I don’t know how much or how little I was like other children. Quite possibly I was quite ordinary. You don’t think about that when you’re young. I wasn’t shy. Shyness came with age. Quite the opposite. I was the kind of child that didn’t question what came out of my mouth or, for that matter, what action I was about to take.
More than once I burned my finger asking if a light was hot as I touched it. I remember on two occasions sitting in a restaurant with a searing hot plate of meat on the table. The look of impending horror around me as I reached to touch the sizzling black metal sits in the periphery of my memory of those moments. It must have been incredibly painful but, looking back I smile. On another occasion I remember being in bank, I believe with my mother. I’d found some metal wire and a lady stopped me from putting the wire into an electrical socket just in the nick of time.
My fondest folly of late was standing on the branch of a tree I’d successfully managed to climb as my friends egged me on. Once on the branch the chorus of boys beneath dared me to see how many times I could jump before it broke. In my young mind the idea seemed not only sensible but, intriguing. Needless to say I spent the latter part of the afternoon having my ankle wrapped up by doctors. I don’t know what happened to the branch but, I’m sure it fared less well than I did. I still have my feet.
Those minor catastrophes were also some of the greatest successes of my childhood. I was incredibly scared of losing the training wheels on my bike. My Dad, promising to teach me to ride without them and said he’d hold onto the end of my bike while I learned to balance. Whizzing along it wasn’t until I was hurtling down a flight of stairs that I realized he couldn’t possibly still be attached to the back of the bike. But, I had been upright the whole time. I learned to ride a bike and after that would explore the world with two wheels unaided for miles. I’d try to get lost and find my way home using alternate routes. I never did get lost but, felt immense pride in my attempts at being the explorer.
I remember a awe, immediacy and being very much in the present throughout my younger years. I don’t think it was until the age of about 13 or 14 when I realized that other kids had different ideas than me. This I discovered in part through bullying.
My first memory, or at least I’ve come to believe what is my first memory was of Sri Lanka. We took a family holiday there when I was about 4. At the age of four people tend to be quite small which in turn means that the sizes of things are quite exaggerated; at least in comparison to a normal sized sort of person.
I remember we were on the beach , it was near dusk and no one was there. I can remember the flat of the sand as my dad picked me up and asked if I wanted to be pulled under or over each wave. If I chose to go under he’d lift me through the wave and I’d come bursting out the other side. The waves can’t have been big at all, but I was experiencing the surf for real. It was the first night I remember being lulled to sleep from the lingering motion of water and the heat of that day. The pink on the skyline will always be present in my mind. Sunset is still my favorite time of day.
I also remember being quite taken by a bamboo chair on the veranda of the hotel we were staying at. It’s the sort of bamboo chair that would be quite hard to find outside specialist shops these days. To me it was a throne. No doubt it was really just a spot for a guest at the hotel to sit and enjoy a smoke.
I don’t think that as I child I asked many questions of the world but, I did strike conversation with any adult that seemed like he’d talk, and some that didn’t. I remember on more than one occasion my mother telling me “don’t worry about him he’s just not the type that talks“. She was trying to protect my feelings and openness but, at the time I was past the moment the second the adult was out of the vicinity. The only thing that perplexed me was an adults unwillingness to make conversation. Something I as an adult now do understand when I bump into neighbors walking my dog.
I was gullible. I didn’t compare myself to others, possibly because I assumed we were all the same. Do I put the breaking of this belief to later disappointments? As a grown up two of my disappointments have been the agendas of others and the worst parts of our childhood continuing into adulthood. Most of us seem to leave the best parts when we become teenagers.
From all this it strikes me that I was happy as a child. I enjoyed playschool. Although I had a few scuffles with other boys over toys. I remember feeling how intensely unfair it was that girls would always win the argument over who got to play on the slides first. A lesson I will probably teach my son one day. My father worked abroad and I remember a very deep sense of sadness when he leave would after visiting for a holiday. I also remember at times being quite shy and retreating when others came to the door to play. But, that came later, after I’d experienced a little bullying at school.
What I do know is that I had an interesting childhood. Half English, half Russian living in the Middle East and surrounded by people who were each and everyone of them from somewhere other than their home leaves you with perspective. A perspective I didn’t appreciate until my 20’s when I started to feel like people’s opinions of others were missing something fundamental. Usually these feeling came up in political discussions when generic statements were made about a country, religion or something to that effect. What I felt missing was an implicit understanding of the people talked about. People, in my book were primary busy with one thing; the business of living.
I also know my parents were atypical. I didn’t know then. We don’t know how our parents compare until were’re adults ourselves. My Dad left university in the 60s and is older than my mother whom he’d met in Odessa in the late 70s. A time you can imagine it was difficult, both to get married in the Soviet Union as a Westerner and to live as a Russian in England. But, my father had also spent most of his adult life traveling and teaching English in other countries. My mother spent a lot of time as a ‘foreigner’ away from her family with me and I know found the experience hard.
Looking back at the younger years of youth (and I’m not old enough yet to have developed too much by way of wisdom), comparison with the adulthood stand out in a sharp contrast. My mother always told me as a teenager “you’re so eager to be grown up, it’ll come, enjoy being young“. Something I know most of us have heard from parents at one one time or another.
Take away the responsibilities of paying bills, illness, the sadness of loss and the heartbreaks we have all felt. Age will still make the great cynics of us. But, cynicism is not caused by necessity. It’s caused by a fight for dominance that a child only experiences as play when they’re young.
Adulthood is where the Darwinian truths of life turn the lessons of play into skills we use to survive. What is especially sad about this is not that its necessity. It may be unavoidable. What is sad is that we know better. We gasp at horror on the news and we all console friends who’ve had a hard day. But, that doesn’t stop us from making other people’s days hard and it doesn’t stop us from egging on horrors when they don’t affect us.
Where in youth we might feel an immediacy, awe and freshness to the world in adulthood we experience the same immediacy and unthinking in our reactions to the world and our circumstances. Only, as adults our mistakes can have much more severe consequences than the mistakes we make when we’re young.
Life gets to be quite serious as we get older. It seems the taller we become the further we fall. Look around you at the people who are forgotten and you will see how far you can fall. We’re all responsible for the fall of others in as much as we stop playing and become concerned with the immediacy of our own survival. But, that concern is necessary. As children, like puppies, we have people to lick our wounds and wrap our legs as we fall off trees. As adults we’re on our own. In part because we learn to be that way.