The Lost Country

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I like to write about childhood, for different reasons. There were times when everything was perfect, like when I was 7-9 years old and my family lived in a serene (then) and beautiful neighborhood in Santa Monica, California. My best friend lived a few houses away, my piano teacher lived on the opposite corner, my babysitter was just down the street, and my first crush, a blonde, freckle-faced cutie named Linda Coss, lived at the bottom of the street in the only pink house in the whole neighborhood. Flowers perpetually smiled through the white picket fence surrounding her garden, and bluebirds and butterflies circled above her room constantly. (In my memory, anyway.)

We moved fifteen times before I was fifteen years old. Some kids are given the tools to be okay with that. I wasn’t one of them. Perpetually the new kid, and very small in stature (one of my older brother’s nicknames for me was “Pail and Frail”), I got bullied a lot. I resented my parents for disrupting my life every year or two because they were unhappy, and blamed them for everything that went wrong. I was like a sapling getting yanked out of the soil every time I started putting down roots. As a result, I grew more confused and angry as my teenage years came along, eventually developing severe shyness and low self-esteem. The bullies had accomplished what they wanted to do to me.

When I got out of high school and got my first car, I would often drive to that old neighborhood and walk around. Of all the neighborhoods we lived in, that was the one that felt like home to me. It was where my “wonder years” happened. But it wasn’t the same, of course. Everyone I knew as a child had moved. Other people lived in our house. I resented them, even though we moved out over ten years earlier. My brother had become a heroin addict, my father was cut down to skin and bone by cancer, my high school girlfriend had an abortion that killed me spiritually, and I had no college or career aspirations. In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to do or be. This all caused a desire as overwhelming as it was unrealistic – to go back to the time when everything was still ahead of me and my family, when no mistakes had been made yet. I was like a ghost haunting my own life too early.

As I got older and started writing, childhood was one of my favorite subjects. It still is. They say writing is living twice. Maybe that’s why. I’m still trying to find what I lost, fix what was broken, and relive the moments when everything was perfect. Moments of pure joy, like when I saw Santa Claus fly right over my house while laying on my front lawn. I even heard the reindeer bells. Or my best friend Dana and I sitting in trees and rooftops with walkie-talkie’s, pretending the neighbors walking below were enemy spies. Or making gelatinous bugs and snakes in our Mattel Thing-Maker oven, then scaring the girls on the street with them. Or watching Sci-Fi movies in chair-and-blanket forts while stuffing our faces with candy. Or my teenage babysitter Shirley arriving with a handful of toys and puzzles for my brother and I to play with. As the saying goes, “God was in His universe and all was right with the world.” 

While reading a book by Gail Carson Levine called Writing Magic – Creating Stories That Fly, I came across a perfect description of the desire to somehow access childhood again through writing. She wrote:

“I used to think, long ago, that when I grew up, I’d remember what it felt like to be a child and that I’d always be able to get back to my child self. But I can’t. When you become a teenager, you step onto a bridge. You may already be on it. The opposite shore is adulthood. Childhood lies behind. The bridge is made of wood. As you cross, it burns behind you. If you save what you write, you still won’t be able to cross back to childhood. But you’ll be able to see yourself in that lost country. You’ll be able to wave to yourself across that wide river. Whether or not you continue to write, you will be glad to have the souvenirs of your earlier self.”

I’m a father of two girls now, three and six years old. They are bringing the magic back to me. Before I became a dad, I used to be annoyed when parents would say “Really? Wow!” to their young children with false enthusiasm in response to something nonsensical they had just said. But I get it now. Today, my youngest daughter said to me, very excitedly, “Jelly Bean has a tail!” and I found myself saying, “Really? Wow!” Still not wanting to be one of “those” parents, however, I asked her to explain the comment. But her answer confused me even more.

I concluded that saying “Really? Wow!” is actually a very wise admission, a surrender to the fact that children live in a world grown-up’s are not allowed in. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet –

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Not wanting to give up so easily, I asked my daughter if I could go with her to her world, to visit Jelly Bean and see his tail. She said, “Yes, daddy!” very exuberantly. We walked across the room, sat down and played for a while, despite the spaces between us – between her innocence and my world-weariness, her perfectly unfettered joy and my comfortless logic. But still, all I could do is watch her in wonder and envy at the delicious irresponsibility and frivolity of her life, a frivolity I encourage and protect. The bubble of childhood will pop soon enough, and always too early.

In his song Too Many Angels, Jackson Browne wrote:

There are photographs of children
all in their silver frames
on the windowsills and tabletops
lit by candle flames.
And upon their angel faces,
life’s expectations climb
as the moment has preserved them
from the ravages of time.”

I did not begin to let go of my childhood until I had children of my own. How could I when only my life concerned me? Their effortless ability to save me from endless reminiscing was and still is my salvation. Their future is more important to me now than my own, or my past. I’ll still visit it in my writing, but with far less aching melancholy because now, anytime I need to see what joy is, I just have to find them and watch them play. I will not allow my restlessness to uproot my little saplings. I will not allow any unhappiness I feel to disrupt theirs.

My Girls

They bring out the best in me. They sharpen my focus. They motivate me to pass the point where I stopped before. I want them to be proud of me and the work I do, but they are the reason for all of it. And if I were to fail as a parent, nothing else I ever accomplish would matter much.

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Holocaust

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The white dove again lies maimed and bleeding.
Statistics, cold and hard to fathom,
tally the losses of one more day.
Horror and heartbreak between weather and sports.

But I don’t cry anymore
when the newsman tells his tales
of death and destruction.
In some worlds, death can be a blessing.

I don’t cry anymore when I learn
that another child has been slaughtered
because I know my tears would be useless
and tainted with hypocrisy.

I don’t cry because I know
that the murders I hear about
night after night
from the warmth and safety of my living room
are only the final, minor deaths.
Deaths of the flesh.
The true carnage took place long ago
when their young spirits were abandoned
to wither and fade
like unattended gardens in a desolate place
where beauty is buried too deeply to be touched,
where innocence is choked and pounded
until every trace of sweetness is gone, forever;
where the angel of mercy,
helplessly fleeing the bloody scene,
stumbles, shattering her delicate face
on the asphalt, unnoticed,
and the pastel dreams of childhood
swirl and die
in the hot dust
of the ghetto sidewalk.

The Day the Teacher Cried

 

 

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Mrs. Neil, the teacher of my fifth grade class at Glenwood Elementary School in Sun Valley, California, told us she was retiring at the end of that semester after over forty years of teaching. She was a kindly and soft-spoken, elderly lady with white hair and a knitted sweater. Her voice was so soft, she usually had to say “quiet, class” five or six times before the clamor would die down. Most of us liked her and sat quietly right away, but there are always a few in every class that push the limits, especially if the teacher is a frail, mild-mannered, old woman.

She had trouble with two boys in particular, Randy and Jess. They were always the last to stop talking and they bullied just about everyone. Mrs. Neil talked about kindness a lot, probably hoping to access whatever goodness there was in them, but it never seemed to do any good. I remember watching them pick on other kids and seething with anger but they were both bigger than me and the rest of the boys in the class, so I felt helpless to stop it.

I’m not sure why, but Randy and Jess never targeted me. This is not to say I was intimidating in any way to them. Quite the opposite. I was small for my age and painfully shy. To top it off, this was the year I developed a case of warts on my hands that wouldn’t go away. My parents took me to doctors who burned, cut, froze and applied acidic medicines to them, but nothing worked. I was so self-conscious about them, I put my hands in my pockets anytime someone came close enough to me to see them.

Mrs. Neil insisted that we all wash our hands after recesses and before lunch. She would even line us up and inspect them. Oddly, my warts were on the top of my right hand and the palm of my left, so if I reversed them, no warts were visible. I showed my hands to Mrs. Neil that way. She pointed to the downturned hand and asked, “What are you hiding in that hand? Did you catch a frog?” I hesitantly turned my hand over. She saw the warts, rubbed my back comfortingly and said, “Oh. It’s okay, dear. You go on to your seat.” I was sold on Mrs. Neil after that. A little compassion can go a long way in a kid’s life.

There was a girl in the class who was a little slower than the rest of us. Her name was Rebecca. She had thick glasses and walked with a limp because of a birth defect of some kind. All of us did our best to help her, I’m proud to report. Everyone, that is, except Randy and Jess.

There was nothing unusual about their bullying of her. They called her the easiest and most obvious names – Four Eyes, Hop-a-Long, Dumb-Dumb, etc. Mrs. Neil was protective of her so they did this under her radar, but one day during recess they were especially cruel to her without knowing that Mrs. Neil was standing right behind them. She shooed them away and comforted Rebecca. 

When we came back to class, Rebecca wasn’t there. We all assumed she had been sent home for the day. Mrs. Neil was unusually quiet. She leaned against the edge of her desk and looked at us all one at a time for an uncomfortably long time. I was relieved when her eyes softened as she looked at me. We were all ready for her to begin her “just be kind” speech, but she didn’t. She walked to the window, looked out, and started to cry, softly at first, then harder and harder. 

The classroom had never been quieter. Seeing an adult cry so hard was very disconcerting for children. We all looked at each other, wondering what to do. I felt the impulse to get up and hug her but was too shy. I still wish I would have. She stood there crying, alone, probably for only a minute, but it seemed like an hour to us. Everyone knew she was crying because of Randy and Jess. They sat staring at their tabletops, trying to make themselves disappear. It was worse for them than any other punishment could have been. Then Mrs. Neil stopped crying, took a deep breath, walked to her desk, took a Kleenex out of a box, wiped her eyes, and asked us to open our workbooks. 

I don’t remember Randy or Jess bullying anyone after that. Maybe they did it more secretively, but in my memory, everything changed that day. We all realized how much we loved Mrs. Neil, and we all knew how much she loved us. We had heard her speech about kindness many times, but she never influenced us as much as she did when words failed her, when she showed us that she was emotionally involved with us. I suspect that’s the key to teaching, or parenting – laughing when the children laugh, and crying when they cry. Kids can survive flaws and mistakes in adults. The worst sin is indifference. 

A few weeks later, on her final day as a teacher, Mrs. Neil asked me to stay after class. All the kids did their usual chorus of “ooooh” as if I were in trouble for something. When the bell rang, I stayed in my chair as the kids ran off for summer vacation. Mrs. Neil asked me if I would take a walk with her. We walked to an immense jacaranda tree in a play area and sat on a bench among a blanket of fallen purple blossoms. She started with some small talk.

“I love this old tree, don’t you? I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve sat under it. I suspect it’s as old as I am. We’re kind of like old friends now.” 

I smiled and looked up at the sun splintering through the leaves. She asked if she could hold my hand. I said yes. She took my little warty hand in hers and looked at me. I mean really looked at me. Those looks only elderly people can give that make kids feel both loved and completely transparent, like they’re reading your mind and looking into your soul. She said, “I just want you to know that you’re my favorite student. I’ve noticed how kind you are to the other kids, especially Rebecca. That meant a lot to me.” 

I was astonished. I had never been anybody’s favorite anything. I was a bit like Gordie in the movie Stand By Me. My older brother was the golden boy to my dad and I was always an afterthought. Even the family photo albums had one photo of me for every twenty of him. Some parents just celebrate the first kid because everything is new and exciting but it’s all old hat when the second kid comes along. But I don’t think I was very exemplary. It was just Mrs. Neil doing what she always did. She saw a shy little boy with a “disability” (warts) so she wanted to say something to make me feel more confident before she left.

About ten years later, when I was a teenager, I went back to the school to ask about her. I wanted to let her know I appreciated and remembered her kindness. The lady at the front desk said, “I remember her very well but she passed away a few years ago. I’m sorry.”

I thanked her and left, then walked to the bench under the same jacaranda tree. I thought about her sitting there next to the child I was, holding my hand, and loving me literally “warts and all.” 

I sat under that tree – Mrs. Neil’s tree – for a long time, thinking about her. I thought about that day, her last day as a teacher, and it became even more incredible to me that she chose to spend the last few minutes of her career with me.

We all want to know we did some good in the world during our short lives here. Mrs. Neil did. She made a shy child feel like he mattered. Because I knew I mattered to her, she and her opinion of me mattered. So much, in fact, I’m writing a story about her decades later.

I’ve heard it said we become composites of everyone we’ve ever loved. I wasn’t able to thank her again when she was alive but I like to think I’ve got a lot of Mrs. Neil’s spirit in me. I’m sure the same is true for hundreds of other kids she changed for the better. Mrs. Neil made a difference because we wanted to be more like her. More kind, more caring, and brave enough to show love without half measures. I hope she knew that.

There’s an old story about thousands of starfishes that got stranded on a beach during a heavy storm. They were all drying out in the sun the next day. A woman walked along the beach, throwing them back into the water one at a time. A man laughed and said, “There are so many! It doesn’t make any difference!” The woman threw another one into the ocean and said, “It made a difference to that one.”

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Painting credit: Jacaranda Sunset Meditation by Laura Iverson

And I Love You So

 

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(My daughter and I six years ago.)
And I love you so,
The people ask me how,
How I’ve lived till now
I tell them “I don’t know”I guess they understand
How lonely life has been
But life began again
The day you took my hand

And yes I know how lonely life can be
The shadows follow me
And the night won’t set me free
But I don’t let the evening get me down
Now that you’re around me

And you love me too
Your thoughts are just for me
You set my spirit free
I’m happy that you do

The book of life is brief
And once a page is read
All but love is dead
That is my belief

And yes I know how loveless life can be
The shadows follow me
And the night won’t set me free
But I don’t let the evening bring me down
Now that you’re around me

And I love you so
The people ask me how,
How I’ve lived till now
I tell them “I don’t know”

(Don McLean)

A Child’s Grace (poem)

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A Child’s Grace

My father was saying Grace one night.
I looked at our table, covered with food.
I was usually happy at dinnertime
but this time I fell into a serious mood.

He said, “Dear Lord, we humbly thank You
for nourishing our bodies with this meal”
but then he said “while some go without”
and I wasn’t sure just how I should feel.

“While some go without.”
The words rang in my ears.
I thought of what that meant
and my eyes filled with tears.

My mother noticed my sadness
and asked, “Honey, what’s wrong?”
But I had trouble finding words
for a feeling so strong.

Then I said, “Mama, I’m worried
I haven’t been thankful enough
for all the food on our table
and this house full of . . . stuff.”

She told me, “It’s okay, dear.
That means you have a good heart.
But to show God you’re thankful,
you just have to start.”

My father looked in my eyes,
smiled, stroked my hair,
and said, “God’s listening now.
Will you continue the prayer?”

It was a big night for a child,
moved by such a strange mood.
I wanted to show I was grateful
and for much more than food.

I said, “Thank You, dear God,
for peanut butter and jelly.
I’ve never known how it feels
to have no food for my belly.”

I said, “Thank You for my life
And for my little brother.
Thank You for my home,
and my father and mother.”

“Thank You for water.
Thank You for fish.
Thank You for the ability
to dream and to wish.”

“Thank You for my family
and all our pleasures and joys.
Thank You for my bicycle
and all my other toys.”

Thank You for fruit,
for honey and bread.
Thank You for the fantasies
that dance in my head.”

“Thank You for my books
and the adventures they hold.
Thank You for creativity
and tales yet to be told.”

“Thank You for my health
to walk, run and play.
Thank You for my parents
who show me Your way.”

My brother kept peeking,
worried I’d talk until dawn.
The list of my blessings
just went on and on!

I thanked God for the TV!
I thanked God for the phone!
I thanked God for everything
I was so lucky to own.

I just kept on thanking
and when I was done,
I’d said thank you for
everything under the sun.

For beaches and mountains,
for flowers and trees,
for dogs and dandelions,
for bunnies and bees.

For rainbows and kites,
for clouds and warm sun
for endless summer days
devoted only to fun.

For school and for teachers,
for all the lessons I’d learned.
I thought I’d covered it all
and left no stone unturned.

But I still wasn’t satisfied.
Something still wasn’t right.
We all sat in the silence
and I closed my eyes tight.

Then I found what was missing
and said one more prayer . . .
“Please, Lord, give all I have
to poorer kids everywhere.”

And with those last words,
a great peace filled the room
and a sweet scent flooded in
like a meadow in bloom.

Everyone could feel . . . something,
even my little brother.
“That was beautiful,” said father.
“I’m so proud of you,” said mother.

In giving thanks for my blessings,
I felt God’s loving embrace,
but when I wished for others
I discovered true Grace.

We were all hungry by then
and our dinners were cold
but how full and how warm
were my heart and my soul.

Mark Rickerby (c) 2015

Related story –

http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/boy-5-makes-diners-cry-as-he-says-grace-with-homeless-man/story-fnq2o7hp-1227360850445

Months and Seasons (a poem for children)

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I was driving with my four year-old today and seeing if she could remember the names of the months and the order they came in. She did pretty well (with a little hinting at first letter sounds.) Then I asked her if she remembered the names and order of the seasons. She missed a few so I thought about how I could help her remember them easier. As usual, I wrote a poem. I read it to her tonight at bedtime and she seemed to enjoy it. Feel free to share it with your little ones! 🙂

Months and Seasons

In January, the year begins
and the air is crisp and cold.
Winter’s snowy beard is long
and he’s starting to get old.

In February, it warms a little
but Winter, he still holds on
for he knows spring is coming
and when it does, he’ll be gone.

In March, the sun starts shining
on all the children as they play.
After all that snow, the flowers
put on a remarkable display.

In April, it gets even prettier.
The air is full of spring’s perfume
as bees and birds and butterflies
soar and glide from bloom to bloom.

In June, the sun grows anxious
for its days of glory to begin.
Spring is Summer’s closest friend
so we see each and they both win!

In July, the sun is beating down.
Every creature seeks the shade,
dreaming of cooler winter months
and the flowers that spring made.

In August, the sun starts to wain.
It’s fury, once again, is spent.
The autumn comes to give it rest
and asks it kindly to relent.

In September, cool winds blow again
as if to warn of winter’s chill.
Days are filled with schoolyard fun
and nights are long and still.

In October, the sun is far and dim.
Leaves that were green begin to fade
to brown and yellow, red and gold.
And in dying, rare beauty’s made.

In November, the trees prepare
for the long, cold months ahead.
Only the heartiest flowers grow
and the trees’ leaves all are shed.

In December, the other seasons
are covered over when it snows
but winter has beauty all its own
as the year comes to a close.

So that’s the story of the months
and the seasons we love to see,
each magnificent in their own ways.
Pretty amazing! Don’t you agree?

– Mark Rickerby (c) 2015