A summer of young childhood is an entire life preserved in a magical crystal that you can look back into. You hold up different facets and see moments, places, stories. To a child everything seems timeless and famous and momentous and legendary, and that’s because it is. Adults walk in a faded blue world where all the strings are connected at the ends, a world that is endless sums of numbers that always add up the same and if they don’t you know you’re missing something, a world where even the most foreign places are on the same surface as you and can be reached by taking an ordinary trip in a well-known vehicle with everyday dirt on it. For a young child, even a door to the next room may be a portal to the golden kingdom you were sent from as an infant; nothing needs to be the same twice, and logic is just the cleverest trick. When your adult self looks back into the crystal, it all glows transparent gold, and you are famous to yourself, a glittering dragonfly darting and hovering.
I spent a few of my youngest years in Exshaw, a village at the mouth of the mountains in Alberta. Across the valley was a mountain with a large heart on the top, and another mountain that looked like the grade four teacher’s nose. On our side was Exshaw Mountain, gradually being blasted flat by the cement plant, and Cougar Mountain, a big bristly hump that of course we were afraid to go too far up because of cougars. On a summer day my brother and I, and perhaps another kid such as Tommy Lewis or Ricky Korzeniewski (both friends of my brother), might go exploring. We could visit the Candy Man: just one of us, never me, would go up and knock on the door of a small old house at the end of a street as it gave up against Cougar Mountain, and he would hand over a candy bar for each of us. My brother once offered to give me five bucks if I would hop on his back and let him throw me off, and, after I had let him toss me five times as from a horse, he informed me that I had just gotten five bucks. (He bucked me five times, if that needs explanation.) And sometimes we would go to Dragonfly.
Dragonfly was our name for a little swamp. To get there, we would walk to Highway 1A, the two-lane road that carried cars into, out of, and past the village. We would cross it and walk along the side for some portion of a mile until we got to a small wetland just over a fence from the ditch by the side of the road. We might see frogs, newts, birds, bugs. I’m sure we saw dragonflies glittering like long metallic beadworks.
Yes, we walked to Dragonfly and back by ourselves. Yes, with our parents’ knowledge and permission. No, there were no adults with us. Yes, we were all under ten years old. Yes, it was the early 1970s.
Of course we were back by suppertime, or probably sooner than that. In the evening we wouldn’t wander so far, if at all. More likely we would read something or perhaps listen to a record. Perhaps we would play a record by Ethel Barrett. She was a Sunday school teacher who had a gift for telling stories, some from the Bible and some not. One story was about a little grub who lived in the mud and was comfortable and knew his little dim world and loved it. And then something happened. He began to feel pain, his body started changing, he was drawn irresistably upwards towards a light. And in the end he broke through into the air and after all the pain became… a dragonfly, rising beautifully into the sunlight, transformed! It wasn’t like the ugly duckling story; that was a story of unwelcome and discontent followed by a painless transformation into something wonderful. It also wasn’t like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which my dad had (probably still has) on LP read by Richard Harris. This story that Ethel Barrett told was a story of someone who was perfectly comfortable and happy in his amniotic world, and who went through an inevitable, unasked-for, painful transformation into something even more wonderful moving around in a big, open, clear world.
I don’t think she mentioned that dragonfly nymphs (not grubs, actually, but I guess grub sounded better for her purposes) live for years in their nice aquatic environments but, once they become dragonflies, last only for days or weeks at most. In the biological timeline, a nymph is like the fireworks made in the factory, stored, transported, and set up in a clearing or near water, and a dragonfly is like the fireworks you actually see sparkling in the sky. Glorious, but brief.
Ethel Barrett’s lesson – I wish I could find a recording of that story to link you to – is about growing up (and probably also about going to heaven). And I don’t want to contradict that metaphor; I went through a painful transformation leading to a glorious adulthood – I broke through the surface and into the air in my late 20s and early 30s. But…
…in another way, childhood is the dragonfly, beautiful to behold as it stitches the air, but brief: an entire life of miracle and wonder and disappointment and reward in no more years than a middle-aged person’s rounding error. And then we break through the surface and find ourselves underwater and grubbing, looking over our shoulders every so often at the glow above, wondering what was real and what was just a dream or a story someone told us.
Until, perhaps, we find a way to break through again. Look, it’s a story, not a biology class. Why not rewrite it?