Sunday, March 06, 2005

BLIND BEGGARS, FRED SAVAGE, LIK-M-AID, AND THE OPPOSITE OF CHILDHOOD WONDER (WHATEVER YOU'D CALL IT)

Nature knows what it is doing, prescribing amnesia for early childhood.

-- Doris Lessing,
Under My Skin


There are children in Cambodia who make a living for themselves and their family by wandering the streets and leading their blind parents around by the hand, as the father or mother sightlessly pounds on a drum or blows on a flute, hoping that a kind stranger will toss out some cash for the sake of a sickened clan.

(The really weird thing is, just as I was typing the above sentence, two children and their blind father, banging a drum, came to the door of the Internet cafe, chanting, asking for money. Is that some kind of a sign? Are the BlogGods screwing with me or what?)

When I was seven, eight, nine years old, I was going to school, reading comic books, watching movies, playing hockey once a week...and that was it. Almost literally. I didn't think about money, unless it was to ask for a raise in my allowance. I didn't have to think about money, let alone making money.

We romanticize childhood -- childhood in general, and our own in particular. (Some of us do, anyways. ) We think of endless summer days, glasses of lemonade, sleepovers, the excitement of the first day of school -- all of that stuff.

I think it's because adulthood is not that thrilling or exciting or anything what we expect it to be; we revert to the times when life was simpler to get our nostalgic rocks off.

(Oh, but is that the truth, that childhood was simpler, that childhood is this eternal Mayberry accessed only through the mind, because I don't think it is, not at all, if only because we tend to downplay all of those nightsweat moments of childhood, those dark and altogether dense moments around three a.m. when time folds in on itself, the tree is scratching and clawing at the window, the proverbial tree of doom, the one that is designed for you and you alone, the one that is not only symbolic of a deeper sense of dread but is that sense of dread, alive and tactile, a physical embodiment of all that Mommy and Daddy forgot to tell you about, the essence of 'Granny-is-up-in-heaven' which is not a comforting thought but a flat-out monstrous thought, because what that means is that Granny is not here, not now, but that tree most certainly is, along with its devil-twin, that sharp and shrieking wind...)

Days of ice creams on August afternoons, is how we like to look at childhood. Days of chocolate popsicles and dark-blue freezies and Fun-Dip/Lik-M-Aid dabbed straight from the packet, and didn't you just hate it when the Fun-Dip stick broke in half, and you were forced to use your pinkie finger to poke at those sweetened, coloured grams of sugar, or were you one of those other kids, the ones who wore that orange or red or purple shade on your finger as proudly and triumphantly as those Iraqis who went out to vote just last month, terrorists be damned?

Those are the things we like to remember; those are the things we highlight, like yellow ink on a textbook page.

But walking around with your blind parent playing your flute as you beg for change from indifferent Khmers and slightly scared, slightly sympathetic foreigners?

Can't quite wrap my head around that.

Missed that particular Wonder Years episode.

Not something Fred Savage had to go through, I don't think.

Let's put it this way: When you come over and see the wretchedness of so many kids' lives, when you've seen little girls shitting in the curbside sewers at three a.m., any sense of 'the wonder and magic of childhood' has to be put in its proper place.

I do believe in it, that wonder and magic, because these kids, somehow, poor as they are, still have it.

But it has its own darker, nastier cousins, this magic does. I don't know what the opposite of 'childhood wonder' would be, but it's here in Cambodia, and it's potent, and I don't think it's going anywhere anytime soon.

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