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.

 

we are also from somewhere else

Cottage034
FREDERICK BUECHNER, Telling The Truth: “If with part of ourselves we are men and women of the world and share the sad unbeliefs of the world, with a deeper part, still, the part where our best dreams come from, it is as if we were indeed born yesterday, or almost yesterday, because we are also all of us children still. No matter how forgotten and neglected, there is a child in all of us who is not just willing to believe in the possibility that maybe fairy tales are true after all, but who is to some degree in touch with that truth. You pull the shade on the snow falling, white on white, and the child comes to life for a moment. There is a fragrance in the air, a certain passage of a song, an old photograph falling out from the pages of a book, the sound of somebody’s voice in the hall that makes your heart leap and fills your eyes with tears. Who can say when or how it will be that something easters up out of the dimness to remind us of a time before we were born and after we will die? The child in us lives in a world where nothing is too familiar or unpromising to open up into the world where a path unwinds before our feet into a deep wood, and when that happens, neither the world we live in nor the world that lives in us can ever entirely be home again.”

[Disclaimer: This painting is a replica I did a few years ago, based off of a piece by Thomas Kinkade.]

On Ringbearing & Abiding & 2013

The Lord of The Rings - Bryana Johnson - Having Decided To StayYesterday was the seventh time that my house has welcomed the New Year with the sounds of the battle at the gates of Minas Tirith thundering in the living room. Yes, we watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy into the morning of every New Year’s Day. We have done it on two continents and in three houses and always heralded the event with much jubilation and adrenaline and hype and this is a practice that has blessed my life in probably more ways than I even know.

My history with Tolkien and his colossal epic goes back about nine years, to when I read the books at the age of twelve, along with my sister, and came away from watching The Fellowship of the Ring to find that the whole world felt different. And the world has never been quite the same since.

Cloak - Having Decided To Stay - LOTR - Bryana JohnsonAt first it was the sheer wonder of the story and the way that it opened doors on a world unlike and apart from this one – a fairytale of cosmic proportions. We were children, and our own world was still such a small place to us. The stories were bigger and told of a bigger world. We wanted to incorporate that world into every area of our own. We played the movie soundtracks day and night and read and reread the books. We crafted costumes and wore them unashamedly. At 6:00 AM on cold mornings we slipped out to the woods alone to walk among graceful, imaginary elves and ambush orcs. Also, we worked hard to construct a place where we could convey our experience to the world. It was all just a little ridiculous – in a delicious and enchanting way.

Later, though, those things began to change. We began to grow up and to grow into this poor, old, glory-haunted world. It was not that our love for the stories grew less, but that the love morphed into a different thing, a deeper, stronger, realer thing. We no longer loved Middle-Earth because it was set apart from and better than the world we happen to inhabit. We began to love it because it is the world we inhabit. Just as Tolkien always intended it to be. And we must inhabit it more and more and more.

As I keep growing up, walking more erect, putting away more of the childish things, I find I love these stories deeper in my marrow every year. Every year I find something new to marvel at, and every year this fictional world has something new to tell me about this very real world, every year this fictional war seems to have even greater bearing on this very real war that is closing in on every side. Every year the stories seem just a little more like truth.

Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one,” wrote the German poet Novalis. This sentence has been utter nonsense to me for most of my life. This year, though, I wish to shake the man’s hand quite heartily and congratulate him on his good sense in making such an admirable statement.

The thing about The Lord of the Rings (so I thought, last night, when we were just a few minutes into the first movie) is that it takes place in a world that looks very like the way the real world really looks.

For instance, Tolkien has crafted some people who are very much enamored of the light and of the truth and of beauty. They have strong power at their disposal, because the Ruler listens to them. We have such people in our own world also, and it is to be hoped that we are all aspiring to be among them, but – alas! – to my eyes and to your eyes they don’t all walk with a steady and measured tread and silver in their hair and a tangible grace seeping from their fingertips.

Perhaps, however, they do walk this way in the eyes of God. And the view from the eyes of God is the only definition of reality. Perhaps Tolkien was attempting to force this reality onto our own sight. Perhaps his intention was to fashion a world where the realest things are visible. Whether he thought of it in those terms or not, in some measure, at least, he succeeded in doing that very thing.

I believe it is this that makes these stories like a dream we are waking into, like a reality that is realer than all of the real around us.

In some circles it seems that New Year’s resolutions are going out of style. A number of very intelligent and godly people are writing about how they are not writing out any New Year’s resolutions this year. We are all going to stumble some this year, is part of their reasoning. We are all going to crash headlong in the dirt and fail to keep our promises and look back disappointed at the end of 2013. The important thing is to keep going forward, to keep growing stronger, to keep growing closer to Christ, to keep growing up. They have a point there.

I have been naming my new years since 2008. It is a sort of open-ended New Year’s resolution, like a flag-planting before a battle. There was the Year of Great Awakening first, and the Year of Victory came close on its heels. There was the Year of Glory after that and behind it the Year of Prayer and Shadowfeet. There was the year of Adoration. There has been a host of spectacular titles in my history.

But the only words that really matter are the ones we really live, and mostly my years have not been overwhelming successes but have been a series of little awakenings, a process of growing up, of coming to understand things, and coming to accept the fact that I cannot understand everything. And while growing up is a miracle all in its own right, it is not wrong to be dissatisfied with this sort of life, to insist on pressing in harder and to keep making promises, even though we are far too small and too frail to see them through.

We serve a God of grand promises and great expectations and the issue of our frailty is not a hindrance to Him. Indeed, it is almost a requirement.

God creates out of nothing, so until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him,” wrote Martin Luther. How much of our disappointed history is a result of the fact that we are not little enough, not helpless enough, that we must become less if Jesus is to become great?

It is all too easy to fall prey to the temptation to expect less of God, to make His promises less than they are, to forget that we who are lowly and uninitiated and powerless Halflings have been summoned to walk like Elven queens and princes, trailing glory and holding authority on our tongues. But sometimes the source of our doubting is our refusal to accept that we are those impotent and childish little hobbits, that it is only His grace which can pour out of our fingers, roll off our tongues, lift our eyes.

For this reason I am not afraid to name another year by another splendid and lavish title, to declare again that great glory shall be worked out of my days. Because the title I have chosen this year is one which I hope lowers me into the place where I belong, which invites Him to occupy preeminence.

I have named my new year The Year of Abiding.

To abide is to dwell, and I wish to abide this year, and forever after, in some things which are easily forgotten, and which the epic of The Rings always underscores with brilliance. I wish to abide in the clear and present knowledge of the war that is all around, to abide in the royalty that has been gifted to me, to abide in the dream that is realer than the world itself, the dream that is coming true.

I will not do all of these things all the time, however much I wish it at this moment. I will be stopping short sometimes in thick woods and owning myself thoroughly lost. I will be falling sometimes into puddles, lakes, and quarries. I will be sometimes huddling in a forlorn heap and saying no, I am done with this. When these things come about,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Such is my own prayer for the year we are just stepping into, like the carol over the cradle of the Christ,

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
close by me forever, and love me, I pray.

But it means something else also. The abidan, gebidan words in Old English carried a meaning of waiting, of remaining behind. To abide is to wait. And so the supplication of abide with me is a prayer that cries

stay with me, live with me, OH! might you please wait with me?

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully, even as I am fully known. (-1 Corinthians 13:12)