I have just returned from walking Hollydog. I didn’t want to go. I was tired, aching, spent. It was wet, muddy and horrible out there. I just wanted to sit and vegetate. But dogs must be walked. So, wellies on and out we go.
And, as so often happens, things were not as I expected. Holly took me to a muddy swamp of field that she likes. I like it too. The view from there is always good. Always lifts me. But, today, it was exceptional.
It was something to do with the time of day. Dusk has a particular beauty. It is a special time: caught on the border between Day and Night. Standing there in a field of mud: halfway between earth and water, it struck me how much I love the border lands. The edges. The unresolved. For me, there is a particular power that resides in those places. Mountain tops that border the sky. Estuaries neither river nor sea. Waves crashing at the edge of sea and shore. And I am drawn towards animals that inhabit the borders between worlds. I have always been impressed by crows: birds that fly in the sky but walk on the ground. Birds that in mythology were seen as animals that could move between the worlds of Gods and Men. Birds that were thought to be shape-shifters, able to take on different forms.
So, it seems to me no surprise that I have spent most of my life teaching Drama. Acting is, after all, just shape shifting. And Drama works in the land between reality and imagination. It derives its power from our willingness to enter that world for a time. To suspend belief. We know that what we see on stage is not real, only pretending. Yet we agree to pretend ourselves – to pretend that it is real. It is a strange contract. We willingly put ourselves in a place where the lines between what is and what is not are deliberately blurred. Why?
I think it is because we know that these borderlands have something important to offer us. They have a special charge. A power in the tension that lies between different poles. A power that is held at the point of change. From one state of being to another. They are places of magic and, often, great beauty.
It seems fitting that, tonight, I will go to see a second performance of my son’s panto. Panto, perhaps. being the form of theatre that most brazenly, most playfully demands that we remove our normal boundaries and spend some time in the realm of the shape shifters – a land where boys will be girls and girls will be boys.
And my gift to you today is the second half of yesterdays story. Which, fittingly, is about a boy who lives at the boundary between two worlds.
Two Childhoods (continued)
Once there was a boy who never went to school. His father was a blacksmith. His mother had died shortly after bringing him into the world. His father was a good blacksmith. Skillful and strong. But the work was long and hard. Often he worked all day and still the sparks flew from his fire as night fell. And the sound of his hammer rang into a moonlit sky. He worried that he was neglecting his son. He tried to give him time. Tried to keep him by the fire. Safe. Watching. Learning a trade. It was only natural that the boy should follow his father and become a blacksmith in turn. As had been his father before him. It was a good trade. After all, people would always need to plough the fields to grow food. People would always need horses to pull the ploughs. Horses would always need shoeing. There would always be work for blacksmiths. Always.
But the boy was too free-spirited. As soon as his father’s attention strayed from him, he was off. Away. Into the woods. On an adventure. And a blacksmith’s attention needs be on his work or all manner of harm will befall. So, the boy was often away. Off. On an adventure. In charge of his own time. Master of his own fate. Teacher of his own lessons. Discovering, for himself, who and what he was. How and why he fitted into the world. For the boy was naturally curious, as all children are. And, for those with eyes to see, the World has much to teach. There were always new lessons to learn out there in the woods. How to hear the conversation of birds. How to taste a change in the weather. How to feel a rock’s history. How to see tomorrow’s ghosts in the fall of light across a clearing. The boy was never bored.
Still, the father worried. With no wife to help him in raising the boy, he felt the full weight of responsibility for his well-being. And it sat heavy upon him. The neighbours made sure of that. He knew they talked. Whispered amongst themselves about the boy. Passed judgement on the father’s parenting. Or lack of it.
“Wild, he is.”
“Out all hours.”
“Knows no boundaries. No limits.”
“Anything could happen.”
“Bad influence, he is.”
“On the other children.”
“Needs taking in hand.”
“Old fashioned discipline.”
“Needs to learn a few rules.”
“For his own good.”
“Never did me any harm.”
“Needs to go to school.”
Ha. We know some neighbours like that. Good job they are all in bed now.
And so the father decided that the boy should go to school. Then he would know where he was all day. Know that he was safe. And he would learn things. Important things. He would learn how to read and write. Maybe he could do better for himself. Be better than a blacksmith. Not have to make things with the sweat of his brow and the blisters on his hands. The boy could improve his circumstances. He should aspire for more from life than rooting for berries in the woods. Everyone said so. That was the way of the world now. The days of following your father’s trade were gone. Everyone could do better for themselves. If they went to school and studied. And everybody else’s children went to school, if only for a year or two. It was important to do so. The boy had to go to school.
He explained all this to the boy that night, once the forge was closed down for the night. The fire safely subdued. The boy nodded. Agreed to give it a try. He loved his father and wanted to please him if he could.
So, the next day, the boy set off early for school. His father had explained to him that it was very important that he arrived at school on time. If he failed to do so he would be punished. They were very strict about Time at the school. There were bells. Lots of bells to mark the Times of the day. And there were particular things to be done at particular times. For example, you could not eat when you were hungry. You had to wait until the proper Time. Eating Time. There would be Time to learn to read. And a different Time to learn to write. A Time to learn Science. A Time to learn Counting. Even a Time to Play. The boy thought this was very odd. When the boy asked why Time was chopped up in this strange way, the father explained that it was the best way to learn new things. The boy nodded, even though this had not been his experience thus far – he had always learned most when he got really interested in something. So interested that Time seemed to loose its grip, slip away. And so, he would spend a whole day absorbed in the movement of ants across a pathway. Or a mother swallow teaching her fledglings to fly. But, he didn’t want to disappoint his father, so he would try. Try to learn in the school way.
As the boy hurried towards school, he thought about the other advice his father had given him regarding school.
Be punctual. That was very important. Important to accept that Time was not, actually, as the boy had so far experienced it. Time was not actually anything to do with Day or Night. Light or Dark. Spring, Summer, Harvest or Winter. Nothing to do with the growth of saplings in the woods. Not to do with the flight and return of the swallows. Nor the wax and wane of the moon. What he had to learn at school was that his Time was not his own. Once he went to school, from then on, his Time belonged to someone else. It was a commodity. He had to work to earn some of it back. Only then could he spend time how he wanted. Spend. Like money. That is what he had to learn at school. Time is money. An important lesson.
Do as you are told. Comply. If a teacher tells you to do something, you must do it. Even if you disagree. Even if he is wrong. Respect authority. Do as authority tells you. Otherwise you will be punished. When the boy asked why he should do something he knew to be wrong, the father explained that there were several reasons. First, it was a matter of respect. The teachers were older and wiser. They had read many books. They knew lots of things. Important things. It had taken them many years to learn these things. They had worked hard. Knowing so many important things naturally made them more Important. It was, therefore, natural to respect their authority. It was the natural order of things. The Natural Order. Some men were simply born to be Leaders. Others to be led. It was not wise to question The Natural Order. It was important to Know Your Place. Now, the boy had spent most of his life in the woods and he had noticed that there was indeed an Order to things. Sun gave life to leaf, leaf gave life to rabbit, rabbit gave life to hawk. Hawk roosted on tree. Her shit fell on the earth. Gave life to tree. Tree gave apple to boy. Boy gave thanks. Spits seeds on ground. Sun gives life to seeds. Rain gives life to seeds. It was all a huge, big, interconnected web. There was Order and there was Balance. Too much Sun, too much Rain – either way the harvest might fail. Each year, some things in the wood do well, others not so well. The next year, it would be different. Over Time, things would Balance out and Order would prevail. Without anyone telling anyone else what to do. It felt very different to the Order they seemed to like in schools. Order in the woods was supple, ever-changing. Order in school sounded rigid, inflexible. But Rules are Rules. Another important lesson to be learned.
His father had also explained that he would be tested. There would be lots of tests. Examinations. So that the teachers could tell whether he was learning enough. So that they could measure him. Measure him against the other students. This was very important. Everybody had to know where they stood compared to everybody else. So that they knew their place. Knew who they were. In the Natural Order. If you did well on the tests, you were Clever and you would be rewarded. Everyone would know that you were Clever and you would be given a good job. You would be respected. You would spend your Time working in a good job. You would earn more money. Then you could pay for own children to have books, go to a good school. Then they would be Clever. Respected. And, in this way, we maintain the Natural Order. Then everybody knows their place. Everybody is safe. Everybody is happy. This is what schools are for. You are what the tests say you are. Schools are how we measure. We must measure to be safe. Another important lesson.
The boy thought about the look on his father’s face as he had explained these things about school. He had not looked happy. He had looked extinguished. A fire had gone out in his eyes. Like the forge at the end of the day. Safe. Dead.
The boy threw away his school books, turned on his heels and ran back towards the woods.