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Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Those halcyon days

My uncle, my brother and I on a trip around California in May 2007

I have a chronic Peter Pan syndrome. I cling to childhood - to Disney, 8 o' clock bedtimes and my beloved children's classics. It hurts when I don't enjoy something I liked as a child - as if I've suffered an irrevocable loss - as if I've lost a piece of that childhood I'm trying so hard to hold on to. I have a slight, irrational terror of the adult world. When I'm confused by life, childhood seems to me a golden dream - and adulthood a cold, somewhat dreary reality. A significant part of my struggle as a teenager was, I think, my developing adult intelligence fighting against the child I steadfastly refused to let go of. It was so much more comfortable to think in black and white, and of right and wrong as two firmly demarcated, unshakeable categories. To believe blindly and faithfully that everything the 'elders' told you was unquestionably right. To believe in a world full of sunshine, where the good thrive and the evil are swiftly punished, is the privilege of a child with a happy, wholesome, slightly closeted upbringing. Amidst an age group where everyone seemed to be in a tearing hurry to grow up, I was the exception. I had no desire to watch R-rated movies; I still listened to Disney songs. Reading dark, depressing, layered literature as an eleventh grader made me wish I could analyze Heidi instead. I preferred Tom and Jerry to anything 'bawdy'.

The reason I found it so hard to let go - why I still sometimes feel a yearning that's almost physically painful for a time when everything seemed far simpler - is that I had a perfect childhood. I was gloriously happy. I was smart and bright, cheerful and imaginative, and everybody loved me. I devoured book after book, and my parents encouraged me, buying me whichever book I wanted - after checking that it was age-appropriate. I was a huge dreamer - I day-dreamed on the school bus home, sitting on the steps in front of my house, before going to sleep, while in the lift - everywhere. Huge, grandiose, colourful dreams that involved me saving the world, or conquering it as an artist, a singer, a writer, a scientist - whatever caught my fancy that particular day. They generally ended with me giving marvelously eloquent speeches that everyone cheered on. I also had dialogues with famous people, fictional people, literary characters, even dead authors. I befriended Anne and wrote letters to Jawaharlal Nehru (after reading some of Glimpses of World History). I was, you see, capable of anything. There was no doubt that I would change the world, after winning laurel after laurel. It was only a matter of deciding exactly what I wanted to do.

My life was exciting, because I recast every little incident in dramatic hues in my head. I was convinced that everything that happened to me taught me indispensable lessons and shaped my life in ways that biographers would comment on when I was famous. As you can see, I had a slightly swollen head.

It wasn't just my head, though. I lived in an apartment with large open spaces, and I had many friends. As a kid I played outside for hours. We had innumerable games that always ended with the 'denner' (I'm not certain how we arrived at that word. I guess it could be taken to be equivalent to the person who's 'it' in a game of tag) chasing everyone else. We played 'make-believe' and pretended that the route from the basement into someone's balcony was a 'secret passage'. We created dozens of clubs. With one went we went so far as to elect a leader (we passed around pieces of paper with all the members' names in them, and everyone had to tick who they wanted) and make medals and trophies to be awarded to the winners of subsequent games. Unfortunately, we abandoned the whole enterprise soon after. I fear the oldest members of the group got a little too old.

My brother and I were the closest of friends. As really little kids, we would wander around hand in hand. I got terribly offended when a friend suggested I go to her house to play without him, because he always broke her crayons. "How would you feel if I asked you not to bring your brother?" (She didn't have a brother so this argument really had very little impact on her). The curly-haired little brat was the apple of my eye. I told him the stories from all the books I read, and he listened open-mouthed. He would fall asleep with his hand curled around my finger. When he got to be what he considered too old to do this, I felt bereft; I would sneak my finger into his warm hand after he had fallen asleep, and watch in satisfaction as it curled around my finger. He would tell me about the animals and people and machines he had seen on National Geographic and Discovery; I would listen, my mind unfairly wandering off to whatever book I was presently reading. I read aloud to him from Hilltop Hospital (anyone else adore these?). Our favourite story was the one about Ruby the Vampire bat, where the twin ambulance drivers Ted and Ted, have very funny back-and-forth dialogues. We memorized Mulan word for word. We played, fought and talked on long drives to holiday destinations. I felt genuinely sorry for people without siblings.

I had everything. The world was my oyster. Was it any wonder I fought aggressively the necessity of waking up?