catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 6 :: 2006.03.24 — 2006.04.07


Himalayan idyll

Ah, the seriousness of youth. Youth, serious? What could be a greater oxymoron, you may be thinking. But it?s true, nonetheless. If you want proof, just go straight to the best authorities on the subject: kids.

Now you can’t just go and ask them if they think life is serious or not; they take life much too seriously to engage in such boring, time consuming analysis. That would be like asking a Frenchman if good wine and women were important to him, and why. No, what you will need to do is observe them in their natural habitat. Better still, shake out the mothballs from the wrinkles of your gray matter and observe your own inner child. Now I’m not talking about that psycho-babble stuff you hear about these days. Just sit down sometime and have a little chat with yourself over coffee and try and remember how you interacted with your youthful world. I bet you took it pretty seriously. I know my youth was deadly serious stuff, deadly serious indeed.

No places were more serious than the grounds of play. Those didn’t consist just of the playground; playing was too important to just confine it to one spot. Every location and any occasion were fair grounds for play. School was a rude interruption to this happy state of affairs, but at least it had the redeeming quality of providing more friends to play with.

My career in play was hindered and augmented in this way when I went off to boarding school in fourth grade. The boarding school was in the green, pine covered foothills of the Himalayas in northern Pakistan and there was plenty of fodder to feed the active imaginations of a passel of kids unfettered by the deadening lure of TV, shopping malls, and mega toy stores.

We played with imagination, creativity, and in intense bursts of passion that would extinguish as rapidly as they would flare up. One week we would be criss-crossing a bit of hillside with intricate roadways as if the progress of an entire nation depended on our work. The next week it would be paper airplanes and the ground would be littered with white, as we created, tested, and flew our craft in high-stakes contests. The stakes were the words of admiration received for having a top flyer. The following week might have been a return to matchbox cars, but this time racing them down the speedway, a straight, six inch wide, inclined drain really, but it was just as good as Indianapolis to us kids. And the winners of these races were really canonized; their cars worshipped from afar.

The key was to keep moving in a cycle from one type of play to another. You see, kids know life is too important to get into a rut.

If the grounds of play highlighted a serious approach to fun, that was nothing compared to how they illustrated how seriously kids take justice. Judge Judy has got nothing on kids. They can smell unfairness a mile off. And not only that but they will tell you it stinks.

In our elementary school we had a code of fairness partly inherent, partly defined, that we would have been hard pressed to articulate, but which we could appeal to as keenly and sharply as a trial lawyer when even its most minor precept was violated. The accusatory cry would go up, “Stop that, you’re wrecking our fun!” And then if that warning shot failed the trump card would be played, “Stop that, or I’m telling Aunty Eunice on you.” There was no greater charge than to be arraigned for the crime of interfering with the childhood charter of the pursuit of play by being charged with wrecking someone’s fun. It was all very serious stuff indeed.

Junior high was even more serious. That was the netherworld between the unexamined, head-long pursuits of childhood and newly awakening world of self-conscious thought and measured action. Growing up in the isolated heights of a missionary boarding school in far-off Pakistan meant that we had the luxury of remaining children longer than most in the West. We remained fervent in our intense pursuit of the enjoyment of life in playing simple games and finding adventure, only now the physiological changes occurring in us made more sedentary, social interactions attractive, too. And these interactions were undertaken with all the seriousness and ardor of the previous years.

What in hindsight can only be described as “light switch romances” (on again, off again), then were the axis on which the entire world turned; the gooey love notes they precipitated, the very articles of the Constitution. You cannot tell a junior higher not to take first love so seriously. Who can get past the glazed, puppy love eyes of a kid to argue that there are more important things in life. And when the light switch gets flicked off, who can tell those sad puppy dog eyes that it’s really no big deal. It is.

My first real heartache actually didn’t come until twelfth grade. One month of frozen conversation and holding hands had come to an end, an unwanted end for my part, and I thought the world just couldn’t go on. I cried for days. There I was sitting in church the morning after weeping between the hymns as if I had just been divorced by my wife.

Nothing, though, better captures the seriousness with which youth take life than that perennial rite of passage?graduation. Our school’s graduation had the added drama and trauma of having to say good-bye to friends who would be going “home” to one part of the world while you went “home” to the other side, while each left what was truly considered home, under the grim shadow of possibly never seeing dear friends again. And, oh, the weeping. You would have thought you were at a funeral. We knew, and by then could well articulate in the growing, bleak light of adulthood, what we were mourning for?the end of childhood and the comfort of life lived together with friends; of life lived to the hilt.

Graduation is more like a funeral than we know, I think. It is a dying to youthful fancies that life is all play, that it will always be fair, and that human love is something that can be relied on forever. And as we come into fully conscious life we know that these fancies must die in the face of harsh realities. This dying is necessary; the illusions must go. What matters more, though, is what rises from the ashes of that death; a specter of somberness that haunts life as if it were, in the words of Robert Frost, “a diminished thing,” or the resurrection of the full-bodied approach of youth, that looks at life as something to be seriously engaged, in spite of the knowledge that disappointments will surely come. It is better to ride the heights and depths of an animated ocean than the deadening flatness of a windless sea. I have to keep talking to myself to remind me of that.

When I was a child
I’d laugh and play entire days
With shiny swords
Or in spaceships flying to the moon
That swept arcs in celestial dogfights against the stars.
And then I’d rise from the cloud of play,
Drop a knobby stick from knightly hands,
Or jump from the lawn chair cockpit of my craft,
And run, grubby, to clean and loving arms.

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