Saturday, April 7, 2012

Grace and growing pains

I've got no memory of being born. I've got no memory of learning to walk. No memory of creating my first work of art. Or of my first time putting sandy toes into the cold salty sea. There are countless life moments I have no recollection of at all. As important as they were--as foundational--they're not with me in memory. But they changed everything.

In the last few years, I've come to appreciate the grace in forgetting and the grace in unawareness. When I say forgetting, I don't mean forced forgetting, like what the brain can do with something too horrible to remember, or like when we love someone and decide to forgive a terrible wrong, which requires a sort of stubborn forgetting. And not like when we forget because something wasn't important enough to remember. I mean, very specifically, the forgetting that belongs to childhood. There are probably all kinds of scientific reasons for our childhood brains functioning that way, but they add up to an experience that shields us from lots of the pain that comes with awareness. When we start to become aware of change, we begin to grow up, and begin to become nostalgic. By the time we realize that change can come in an instant, that life can turn upside down with the ring of a phone, that, good or bad, everything we know can become everything we knew in the decision to turn left instead of right--when we must finally admit that there is an end as sure as there's a beginning to things--then we've lost the grace of not knowing, the grace of forgetting.

Of course, that's not necessarily bad. It's just a trade-off. With awareness comes a worldview childhood can't fathom. It brings a depth of experience and a joy of knowledge completely unreachable to the mind of a toddler. It brings an appreciation of life in light of brevity, reveals the possible depths of the layers of life's mysteries, and it makes unselfish love and friendship possible. Though there's something enviable about living for the self and the present moment and even more enviable about expected irresponsibility, there's also something wonderful about being awake.

I've just come back from an awakening trip during which most everything that was supposed to happen didn't. The plan: go to England for a week to get pictures of children's literature locations and enjoy exploring London, my favorite city; go to Italy for a week to attend a book fair in Bologna and meet with the publisher and co-author of an upcoming project; go back to England for one more week to spend time with friends; and round out the trip with a children's literature conference at Cambridge. What actually happened: I spent a week in my beloved London thinking, "What happened to my beloved London?" (secretly knowing all the while, with a sick-hearted feeling, that I'd done the changing); spent a week in a hotel bed in Italy sick with fever and infection, living on water and crackers and missing all planned events; spent a week with friends in England as planned but skipped the conference on the doctor's suggestion that I find a place and stay in it long enough to get myself better. So, then: no rekindled love with London, no book fair, no lunch with the publisher, no literary conference, no reporting back on the blog about exotic international bookish things.

However!--I did get to spend lots of time, for once, with people. Normally on these trips, I spend most of my time by myself taking pictures and looking around at old things and being a little lonely. Even I know that only so much reflection, especially whilst away from home, is healthy. So it was a very nice change this time to get to know some people better and spend time in friends' homes and learn how different people in different places do things differently. Everyone was incredibly welcoming and kind, and I probably learned more about life and living it by spending time at people's tables than I would have on the planned itinerary, as informative as it would have been. But the really awakening thing about the trip is harder to pin down. It was basically a matter of lots of the pieces floating around in my head lately finally coming together to form a solid idea about what to do with myself at this point in my life. The coming together was a lot due to my getting out of the normal day-to-day for a while, which I highly recommend for everyone.

Do you remember how, when you were little, people always talked about growing pains? They were these mysterious aches us kids were supposed to get as our bodies got bigger. I'd imagine myself having a sudden spurt, at which point my jeans would become shorts and my t-shirt would go tiny and my shoes would be so tight the strings would burst and my toes would pop out the end so I could wiggle them in the fresh air. And I figured it would hurt a lot, but that everything would be okay because it was just growing pains, like the grown-ups had said would happen. What the grown-ups don't tell you is that those moments don't stop happening just because you get older. I'll be 32 in a few weeks, and I find my old shoes are too small. The bad news is, I'll walk around in old shoes till my feet bleed. The good news is, I eventually get where I'm going. It took a while this time, but not as long as last time, to realize I need to make some changes in my life, and this trip was the final push. I won't go into the how and why, but don't worry; it's nothing serious. Just steps on the path. I plan to keep learning, only in a different subject area than I've spent time on over the past few years. I plan to continue exploring the world of children's literature, but from a more love-of-stories than love-of-criticism perspective (not that both can't exist simultaneously, just that I personally need to balance things out--to rediscover a love of stories). I plan to keep traveling to new places and teaching in new ways and making new friends. And I plan to keep writing because, as cheesy as it sounds, to stop writing would be to stop breathing--spiritually anyway.

Speaking of spiritual things...well, they're things I don't talk much about here. And I don't plan to start. But I will say this, it being Easter weekend and my heart being on the mend from the ups and downs of the last few weeks and my tired soul being drawn to the comforts of the foundations of my childhood: Whatever you believe about eggs and bunnies and candy, about sacrifice and rebirth and miracles, about what they have in common; and whatever you believe about pagan traditions and Christian traditions and family traditions, about stories and histories and interpretations of both; and whatever you've been told or learned on your own, whatever you've come to agree with or disagree with--it sure is something to imagine someone perfectly good and perfectly right coming into this mess and not walking away, but instead, at a price we grown-ups understand too well, leaving a small nagging hope even in the most skeptical of us who, though we see the beauty in it, feel somewhat betrayed by the light outside the dark cave of childhood.