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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Three memories (essay)


When I was a little boy, maybe five or six, in Salem, Oregon, there was a swing-set across the street where I and my friend Jerry used to play. The seats were canvas straps, wide enough to sit in comfortably and delight in the wild excitement of flying up toward the treetops, up among the branches like a bird; then plummeting back toward the ground; then rising, face to the sky, and hovering for that magic moment of weightlessness somewhere up in the clouds.

We also played “Superman” by lying with our stomachs down across the straps, arms outstretched, legs dangling, reaching out toward the oncoming earth and sky, trying to hold onto the air and leap over tall buildings with a single bound.

At some point I acquired a distinct memory impression, and belief, that I had once, while playing there alone, flown without the help of the swing. Following a similar up and down oscillation, I flew up, arms outstretched, and back, and up again, and again, with the certain knowledge that I had no swing under me, but did this simply on the air, by magic.

At the age of living dreams
The memory itself of this remains fairly clear; more muddled is the memory of how I retained this memory and the belief that it had actually happened, for so long. Surely in the following few years I must have learned that such things do not happen; I became more familiar with dreams and able to distinguish between waking and dreaming memories. Yet somehow this one lived on, I don’t know how. But it did.

I recall that much later, when we lived in Cummington, Massachusetts, there came a moment in time when I confronted this memory with certainty that it could not have happened: I must have been deluding myself all these years! I was upstairs in my bedroom in the far back of the house, perhaps in the dark, thinking... half-dreaming, when it hit me: that can't have been true!
Still seeing magic everywhere

In other ways I was leaving the world of childhood behind and coming to terms with a world in which not all magic was possible. I believe this long-held belief that I had accomplished the magic of flying in my earlier years must have had an effect on my psyche, rendering me open from my earliest years to belief in magic and the supernatural; this receptivity matured with me into first religious convictions of various kinds, along with a strong mystical streak, which has persisted even after having shed most specific affinity with religious doctrines per se. If once you have felt magic, after a certain age, you can't forget. It's just something you know.


Another association with the big house in Cummington is spiders. This where I acquired my fear – let’s come right out with it: phobia – of spiders. I had bad experiences with them – large ones in my bed on several occasions, and ensuing nightmares featuring them. I don’t recall ever being bitten by one: wasps and hornets were the culprits in that department, in bed as well as other places. But the terror of spiders grew into a real phobia that would drive me from a room. I ran screaming to my parents’ room when I was ten or so and found one, as it seemed, sprawled across my pillow. In France, as a teenager of seventeen or eighteen, I recall jumping from chair to chair to escape from my bedroom where a moderate house spider was crawling across the floor.

How I got over this phobia is worth relating. I overcame my spider phobia in the summer of 1976, at the end of my sophomore year in college. I was at Pomona College, and stayed on campus for a month, doing some work for my German professor, Karen Kossuth. I had to move out of the dorm, and asked Karen if I could convert the garden shed behind her house into a temporary abode. She was skeptical, but said I was welcome to try. It was overhung with ivy and clematis, stuffed with dusty old tools, boards, plywood sheets, everything else you might expect, all dusty and cobwebby.

The place was was infested with earwigs, which I found easy enough to remove with a broom, after having removed or repositioned a great deal of clutter. Under the eaves outside, and up among the roof rafters, I discovered a high number of small, evil-looking black spiders, with a tell-tale red mark on their underside: black widows, not only biters, but poisonous. I was determined to conquer them. I systematically swept all the webs and nests away from the outside, and then tracked down and killed every one I could find inside and out. I was Hercules, cleaning the Augean stables; I had the power of the gods and of my own conviction deep inside me. Nothing would stop me.

College age - maybe around 1975

By the end of a long and dirty day the place was clean, swept, arranged, livable. Even the small-paned windows had been cleaned for the first time ever. I laid out my sleeping bag and pillow on my bed, a self-built contraption of beams and plywood. I proudly showed off my work to Karen, and joined her for dinner in the house. Later, after dark, I returned for the night, lit a candle, and turned back my sleeping bag, checking to make sure no errant or defiant spider might have crawled in there for revenge.

To my dismay, that’s exactly what I found: a Black Widow, glaring at me. I chased it, but it was too quick and scurried over the side of the bed and underneath. I knew I had to destroy this spider, or never sleep a wink that night. With my candle, I knelt and peered under the bed frame; she hung on the underside of the mattress, brandishing her legs. I swear I could see the candlelight glinting in her angry, vengeful eyes. I took a swat, but she evaded me; I chased her into a corner, then out again and back under the bed. Determined, I brought the candle down and moved it toward the creature. She seemed to take a final stand, as if sensing the battle was over and self-immolation was the honorable way out. With a swift movement I brought the candle flame under it and saw it frizzle and drop to the floor.

The battle was over. I never saw another spider during the month I lived there, and while I have never wanted to share a close space with a spider since then, neither have I ever run from one again, and have spent, indeed, many minutes studying their web-making and insect-devouring with interest and sympathy. Somehow, a peace was made between us in that garden shed. I slew my fear with the light of human reason, determination, and ruthlessness.


I loved to climb trees as a youth. The earliest memories of focused, intentional climbing are from about age ten, in Cummington, again – a town of 600 souls in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where my father was the minister from 1963 to 1967. Down near the river were meadows, then a drop-off down a grassy bank to a lower floodplain, well overgrown with young trees. My friends and I would follow paths through these woods, along the river and down to the Green Bridge at the far eastern end of the village. In those woods were some great climbing trees, and saplings, or at least young enough trees of a certain variety that we could climb them, shinnying up the thin trunks, until our weight would cause the tree to bend and lower us to the ground. We could hold onto the trunk and be lifted up, bouncing skyward as if on a natural spring offered from the earth as our plaything.
A New England boy

Later, I sought refuge in trees as an alienated, unhappy teenager, and discovered many secrets among the boughs. Birds would come and sit all around me sometimes; they seemed less afraid of me in the tree than on the ground. Also, people walking below would almost never notice me. It was a rule I was elated to discover: it was human nature not to pay much attention to what went on up in trees. I loved to watch and listen to people walking past on park walkways, in the Boston Public Garden, for example.

When I was at boarding school in Connecticut, happier after my year and a half of purgatory in a public junior high school in Needham, Massachusetts, one day I was not in class; I don’t now know why, but I was apparently skipping. Up on a bluff behind the main school building was a birch forest, and on this particular spring or fall day, I found my way there and tried swinging on birches: it worked perfectly, just as the other trees had done so well back in Cummington, four or five years earlier. I climbed up the slender white birch trunks, pulling myself gently upwards by the delicate branches, careful not to damage anything; once at a certain height, I would institute a gentle swaying motion, and at some point the weight displacement was such that I would be carried down to the ground, hanging suspended from the branch, weightless; then, landing, would feel like a moon-walker, bouncing up with a kick from one leg, descending back to earth, then kicking up with the other. It was great fun; all the more so because through the tree trunks I could see the long rows of windows of the school building, with students at their desks, teachers at the blackboards.
Teen spirits (with Alec Stevens)

Later in the morning, at lunch, Mr. Grover, the Junior English teacher and Dean of Students, came up to me and said: “Whatever possessed you to skip class and go swinging on birches?”

“I don’t know. It just felt like that kind of day,” may have been my response. I cared little for rules when they didn’t suit me in those days.

“Well, it made my lesson today with the fifth formers. We’re reading Robert Frost’s “Birches," about a boy birch swinging. And right outside our classroom window was a boy swinging on birches. I forgive you the skipped class. Now go read the poem.”

I’ve never forgotten that. And it is a lovely poem, which invariably takes me back to a fall day in Danbury, Connecticut, when I was “a swinger of birches.”

See below:

Birches, by Robert Frost

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

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