By Lorne Browne. (response to September 11)
First the Canadian favorites – Bob Homme (the Friendly Giant) and then Ernie Coombs (Mr. Dressup) died. Then Fred Rogers retired from his Neighborhood. Three gentle television storytellers for children now gone, their places filled with frenetic, over-produced kids’ shows. I found myself longing for the more innocent, gentler time of childhood and wondering if it were gone forever.
Then came September 11, 2001, and I innately felt that the world would never be the same again.
There are pundits now, proclaiming on everything, but I’ve grown old enough, and perhaps just a little wiser, to know better than to pontificate on things I know nothing about. Security experts offer their views; I sometimes forget to lock my door. Financial experts offer predictions for the marketplace; I’m happy if I can balance my bank account. Military experts state thus and thus; I sing “Last Night I had the Strangest Dream”. Political experts offer advice to rulers; I’m not a political animal.
But I know a little bit about stories and songs, and I found myself turning to them to try to make sense of things.
I turned to the Bible, not out of any religious or spiritual beliefs, but because it is one of the oldest of books and seems to have set the pattern for literature down through the ages. I read again of the Garden of Eden, and the innocence of life therein. It was the childhood of the world, but its inhabitants had to flee it, never to return. The world became crueler for everyone. I thought of the Judeo-Christian tradition of longing to return to Paradise, the Classical tradition of longing for the Golden Age. Some say that this longing to return to the Garden of Eden has driven us ever since.
And I pondered yet again how the longing to return to the garden is still such a driving force. We see it in the gardening (Browne cont’d) craze of today, in walled gardens and in public gardens. We see it in literature, in some of the greatest and most influential of books, of stories. Robert Louis Stevenson called his book of poems for children “A Child’s Garden of Verses”.
The hero Theseus enters the Labyrinth constructed by Daedulus, searching for the dreaded Minotaur to whom the Athenians must pay a tribute of seven boys and seven girls every nine years. He is comforted and strengthened in his task by carrying a golden thread spun for him by the king’s daughter Ariadne. After killing the fearsome beast, and thus liberating Athens, he returns to safety following the golden thread.
Homer’s great work, “The Odyssey”, is about another hero trying to get home, and the extraordinary adventures he has to undergo. The desire to return home drove Odysseus, and it drives us still. Virgil’s “Aeneid” expands on this: the virtues of home and all that it implies can be carried to other places; we can go home again somewhere else.
After September 11, I wondered if I, or if the world, could ever go back to the childhood innocence of the Garden of Eden, of Mr. Dressup et al, indeed of anything pre-September 11. An ironically symbolic event that no one seems to have commented on is that the American President was about to talk with a class of school children in Florida when he was so rudely interrupted. It will be a long time, if ever, before he can go back to carry on his conversations with the children.
I read Shakespeare again, and his “Seven Ages of Man” speech in “As You Like It”. You know the one, where man starts as a mewling and puking infant, then becomes the whining schoolboy, the sighing lover singing woeful ballads. I read with interest that he then becomes a soldier, jealous in honor and quick to quarrel. And then justice, full of wise saws. The sixth age is the lean and slipper’d pantaloon, leading to the final stage, second childishness.
As Ed McCurdy once said, there is a big difference between childlike and (Browne cont’d) childish, and Shakespeare is very negative about the last stage, the stage of oblivion, sans teeth, eyes, taste, everything.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, it seemed as if Shakespeare were right. As if Thomas Wolfe were right when he said, “You can’t go home again.” I know that I was not alone in thinking this; everyone seemed to agree that the world was changed in some profound way and that we can never go back to the way it was. It left me deeply shaken, questioning the value of everything.
At the moment of my deepest despair, these old tales reminded me that history and literature are on our side. We can go home again, even if only in our stories and songs. We must go home again.
Home will, of course, be changed, and changed in ways that no one can fully understand. But I think that there is the distinct possibility that some of these changes will be beneficial. Sad though it is that it takes crises such as a Walkerton or a World Trade Center to drive the point home, I think that the recognition that a strong government is fundamental in a civilized society might finally take the wind out of those neo-cons who keep bleating about smaller government and who worship big business. I think that we have now seen real heroes, the firefighters, police, and emergency crews, in action; we have seen real strength and love and heroism in so many final cell phone calls to loved ones. Such real heroism, such real strength might finally put to rest the bizarre cult of the personality that has bedevilled us all. Our preoccupation with the banal and the trivial now seems absurd.
So I found myself singing Erev shel shoshanim, a beautiful Hebrew song that is all about gardens and roses and love. I found myself singing the song about the woman mystic with the man’s name, Julian, who lived in the time of Chaucer. The Bells of Norwich has this wonderful chorus:
All shall be well, I’m telling you,
let the winter come and go,
All shall be well again, I know.
And I read again E. B. White’s wonderful poem, and found myself singing it to Pete Seeger’s tune:
The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.
And all that journey down through space,
In cool descent and loyal hearted,
She spins a ladder to the place
From where she started.
Thus I, gone forth as spiders do,
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken thread to you
For my returning.
Yes, dear reader, you and I, we need Theseus’ golden thread now, more than ever. Stories and songs help.
Article originally appeared in Words on the Wing: Issue 6, Winter 2001
editor of Appleseed Quarterly
44 Wentworth Ave.
Toronto, ON, Canada