Friday, June 29, 2018


“I have a deadly nightshade
So twisted does it grow
With berries black as midnight
And a skull as white as snow
The vicar’s cocky young son
Came to drink my tea
He touched me without asking
Now he’s buried ‘neath a tree.”

Trad. “Girls’ Skipping Rhyme” from Chokely in Wynterset

"Skipping rhymes" are a good literary type for an age that has no really good name, that time between the work of learning to walk, talk, count, and so on and the onset of puberty, which is triggered by the maturation of the adrenal glands which controls sexual maturation.  Technically called "adrenarche", the years from perhaps five to maybe twelve are about both identity and agency:  who are you and what can you do.  At this point, physiologically, sexual differences are fairly irrelevant but if the culture emphasizes male/female gender roles, they can interfere.  Some cultures consider children neutral, asexual until puberty.

The toddler's intense bonding to the caregiver begins to loosen and transition to belonging to a group, though some will have a best buddy.  As they grow, adding new friends or dropping old friends, becomes easier.   Shared interests, affinities, become more important, but they are likely to be "horizontal" same-age relationships like scouts, 4-H, camp, sports.

There's a near-genre of buddies, esp. boys, like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Two Little Savages, Penrod and Sam.  With girls, in the books I read, the puzzle of the story is how to handle being different: "Anne of Green Gables", "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm".  "The Princess and Curdie" is about pals who are two genders, but both are "heroes."  "The Secret Garden" is a group.

This age between five and nine or ten is highly attractive to some adults, which can work out if the adult accepts the growth/change of the younger one.  Sexual contact can be a problem because the child doesn't have the physical readiness to make boundaries.  Emotionally, this can be overwhelming, pressing the child out of the natural pattern into being infantile or trying to be adult.  Problems form, like dissociation or creating either incomplete or multiple identities, misleading a child about abilities and what is important.

This is when one sees death as possible, possibly even wanting it.  Murder, likewise, and a child this age could do it.  This age attracts both predators and helpers, teachers and molesters.  Some cultures put children this age to work, usually repetitious and maybe unpleasant.  This age is still controllable, but now they can see it coming and resent it.

In the past I've suggested that one's identity narrative is threefold: what happened in the past, what might happen in the future, and what is happening right now.  All three can change and all three are accounts of the individual pressed up against the environment, especially other people.  If one's understanding of the past changes, maybe by finding out something previously unknown, then the version of right now and possibly the expected events of the future are changed.  Since the child's ability to understand and think of actions is growing, all three narratives may change.  But other people have plans for the child, which might be helpful or not, depending on how they think the story can go.

Books for these ages are generally about a child who is a hero, that is, takes hold and finally prevails.  It need not be realistic and often takes an animal as the hero, because by now the child can understand that one can think in abstract concepts and imagine other minds, other worlds.  A child this age might be able to survive without adults, barely, which is a source of gripping tales.  I think of "Kim" or "Empire of the Sun."  Pluralistic and shifting times like ours should create many plot lines about kids this age.  When I read these stories, I had no difficulty identifying cross-gender and was a little startled when people began to insist that girls should only read about girls.

In the late forties and early fifties, following the story pattern of the journey, my family took long car trips every summer, supposedly so my father could attend national conferences of cooperatives at ag colleges.  The roads were paved but there were no major highways yet, no motels except little tourist camps, no campgrounds, and no one else on the road that we knew of.  We passed through country and stayed wherever we found a wide spot, often on farm land.  The farmer came to check us out.  Once we woke in a flock of wild turkeys.  My mother always inspected whatever flowers there were.  Once when we broke down in a California town she discovered in a yard agapanthus lilies, big blue balls, and the old man who lived there gave her a start.  When she died many years later, the agapanthus was still growing.  So was the aspen she illegally dug up in a national forest.

My father had two sets of destination:  one was national monuments, the churches of his civic allegiance; the other was relatives, mostly rural and small town.  I was most impressed by Florence Dickerson, mayor of Mendota, Michigan, because she had had a sinus cancer and its removal left her with a cratered face.  It took about as long to get used to as a new Star Trek character did twenty years later.  She lived with Sarah Blum, who had been a friend of my grandmother who grew up there.  My sense of America was Mt. Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, and graceful old houses in places were the trees were all deciduous, all very large, all old.  

All this was scattered over what I thought was prairie until Boston, a rude and crowded place.  The family story was about trying to get to the Old North Church, its steeple in plain sight over the housetops.  We came to a five corners intersection with a police podium in the middle.  Desperately my father drove up to him and yelled out the window, "Which way is the Old North Church?"  The cop replied, "Any way you wanna go, bud, just get the hell out of here!"  He blew a whistle and wore gloves.

Late one night we pulled into a small midwest town with many men in the street -- angry, shouting, milling around.  Everyone was asleep except me -- keeping watch -- and my father who never stopped for the night soon enough.  Now he was blocked.  A man came to the side of the car.  "What's happening?" asked my father

"Demonstration about to become a riot.  Is this your family?  You better get them the hell outta here, mister."  I was always impressed by cussing.  Get the hell outta here meant something real, dark, and dangerous.  And grownups didn't know where to go.  I thought it was up to me to save us all, staying awake in the corner of the back seat, seeing a glow that meant fire but not seeing the fire.

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