“To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came out of that wholeness.”
We come from wilderness historically and as children. Spring reminds me of childhood. As trite and obvious as that statement may 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. I was limited but I didn’t feel limited. Come the teen years, of course, I was evicted from this pagan paradise.
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 “Zombie Apocalypse.” We would take turns being ghosts or other kinds of living dead, 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. But we children knew there are fates worse than death.
The game was a way of playing with who we secretly wished to be. We could be fierce, sleek, swift, savage, animal. With my imaginary black panther Striker beside me, I stood up to the forces of darkness. Later in life I realized that having an imaginary black panther is a little like wearing a black leather jacket. It was a crucial accessory, a bad girl mask covering up a secret longing to be good, to serve something greater than myself.
When I was a child I spoke (spake) as a child, I understood as a child, I thought like a child. I experienced the kind of protective and 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 and from the truth. Yet children understand like children. When I was a child, I sensed that I could be more, but I didn’t know how. I needed to encounter great ideas.
“’The Greek word for ‘idea,’ eidos, comes from ideien, ‘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 that the greatest spiritual ideas draw on what children sense: the Truth cannot be thought, it must be seen and lived in the body. There are great dramas calling for us to participate.