It is not easy to teach children the reverence of sanctuaries or funerals. They recognize the absurdity of nylon tights, buckle shoes that pinch, and powdered people (be they sitting upright in pews or lying in their caskets). They wriggle at shushings, and readings, and ties – silly, choking things – for in those first years before mortality draws close, there is a hearty gap between decorum and holiness.
Yet we must not think that children have missed reverence altogether. Every child I know understands the sacredness of a tent of sheets, and what ten-year-old boy doubts that that branches woven together in some particular fashion will stay those toothy beasts that lurk behind the begonias? Even a toddler, yarn toboggan bobbing, believes that a decent fort of snow must have corners there and there, for such is the true and proper way of things. Throughout the kingdom of childrendom, there is reverence for the unspoken laws of underwater tea parties, sky rooms built across branches of strong trees, and gardens planted for the wooing of butterflies and moonlight.
Children revere story, because they live inside it. They live inside it because they understand that we are all more than we seem to be. They fidget in grand cathedrals, not because the hushed places are too holy, but because God’s creation has taught them that deity cannot be captured in a gilded dome. They tug at their itchy dresses hungering for something greater, not less. The sacredness of adventure runs in their veins.
Beyond this, children understand a second component of reverence; that labor and time are friendly companions in the making of secret worlds. I was nine the summer I helped build a clubhouse in the back school yard. We spent weeks collecting moss to carpet the floor. We made art for the walls. We hauled tree limbs wound about with poison ivy. We dug a grave for the salamander, and we wrote him a eulogy. Not one of us stepped on his grave.
We did not resent our work, for our work was woven into our art. Neither did we resent our reverence, for we believed in the world we were making. Our labor and our respect were the stuff of delight, seamless companions of creativity. We busied ourselves in the making, because the making was planted firmly in an idea. “Come, let us weave these grasses into curtains! And say, don’t you believe this old plank could make a door?”
All of our best books agreed. We read The Boxcar Children, My Side of the Mountain, and The Secret Garden. I ached for a falcon to train, and I celebrated a cracked cup found in a junkyard. Ever since, I have wanted to chill bottles of milk in a stream. The idea of a world hidden within a world was a promise of something I needed like breath in my lungs, though I never knew why.
That was thirty years ago, but I don’t think children have changed. Last week I took my daughter to the cinema to watch The Odd Life of Timothy Green. There is a lovely scene in which a magical forest room made by two children is revealed. The row of middle schoolers sitting behind me gasped at the sight. No matter that the whole of it would disintegrate by January, a wild space had been claimed like hope or faith, and the tweens of 2012 marveled.
At some terrible point of growing up, the making of spaces becomes maintenance instead of creation. We shuffle our infinity between walls and roof; and we determine to will ourselves to keep things nice, because this is the responsible thing to do. A door is something that needs to be cleaned or oiled. The washing is piling up. We don’t rejoice because the milk is cold, we fuss because we need more of it, and it’s up to $3.79 this week. We grumble over the crack in this mug, and we growl that someone must wash these blasted dishes. (I washed them last night. It’s your turn.) There is no wonder and no gift in any of it.
This morning, a friend of mine posted a photograph of a feast set in the snow. There were two bottles of wine on the table, and hot food was spread in abundance. My heart rose up in my chest when I saw it. Of course, it rang of Narnia and Father Christmas; yet there was more to it than that, something deeper to which even Narnia points.
You see it, don’t you? Feasts should be had in the snow. Such work is spent because cider, steaming and glorious, must be toasted against the elements. There is worship in a day of labor offered to the claiming of wild ground for civility, for I am a creator born of the Creator. Adventure runs in my veins. There is winter, and there is cold, and there is dirty laundry, and there are sticky dishes. It is mine to delight in making them all over again, to make a tent of the sheets, and a carpet from the moss – spaces for the sacred ones to gather. There is a promise in that. Perhaps there is even a prophecy.
Image by Boekell/Boekell