On The Precipice - That Which We Already Know
The closing paragraph of the previous post ended as follows:
The wisdom of our childhood lies somewhere in between the oneness of early infancy and the hardened sense of self that we create after the fall. We don’t think of ourselves as wise at the time, though. Instead, we think of wisdom as something that older people possess – after having lived a long, long time and after having gone to school a long, long time. But it is precisely the absence of belief that she possesses anything at all that makes the wisdom of the child all the more exquisite and profound.
Part I, Chapter 2 – After The Fall (second continuation)
Yes, but where did that child go? At times we speak as if the spirit of the child that we once were has taken leave, perhaps to dwell in an alternative universe somewhere. At other times we speak as if that child is still within us, buried deep beneath the psychic rubble that piles up in the unconscious mind in the course of constructing the adult self. However, both of these ideas are merely creations of the adult mind, projecting its current conceptualization of self-hood into the past. It might be more accurate instead to think of life as a “fountaining forth” from the ground of existence as conditions present themselves, and a passing away as those conditions subside. When we look at a fountain rising up out of a pool of water we perceive solidity where there is really just a continuous rising and falling of water. To be sure, we humans are so much more complex and longer lasting in the relative sense, but the principle is the same. From moment to moment and day to day the cells of our body arise and pass away, then to be replaced by others in a dynamic process that maintains the appearance of static existence at any particular point in time.
This fountaining forth continues throughout our lifetime, gradually changing over time such that the infant becomes the child, the child the youth, and the youth the adult – one transitioning into another so seamlessly as to be without demarcation. So it is not so much the case that the child is gone as it is that consciousness continues moment to moment with “eyes” that change ever so gradually over time. For just as our physical eyes can become distorted with cataracts and other obscurations, thereby drawing attention to themselves instead of the view that exists outside, so our vision of the world becomes distorted with belief and conceptualization, fear and desire. And, yes, these distortions relate precisely to the emergence of self-awareness that I’ve been speaking of thus far.
The wisdom of childhood, then, is that period of time during the course of our development – our fountaining forth into existence – when our relative independence of movement combined with our “clarity of vision” allows us to explore and examine and experience our environment and our relationship to it in the fullest possible way. The wisdom of childhood is the fully integrated wisdom of body and mind rather than something merely intellectual. I’ll delve further into the wisdom of childhood, as well as this “clarity of vision” in a subsequent chapter. For now, though, let me close this one by returning once again to the Eden of my childhood, on a sweltering summer day…
It was one of those afternoons when prudent people stay indoors, out of the scorching sun and oppressive heat. Any outside chores that needed doing had been done earlier that morning, making the neighborhood seem strangely deserted long before the arrival of lunchtime. On another day we might have spent the afternoon digging a hole somewhere, big enough to hold us all within its earthy cool embrace. We might have perched ourselves in the shaded arms of that welcoming box elder tree just beyond our back gate, or puttered around in the vicinity of that stormwater drainage ditch threading its way between the hall of climbing oaks and the airy stand of birch trees. Heaven forbid, we might have even stayed indoors – perhaps begging our way into the home of the pretty older girl down the street that we might marvel at the shoebox full of quartz gemstones that she kept tucked away in the coolness of her basement. On this particular day, however, I was left to my own devices; and doing what I did best I loosed the latch on the backyard gate and started walking.
Now, children don’t really take walks, do they? Taking walks is something that we adults do – with a destination and a route in mind, and a reason and many thoughts in mind as well. Children, on the other hand, become their walks, completely and effortlessly integrating their body/mind with the environment. Such is the wisdom of children. And so it was that I embarked, living out the reality that there was nothing else to do. I hopped the drainage ditch and skirted the backs of three yards, stopping to look at the cucumbers growing through the chain link fence of a fourth before veering into the Nursery’s interior. It was hot and stifling, still and silent – save for the occasional crackling sound of a grasshopper’s wings as it half leaped and half flew up the path in front of me, or the rustling of a field sparrow flitting about in the underbrush off to the side of the trail.
There would be days – after my fall, that is – when I would come to associate such solitude on a sweltering summer day with loneliness or sadness or boredom. But with the wisdom of a child I simply settled into that which was, feeling that which was without trying to name it or explain it or change it. Yes, I was alone and nothing much was happening, but by becoming as still and quiet as my surroundings any world that was “supposed” to be faded away and the one right in front of me began to reveal itself. Streams of red bugs made their way up and down the weed stalks… A cabbage butterfly danced upon the humid air… A box turtle crunched slowly through the leaf litter beneath a cluster of saplings… A spider waited as if dead in the middle of its web… With curiosity and wonder I observed my world in all of its varied abundance. It was a world of fruit and flower, root and stalk and leaf. It slithered and crawled and swam and flew. It was sky above and earth below. It was sticky and resiny, and soft and smooth. It was sweet and fragrant, and dry and dusty. It was more ways to be than could possibly be imagined – each unique, and each one somehow part of all the others.
I could have stayed in that world forever, but I had my time as well. Whether thirst or hunger or fatigue, at least one of them would send me home eventually – there to rest and ready myself for the evening. For sweltering summer days have their time, too; as did everyone who’d hid away in the shadows all day long. And so it was that after dinner, with the sun going down and the air growing cooler, the neighborhood came alive as if it were greeting a brand new morning. The adults returned to working in their yards or hosing down their concrete driveways or sitting on their porches talking, and we children took to riding our bikes up and down the street and sidewalks, ducking in and out of driveways, and chasing each other in bursts of activity.
As the twilight deepened our play reached an even more heightened level of immediacy. The cicadas were droning loudly and the fireflies were blinking brightly and our mothers had begun to call us home. Fifteen minutes was about all the time I had. How should I spend it? Should I ride the trails that I’d just walked that afternoon, this time in near darkness? I’d never done that before, but it suddenly seemed like the most totally right thing to do. And so I wheeled my bike through the backyard and out the back gate and into the strangely familiar unknown.
I picked up speed on the trail between the birches and the white cedars so that by the time I passed the sinkhole I was riding like the wind, with bats tracing spastic circles in the twilit sky, and fireflies flickering like tiny tea lights all around. Of course I knew the path by heart – every dip and turn and root – but riding in near darkness was brand new to me, and my heart was pounding in my chest. Then, as I passed the dark and thorny grove of honey locusts, the trail became as I’d never known, mysterious and alive – as if it somehow knew me and awaited my arrival at every turn. The trees and underbrush, the rocks and grass seemed to reach out to me from darkness as I passed.
I’d never felt fear in the Nursery before, except for those times when I’d found myself climbing too high up into one of the great climbing oaks, or that time I almost got stuck up on the barn roof. It took me by surprise and made me wonder what was happening. Whereas at the beginning of my ride I’d raced like the wind on account of the sheer joy of being alive, now I turned the pedals furiously in an attempt to keep from being seen until I’d passed. Onward through the darkness I raced, as the trail twisted and dipped and launched me into the air – catching me and launching me again and again until my neighborhood and my family, my warm bath and soft bed finally caught me one last time. But as I nodded off to sleep that night I knew that there was something different about that ride – something that I would never, ever forget.
End Chapter 2
Author-enhanced photograph of boy in tree via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank