We come from wilderness historically and as children. Spring reminds me childhood. As trite and obvious as that statement can seem, it points to something important and not-at-all obvious. The gorgeous leafing and blooming and greening now happening in the greater New York area, the scent of fresh cut grass and lilacs, can literally take us back—back in time, back inside ourselves to the wild pure joy of being in a body, part of a vast and mysterious living world.
Up until I was about 10 years old, I loved being a wild, indigenous child. I remember running around the big backyard in bare feet (no deer ticks), loving the cool touch of the grass, the soft thud of my feet on the earth.
“Ancient thought could not even conceive of the individual’s soul life apart from the soul of the world,” writes James Hillman. Children are more soulful than many adults in the sense of living closer to the body, knowing the visible body is just the tip of the ice berg, sensing their connection to the soul of the world.
I remember climbing the Butternut tree in the backyard, loving its smooth cool bark, knowing every limb by heart, hanging by my knees from a low limb, then somersaulting around backwards and dropping to the ground. I loved feeling being in a body, living entirely from the inside out (not caring what I looked like or what impact I had). I was limited but I didn’t feel limited.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. Thinking like a child included imagining I was a jungle princess in a primordial forest in ancient India, traveling everywhere with a sleek, deadly, preternaturally intelligent black panther named Striker. Sometimes Striker padding along beside me, telepathically updating me about lurking dangers, and sometimes there was no separation between Striker and me. I was not a little girl in a backyard in Northern New York. Sometimes, I was a panther.
In the spring and summer, all the kids in the neighborhood would play this long shapeless game we called Ghost in the Graveyard. This is a variant on a game I think all kids or most kids play, Werewolf, Vampire, or today, possibly, “Zombie Apocalypse.” We would take turns being ghosts or various kinds of unnatural creatures, agents of Satan, chasing one another shrieking and growling all over the neighborhood until it was dark and our mothers called us in. It was a game about the thrill of being alive, of being healthy little animals. But the game was also about a vaster, darker drama. We children knew there are fates worse than death.
Sometimes the game involved guerilla warfare and Striker was called in as a secret weapon. When I told people Striker was present among the shrieks increased because although he was basically good and very intelligent, you could never really tame an invisible panther, only I was safe being his mother. When I said Striker was attacking a kid, they were dead and they knew it. I never thought of this as having an unfair advantage, because my cause felt so pressing and so just. My cause was to serve a greater cause. A striker is an attacker but also the clapper in a bell. Welling up from an unconscious depth, there was this wish to resonate like a bell.
The game was a way of playing with the energies and capacities we sensed in our wild child bodies. We could be fierce, sleek, swift, savage, animal. With Striker beside me, I stood up to the forces of darkness, fighting fire with fire. Later in life I realized that having an imaginary black panther is a little like wearing a black leather jacket, which I did in my twenties. Striker was a crucial accessory, covering up a secret longing to be good, to live in accord with a greater wholeness.
When I was a child I spoke (spake) as a child, I understood as a child, I thought like a child. I thought I was alone in my great quest, and this is important for a child. I remember lying enclosed in a ring of lilac bushes in my backyard, experiencing the kind of fertile solitude that Rilke said was necessary to be an artist– “to be as solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grown-ups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy and because you didn’t understand a thing about what they were doing.”
Rilke pointed out that children see how grim and shabby most adult doings really are. Children see that most adults are disconnected from their bodies, from the true vast potential of the body that connects us to the whole. They sense we need the body to know truth, because the truth cannot be thought—it must be lived. But children understand like children. When I was a child, I sensed I was powerful but I didn’t know how powerful—in the sense that I didn’t know in what way I might be powerful, that true power comes from the Whole, from learning to allow ourselves to be like bells, to resonate with impressions, to be struck by life.
In time I put away Striker and other childish things. I searched for and found ways and ideas beyond my childish understanding. “’The Greek word for ‘idea,’ eidos, comes from idein, ‘to see,’ and is related to the noun, which means two things: a) something seen like a form and b) a way of seeing like a perspective,” writes James Hillman. “We both see ideas and see by means of them.” The strange thing is, at least it strikes me as strange right now, the greatest of the greatest of the ideas I encountered, the greatest ways of seeing– Love God and Love Your Neighbor as God, the Eight-fold Path– drew on what I sensed as a child: the Truth cannot be thought, it must be lived in the body.