Poohsticks, Anyone?

Before meeting up with some friends last evening, I decided to do some reflection outdoors about some disappointing news I had received.  I made my way to the courtyard of a hotel complex near the home of said friends, which had a pleasant outdoor seating area. The center of this was a rather complex, post-modernist water feature, with little streams of water pouring down a slope from a rock-like fountain.  Shallow rivulets were carved into the pavement of the courtyard which allowed you to just put your hand in the water as it flowed by, without getting yourself particularly wet.

The evening was warm but not muggy, and within a few minutes of seating myself on a rather unusual swivel chair carved out of rock, a mother and grandmother, with four children in tow, arrived in the courtyard. The women sat down on a bench opposite with a baby girl. Their three boys then ran about and laughed, and raced sticks and leaves against each other in the fountain’s river-like layout, rather like in A.A. Milne’s classic “Winnie the Pooh”.

At first I paid no attention, since I was texting people or just watching the water flowing. Yet after a while the loud cries of delight on the part of the children, who were chasing about and coming right next to me at times, broke my reverie.  Yet after several minutes, my annoyance vanished, in a more positive reflection on the significance of what these children were doing.

Of course the reality is that disappointment is part and parcel of life, though admittedly not the best part. Summer vacation always comes to an end, after all, and one must go back to school, as I am sure the children from last evening will have to do shortly. If you are about six years old, that is a major disappointment, indeed.

When you get older, the nature of these disappointments change. Perhaps you do not get a promotion you had hoped for, or the house you put a bid on goes to someone else. It would be easy to turn in on oneself, and stay focused on that disappointment. Too many adults seem to take this path, becoming embittered and unable to move on with their lives.

As is so often the case, the adult can learn a great deal from the child in these moments. The disappointments of childhood never last long, for the simple reason that the child has too many other things to think about. How can one whinge on and on about losing the boxcar derby this afternoon, when there are going to be so many moths and fireflies to chase this evening?

We should not make light of anyone’s disappointments, including our own, for our feelings about such things are very real and very legitimate. To pretend that everything is fine when it isn’t does no one any good.  Yet no matter how great or small the disappointment, there is always something that comes next that we ought to greet with anticipation and joy.

Perhaps your stick did not float as quickly as your brother’s down the stream, and for you that is surely a great disappointment. You may feel as though you will never get over it – and you won’t, if you stay fixated on it.  But tonight you and brothers will have a hot bath, and you will put on your pajamas, and you will all bounce up and down on the hotel beds to see who can jump the highest.

Now that indeed is something to look forward to.

Winnie the Pooh, Piglet and Christopher Robin
playing Poohsticks by E.H. Shepard (1926)

Waking Up At Home

This morning I woke up in the house I grew up in, to the sound of my parents having a discussion in the kitchen about whether they wanted toast or waffles for breakfast.  My sister and one of my brothers and I managed to come home for the Memorial Day holiday weekend, which is usually considered the unofficial start of summer here in the United States.  There are parades and ceremonies to honor America’s war dead, and most people at some point will be cooking outdoors or attending picnics and other such events.  Here at Chez Père for example, steaks wrapped in rosemary will be made on the barbecue this evening.

So as I lay there not quite awake but not quite asleep either, I thought about the fact that I was truly blessed to be able to have this experience – a kind of momentary return to childhood.  I have friends much younger than I am who have not been able to wake up in this way for years, because one or both of their parents have died, or the family home has been sold. Of course once I got up and got going, the reality of not being a child anymore came flooding back – the aches and pains of approaching middle age, the concerns of adulthood in checking the phone for messages, and so on.

No matter how old we get, most of us will always have that feeling of wanting to go home, where things are always safe and familiar.  I know people whose lifestyles at present are far more comfortable now than the circumstances they grew up in, who still enjoy going back home to see the people they love, but also to just relax and be themselves. Others have not had upbringings that evoke such feelings of comfort and familiarity. For those people, the idea of waking up in the house they grew up in would be more akin to waking up in a nightmare.

Perhaps because happy memories of a drowsy, holiday weekend back home are even rarer for these people, the thought of being able to wake up rested and content in a loving environment are the more cherished because they were infrequent. While Thomas Wolfe’s classic Depression-era novel “You Can’t Go Home Again” would suggest trying to return home to childhood dreams is a failure, the truth is that most of us love the chance to go home again. Even if it is only to a brief moment of childhood, or even if we are still living in the same town where we grew up, and our parents are just across the street.

No one, no matter how sophisticated, intellectual, and accomplished they may become, is immune from feeling as though they would like to have a return to some of the simpler aspects of being a child again. If you are one of these people, try to imagine not worrying about anything more in life than being stung by a bee when playing outside, or whether you will be having peanut butter and jelly or grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. Then tell me whether that is not preferable to worrying about finances, career, politics, health, romance, or other matters.

In Christianity we are aware of the importance of trying to keep some aspect of childhood in our lives no matter how old we get. In fact, Christ explicitly tells His Disciples that unless they become like children, they will not enter the Kingdom of God.  Yet regardless of whether or not you are a Christian, Jesus’ command – not a suggestion – to His followers is actually rather sound.

What are the qualities that we see in children that He is talking about, here? Perhaps we could list things like creativity, a sense of imagination and wonder, affection and tenderness toward others, a sense of fun, obedience and respect for one’s elders, asking for help when we need it and can’t manage by ourselves, etc.  True, a more jaundiced eye might look at children and see all sorts of bad things they often do, but then those are the people who see no value in jumping on your parents’ big bed in the morning .

“Four Poster” by Andrew Wyeth (1946)
Greeneville Museum of Art, Greeneville, South Carolina