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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Buechner and Childhood

When he was 10 years old, Frederick Buechner woke one morning to the news that his father had committed suicide. When he reflects on his life, Buechner talks of that morning as being the moment when "time" started. For in that moment came the dreaded confirmation that there were indeed things in life that could not be solved with the comforting word of a loved one or by the embrace of a grand-parent. All time before that moment, Buechner calls "below time". Below time is childhood's time, a time when life is appreciated for what it is, rather than for when it will end.

"For a child, all time is by and large 'now time' and is apparently endless. What child while summer is happening, bothers to think much that that summer will end. What child while snow is on the ground, stops to remember that the ground was once snowless. It's by its content rather than its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity. Happy times and sad times. The time that a rabbit bit your finger. The time you first tasted bananas and cream, the time you were crying yourself to sleep and someone came and lay beside you in the dark, for comfort.

Childhood's time is Adam and Eve's time, before they left the garden forever and from that point on divided everything into 'before' and 'after'. It's the time before God told them that the day would come when they would surely die, with the result that from that point on they made clocks and calendars for counting out their time like money and never again lived through a day of their lives without being haunted, somewhere in the depths of themselves, by the knowledge that each day brought them closer to the end of their lives.

Summers end, to be sure. And when the sun finally burns out like a match, summer will end for good. But be that as it way, it can never be otherwise than that there was a time when summers were. It can never be otherwise than that fifty years ago, on some July or August day at dusk, I raced as a child through fireflies across a green lawn, and in some way, with the insight of a child, sensed that that moment would never cease. What was true in my childhood belief that time would go on forever was that once a moment has come into being, its "having beeness" is beyond any power in heaven or on earth, in life or in death to touch.

And the people I knew as a child, my parents and grand parents, my brothers, the nurses that came and went, the teachers and friends, the characters in the books I read, I saw them all in very much the same way as boundless. It never crossed my mind that there had been a time before they were, or that there would come a time when they would be no longer. They were the Atlas's who held the world on their shoulders, held my world, held me, and their heads towered above the clouds. As with time I hadn't yet acquired the fateful skill of standing off from them to weigh and measure. I knew them not for whoever they were in themselves, but for whoever they were for me. Mummy, Daddy, Grandpa Kune, Grandma Neya. The names they had were the names that, like Adam, I gave them. And through these new names I gave them, I gave them new selves to be. I made my father a father, my mother a mother. And what they were apart from me I no more knew or cared than I knew or cared what the world had been before I appeared in it, or what the ocean was like when I wasn't there to feel the waves suck the sand out from under my feet...

...Home was not a place to me as a child. Home was people. How they live on, for all of us, those giants of a childhood. How well they take even death in their stride. Because although death can put an end to them right enough, it can never put an end to our relationship with them. Wherever or however else they might have come to light since, it's beyond a doubt they live still in us...

...Any house where my father and mother were, was home to me. But for that very reason, whenever they left, even for a day, even for an hour, it was home no longer, but a house with walls as frail as paper, and a roof as fragile as glass. My fear was that they would never come back.

I knew nothing more of death then than what I had learned from the slippery green frog that my friends and I tossed between us by the legs until it broke and its slippery life spilled out, and nothing more of darkness than the night. I'd never lost anything that I didn't know would be replaced if I really needed it by those that I loved, and I'd never been hurt beyond the power of a word of comfort to heal.

But whenever my mother and father left, taking home with them, I knew that hurt, loss, darkness, death could flatten that house in seconds. And to a degree that I had no way of knowing, and in a way that I couldn't possibly guess, I was of course right."

If Buechner's childhood was like Adam and Eve's time in Eden, that fateful morning when he woke to the news of his father's death was Buechner's fall from grace. But what I find hauntingly profound in Buechner's recount is that even in the magical, legendary land "below time", where the concept of time as having a finite duration is yet to be fully comprehended, there is nonetheless an awareness, albeit a very dim and distant one, that it is perhaps just possible that Eden will not last forever and that when it ends, the resulting world is one filled with as yet unknown sources of sadness: hurt, loss, and incredible, penetrating darkness. So that even in that land "below time", we are capable of grieving for the loss of our childlike innocence before we are even made aware of its very existence, or indeed the fact that it might not exist forever. We grieve for something we cannot know or fully understand, other than with our dimmest "below time" understanding of it, so that, when the source of that grief is confirmed, and we realise that our time spent "below time" was in fact always going to come to an end, we grieve again at the devastating confirmation of that truth, and at our prior unawareness of it, and perhaps most devastatingly of all, at the fact that things will never again be as they were in that now most precious of times: "below time".

1 comment:

Laura Demay said...

Thank you for that post James. I thought of sharing that poem when I read your lines. Here is a little something to complete your words:

Song of Childhood
By Peter Handke

When the child was a child
It walked with its arms swinging,
wanted the brook to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.

When the child was a child,
it didn’t know that it was a child,
everything was soulful,
and all souls were one.

When the child was a child,
it had no opinion about anything,
had no habits,
it often sat cross-legged,
took off running,
had a cowlick in its hair,
and made no faces when photographed.

When the child was a child,
It was the time for these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?
Is what I see and hear and smell
not just an illusion of a world before the world?
Given the facts of evil and people.
does evil really exist?
How can it be that I, who I am,
didn’t exist before I came to be,
and that, someday, I, who I am,
will no longer be who I am?

When the child was a child,
It choked on spinach, on peas, on rice pudding,
and on steamed cauliflower,
and eats all of those now, and not just because it has to.

When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again.
Many people, then, seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by sheer luck.

It had visualized a clear image of Paradise,
and now can at most guess,
could not conceive of nothingness,
and shudders today at the thought.

When the child was a child,
It played with enthusiasm,
and, now, has just as much excitement as then,
but only when it concerns its work.

When the child was a child,
It was enough for it to eat an apple, … bread,
And so it is even now.

When the child was a child,
Berries filled its hand as only berries do,
and do even now,
Fresh walnuts made its tongue raw,
and do even now,
it had, on every mountaintop,
the longing for a higher mountain yet,
and in every city,
the longing for an even greater city,
and that is still so,
It reached for cherries in topmost branches of trees
with an elation it still has today,
has a shyness in front of strangers,
and has that even now.
It awaited the first snow,
And waits that way even now.

When the child was a child,
It threw a stick like a lance against a tree,
And it quivers there still today.