To pursue whatever you set your mind to with the joy of a six year-old child: that’s said to be how we should seek to live. This supposes that every six-year old child embraces all of life joyfully, which they probably don’t, as personality and nature come into play. Largely, though, small children do seem to take a running jump at life with an untainted attitude of fearless abandon. At that age, they appear blind to humiliation, insensible to how others might view them, and oblivious to failure. Life is one big experiment for children as they strike out beyond the back step to learn the ways of the world. From exploring snowdrops poking up from under dead leaves, to fungus growing out from a tree trunk, to the first time they find jellyfish washed up at the beach’s high tide line – children see the ordinary as exciting. When we witness their excitement, something is ignited within us too. A child’s innocence reminds us that, like snowdrops hidden under leaves, our own sense of innocent wonder isn’t too deeply buried.
When I was a three year old I was left behind on a sibling expedition. I ran to the gate and screamed so hard that my eldest brother (C., who was 10 years old) came back and took me with him, across to the far field – it’s now a housing estate – to collect frogspawn. I fell into a scheugh* up to my chest; the hand-knit aran zipped cardie, with a hood, sucked up the muddy water and weighed me down. C. dragged me out and had the good sense to know the only way to deter my tears was to keep going. Two buckets of gloopy spawn later, and we were back home, around the side of the house decanting clusters of jelly balls into a half-dismembered metal trunk that had once held my mother’s honeymoon clothes. History is unclear as to whether or not C. egged me on or if he simply took the non-interventionist approach and didn’t stop me. Either way, entranced by the slippy pellets with their tiny black pupils, I did as any curious three year old would do – I stuffed a handful of frogspawn into my mouth. And I swallowed. I came to no harm.
Four years later C. – now a teenager – was, against better judgement, charged with taking me to an Irish Dancing Festival in the Town Hall. Bedecked in my green embroidered costume with white lace collar and cuffs that mum had hand washed, ironed and sewn on the night before, and draped with cape lined in gold satin, C. took me on a ‘short-cut’, up a steep verge, ploughed to muck by short-cutting kids, the effect of which was to give my costume more that a hint of Paul Henry’s ‘potato-pickers’ rather than John Luke’s elegant Irish dancers whom I had hoped to emulate. I wonder if that was one of the occasions when Mrs. T., the adjudicator, rang the bell early and sent me off the stage demanding, “Will one of the mammies please comb number 36’s hair and tidy her up, after which she may come back up and dance that reel again. And check what that brown stuff is on the hem of her dress.”
Bounce on a further four years, and C., now a young man, was giving me a ‘backie’ on a bike without brakes. We careened down a long, steep hill on Rathlin Island, me shouting “faster, faster!” until we hit a cattle grid at full pelt. C. went one way and I went the other and the front wheel came clean off the bike and rolled into a field of Belted Galloways. The lady from whom we had hired the bike-with-no-breaks showed no concern for my shaved shins, though she wasn’t at all pleased at the state of the bike’s return. Health and safety hadn’t arrived in Rathlin by 1984; I doubt it’s there yet.
Formative memories of striking out in the world are, for me, therefore, linked with lessons on self-preservation (mostly, not to hang out with C.). Laurie Lee opens his novel, ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’, with words of hopeful aspiration: “The stooping figure of my mother, waist deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool, was the last I saw of my country home as I left it to discover the world. It was 1934. I was nineteen years old, still soft at the edges, but with a confident belief in good fortune.” When someone stays put, when they don’t strike out in the world, when they rest within their community, shielded, guarded, protected, we tend to think they are less ‘knowing’ than those who have spread their wings and explored. We come to equate a lack of worldly wisdom and travel with innocence. But is this the case? We all have a verifiable chronological age, our birth certificates tethering us to it. Laurie Lee might have thought he lost his innocence aged 19, when he strode away from his mother and across the fields towards fortune. But what if our innocence is ageless? And what if it has nothing to do with us having seen the world or not?
Innocence, by Patrick Kavanagh
They laughed at one I loved-
The triangular hill that hung
Under the Big Forth. They said
That I was bounded by the whitethorn hedges
Of the little farm and did not know the world.
But I knew that love’s doorway to life
Is the same doorway everywhere.
Ashamed of what I loved
I flung her from me and called her a ditch
Although she was smiling at me with violets.
But now I am back in her briary arms
The dew of an Indian Summer lies
On bleached potato-stalks
What age am I?
I do not know what age I am,
I am no mortal age;
I know nothing of women,
Nothing of cities,
I cannot die
Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.
scheugh* – Ulster-Scots (pardon my spelling) for a shallow, muddy stream; always muddy….