I always have the temptation, perhaps, to look back a little too fondly at my childhood. I remember especially those sunny summer days on the farm: our backyard was the universe, an adventure waiting every time I left the breakfast table. As I walked down the abandoned roads my grandparents’ grandparents had built, I was walking down a history I couldn’t quite imagine, but was everywhere in me. I remember playing at The Old Place, the ruins of my father’s childhood house, which burnt down on Christmas Eve when he was twelve. The hill had overtaken what had once been a home, but like an archaeologist unearthing a lost civilization I spent sun-painted hours on that hill pulling back grass hedges, moving sandstones, and looking for a history now rotted by wet and worms.
Behind the Old Place, at the very edge of our farm, was the Hidden Acre—a plot of land so remote and cut off from all of civilization that I’ve always been certain it was full of magic. Through the mosquito-filled field I tramped downhill to the little creek that ran between the farms. For hours I left my hook in the water, and never once saw anything that looked remotely like a fish. One time I squeezed through the trees, knowing I was passing between worlds, and emerged into a field of abandoned cars—a burial ground of the seventies in faded browns and rusty reds and olive greens—and spent the afternoon playing illicitly in the dangerous and environmentally irresponsible amusement park.
Childhood paths could lead anywhere. I remember running down the grassy tracks, hemmed in on each side by Queen Anne’s Lace like great trains of a wedding dress. As I flew down the path, yellow butterflies scattered into the endless blue sky like daffodil petals blown from a flower girl’s basket. It wasn’t just the beauty, though, and the depth of nature so great that it nearly exploded my curious-child brain. It was the overwhelming sense of the possible. It was the sense that the glittering magic of these overgrown paths would lead me finally to the adventures that I had always expected—adventures I was fully prepared for. On those long ago summer days, after I had thrown down Cheerios or burnt toast—our family never bought a toaster, but burned our toast on a coat hanger wedged into the oven element—and after I threw a quick greeting to my parents, I entered my backyard fully expecting that this could be the day. This could be the day that I catch the fairies at their games in the Hidden Acre, or find great treasure at the Old Place, or finally face down the dragons that hid in the dark places of our property. Even in the midst of a joyful childhood, I felt my parents’ brooding darkness, the weight of their adult worlds. I knew there must be dragons on the property somewhere—something had to be eating all the fish I failed to catch.
I came to this belief honestly. For as long as I could remember, books were my constant companion. There was my little sister—a necessary evil, when one needs a playmate—and the boy next door. But when rainy days came, or when evening—that haunting killjoy—finally ended our rural wanderings, the adventure did not end for me. I retreated with a book to the living room couch or my childhood bed. The adventures in my books were an extension of my daytime imaginary life—or perhaps the opposite was true. Perhaps I was playing out each day the adventures I began in my books. In any case, these two worlds of imagination are bound together in my childhood nostalgia.
This blending of worlds began early. I can`t remember learning to read—I suspect the typed letters of printed stories became meaningful words on my mother’s lap long before my local school began the long, and ultimately unsuccessful, project of extinguishing curiosity. I don’t really remember my earliest books, except perhaps the characters of Peter Rabbit, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Curious George. But for hours I gazed at the richly illustrated edition of The Velveteen Rabbit, and for years I felt haunted by a stuffed rabbit in a spare room that I felt certain was on the very edge of coming to life. As I grew, I would move on to the great books that have formed my moral imagination. The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle—I devoured these stories as they fed an inside longing. They were so delicious they felt almost illicit. Knowing now what the authors were up to, I suppose they were illicit. Still, today, I peak in old wooden wardrobes just in case.
I never understood the Alice or Oz books—I still don’t—and never finished my editions of Robinson Crusoe or Anne of Green Gables—I live in the land of Anne, so the last one is a great confession. But as I grew, so did my literary taste. For years, anything with horses drew me in: Black Beauty and The Black Stallion especially. From there, I found my way to adventure books, and then to Camelot, wandering in the Arthurian stories with their magical swords and history-laden prophecies and dragons to slay. Later on, I would enjoy all the unpredictable layers of Roald Dahl’s many storied landscapes, but it was Danny, the Champion of the World that showed me that every child had a secret, so I wasn’t alone.
As a teenager, I found the books changed, and all the authors were more interested in teaching me something than telling me a good story. So I found myself either jumping ahead to older books—Stephen King especially fascinated me—or going back to my childhood. There was one book that I kept going back to, one of the great masters of twentieth century poetry. As my teenage worlds fell together and came apart, Shel Silverstein’s poetry accompanied on that most frightening of adventures.
Partly, I kept reading Silverstein’s poetry because of the sheer joy of it. It is hard to forget “The Unicorn” song, once it is in your brain, or the cautionary tale of “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout” who “Would Not Take The Garbage Out” or the greedy king, addicted to his “Peanut-Butter Sandwich.” And even as a young adult, this poem still captured my sentiments exactly:
One sister for sale!
One sister for sale!
One crying and spying young sister for sale!
The Giving Tree is still a favourite, but the poem that sticks out with me is the story of Melinda Mae:
Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae,
Who ate a monstrous whale?
She thought she could,
She said she would,
So she started in right at the tail.
And everyone said, “You’re much too small,”
But that didn’t bother Melinda at all.
She took little bites and chewed very slow,
Just like a good girl should…
… And in eighty-nine years she ate that whale
Because she said she would!
While anti-whaling activists would struggle with the storyline of the poem (especially since the whale victim has a pleasant smile on its face just before it is consumed), and there are some health reasons why one should seek a more balanced diet, I always found Melinda Mae’s message to be powerful. Faced with the immense task before her—a task literally several times her size—Melinda Mae was undaunted. Faced with a task impossible for such a small girl, she did not lose herself in the ratio of little girl to whale. Instead, she picked up her fork and began at the tail.
Now, I don’t advocate whale-eating—particularly if the whale has been sitting out in the open for such a long time—or dragon killing, if you happen to find one. I would, however, advocate adopting Melinda Mae’s approach to life. Whatever great obstacles we face, whatever dreams seem impossible or whatever goals seem far too lofty, whatever great foe threatens to destroy everything we can only begin to hope for, we must follow the example of Melinda Mae.
Like Melinda Mae we must simply begin–in her case the task was best begun at the tale. I’m not certain how you should begin to slay the dragons in your world, but when faced with any impossible task we are always in some danger of becoming so overwhelmed that we never actually start. It’s impossible after all, or at least it feels like it, so what’s the point? That’s my danger, anyway.
It is here that I arm myself with the skills my childhood reading has given me. We read books about slaying dragons so that when we face them in our world we know what to do. So, as I face what seems to me the absolutely impossible task ahead–an adventure promising almost certain failure–I will follow Melinda Mae and pick up my fork. I must begin. I must throw myself into the impossible–it is always the only way to stand up to the tyranny of the incalculable.