Sunday, October 19, 2014

Laid to Waste - That Which We Already Know

Chapter 5 (continued) - Laid to Waste

There were many ponds out there in the Nursery – tabletop-sized holes left behind after the occasional harvest of a shrub or sapling – deep enough to hold rainwater throughout all but the driest of summers. In its heyday the workers at Gerhardt Gardens likely filled those holes with new plantings as soon as the space became available. By the time I arrived on the scene, however, business had long been in decline. Nothing was planted by human hands out there during all the years of my childhood, and so those ponds remained year after year – growing wilder and wilder with each passing season.

I got to know those ponds well. Given their number and wide dispersal they could be encountered on virtually any random stroll; but the fact that they were often filled with multitudes of croaking frogs made them attractive destinations in their own right. When I was all alone I’d sit beside one of them, quietly waiting for the life there to either get used to my presence or forget it, as the case may be. Frogs would begin to croak again, birds would return, and dragonflies would glide back in to hover just over the water and light upon the weed-stems at pond’s edge. On those occasions that I visited with a friend, however, it was much more likely that we’d spend our time seeing how many of those frogs we could catch using just our bare hands.

Of course, catching frogs bare-handed requires a fair amount of stillness in and of itself, albeit stillness of a much more intentional nature. One needs to be still and silent and watchful for signs of movement in the shadows and amongst the weeds; but one also needs to be prepared to move quickly and with a precise and steady hand in order to scoop up one’s quarry on the very first attempt, for there will likely not be another for quite some time. Once apprehended, we’d dutifully examine each little being and place it in a big cider jug or something for safekeeping until the hunt was over. In this way we didn’t risk pursuing to exhaustion some hapless frog that otherwise might have ended up getting caught over and over again.

I wish I could say that the frogs’ best interests were always utmost in our minds, but of course I realize now that it might have been even better at times to simply leave them well enough alone. Yes, it’s true that children manifest their wonder at the world by picking things up and touching and examining them. And, yes, ensuring that children have opportunities to manifest their wonder is ultimately crucial to the survival of life on earth. How else will we humans nurture our innate desire to live with it rather than opposed to it? Unfortunately, though, our frog-catching ended up veering far from the realm of wonder and deep into the realm of self-indulgence. It was a gradual transition, to be sure, but once it was complete it was as if a mirror had been thrust up to my face in order to show me what I’d become – separate, wounded, and fallen. Yes, I was still a child, but I was now all too aware of the incredible potential for destruction that lurked deep inside of me.

It was the height of summer. Insects buzzed and flitted about in the still and sweltering air, weeds stood tall in between the rows of trees and shrubs, the frogs out in the many ponds had completely lost their tails, and Mark Patrick and I were busy catching as many of them as we could. It started innocently enough. We set up shop beside a pair of adjacent ponds and proceeded to practice the skills that we’d learned. Things were different this time, though. Our play became a competition, a keeping of score, a determination of a winner and a loser. It took on a more hectic, and then a frenzied pace. Where once we took the time to get to know each and every frog that ended up in the palms of our hands, now we deposited them perfunctorily into our respective pots and turned our attention back to the task at hand. Where once our frog-catching had been an outgrowth of our sense of wonder, now it was merely a game. Where once Mark and I had engaged with a sense of camaraderie this activity that we both enjoyed, now we measured ourselves one against the other and began to grow concerned about the outcome.

I don’t recall who was in the lead when we came to realize that the game was coming to a close by virtue of our having caught nearly every single little frog. We couldn’t be sure of that, though. All we could be sure of was that it was getting harder and harder to find each successive frog that we might catch. Perhaps the slowing pace of our game gave us time to think of a win-win way out of the competitive quandary that we’d gotten ourselves into. We took to discussing how we would actually know when we’d caught every last little frog that we could possibly catch. And that’s when we came up with the idea for the greatest engineering feat of our then short lives. We would bail all the water from one pond into the other, and in doing so we could be certain of having caught each and every last frog, at least in that particular pond. Then came step two. We would dig a trench between the two and drain the now overly full pond back into the just emptied one. We’d keep an eye on the little trench and catch any frogs that tried to use it to escape. Then, when the water levels were equal once again, we’d take to bailing the water back into the other pond – catching all of the remaining frogs in the process. I remember well the final stage of our trench-digging. Mark took to straddling it, deepening almost the entirety of its length with the churning action of his legs and feet. When he was through all we needed to do was dig with some sticks through the remaining few inches of earth in order to set the water flowing.

It sounds very ugly, and, of course, it was. By the time we were done we’d created a pair of muddy pits with all of the vegetation around the perimeter trampled into oblivion. The water was murky and no longer a fit place for all of the frogs that sat waiting patiently for their return. They didn’t yet know that their once happy home had been laid to waste.

I tried not to show it, but I felt sick. I felt shame. I felt dirty – far dirtier than my mud-smeared arms and legs might attest. Mark and I emptied our containers full of frogs in some nearby ponds and parted ways. I walked back home alone with the weight of my deed sinking heavier and heavier onto my shoulders. I didn’t want to go out and play the next day. If I were to return to the Nursery, I would just be reminded of my crime. But neither could I get it off of my mind simply by staying away from the scene. It was an even hotter day than the previous one. The solitary window air-conditioner in our home droned loudly so as to keep at bay the oppressive heat of the outdoors. I lay on the couch beneath it – gazing out at the maple trees in the front yard swaying in the gathering breeze. I was neither inside nor outside. I was nowhere – no longer feeling that I belonged anywhere. There was a storm brewing inside of me. It built in strength as the maples began to pitch and bend. There was a storm brewing outside as well. I couldn’t hear it over the air-conditioner, but I could see it. The sky was growing dark. My mind was growing dark. The universe was displeased with me. I was no longer part of all that was. I was separate, and it was painful. There was no longer anywhere to go. There was no longer anywhere to be.

Image References

Common frog (Rana temporaria) in a pond in Simo, Finland by Estormiz via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Darkness of Childhood - That Which We Already Know

Chapter 5 - The Darkness of Childhood

For the most part in these pages I’ve painted a picture of childhood as a universally idyllic stage of life – a time of incomparable lightness, wonder, and grace; a time of immersion in a natural world from which we’ve not yet declared ourselves separate; a time of freedom from the worldly concerns of self-preservation that await, and a time of freedom from the very idea of a self in need of preservation in the first place. Sure enough, self-awareness is present during our childhood, having begun to precipitate out of the fundamentally fluid nature of human consciousness from the moment we first open our eyes, but it has not yet crystalized into the fragile sense of self-hood that we end up carrying around as if it were a piece of priceless crystal for the remainder of our adult lives.

Of course, I also understand that childhood is not always so idyllic. For some, what light exists must shine through the narrow cracks that open up in between bursts of gunfire and falling bombs. For others, wonder is a luxury that they can scarcely afford in a world where the struggle for self-preservation begins the moment they’ve grown old enough to hold out their hand on a bustling city street or scavenge in the local dump for something to sell or trade for food. For still others, the blossom of childhood grace can’t help but whither – rooted as it is in soil made barren by physical abuse and emotional deprivation. For most of us, though, the darkness of childhood is not so extreme. It falls upon us incrementally as the already fallen adult world beckons with ever-increasing insistence.

My own fall from grace took place in the fairly privileged environs of a middle-class suburban neighborhood. I recall learning for the first time that there are burglars “out there” in the world that break into homes and take things. Most of the time they wait until the people who live there have gone away, but every now and then they’ll break in when someone is still at home. Such an awakening to the darker realities of the world might seem rather quaint from our already fallen perspective, but imagine for a moment (or remember, as the case may be) what it would be like (or was like) to suddenly learn that the world is not really as safe as you’ve come to believe. In, fact, the world can be a downright scary place. I remember the recurring nightmare that followed on the heels of my brand new awareness of that fact: A shadowy face was outside my bedroom window – working with a pry bar to jimmy it open and climb inside. He knew that I was there, but he didn’t care. I had something that he wanted and he was going to take it.

Some readers may have little patience for such tales of innocence lost given all of the hardship in the world today. After all, we all need to learn the ways of the world some time, don’t we? It’s dangerous “out there” and it would be irresponsible for us to let our children grow up without ever learning of the danger that potentially awaits them. Indeed, but this is also how our self-awareness further crystalizes into something brittle and fragile; for along with our newfound realization that there are forces “out there” that can do us harm “in here” comes the investment of psychic energy into the erection and maintenance of the boundary between the two. As such, the pace of our fall begins to quicken.

I can already hear what some parents of young children might be thinking: You mean we should raise our children in protective cocoons and then throw them out into the harsh, cruel world without any tools or defenses? No, I don’t think that we should do that. We are a fallen species. We’ve created a fallen world, and each of us in some measure helps to perpetuate it. Yes, we need to wake up to the harm caused by our over-developed sense of self and, yes, there might be some ways to give our children a head start in that regard, but that doesn’t mean that we should “throw them to the wolves.” Maybe all it means is that we look for ways to keep our children from falling as hard and as far as we have fallen; and they, in turn, might be able to do so for their children. In the meantime, though, we’ve got to gain a better understanding of the nature of our own fall. Toward that end, allow me continue.

I had yet another recurring nightmare as a child: There were dinosaurs out there on the horizon. I could hear them roaring and howling in the night. I could hear the destruction that they wrought just beyond the Nursery’s eastern boundary. Homes crumbled and trees crashed to the ground. It must have been deafening for those in the midst of it, for it was loud enough for me tucked a mile away in the safety of my bed. Hopefully they would stop before they got to the Nursery and our little neighborhood on its western boundary. If not, perhaps they would at least veer in another direction like a storm blown by the winds of its very own fury.

Of course, I can now see quite clearly what brought on this second nightmare. Although one might think it would have been inspired by an accidental viewing of a Godzilla movie, I actually don’t think so. Our television viewing was pretty closely guarded in our family; such scary movies would have been off limits to us at the time. I’m inclined, instead, to think that what inspired my nightmare was what inspired the creator of Godzilla in the first place – namely, the conflation of the erstwhile reality of the dinosaurs with the present day reality of a natural order that has been thrown off-kilter by the actions of humankind. No, I didn’t yet know of the nightmare of nuclear radiation, but I was learning about the “terrible lizards” of long ago, and I was learning of the destructive power that can be let loose in our very own neighborhood right here and now. I’d seen with my own eyes just across the street how the earth movers tore through the tree roots and deep into the earth. I’d seen our vineyard playground churned under their tracks for the sake of something new.

Apparently one never knew when such things might happen, and one never had any say whatsoever when they did. Our beloved realm, the Nursery, might be similarly plowed under. After all, it was not really ours at all. The Gerhardt’s owned it and could do with it what they pleased. It was all very troubling to me.

Yes, I was a sensitive child; but, then again, was I really any more sensitive than any other? Perhaps I simply recall those tender years with greater clarity than many others might. My burgeoning awareness of the workings of the world – the reality of “progress,” the destructive potential inherent in even its most ordinary endeavors – only hinted at the potential destruction yet to come. As I alluded to in the very first chapter, the Vietnam War would soon be looming just over my horizon and the realization that I could be plucked from my home by the powers that be in order to be dropped into a jungle with a machine gun in my hand would begin to cloak my mind in darkness. The world outside was truly frightening. It feigned civility, but that civility was but a mask behind which lurked its true horror. Nothing was as sacred as it was out there in the Nursery. Nothing was inviolable. Nothing could be counted on to ever stay the same. Nothing could be counted on but myself. Nothing could ever save me but myself.

Image References

Tyrannosaurus edited by the author from the original by Mistvan via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sufficiency - That Which We Already Know

With this post I return to the book that I've been working on here on these pages: That Which We Already Know...


I can’t remember ever calling one of my younger childhood friends in order to see if they could come out and playplay being a word that encompassed everything from actually playing a game of some sort to simply sitting on a sewer lid scratching words onto the concrete with limestone pebbles. It’s not that we didn’t know how to use the telephone; we did. It’s just that such a device seemed an inappropriately contrived way to reach out to a friend just down the street. Instead, we simply walked on down the street and stood outside whatever door they most commonly used, calling out “Oh, so-and-so!” in a sort of half droning, half sing-songy voice that started at a higher pitch and ended with whatever bass note we could muster.

It was different with my friend, Mark Patrick, though. Mark lived with his younger half-brother, Joe Bowen, in a two-family flat just down the way from Gerhardt’s mansion, and two houses up from the stone yard that we used to visit from time to time. Perhaps I wasn’t certain that the ritual for reaching out to a friend was understood by others who didn’t live on our tiny lane. Perhaps I wasn’t convinced that Mark’s parents would appreciate it – never having met them, or even seen them from afar. Instead, we simply met up with each other in the same way that we first met – out there in the Nursery, whenever the forces of the universe happened to put us in close enough proximity.

Mark and Joe and I went to the same school. Mark was a couple of grades ahead of me and Joe, but despite that being the case it was he and I who were the closer friends. We met out there in the Nursery after all, a reality that trumped whatever social conventions might keep kids from other grades from hanging out with each other on the schoolyard. In the Nursery things followed the laws of nature – existing when conditions were appropriate, ceasing to exist when conditions became otherwise. That is what made our friendship so special, but it is also what made it come to an end so abruptly. For a couple of summers, however, Mark was my favorite friend to hang around with. We’d explore and climb trees and catch frogs and such, and we would do so as kindred spirits – born of the natural forces that still swirled out there in the Nursery.

I only remember visiting Mark’s apartment one time. His parents weren’t home at the time, which might very well have been the only reason for me being invited inside. Joe was elsewhere as well. Come to think of it, I don't recall ever seeing Joe out there in the Nursery. Anyway, Mark and I quietly made our way up a long and narrow side stairway that bypassed the lower level completely and deposited us onto a landing that opened onto a hallway and a collection of rooms that seemed like a veritable ocean of worn hardwood flooring and white plaster walls. Mark led me to the room that he and Joe shared. It contained a bunk bed and little else save for what I recall was a stack of books and notebooks sitting on the floor in one of the corners. The window would have overlooked the little ball field where we played our games of Indian ball, and the meadow rolling down to the nether reaches of our domain. It was summer at the time, though, and the leaves on the trees at the back of the house hindered such an expansive view.

I knew little to nothing about what the rest of Mark’s life was like, but I recall being enchanted with what I perceived as the simplicity of his life. He had the Nursery, and he had a bunk bed from which he could see it once autumn came and the leaves fell from the trees. There was no unnecessary stuff or clutter. All was quiet and calm. At least that was how it seemed to me. Perhaps I was destined to discover Zen in my adulthood, for in adulthood I would attend meditation retreats held in an old Catholic monastery with quarters that were more lavishly appointed than those in which Mark and Joe lived. And yet it was all so gorgeously sufficient, and I felt so wonderfully at home.

Living things thrive when conditions are sufficient. A seed needs but a little soil and moisture and light in order to do what the wind blew it there to do. Children, likewise, thrive when surrounded with just enough to nurture their own imaginations more so than when they are inundated with abundance born of the imaginings of others. I needed a natural area in which to wander about and wonder, as did Mark. That was sufficient to our wellbeing. It was sufficient for us to have such a place as the Nursery and the occasion out there from time to time to happen upon each other in order that a friendship between us might thrive. It was sufficient for us to meet every now and then to rekindle our mutual appreciation of all that existed out there in our domain. It was sufficient for us to share what we had together in the moment rather than getting into stories of what it was like to have a half-brother, or to live upstairs from an altogether different family, or how the amount of stuff that I had was more than the amount of stuff that he had.

We adults tend to confuse sufficiency with poverty. “These accommodations are merely sufficient,” we might say, or “this meal is barely sufficient to satisfy my hunger.” Sufficiency, on the other hand, is precisely what stands between existence and non-existence. As such, it is a special place. It is the sufficiency of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi. It is a doorway through which awareness enters. The sufficiency of accommodations during a monastic retreat is precisely what it is required in order to make a visit even the slightest bit worthwhile, and the sufficiency of resources during a child’s formative years is precisely what nurtures creativity and imagination. Children, however, in attending to only what is before them in any given moment, have no conception of sufficiency, even as they are nestled within its embrace – or perhaps especially so. For a child, sufficiency is abundance, for it is precisely what is required. It is the adult mind that measures and compares and starts making value judgments about things and circumstances that begins to cast a wary eye upon sufficiency.

Image References

Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
All other images are the author’s

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank