Summer with my family has been a time full of changes and green and very little internet. We’ve moved to a new property, wide with acres, and spend a lot of time swimming in the deep and narrow lake and blazing trails through the forests.
One thing I have managed to get done as I’ve been away from the worldwide web is some additions to my Etsy store here, including more Tolkien art, a Reepicheep bookmark, and some other things like this card based on Coventry Patmore’s whimsical Victorian poem, The Azalea.
If you’ve been having troubles getting in touch with me, I should be back online soon! In the meantime, here’s a thought-provoking little poem I picked up from Garrison Keillor’s anthology Good Poems.
Each summer the last summer, Levertov says.
The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer.
The wind blowing the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day.
A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch,
dreamily moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.
Each minute the last minute.
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 the 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.
We 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.
“Please – tame me!” says the fox to the little prince in Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s timeless and legendary fairytale The Little Prince.
“I want to, very much,” the little prince replies. “But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”
What is it about this naïve little statement that sounds painfully familiar, sounds perilously like something we’ve all heard before? I want to very much, but I have not much time. Isn’t there something here that sounds like millennials, sounds like the hyperconnected but ultra-isolated society we inhabit?
Sometimes when I try to think outside of the bubble that technology has created around us, I’m startled by how recklessly and rapidly everything has changed. I don’t mean the changes that have come since our parents were young. I mean the changes that have come since we were in highschool, since five years ago, since just the other day. It’s difficult to accurately assess or even think about the full impact of snowballing social media, because we’re riding the snowball and it’s growing underneath us. How can we truly understand how it’s affected us unless we fall off of it at the bottom of the hill and get smacked squarely in the face, the whole thing exploding in a shower of ice?
But there are some things that are apparent. It is apparent that although the contemporary age is filled with more words, more photos, more videos, and more interaction than any era at any point in history, there is not more friendship. Indeed, as a college student living in an environment surrounded by constant opportunities for activity and community, I’ve never seen so much social isolation in all my life.
My campus is small. The faces you’ll find here are limited. It does not take long for an outgoing person to make the acquaintance of the majority of their fellow-students. It is a pleasant place and we all enjoy one another. I’m not suggesting people don’t speak to each other or that they have no interest in human contact. It is simply that interactions, for the most part, seem to be stuck on a surface level. There is a lack of meaning, a lack of substance, a lack of trust. There is a frustration, because everyone wants to be known, wants to give trust, and wants to receive it. Yet somehow, few seem able to achieve this. As a result, relationships and friend groups are fluid, shifting regularly, and being replaced often.
Have you felt this too? Have you seen these things? Have you tasted the void of loneliness in the place without understanding?
“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends anymore.”
What do we mean when we say we have no time? We definitely need to catch up soon! I wish I could hang out with you more, but my schedule is so unmanageable this year. I’ve just got sooo much going on!
But saying, I don’t have time to spend with you – doesn’t that really just mean being with you is not really how I want to spend my time?
“Don’t say you don’t have enough time,” said H. Jackson Brown. “You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Louis Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”
So it isn’t that we don’t have time, is it? It’s that we spend it otherwise, that we forget how hungry the heart is to connect with the soul of another person who encourages us to be brave and true.
Above our heads are a thousand thousand other suns ringed by a myriad of other little blue and grey and ochre planets, cratered and capped with ice, each one a whole world in itself. In the scheme of things, all the dollars and cents there are don’t really add up to much, do they? Because we are passing away and the big swirling universe will soon forget our place, and all that is not eternal is eternally out of date.
But if I have a friend who speaks to me of what is beyond the both of us, who extends hope to me like a gift and covers over my cracks and gaping split places, how can I pay for that? If I can be a friend like that, does it matter whether they put my name up on a park bench or a boulevard someday? How do we know what it is we want most unless we think about what it is we’ll wish we’d had when we come to the end of all things?
And beyond reason and distance and crises and hurricanes and the change that hurts like dying, there is Friend that sticks closer than a brother, a brother Who never goes away. But how shall we ever come to know Him if we don’t even have time for each other?
The little prince learned it later: how it is a good thing to have had a friend. Even if one is about to die.
“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.
In 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?
I’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.