Is childhood a place or a time? Considering the aspirations of so many people to return to it, you’d think the answer was a place, a spot in the world, with an address, much easier to locate than a time, though times have dates to identify them as precisely as street names and numbers identify places. March along the avenue of moments looking for July 28, 1992, or September 3, 1973. Can you find it? With house numbers, one follows after another with a recognizable logic. Not so, however, when looking for the past. With dates, you might find that a day in June 1970 is right next to one in July 1976, the one being the first time you wore a new multicolored swimsuit during a two-week visit to Cape Cod and the other being a summer’s day in a daiquiri-colored bikini on a beach in Delaware. Lying on the sand, heads together, my best friend and I laughing one summer’s day, then I laughing half a dozen years later on a different beach with different friends. Smooth sand all around. Dunes as backdrop. Waves with whitecaps breaking lower right. Good outdoor lighting. For childhood, rather than time or place, perhaps stage might be the best word, meaning both a place and a period. Especially for children in their multiple acts of growing up, pretending to be what they aren’t yet. Stage 8 years, 3 months. Stage August 31, 1967. Stage Texas Christmas, stage Tennessee summer, stage cool, stage aloof.
Still, an address is so much more real than a time—searches for places so much a part of our present—and in principle possible to return to, requiring only doggedness to find, unlike the past, which is with us but not, a haze that envelops our understanding, sometimes thick and sometimes clearing to allow dispassionate observation of a distant scene. The writer Peter Handke asks, “What can one say to express the simultaneous experience of childhood and landscape?” The author of a New Yorker article I read on Handke treats the Austrian writer’s question as if it were a quest for a word, and then supplies an answer: Kindschaft, a German word, which could be translated as “childscape.” I read the question, however, as a search for an approach, a coming-closer, a seeing-better, a feeling-again. What words can one gather to capture the essence of childhood or the details of a child’s world?
In the same article I learned of W. G. Sebald’s suggestion that Handke’s sensory descriptions keep both writer and reader from falling into melancholy. How does this work? By describing experiences, you keep from reflecting too much on their meaning, avoiding a first step into the mire of nostalgia. Does plot, which Handke often eschews in favor of reflection, do the same for other writers, and keep the reader moving on rather than wallowing in the import of the past? As I reflect on my own excursions through the landscapes of northern Spain, often on my way to a footrace, I must be wary myself of nostalgia, especially now that my running future is in doubt, due to back trouble. One of my most recent races was a San Silvestre—a New Year’s Eve race—that my running partner and I ran in the town of Moreda, in a deep valley over the mountains from my home. It is a small race in a small town with a tradition of a very generous pool of gifts raffled after the awards ceremony. The race bibs that we turned in on finishing the race were our lottery tickets, pulled from a large cardboard box at the town’s auditorium and announced to the gathered runners and families. A selection of wine from one store, a gift certificate for sports gear from another, a sweatshirt, a basket of cheese and sausage—these goods and similar were donations by local merchants and organizations. Several tickets to the national lottery were among the gifts. I got nothing this year, but my partner got a certificate for a meal for two at a local hamburger joint, a gift it wouldn’t be worth his while to come back to redeem. Oh well. My partner and I had each taken the award for the fastest veteran runners, male and female, and we each had a framed plaque to add to our trophy collections. Plus, just being in the drawing, testing our luck, was fun. We would be back in a year, if we were so fortunate to still be competing.
After the ceremony, I climbed back up on stage and asked the two men cleaning up if I could look for my race bib, still in the box with the other passed-over bibs. My running partner followed me. As the men gave me the go ahead and I was already digging my hands into the large cardboard box, my partner explained to them that I saved all my race bibs. Why did he say that? As if a well-established fixation is easier to accept than a new or casual one? The men didn’t seem to care.
The bibs, pieces of paper about the size of a sheet of typing paper but slightly heavier and with a slippery feel, were half-an-inch deep in the box. Maybe there were 50 of them. I turned and parted and shuffled through them, looking for my number, until I realized I needed to spread them out, or at least separate the ones that were not mine from the unexamined jumble. I pulled some out, then my partner grabbed a handful from the box to look through, and then the two men did too. Pulling, shuffling, piling. Number 251, I told the men helping me. One of them said the job was impossible, the other said of course not. I knew it would be a moment at most before we found it. Number 251, I repeated.
“I have it!” exclaimed one of the men. He held it up. “I found it,” he repeated, “here it is.” Did the man’s tone express inordinate pride at his accomplishment? Only four of us were searching, and the task was not difficult. Same with the race—only a handful of runners in the veteran category and winning not difficult. On reflection, I felt no particular pride in the victory that day, though I did feel the accomplishment of forging ahead into the unknown. How many more races would I run? How many more race bibs would I collect to add to the bulging folder? How many more stages?
On our way out, my partner handed his meal coupon to a local runner, the son of the race organizer. His girlfriend was with him. Practically kids. They looked surprised, then pleased. I could imagine them in a few years: “Oh, the days we thought a coupon for a couple of burgers was a windfall!” They’d be right to laugh. The windfall is not the hamburgers but remembering them. It’s remembering, not the date or the address, but the almost balmy weather, the police officer at a side street, looking important, arms crossed and holding back a solitary car, a woman in a creamy sweater and sunglasses at an outdoor table sitting up to clap as you ran by, the glint of sun on the blue plastic of the arch at the finish line, beyond which runners and spectators mingled, and you changing as you passed under the arch from someone striving into someone done with striving, just one of the milling crowd.
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