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Archive for May, 2011

“I came across a fallen tree,

I felt the branches of it looking at me.

Is this the place we used to love?

Is this the place that I’ve been dreaming of?

Oh simple thing, where have you gone?

I’m getting old and I need something

To rely on….”

KEANE, “Somewhere Only We Know,” Hopes and Fears, 2004.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with forts.  Not the kind constructed out of the sofa cushions – although my brother and I fashioned our fair share out of blankets and his bunk beds—but the outdoor variety.  We lived in several different places when I was growing up because my father was in the Navy, and in each place I have a memory of some small space I created for myself outdoors.  Sometimes it was mine alone, a private place where I escaped, and sometimes it was shared, a group undertaking.

In Maryland, my first “fort” was in reality a small clearing behind a large pine tree by the fence on the side of our backyard.  I would push back the dense, sticky, fragrant branches of the pine and there it was, waiting for me.  A place only I knew about (or so I imagined).  There I would store priceless artifacts: small rocks I found, interesting leaves, or trinkets collected at school.  Sometimes I would read there.  And sometimes I would just be there – when my eight-year-old self had to escape some humiliation or complication of life.

In third grade, we moved to Oakland, California where we had the run of the Naval Base.  My mother would let us out in the morning and we wouldn’t come back until we heard her walking around and calling our names to eat.  The freedom was intoxicating and I spent the summer between third and fourth grade entirely out-of-doors, most of it in the undeveloped area that bordered the housing on the base.  This was of course the one area where we were explicitly forbidden to go.  It was filled with brush, trees, rocks, small animals, and the occasional poison ivy plant—the reason it was theoretically off-limits.  In other words, it was a fort connoisseur’s paradise, and I went there daily; except, of course, when the occasional outbreak of poison ivy would betray this fact and I would be quarantined indoors.  (It was quite difficult to deny where I’d been when my eyes had swollen shut due to my unfortunately telling poison ivy allergy—but that didn’t prevent me from trying).

During that summer, I and a motley crew of neighborhood officer’s kids constructed– out of the surrounding trees, sticks, branches, twigs and whatever else we could scavenge– a magnificent structure that became the backdrop for whatever game of make-believe we dreamt up for the day. I oversaw its construction, and I remember most fondly the times I was able to escape there alone, without the crew.  I took great satisfaction in adding this or that to the structure, “sweeping” the dirt floor with branches, and sitting there in its shelter, seemingly undetected by the outside world.

There were others, of course.  A rickety lean-to in my grandparent’s backyard in the forests of North Carolina, or various sites among the new housing construction the summer we moved to Midland, Texas.   What was it about being outdoors, alone and in a world of my creation that was so appealing to me as a child?  Perhaps I was wise enough to sense, if not consciously realize, that solitude is a “desired condition,” as Maya Angelou so adeptly describes:  “It is in the interludes between being in company that we talk to ourselves.  In the silence we listen to ourselves.  Then we ask questions of ourselves.  We describe ourselves to ourselves, and in the quietude we may even hear the voice of God.”

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