Tag Archives: childhood

“The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini

KiteRunner

This was one of those books that has been on my list for a long time, and I finally got around to reading it. I remember something Salman Rushdie said when I heard him speak at UNCA: He said if you want to learn about Afghanistan, you read The Kite Runner and not the news. I definitely feel like I learned a lot about Afghan culture from this book.

So the problem I now face is what to write about without providing spoilers for those who have not yet read the book. It’s tough, because so much of the story’s beauty is in how everything plays out. I guess I will focus on some things that resonated with me on a personal level, as well as some interesting symbolism.

One of the more painful memories from my childhood was when a friend of mine, Mason, was getting bullied by a group of older kids. These kids had often bullied me, so I was just grateful that I was being spared. Thinking I might avoid future bullying, I laughed as my friend was attacked. Of course, this did not spare me from future abuse, and I was also wracked with guilt over the pain I saw in my friend’s eyes. Our friendship ended that day and I have long regretted my failure to stand by Mason. So when I read how Amir passively watched and did nothing while his friend Hassan was attacked, I had a reaction which was nothing short of visceral.

I opened my mouth, almost said something. Almost. The rest of my life might have turned out differently if I had. But I didn’t. I just watched. Paralyzed.

(p. 73)

Recently, I have been saddened by the images of Syrian refugees and the stories of their struggles. It is almost unfathomable for a white, privileged American to grasp how it must feel to pack what little you can into a suitcase and flee from your home. The closest experience I have had to that was having to evacuate my home when a hurricane was approaching, packing what I could into my car, and thoroughly expecting the rest of my belongings to be gone within 24 hours. As such, I was stirred by the section of the book where Amir and his father had to flee Afghanistan.

My eyes returned to our suitcases. They made me sad for Baba. After everything he’d built, planned, fought for, fretted over, dreamed of, this was the summation of his life: one disappointing son and two suitcases.

(p. 124)

The one symbol I would like to look at is the pomegranate, which appears throughout the book. “In Ancient Greek mythology, the pomegranate was known as the ‘fruit of the dead’, and believed to have sprung from the blood of Adonis.” In addition, pomegranates “were known in Ancient Israel as the fruits which the scouts brought to Moses to demonstrate the fertility of the ‘promised land’.” Finally, “some Jewish scholars believe the pomegranate was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.” (Source: Wikipedia)

In the book, there is a scene where Amir returns to a place from his childhood where a pomegranate tree once grew. The tree is now dead and fruitless, symbolizing the transition of Afghanistan from a rich fertile place to one of death and desolation. In addition, the dead tree also represents the loss of his friendship with Hassan, and the sin and guilt which Amir must bear.

Hassan had said in his letter that the pomegranate tree hadn’t borne fruit in years. Looking at the wilted, leafless tree, I doubted it ever would again. I stood under it, remembered all the times we’d climbed it, straddled its branches, our legs swinging, dappled sunlight flickering through the leaves and casting on our faces a mosaic of light and shadow. The tangy taste of pomegranate crept into my mouth.

(p. 264)

It’s taken me a long time, but I have finally been able to forgive myself for the mistakes I made as a kid. Kids make mistakes; it’s part of growing up. Like Amir in the book, I beat myself up for a long time over mistakes I made, but as I matured as a person, I learned to forgive myself and to become a better person as a result.

What you did was wrong, Amir jan, but do not forget that you were a boy when it happened. A troubled little boy. You were too hard on yourself then, and you still are—I saw it in your eyes in Peshawar. But I hope you will heed this: A man who has no conscience, no goodness, does not suffer. I hope your suffering comes to an end with this journey to Afghanistan.

(p. 301)

It’s impossible to read this book and not be affected by the experience. This book demonstrates the importance of literature. Stories matter. They force us to examine ourselves and help to advance humanity as a whole.

Thanks for stopping my, and keep reading great stuff.

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“Ghost House” by Robert Frost

Image Source: Princeton Landing News

Image Source: Princeton Landing News

I dwell in a lonely house I know
That vanished many a summer ago,
And left no trace but the cellar walls,
And a cellar in which the daylight falls
And the purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow.

O’er ruined fences the grape-vines shield
The woods come back to the mowing field;
The orchard tree has grown one copse
Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops;
The footpath down to the well is healed.

I dwell with a strangely aching heart
In that vanished abode there far apart
On that disused and forgotten road
That has no dust-bath now for the toad.
Night comes; the black bats tumble and dart;

The whippoorwill is coming to shout
And hush and cluck and flutter about:
I hear him begin far enough away
Full many a time to say his say
Before he arrives to say it out.

It is under the small, dim, summer star.
I know not who these mute folk are
Who share the unlit place with me—
Those stones out under the low-limbed tree
Doubtless bear names that the mosses mar.

They are tireless folk, but slow and sad—
Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad,—
With none among them that ever sings,
And yet, in view of how many things,
As sweet companions as might be had.

This poem drips melancholy from each stanza. I get the impression of a man in his later years, who is basically living in the past. His life is nothing but the ruined remnants of what he was in his youth. The images of the raspberry growing in the ruins of what was once the cellar (a symbol for the foundation upon which his life was once built) is particularly poignant. While the raspberries are delicious summer berries, representing the sweetness of his youth, the brambles on which the berries grow are full of thorns, and the vines are like painful memories, sharp and prickly, entwined in his brain.

Several types of birds appear in the poem, and each one symbolizes a part of his memory. The woodpecker is the constant tapping, tapping, tapping of his past, reminding him of what is lost. The bats are the memories which haunt him at night, fluttering through his dreams. The other birds—whippoorwill, hush, and cluck—symbolize the happier memories of his childhood, calling back to him.

I feel there is a larger overarching theme here. Nature reclaims all that is created. The house is reclaimed by nature, overgrown and reduced to little more than a crumbling foundation. Likewise, the man knows that nature is about to reclaim him, and like the house, all that will remain of him will be an old, crumbling, neglected gravestone, covered with brambles.

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“Between childhood, boyhood, adolescence & manhood” by Jim Morrison

MorrisonVenice

Photo taken at Venice Beach

Between childhood, boyhood, adolescence
& manhood (maturity) there
should be sharp lines drawn w/
Tests, deaths, feats, rites
stories, songs, & judgements

I recently went out to Los Angeles to visit my daughter, and while I was there, I went and spent a few hours roaming around Venice Beach, which was also Jim Morrison’s haunt in his younger days. In fact, Venice Beach was where Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek met and decided to form a band together which later became The Doors. The place still has a strange feel, and the huge mural painted on the side of a building reminds you that this was home to Jim in his formative years (see photo).

As I read this short poem included in Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison, I could not help thinking about those moments in my life that served as symbolic rites of passage, where I moved on to my next phase of personal development. There have been many, but each one is clear, each accompanied by its own epiphany.

As I helped my daughter move into her own apartment off campus in L.A., I realized that this must be one of those moments for her, clear and defined, where she truly becomes her own person. I suppose it is also a sharp line for me too, realizing that my child has grown and moved out on her own.

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“My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold” by William Wordsworth

Wordsworth

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So it was when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

This is a poem about how our experiences as children affect who we become as adults. Wordsworth begins by expressing his joy and excitement upon seeing a rainbow. He then states that he had the same feelings as a child, as an adult, and that he expects the same feelings when he gets old. He essentially establishes a connection between his past, present, and future. He also strongly asserts that when he reaches the point where he is no longer enthralled by the sight of a rainbow, which is a symbol for the beauty of Nature, then it is time for him to die.

When Wordsworth writes “The Child is father of the Man;” he is stating that his reverence for Nature is something that he learned as a child. His thoughts and feelings that he had as a child are what created the man he became. Likewise, those childhood impressions would continue to influence his life as he enters old age.

For Wordsworth, all his days are “bound each to each.” There is a natural connection between who he was, who he is, and who he will become, and it all grows from the seeds of wonder that were planted within him as a child.

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“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas

ChildsChristmasWales

I was reminded today about why I hate to get rid of books. I was scanning my shelves, looking for something appropriate to read for the holidays, and spotted my old copy of Quite Early One Morning by Dylan Thomas. It had been probably 30 years since I opened this book, but it called to me. As soon as I looked at the table of contents and saw that it contained “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” I knew I had been guided to this book.

Let me start by saying that I loved this piece. It is a prose poem that has the feel and lyrical cadence of some of the most beautiful lyric poetry I have ever read. Reading this stirred memories of holidays when I was a kid, complete with the wonder and imagination and adventure that was such a big part of growing up in the north east.

While I would love to include the entire text in this post, I will limit myself to three passages that I feel capture the essence of this tale. I hope it will inspire you to read the entire piece because it is amazing. In fact, here is a link to an online version if you feel so inclined.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales

The first section I’d like to share is a great example of childhood imagination. It brought back memories of how, as a kid, we stalked the woods with sling-shots hunting small animals, which we never caught, but it was the adventure, fueled by our active imaginations, which made it such a formative experience.

It was on the afternoon of the day of Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero’s garden, waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slink and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes. The wise cats never appeared. We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal snows—eternal, ever since Wednesday—that we never heard Mrs. Prothero’s first cry from her igloo at the bottom of the garden. Or, if we heard it at all, it was, to us, like the far-off challenge of our enemy and prey, the neighbour’s polar cat. But soon the voice grew louder.

The use of alliteration adds to the music of the writing, and Thomas uses this technique throughout the piece. This next passage—which is a long, single sentence—focuses on his romanticized memories of past Christmases and is another great example of the use alliteration and punctuation to instill a poetic feel into the prose.

Years and years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.

The last section that I want to share is a paragraph near the end where Thomas recounts the telling of stories beside the fire. In an age of digital media and endless streaming entertainment, this is rapidly becoming a lost art, like hand-written letters on artistic stationery arriving in the mailbox. He also recalls going out caroling, something I too did as a kid, and the thrill of going up to a dark, mysterious house, of which there was always at least one in each neighborhood.

Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs where the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn’t the shaving of a moon to light the flying street. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house.

Reading this story kindled warm memories of my childhood. Ever the romantic, I often look back at the past and reminisce about the carefree and adventurous days of my youth. Not that I would ever want to give up the life I have today, but I am grateful that I have those memories.

Have a blessed holiday and New Year!

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“Nurse’s Song” by William Blake (from Songs of Experience)

NursesSong_soe

When the voices of children are heard on the green
And whisprings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.  

Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Your spring and your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.

This poem corresponds to the poem of the same name from the Songs of Innocence (click here to read about that poem). As with the other poem, this one also is set at a transitional period between day to night, symbolizing the transition from childhood to adulthood. But we also see a transition out of spring and accompanying that the idea of winter coming. This symbolic transition conjures a sense of impending death, that the first stages of the cycle has come to a close and the cycles of maturity and death are beginning.

The nurse, who is the voice in this poem, is clearly troubled as she watches over the children. Their play evokes memories of her past which cause her deep anguish.

The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.

I would assert that the nurse gave up her virginity out of wedlock and as a result, suffered for doing so. Possibly, she bore a child herself and had to give the child away to an orphanage or some such institution. As she watches the children and listens to them, she recalls her own innocence and how it led her to make a mistake that carried long-lasting consequences. She knows innately that at least some of the children she cares for will ultimately make the same mistakes she made.

As with so many of Blake’s poems from the Songs of Innocence and Experience, this poem is short but visceral. I know for me, I spent a lot of time looking back at my youth and punishing myself for choices I made, just as the nurse does. Thankfully, I reached a place of acceptance and even gratitude. If it were not for my mistakes, I would never have learned the lessons that brought me to the place I am today, which is a good place.

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“To Summer” by William Blake

Claude Monet: Green Garden

Claude Monet: Green Garden

O thou who passest thro’ our valleys in
Thy strength, curb thy fierce steeds, allay the heat
That flames from their large nostrils! thou, O Summer,
Oft pitched’st here thy golden tent, and oft
Beneath our oaks hast slept, while we beheld
With joy thy ruddy limbs and flourishing hair.

Beneath our thickest shades we oft have heard
Thy voice, when noon upon his fervid car
Rode o’er the deep of heaven; beside our springs
Sit down, and in our mossy valleys, on
Some bank beside a river clear, throw thy
Silk draperies off, and rush into the stream:
Our valleys love the Summer in his pride.

Our bards are fam’d who strike the silver wire:
Our youth are bolder than the southern swains:
Our maidens fairer in the sprightly dance:
We lack not songs, nor instruments of joy,
Nor echoes sweet, nor waters clear as heaven,
Nor laurel wreaths against the sultry heat.

Sometimes, you read a poem and it just speaks directly to your soul. I experienced that feeling today when I read this poem. I live in the southern Appalachian Mountains and this poem captures the feeling I get when I sit outside under my large oak tree, or go for a hike along a mountain trail and rest beside a stream, smelling the rich moss and decomposing leaves that fell to the earth the previous autumn. As I read Blake’s words, I could feel the humid warmth that is a part of my summer.

This poem also stirred memories of my childhood summers. There was an excitement associated with summer that is difficult to express in words. The sensation of running barefoot through the grass, of climbing trees, lush with green foliage, of lying about, lazy, basking in the long days. I sometimes forget how much I loved summer as a child.

There is a sense of abundance in this poem, as well as celebration and inspiration. The third stanza makes me want to invite all my friends over to cook out in the backyard, then take out our instruments and play music until long after the sun sets.

I hope you found this poem as inspiring as I did, and may you enjoy your summer.

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