves startled by things going wrong, and personally offended by the realization that we can’t have it all. (Me too, me too!) We talk about life like it’s a war, but seventy years can feel like a truce pretty quickly, a break in which the barracks become a premature party.

I wonder, though: what if I only had four?

Because after all my years of waiting for a next step, it’s finally come to me, and I’ve stepped out into it, and it’s only a four-year road, beyond which is a whole forest of darkness. So I’m asking, what if four years were all that was left and beyond that nothing?

loaves-of-breadI’m not sure about you, but I think I’d do them like they mattered, those skimpy four years. Not cramming in experiences, not mourning their conclusion, but busied with matters of consequence, with witness and with work.

So if we can’t have it all – if this is a battle-ship and not a pleasure-cruise, and we are going down with all hands, I guess what matters isn’t the next port, but the lifeboats.

And oh, my soul, don’t forget the Bread.

On That Always Aching Wound

OH MY GOSH, I want him to stay little!” a little girl wails in a viral video that has been making its rounds this week. Sadie has just learned that her baby brother is going to grow up, and it’s too much to take in tranquility. The look of stunned injury on her face has garnered over 21 million views on youtube, and certainly some laughter, but I expect I’m not the only one who feels something else too: a sort of cold, sick loneliness, anyone? The unutterable tragedy that just when everything is exquisitely right, everything is emphatically wrong.

It’s not even funny,” said my sister. “Except that you have to laugh, or you’re going to cry.

Because somehow this hysterical sorrow isn’t ridiculous, isn’t misplaced. Somehow it’s just exactly what the situation calls for.

And I don’t want to die when I’m a hundre-e-e-e-e-e-ed,” Sadie sobs. It’s that kind of grief that can’t be fixed or forgotten. On the other side of it, something has been shattered forever.

Or has it?

In Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis has something to say about this, something that reads almost as if it was written for this exact drama – simply because this exact drama plays out in everyone, troubles all of us:

Fish Out of Water

Hence our hope finally to emerge, if not altogether from time (that might not suit our humanity) at any rate from the tyranny, the unilinear poverty, of time, to ride it not to be ridden by it, and so to cure that always aching wound which mere succession and mutability inflict on us, almost equally when we are happy and when we are unhappy. For we are so little reconciled with time that we are even astonished at it. “How he’s grown!” we exclaim, “How time flies!” as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.

In the bitterest book of the sixty-six, there’s this:

He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their hearts.

So if I could say a few words to Sadie, I would say, Little Girl, never grow out of your deep discontentment. “Wrestle with the Not Yetness of things. With the good, broken, incompleteness of everything.

As my friend Sam also says, It is what it is. But it is not what it shall be.

What If We Are Alone? [A Marsh-Wiggle Speaks]

Orphaned2Our lives are staked on such simple things, aren’t they? Because it isn’t only true that no man is an island, it’s vastly more true that no belief is marooned, that ideas have consequences, and that every accepted truth claim moves in with its entire family. So “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” rather quickly turns into, “whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it,” and before we know it, the ball’s in our court.

But when you give every last thing, you want it to be worth it, don’t you? And sometimes, to be utterly honest, we’re not quite sure.

At the back of our minds, is there sometimes this lingering gnawing, the dark suggestion that what we see is all there is? It isn’t that we have strong reasons for disbelief, or that we’re out of evidence for what we do believe, but only that we’ve come to love it so very much – to depend on it and live and move and have our being in it – that even a mustard-seed of uncertainty is unbearable.

LonelyPlanetK.S. Rhoads puts words to this frightful sadness in Orphaned,

you’re born into a union
but you die on your own

a bear on the iceberg
is burning in the sun

what if I go behind the curtain
and see no one?

When I was a child, I asked these questions. Sometimes I opened my mind to the possibility of the void, of everything glad becoming untrue, of life going out like a candle, and all things being of no account. How do you explain the dark aloneness of dust?
Emerald City
When I was eight years old, I read The Wizard of Oz. I read chapter after chapter without pause, and enjoyed it so much I couldn’t find the self-control to put it away and save something to read later. But when at the end of the yellow-brick road the wizard wasn’t a wizard after all, and the city wasn’t erected of emerald, and there was no fix, no cure, no king, I lay awake and cried my heart out in the dark and wanted my mother.

It’s the ghastliest question of all:

Are we orphaned?

But when I was a child, I didn’t know about amor tan inmenso. I didn’t know there was a love so mighty that the idea of it was better than the substance of anything else; so colossal that we would sooner die for that fantasy than live for the bleak reality of anything else.

Now I don’t ask that question anymore. It isn’t that I’ve outgrown doubt, or moved past anguish or this diseased vision of mine, but in a way I’ve come to happy terms with even the uncertainty that slips in sometimes when I’m not looking. I’ve made my peace with it.

SilverChairThis peace has come all by itself – just slipped quietly in as the years rolled on – but the echo of it exists in many places, leaving me to know I’m not alone in what I have decided. Maybe my favorite of these is found in The Silver Chair.

If it’s been awhile since you’ve read it, remember: Eustace and Jill and the pessimistic Marsh-Wiggle Puddleglum are trying to free Prince Rilian from the evil Lady of the Green Kirtle, a witch who is keeping him an enchanted prisoner in the Underworld. In the climactic scene, the witch begins to lose ground as the children and the Marsh-Wiggle recognize the Prince and break his enchantment. In desperation, she resorts to sorcery and begins to work magic on the whole party, to talk them out of their belief in the world outside her caverns.

“Narnia?” she said. “Narnia? I have often heard your Lordship utter that name in your ravings. Dear Prince, you are very sick. There is no land called Narnia.”

“Yes, there is, though, Ma’am,” said Puddleglum. “You see, I happen to have lived there all my life.”

PuddleglumThe answer is straightforward enough, incontrovertible. But the witch laughs, and laughter is a better weapon than words of reason. She goes on laughing, and bewitching, and before you know it, the whole party hardly even believes in their own homeland anymore. There is something they remember, though. They cling to it frantically: the sun coming up out of the sea of a morning and sinking behind the mountains at night. And up in the midday sky when they couldn’t look at him for brightness.

“What is this sun that you all speak of? Do you mean anything by the word?” asked the Witch.

“Yes, we jolly well do,” said Scrubb.

“Can you tell me what it’s like?”

“Please it your Grace,” said the Prince, very coldly and politely. “You see that lamp. It is round and yellow and gives light to the whole room, and hangeth moreover from the roof. Now that thing which we call the sun is like the lamp, only far greater and brighter. It giveth light to the whole Overworld and hangeth in the sky.”

“Hangeth from what, my lord?” asked the Witch; and then, while they were all still thinking how to answer her, she added, with another of her soft, silver laughs: “You see? When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children’s story.”

“Yes, I see now,” said Jill in a heavy, hopeless tone. “It must be so.” And while she said this, it seemed to her to be very good sense.

Slowly and gravely the Witch repeated, “There is no sun.” And they all said nothing. She repeated, in a softer and deeper voice. “There is no sun.” After a pause, and after a struggle in their minds, all four of them said together, “You are right. There is no sun.” It was such a relief to give in and say it.

“There never was a sun,” said the Witch.

“No. There never was a sun,” said the Prince, and the Marsh-wiggle, and the children.

For the last few minutes Jill had been feeling that there was something she must remember at all costs. And now she did. But it was dreadfully hard to say it. She felt as if huge weights were laid on her lips. At last, with an effort that seemed to take all the good out of her, she said: “There’s Aslan.”

Aslan_SunBut the witch claims no understanding of this word, she doesn’t know what a lion is. How can they explain it? It’s like a cat, only it’s not, it’s bigger and grander with a mane like a judge’s wig.

The Witch shook her head. “I see,” she said, “that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to be called a lion. Well, ’tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world of mine, which is the only world. But even you children are too old for such play. As for you, my lord Prince, that art a man full grown, fie upon you! Are you not ashamed of such toys? Come, all of you. Put away these childish tricks. I have work for you all in the real world. There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan. And now, to bed all. And let us begin a wiser life tomorrow.”

At this point, it’s practically over, the enchantment is nearly complete and Rilian and Eustace and Jill are abashed and quiet. They have given up at last. Puddleglum though, is not quite spent, and with the last of his strength he strikes out and stamps out the witch’s mystic green fire with his two bare feet.

And three things happened at once.
First, the sweet heavy smell grew very much less. For though the whole fire had not been put out, a good bit of it had, and what remained smelled very largely of burnt Marsh-wiggle, which is not at all an enchanting smell. This instantly made everyone’s brain far clearer. The Prince and the children held up their heads again and opened their eyes.

Secondly, the Witch, in a loud, terrible voice, utterly different from all the sweet tones she had been using up till now, called out, “What are you doing? Dare to touch my fire again, mud-filth, and I’ll turn the blood to fire inside your veins.”

Thirdly, the pain itself made Puddleglum’s head for a moment perfectly clear and he knew exactly what he really thought. There is nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic.

narniaThen Puddleglum speaks, and his speech is at one time defiant, trusting and deeply wonderful, because circumstances have forced him to look that frightful question squarely in the face, and it doesn’t scare him away, and he gives it an answer.

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

If in some unforeseeable future, everything should crumble and prove to be a lie, and we be left with the mere idea of the Immortal, Invisible Only-Wise, I think I’d be happier serving the thought of that, than the being of any other. Wouldn’t you? Better to be swallowed up in a good story, I say, than choked to death by a bitter actuality. It’s better to go down fighting for theIvanMoiseyev kingdom of heaven if it is a shadow-kingdom, then to rise up ruling in any other. Because if the legend of the God-With-Us is only mythology after all, it’s the best thing to come out of this doubly-wretched world.

And if you give every last thing for the very best thing, it’s worth it. Even if we are alone.

In me there’s this nagging feeling that us feeling like this is strong evidence against our aloneness, that if the story transcends even its own negation, that’s one point for the crowd that says it’s a true story. And when I think about that crowd, I hardly know how to disagree with them.