(This post is dedicated to and inspired by James Agee’s Knoxville: Summer 1915 which you can read here.)
Time moved very slowly when I was six years old. I have read many theories about this. Some say that because a child’s brain and body are so new, the blood and heart so fast and the cells so active, the speed at which they are moving actually causes time to slow down around them. Others say that because young minds have a shorter attention span, they become bored more easily and therefore feel time’s passage more acutely. Like staring at a clock. I don’t necessarily think these two are incompatible or contradictory. My own theory is that, being shorter, kids’ heads are closer to the earth’s gravitational pull. You know, Einstein’s Law of Relativity and all that. Like I say, I remember these long days. Especially in summer. There are echoes and images of days like this buried in my mind, like at the bottom of the well, folded in upon one another, made complicated and probably inaccurate by time and age, but with a common innocence strung together by cracked sidewalks and chain link fences and telephone wires. For instance, one strong image is of our next door neighbor’s bird bath which was always splotched with moss, and the stone it was made of looked very old like a gravestone from the Civil War. When I was finally tall enough to see over the bowl, I remember being disappointed to find that there was no water in it. And no birds either. There were only the husks of dead nuts, leaves, and twigs that had fallen from the trees above. Now, I realized why squirrels would have wrestling matches in there.
At this age my head was still pretty close to the ground but also I was growing up. This summer was a transitional one. I was learning how to ride a bike. And having just turned six years old that July, I was to begin kindergarten in mid-August. How could I have known that from here on out, after this point we all cross, I would always have somewhere to be during the day and some task expected of me, and that every summer thereafter would be an unsuccessful attempt to recreate a freedom that only exists in childhood? No, none of us really know what is coming. We are so eager to grow up.
Our street was somewhat narrow. The houses were close together, built before World War One, a type of classic American look, with thin strips of yard and thin strips of driveway and small porches, and sometimes brick and sometimes vinyl siding. There wasn’t a single rainy day on that street. Well, of course I’m sure it did rain sometimes, but if it did I don’t remember, and it’s my childhood memory, so what the hey; every day on that street was sunny. And the summers especially were hot and blue.
I was shooting basketball at our next door neighbor’s house—their whole backyard was an asphalt driveway rimmed with some dumpy looking trees—and, as I dribbled the ball around, before every shot, I thought, God, help me to be more like the Red Power Ranger. Dear future self: please do not end up like Creulla de Vil. If I made the shot that was God telling me I would be more like the Red Power Ranger. There were many other such scenes that summer. If, for instance, I could put my head under water long enough to touch the bottom of the pool or if I went across the monkey bars all the way without letting go, I had achieved a certain type of acceptance from the universe. That was how games and dares worked. Without the ability to distinguish between Republican or Democrat, I was working very hard and crudely on the ideas of good and bad. I can’t remember this, but I would imagine that the tenor of public life back then was still very colored by the falling of the Berlin wall and the administration of Ronald Reagan. But I was not even tempted to think about that because, as kids say, that was grownup stuff. That was for people who had shrunken down the world to an unmysterious thing they could fit inside their head. But kids know the difference between fiction and non-fiction. The idea was to be brave in real life. Like dad. He had a mustache. And when he shot a basketball he made it. At the park the other taller men looked silly when he dribbled around them and he swished three pointers. The taller men, with their hands on their knees, would say, Oh, man, he’s quick. I knew if I did everything right and brave I could one day be a man with a mustache, dribbling around taller men, shooting three pointers.
This is all very cute but I don’t mean to give the wrong impression. What we talk about when we talk about earlier times, about our childhood, is an imposed simplicity that only exists in the mind. What is truly idyllic are probably not periods of time in history but periods of time in personal history. But, what of it? Lest we prematurely jump to the wrong conclusion, we should also ask, What isn’t in the mind? And what is the real imposition? Even when our bodies get old and our blood slows down and our heads get further from the earth and we grow mundane and sober and we begin to be tempted to think that the End is Nigh, is that not also in the mind?
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