We Need Hidden Worlds

When I was very small I liked to climb what I called a tree. It was actually a sturdy shrub. I sat between branches less than a foot off the ground, sure I was hidden, feeling mysterious as creatures that speak without words. I also used to retreat to the coat closet with my younger brother. We sat companionably in the dark under heavy coat hems, talking or just enjoying the quiet together. And we made pillow forts, draped sheets over furniture, and played under the folded leaves of the dining room table.

My favorite hidden place was in the woods behind our house. There was a small rise no bigger around than two desk tops. Tall trees grew at either side and a creek bed, dry most of the year, ran along one side. The whole area was covered with leaves. I tried to walk there soundlessly, as I fancied Native Americans walked, not cracking a twig or rustling the underbrush. I tried to identify plants I could eat or use if I lived in the woods, as the boy did in My Side of the Mountain . I’d sit alone in completely silence, hoping if I did so long enough the woodland creatures might forgot about me, might even come near. I snuck food out of the house to make that place a haven, as I’d read about in Rabbit Hill but I always came back to find the iceberg lettuce and generic white bread I left were still untouched.

Once I became a preteen I found a hidden world right outside my bedroom window. I climbed on a chair and hoisted myself up on the gently sloping roof that faced the back yard. When I started college at a large urban university I’d just turned 17. My hermit soul craved time to be alone and still. The only place I found was in a bathroom on the upper floor of the oldest building on campus. I’d retreat behind a heavy wooden stall door, close the antique latch, and meditate on the wood grain of that door until I felt restored. A necessary refuge, although hardly ideal.

Most children seek out small places to make their own. They find secret realms in couch blanket forts, behind furniture, and in outdoor hideaways. There they do more than play. They command their own worlds of imagination away from adult view, often listening to silence by choice.

Perhaps retreating somewhere cozy harkens back to our earliest sense memories, first in the sheltering confines of the womb and then in the security of loving arms. Yet at the same time, hidden worlds are also a way of establishing our independence. Children have surely always slipped out of sight in the cool shadows of tall cornstalks, the flapping shapes of sheets hung on clotheslines, the small spaces under back steps, behind furniture, and inside closets.

There are all sorts of tiny retreats that can be purchased for kids. Plastic structures made to look like ships or cabins, tiny tents, pre-made playhouses. These things lose their allure. Children want to discover hidden places on their own or to create them out of materials they scavenge like fabric, cardboard, scrap wood, whatever is handy. (The benefits of this play is described in the “theory of loose parts.”) These places tend to be transitory, lasting for a short time or changing into something else. They’re special because they’re unique to the child. These places contain the real magic of secret places.

Hidden worlds are made with blankets, indoors

or outdoors.

They’re found in cardboard boxes

snow

driftwood

natural play place, loose parts play,

Image: natsukoryoto.deviantart.com

and under trees.

They’re made out of old logs

old plywood

or branches.

 

The hidden worlds I cherish these days have more to do with a quiet sense of peace found in moments of solitude. What’s paradoxical, these are also times when I most often feel the oneness that connects everything.

Maybe growing up with the freedom to retreat within hidden worlds, no matter what was going on, helped me to access this in myself. Hurray for blanket tents, for treehouses and spaces under tables, for all hidden worlds that let us gather up what is fragmented in ourselves and feel whole again.

How do you make time, and space, for hidden worlds in your child’s life and in your life?

Mine Is The Wrong Kind Of Lust

don't make me travel, why I stay put,

Image: babyoctopuss.deviantart.com

Let me explain.

My schoolteacher father had summers off, so my parents made the best use of that time. That meant teaching their children geography and history through travel. Each winter my mother started planning our frugal summer trips. She sat at the kitchen table with maps and guidebooks arrayed in front of her as she carefully plotted a route that maximized educational stops along the way. Old battlegrounds, restored villages, and scenic natural wonders were her priority. The other priority? No admission fees.

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why I don't travel,

One summer we traveled over 6,000 miles. Most days we had an early breakfast, drove for six hours, spent the late afternoon sightseeing in the steamy heat, then went on to a trailer park where our 15 foot Scotty was invariably the smallest trailer around. Other folks in these places looked like there were staying a few days. They sat in lawn chairs and chatted around campfires. My parents meant business. Ours was a carefully planned agenda which meant we kids showered soon after supper in those ubiquitous cement block restrooms and went to bed early, usually lying awake in the hot metal trailer listening to other families laugh and talk under the trees.

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why I don't travel,

Our trips were strictly no-frills in every way. My parents spent as little as possible on food—we never had fast food or restaurant meals while we traveled. I ate a peanut butter minus jelly sandwich chased by Tang every day at lunchtime. They scouted out the cheapest gas and took only the most carefully considered photos in those pre-digital days. Miraculously they maintained family peace in very close proximity for weeks on end, although we kids found minor parental spats over directions and mileage calculations secretly hilarious.

Don’t get me wrong, my parents had wonderful motives. They piled three kids in a small car and showed us the country. But I was a lethargic and grumpy traveler. Hurtling down the highway with windows open (air conditioning allegedly reduced fuel economy) only aggravated my asthma and hay fever, plus I suffered with relentless headaches and nausea from car sickness. Yet I wasn’t sufficiently self-aware to let anyone know that I felt dizzy, woozy, and short of breath. I longed for the comforts of home: library books, a familiar bathtub, my trusty bike, and some control over my own life. As soon as my mother got out the maps to start planning I felt nothing but dread, which I masked with a facade of eager anticipation lest I be called “ungrateful.” But every minute our car headed farther away from home seemed wrong somewhere in the center of my being. Until we returned I felt suspended from my own completeness—a weary, one-dimensional version of myself.

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I refuse to travel,

Perhaps these long yearly trips, taken when I was unwell and unwilling, served to inoculate me against travel. As an adult I still struggle to feel wholly myself when I’m away. That marks me as seriously maladjusted. Wanderlust, or at least the urge to get away, is the norm. All sorts of well-meaning people mock non-travelers as people with no sense of adventure.

Oh sure, I long to go places. I’ve even traveled of my own volition. But I rail against the backward century in which I’ve been born, or perhaps the backward planet I’ve been born on, because I can’t adjust to the concept that it’s not possible to mosey over to Belarus or Uruguay or Finland this afternoon, have a wonderful lunch, meet some new friends and assure them that I’ll stop by next Friday. The problem isn’t the destination, it’s getting there. I know poets and sages say it’s all about the journey. I’ve journeyed, believe me. I say all of life is a journey, every single moment that we’re wide awake and fully participating in the process of living.

hermit's rationale, staying home, peace in place,

Besides, aren’t poets and sages all about being true to oneself? Being true to myself means giving in to the lust to stay rooted.

I experience a kind of delicious completion as I perform the simple rituals of life right here every day. I make cheese from our cow’s milk, walk the dogs, chop vegetables, work at my desk—-all in view of the fields and trees that sustain me season after season with their subtle, incremental changes.

I hope those of us who are truly rooted have something to offer this ever faster world. Our insights may be simple. I pay attention to the vegetable gardens, the beehives, to blackbirds convening in a clamor across the treetops. Changes I see are those that take place slowly and noticing them is part of the pleasure I find in being fully here. To me there’s soul-drenching nourishment that comes of contemplation, quiet, and service. Thank goodness we can fulfill the desires we choose, leaning eagerly toward the excitement of travel or to answering longings that serve a quieter nature.

You know where to find me. I’m right here.

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staying home, anti-traveler, delights of home,