June 2016

The Power of Eight

The past is alive. Seeds forgotten in the attic can germinate a deep forest, and the numinous trail of crumbs dropped by a careless child half a century gone might lead you home. It is, however, a mixed and perilous treasure. An old journey can awakened behind the curtains on a sunny afternoon and yank you off the map. Life, after all, is wild. Beneath the harness, carrots, and whips of every day—the Universe sings to the sleeping child.

I recently discovered my eight-year-old self at the deep end of a swimming pool. I hadn’t been swimming in years and had only signed up for a senior’s exercise class because “I should keep in shape.” I was dutifully rushing about with the others to the shouts of our instructor, when eight-year-old Jeanie spoke up after more than half a century. “This isn’t any fun,” she declared. I had forgotten that life is supposed to be fun.

Perhaps I wouldn’t have heeded her until that moment. Maybe it took decades of responsibility to discover that no matter how hard I work, I can’t control the outcome. A mischievous smile grew across my face as I backed away from the noisy gaggle and into blue silence. The water, oh that beautiful water! welcomed me home like a lover, floating me softly into the deep of summer sky. For an hour I played like a dolphin, dipping and swirling in the crystal light—effortless and free. I had forgotten that the water loves me. That Earth delights in the dance of colors and currents. That I am a child of this vast and living miracle. I peeked up from my play to notice that two other sixty-something children had followed me. We shyly grinned our secret.

For several days I enjoyed eight-year-old Jeanie. I even took her to work, loving her exuberance and curiosity. We are going to be good friends, I thought. She’s waited for me all these years. I moved with a new lightness, took the long way around, played with coworkers. But why eight? I wondered. What happened when I was nine? A few days later, the answer surfaced from the deep like a shark—puberty. I could tell by the way my heart flopped that I had hit a living vein. Portals to the soul don’t open like the front door, but appear suddenly like rabbit holes beneath your feet. I pulled aside the dried grass and descended into memories.

Everything has its shadow. We’re drawn to the light, but without darkness, sunlight has no meaning. Minus the liminal undercurrent of pain, our lives are shallow. I recall being strong and courageous as any boy until cornered by puberty. I could climb higher, run faster. I was fierce and free. Then, just before my tenth birthday, my body betrayed me with the “curse,” (a euphemism for menarche in the 1950s). Here was undeniable proof that I was indeed of the “weaker sex.” Women in those days were unapologetically inferior. Puberty branded me a second-class citizen—doomed to wear dresses in school, stay inside, do the dishes, and “be ladylike.” There had been warning signs: the awkward growth of breasts and hips. I had been shamed in front of my class when the school nurse measured us, and declared that I was 103 pounds—tallest and heaviest child in the third grade. Yet the morning I awoke to the cramps of my first period resounds with special humiliation.

It was Saturday, and a school friend had slept at our house. This was unusual, for I considered girls silly, and they were wary of my adventurous spirit. “Feral” is the word I once heard to describe the little Helmericks girls. Needing to flee, I set out with my younger sister and sedate friend to explore the town on our bicycles. Tucson was moderate then, and a determined and unsupervised child could pedal out of town in three directions. Chinaberry and orange were in bloom as we traveled west, the scented wind blowing our blond hair back in the freedom of strong legs. By noon, we were beyond the city in a deserted gravel quarry along the Santa Cruz River seeking a path down to the tantalizing creek. Beyond the fence and down a twenty foot cutbank were great cottonwood trees, warm sandbars, and a shallow stream of muddy water. It was this touch with nature that had drawn me, but the bank was a maze of slumbering machines, piles of sand, and odd wooden structures used for loading gravel. These buildings were open to the sky and had sloped cement floors ending in small openings about head-high from the ground.

Suddenly, we spotted a group of eight or ten Hispanic boys prowling the far side of the lot. Whispering our concern, we crawled up into one of the structures to hide, but within minutes we were trapped. The boys, junior high and high school age, were big enough to be dangerous to third and forth graders. They blocked the exit and scaled the walls to jeer down into our box, shouting about what they would do when they caught us. However, I had a hatchet in a leather case on my belt. This I brandished with such ferocity, that although they taunted one another as sissies, none dared to descend or climb through the small hole. The afternoon wore on and they became bolder, urinating upon us and throwing feces onto our heads. Night would come, I realized, and no one would find us. We had to make a move.

“You can do whatever you want to me,” I finally declared, “if you let my sister go. She is only little anyway.” My friend was quiet and withdrawn. I was the one who had drawn this terror, I thought, me and my awful secret.

Jeanie turns 7 and Annie at 5.

After conferring, the boys agreed to let Annie leave. It seemed a terrible risk to trust them, but what choice had we? Annie, courageous eight-year-old girl that she was, slid feet-first through the hole and dropped to the ground. Shouting with glee, the gang converged upon her, but she stopped them with a word.

Looking straight ahead, skinny little Annie raised her fierce child eyes and declared, “I see Christ!” Our grandmother, Winnie, had given her these words to carry like a secret amulet—for use, she said, only in dire need. Now Annie threw them at the gang with all the power of Right Action.

The boys, probably Catholics, were stunned. As they paused, little Annie grabbed up her bicycle and pedaled like mad. I, blind in the trap, knew nothing except the surge of energy and the disappearance of my sister. What had become of Annie? Meanwhile, my little sister raced across acres of dirt, through the chain link fence, and back to the road. Traffic was scant, but a lone car came down the gravel lane and wildly Annie flagged it down. As the car entered the deserted yard, the gang scattered. We three were soon recounting our degradation to a policeman, whose raised an eyebrow, reminding us that good girls wouldn’t be out there alone.

Memory of that day was not so much buried as folded neatly away in the attic. No harm had come, right? Except that nine-year-old Jeanie was chastened, diminished, caged. Watch your back, life had warned her. Be a good girl—or else. I’ve glanced over my shoulder ever since—as does every woman who dares walk beyond convention.

Life travels in a spiral. I have been drawn back repeatedly to explore the feminine path, as a lover, mother of a son, and two decades of guiding young women through the sacred initiation of giving birth. My ability to mentor, to reflect beauty and power to the injured, is rooted in knowing the darkness and choosing the light. We cannot ascend to our most sublime unless we also plumb our deepest despair. Therein lies the edge upon which we are invited to dance. I can now see those boys with compassion, understanding their pain at exclusion—and yes, Hispanics were very much despised in the 1950s. No wonder they acted out their shadow side when they stumbled upon the chance. Until I healed my judgement, I too remained trapped in rage and despair. It cannot be otherwise. War begets war. For a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.

So what about eight-year-old Jeanie? I could lose her in all this serious talk. She has no interest in it. Still she remembers all those curious artifacts, these little things of no value which nevertheless mean everything–shiny pebbles and robin eggs. We each carry seeds of a unique gift we alone were entrusted to bear. Eight-year-old Jeanie came back to remind me. You can’t find it on the highway, but must tunnel between the trees, follow a scattering of acorns, clamber over a log, and climb a shaft of sunlight. You have to leave your big hat behind. To bear the fruit this planet yearns to create, you must become brave as little child and wander mysterious places armed only with magic words and a hatchet.

Grow up. Act your age. Really? Which age? I am all that I have ever been. It is as simple and profound as choosing where to focus. This isn’t any fun, Eight said. No kidding. Life really is supposed to be fun. Not the commodification of “fun” sold as toys and vacation packages, but the simple, childlike joy of savoring this remarkable experience. Life. Wow! I can lay on my belly in the grass or make snow angels any time. Eight wants to play with me again. I’ll take that as a yes.

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