When I was little, I never understood a word that Donald Duck said. It was all squawks to me, sometimes angry, sometimes happy, but just squawks. I’m not sure I even understood that we were supposed to comprehend that he was saying words. It wasn’t much better with Mickey Mouse, whom I rarely understood—that high-pitched squeaking just didn’t register for me. I know that he and Donald were out on adventures, they were in peril or under dire circumstances, but I really didn’t know what it was they had to say about that. This is emblematic of my whole childhood.
I usually didn’t understand much. What was going on around me, why people were doing this or that, where we were going when we got in the car, I just didn’t pay attention, or want to know. Maybe I was just not that bright.
We liked to play Monopoly—or to put it more truthfully, kids I knew liked to play Monopoly and I was often drafted to take a hand in the game. I liked the playing pieces, the cannon, the hat, the battleship, and the board with all the play money, but I never understood what was supposed to happen. We moved pieces around the board, bought things, went to jail, got out of jail, until people started fighting and others drifted away to do something else. I honestly never saw a game of Monopoly end with someone ‘winning,’ so to this day I do not know what it means to win at Monopoly. Maybe that’s just me, but there were a lot of things I never understood in any real sense.
Granted, much of what you do as a kid is reduced to its most basic elements. We played army a lot, which meant shooting at each other and claiming to have killed each other, because that’s what armies do. There was none of the sense that we are hoping to gain territory or chase the opposing army out of the territory they have gained, no sense of mission aside from killing each other. What most people see when they look at war is people killing other people, so that’s what child’s play becomes. But my sense of detachment from the world went beyond that.
I had parents who fought a lot. I think it’s pretty standard for kids not to know what their parents are fighting about, and I certainly never knew, even when I was a teenager and right up to the time of their divorce. And this brings to light one reason I was so detached from life: I avoided what was unpleasant. It was no fun hearing my mom and dad arguing, so I got as far from the action as I could and pretended it was not happening. But my sense of detachment runs deeper than that.
One of the things they fought over was church. My mom was raised Church of Christ, and my dad was raised Baptist. If you don’t know, these are two Christian sects that are so completely similar that they can’t stand one another. The only differences, as far as I can tell, is that one lets you drink a little grape juice and eat a bite of cracker during church, and one has a piano playing along with the hymns on Sunday morning. Aside from that they believe all the same things—mostly that anything even mildly enjoyable is a sin. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a Baptist minister, and I spent most of my summers in Vacation Bible School memorizing Psalms and making crosses out of burnt matchsticks, or pieces of dry macaroni, or little bits of gravel and feathers, or whatever else seemed to be lying around the church basement. Both of these religions stress that you do not get baptized until you make the personal decision to do so, you decide to ‘bring Jesus into your life,’ as I recall Granddaddy saying over and over again. But I really did not understand until pretty late in life that this is supposed to be real, that there were people who actually believed that Jesus was magic and came back to life and went to live up in heaven with his magic father. It made me wonder, it still makes me wonder, what else I don’t understand about life.
I think that once I got a little older and started looking back on life I began to reexamine much of what had gone before. Maybe it’s trying to understand things that led me to the most basic work of understanding—thinking about the seasons we live in. When you’re a kid the seasons mean so much. For one thing, you live for summer, when there’s no school and, as I recently heard a child put it, every day is a Saturday. Fall, when I was a kid, meant creating huge piles of fallen leaves, lighting them afire, and roasting wieners or marshmallows in the flames. Winter meant snow and sledding. I remember all of these things, the smells, sounds, and temperatures of the seasons, but I don’t think I ever thought much about the seasons. When do the seasons change? Why do they change? These were just not questions I asked.
My first grade teacher had a bulletin board on which she displayed the months of the year in a big circle. They were divided by the seasons, three months per season, in the neat way we think about them. December, January, and February were winter, and you came down off winter into March, April and May, lolling along the bottom for the summer months and then climbing back up the circle to autumn. It wasn’t until I began work on The Varied God that I realized this bulletin board had been one of the most powerful images in my life. All those decades gone by and I still see the months rolling by in a big circle. I still see summer as a time spent lolling along the bottom, autumn as a climb into winter. I have discussed this image in the book a few times, since there are so many cultures that view the seasons as a circle, an endless cycle of time. This was one thing I understood, even as a child, and it came via a good lesson from a good teacher.
Maybe somebody should create graphics to help us understand Donald Duck, or Mickey Mouse. Maybe we should just keep the closed captioning on when our kids watch cartoons, so they can read what is being said (at least they’d be reading something, right?) It’s not easy to have elemental discussions with children, but it might be worth it sometime to ask if they understand the most basic things about life, like what are winter and summer. You may be amused by the answers.