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.

 

On That Always Aching Wound

OH MY GOSH, I want him to stay little!” a little girl wails in a viral video that has been making its rounds this week. Sadie has just learned that her baby brother is going to grow up, and it’s too much to take in tranquility. The look of stunned injury on her face has garnered over 21 million views on youtube, and certainly some laughter, but I expect I’m not the only one who feels something else too: a sort of cold, sick loneliness, anyone? The unutterable tragedy that just when everything is exquisitely right, everything is emphatically wrong.

It’s not even funny,” said my sister. “Except that you have to laugh, or you’re going to cry.

Because somehow this hysterical sorrow isn’t ridiculous, isn’t misplaced. Somehow it’s just exactly what the situation calls for.

And I don’t want to die when I’m a hundre-e-e-e-e-e-ed,” Sadie sobs. It’s that kind of grief that can’t be fixed or forgotten. On the other side of it, something has been shattered forever.

Or has it?

In Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis has something to say about this, something that reads almost as if it was written for this exact drama – simply because this exact drama plays out in everyone, troubles all of us:

Fish Out of Water

Hence our hope finally to emerge, if not altogether from time (that might not suit our humanity) at any rate from the tyranny, the unilinear poverty, of time, to ride it not to be ridden by it, and so to cure that always aching wound which mere succession and mutability inflict on us, almost equally when we are happy and when we are unhappy. For we are so little reconciled with time that we are even astonished at it. “How he’s grown!” we exclaim, “How time flies!” as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.

In the bitterest book of the sixty-six, there’s this:

He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their hearts.

So if I could say a few words to Sadie, I would say, Little Girl, never grow out of your deep discontentment. “Wrestle with the Not Yetness of things. With the good, broken, incompleteness of everything.

As my friend Sam also says, It is what it is. But it is not what it shall be.

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.]

The Only One Whom We Know There

Having Decided To Stay - Bryana Johnson - The Only One Whom We Know There - Globe - Island of the World“Come now, curse this people, since they are too mighty for me,” the Moabite ruler Balak entreated the prophet Balaam. He was afraid of the people of Israel, for the Lord was with them and “for them like the horns of the wild ox.” He would pay handsomely for an enchantment against the enemies closing in around him. There was a serious detour involving an eloquent donkey, which, as we all know, put a kink in the schedule temporarily. Then Balaam spoke these words over the people of Israel:

“How can I curse whom God has not cursed?
How can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?
For from the top of the crags I see him,
from the hills I behold him;
behold, a people dwelling alone,
and not counting itself among the nations!”

Much has changed since the children of Israel wandered as strangers in a strange land, but the people of God are still sojourners, still wanderers. Still not tied to any nation or its flag, to any loyalty but the love of Christ. And “all those homes were not ours.”

We live in them, though. We live in them and must work to pay for them and furnish them and clean them and eat in them and own a quiet place in them to sleep. Sometimes our lives in them are so constricted, our worlds so small, that we fail to be conscious of the invisible Kingdom which knows no barriers of ocean or distance, which claims all our allegiance. If we’re not taking every thought captive in the war-zone of the world, it’s easy to forget where we come from.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne wrote in one of his journals of the way that the familiar shuts out the holy:

“A foreign land draws us nearer to God. He is the only one whom we know here. We go to Him as to one we know; all else is strange. Every step I take, and every new country I see, makes me feel more that there is nothing real, nothing true, but what is everlasting.”

The great challenge is to live as foreigners in the land of our birth, as representatives of another kingdom in a land that we wish to root ourselves in, to embrace. The great challenge is to be on the green globe and not of it. To love its streets and its asphalt jungles, its high, cloud-scraping hills, its weary and near-sighted citizens, its flags and its colors, its sad, grim history – and yet love even better the place we are coming home to and which we have never seen.