They say you can’t go home again. In my case that is most definitely true because, you see, the new owners blew it up!
True story. One Sunday they left for church, and while they were gone a gas line started leaking. The garage filled up with the gas until finally the vapor came in contact with some faulty wiring that ignited it…. And that was that.
There have been several times that I have wanted to retrace the steps of my childhood, and at least this one avenue for doing so is forever closed to me. Though, now that I think about it, even the parts of my childhood that didn’t burn down still feel just as cut off. I could walk the old, familiar streets of my youth, but I will not be the same boy that tread them once before. That experience is lost to memory alone.
Memory, nostalgia, the past. There is a sort of sad sweetness that accompanies us when we consider these words. We enjoy the ruminations at first, but inevitably they lead us to our losses. There are things we had back then which we will never have again: old friendships, innocence, an unbridled sense of wonder.
Even worse is the realization of the things we didn’t have, and now have lost the last opportunity for: apologies left unsaid, causes left unchampioned, joys left unclaimed.
Loss. And regret.
These are ponderous things to think about, and it comes as no surprise that many stories have sought to tackle this reality of human life. How Green Was My Valley is one achingly somber example. In this film and book we start with the main character Huw, who is living as a young boy in an idyllic Welsh village. His family are close, loving, and happy.
From there the threads are slowly unraveled. Though there are one or two greater tragedies, so much of the falling apart feels like the quiet, but persistent, erosion of time. In a word, life happens, and eventually the boy, now grown to a young man, cannot find the beautiful childhood home in the walls that surround him today. Though he has stayed ever-faithful, those moments have left of their own accord. He realizes the vanity of trying to hold onto that which cannot be held, and finally he, too, departs.
Much of that story rings true, and yet we often struggle with this sense of permanent loss. It seems that it is a core part of our nature to believe in reclamation. To believe that yes, something might be lost, but also that it can be restored, or at least replaced.
Some might say that this is merely idle dreaming, a lie that we tell ourselves to try and cope with our loss. But on the other hand, there is no shortage of prodigal sons that attest to a once-stained soul being made as clean as the day they were born.
Perhaps circumstances and moments are lost forever, but hearts and souls are not. The impermanence of the world can be real, and yet not discredit the enduring nature of heaven. Perhaps our great confusion arises simply from conflating these two places as one.
That is certainly the case in the Disney animated feature Hercules. Throughout this film, Hercules is forever hoping to return to his home with the gods. He left them long ago, and simply wishes to restore things back as they were. He attempts to achieve this by the accrual of worldly talent and fame.
In the end end, none of these efforts succeed. No matter of finite accomplishments will be able to add up to the infinite reward that he seeks. He has mistakenly assumed that the path back home depends on physical prowess. Fortunately, fate intervenes, and Hercules finds himself facing a situation where he can save another, but only at the loss of his own life. It is then, by surrendering himself to impermanence of the world, by subjecting himself to change, and decay, and death, that finally he overcomes them and becomes immortal.
There is a very spiritual message at the heart of this, one reflected in many world religions. Instead of feeling bad about the childhood home burning down, I can accept that those moments were lost to me already. And maybe if I stop worrying about the losses and the regrets I formed in that place, I’ll be able to rediscover the infinite, childlike soul. Like Hercules, I can go home, but only if I am looking for it within.
The Endless Pursuit)
And then begins the most difficult journey of all. For voyages into the soul do not come with well-placed markers and paved roads. It is rugged territory, and fraught with dangers.
That is not all. It is a long quest, too, the longest that there is. Because you see, chasing the infinite, childlike soul is like chasing a mirage. With each step you draw nearer…but then it slips farther on. Always. Hercules was able to walk it to the end, but he was a god. For we mere mortals it is unattainable.
So in this journey we stumble over a world forever in flux, hoping that when the last of that changeable terrain slips out from beneath our feet that we find ourselves treading water in the infinite.
There exist stories that explore this dynamic, too. Roverandom is a charming tale about a dog that just wants to find the wizard who turned him into a toy, and ask him to please change him back into a real dog. That’s it. And then the entire rest of the story is how that wizard keeps slipping further and further away. Roverandom finds himself on the moon, in a seaside cove, and deep beneath the sea, until one starts to believe that this journey will continue forever.
It is this sort of ever-slipping pursuit that I have tried to imbue in my story The Toymaker. Here a drummer chases after his first friend, a delicate dancer. But though he makes a valiant effort, he never seems to draw any nearer to her. Last week he was about to perform a daring raid on a high-security building, all in the hopes of finding more information on her whereabouts. As you might expect, all that he will really find is just another breadcrumb to follow.
But his journey is not in vain. With each effort he is growing as an individual. He is coming to recognize right from wrong, and friend from fiend. He is learning his own strengths, and using them to take a stand for what is right. Perhaps when he has finally plumbed the fullest depths of his soul, he will at last have the power to locate his missing friend.
“I don’t know, I just always liked that sort of sound in–” Simon stopped speaking abruptly and turned to look about the room. He was the only one here. He was speaking to…no one.
What had he been talking about? Who had he thought he was saying it to?… He honestly couldn’t even remember. Perhaps he had been sleeping. He didn’t think he had been, but perhaps.
These things did happen to him from time-to-time. He couldn’t remember exactly when they started. Not until recently…he believed. And each time they occurred he felt his heart skip a beat. It was like jolting awake from the sensation of falling. Only it wasn’t his body falling, it was his mind, and he didn’t know how far it would have gone if he hadn’t woken in time to catch it.
A little shake of the head and Simon Bowie pushed himself up and out of the chair. He shuffled out of the room. He wanted to get away from the moment, to distract himself with something. He lumbered down the hall, eyes downwards to see that he planted his cane tip firmly into the carpet with each deliberate step. As he did so, he found himself face-to-face with a small girl smiling up at him, her hands clasped behind her back.
“Daddy, have you seen where my necklace got to?”
“No, Suzie. I don’t think I have.”
“Oh I know! It must have fallen off while I was swimming. I’ll go get it!” Without another word she bounded away with a youthful skip to her step.
“No wait,” he called out, suddenly concerned. “Suzie don’t go! It isn’t safe.”
He began hobbling after her. Something was wrong about this, he wasn’t sure what, but he remembered that it didn’t go well. “Please Suzie, don’t go so fast!” He reached the top of the staircase and paused. Though he needed to hurry he was afraid, and he took the steps slowly, clinging to the handrail with both hands for support. It was a spiral staircase, and he kept his eyes looking down the center to the floor below, trying to see Suzie and catch her before she went outside.
“Don’t go so fast, it’s too wet!” he called feebly. “It’s been raining and it’s all slippery.”
“It’s rain,” a cold voice said. “That’s what it does.”
Simon cocked his head to look behind his shoulder. It was…her. What was her name? It had been too long, he couldn’t remember. She looked pretty, in a haughty, superior sort of way. A teenage girl with a face blanked by malice.
“I don’t like it,” he heard himself say, but the voice was that of a small boy.
“If you don’t like it, then get Mother to buy you an umbrella.”
“That’s right she won’t. She doesn’t have to put up with you, does she?”
Simon shook his head.
“And why is that, Bowie?” she strained the last name like it was a disgusting creature. It wasn’t really his last name, it had been the other woman’s.
“Because I’m a half-breed,” he said dejectedly, reciting his assigned title.
“Good, glad you’ve been listening.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
Simon shuddered at the memory of cold rainwater trickling down his spine.
“You didn’t have to be so mean to me, Margaret,” he said with a tear in his eye.
“What’s this? Tears?” It was yet another voice this time. A tender one. He knew at once to whom it belonged.
“Joyce,” he breathed in awe. She still looked so beautiful. How had she not aged as he had?
“Darling, I’m so sorry,” she said, pulling him close and burying his face in her shoulder. “I didn’t want to go.”
That was why. Because she left.
He tried to suppress his sobs, but that just made his whole body shake so that he might as well have let them out.
“I’m sorry,” he finally managed to say between gulps. “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t cry.”
Joyce lifted his head to look into her eyes. “Darling, you can cry! It’s okay. Why shouldn’t you?”
“I don’t want you to see me so broken-hearted.”
“It’s alright, you can be broken-hearted.”
Simon was at the bottom of the stairs. He didn’t remember getting here. He was looking across the hall towards the door. What was it he had been doing before Joyce and that other one came? It was important. He needed to remember, he needed to fix it, but it just kept slipping from him.
“Did you want to help me look for my necklace, Daddy?”
Oh that was it.
“Suzie, something’s wrong. I can’t remember what–”
“I’m going to go look for my necklace in the swimming pool. I’m going to slip in and drown.”
“No,” Simon shook his head. “That wasn’t how it happened. I was afraid of that, I think, but that’s not how it happened with you.” He screwed his eyes shut and pressed his fists against his temples. What was it? Why couldn’t he remember?
“Why?” Suzie asked with a frown. “Why do you say it was different?”
“Well…I just know that it was…you didn’t die here. Other things happened. Like–” he winced, unable to recall. For a moment he felt a dread, as if forgetting would mean that the other things never did happen. “Like you grew up and got married, remember?”
She paused, then smiled and nodded. Cool relief swept over Simon.
“Yes I did, didn’t I? I’d forgotten about that. Thank you.”
“Of course darling.” She vanished from his view. “Anything for you, darling.”
He paused and closed his eyes. He could not hold onto the present moment even if he wanted to. He just started to drift absently. It felt less like he was standing and more like he was floating on the top of a wave. He opened his eyes again. Had he been sleeping? Or was he sleeping now? Joyce was here again.
“You’re looking better,” she said kindly.
“I think I was able to help Suzie, I think she’ll be alright now.”
Joyce nodded. “I miss her.”
“I haven’t forgotten everything you know.”
“Not everything? What are some of the things that you remember?”
“I remembered the promise you made me make before you went.”
“Don’t lose your heart.”
“How is it going with that?”
Simon sighed long and hard. “I don’t know, Joyce. I really don’t… I try. But some days–these last days particularly–it’s been very hard.”
“What makes it so hard?”
“I feel so bad for getting to stay here when you had to leave. I feel guilty that I got to.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
A coldness took him and he pulled himself in tightly, as if to let it pass him by. But it didn’t. Even beneath his lids he could see her. She looked so beautiful. So haughty and cruel.
“Hiding away down here?”
“Leave me alone, Margaret,” his young voice said sourly.
She sneered. “It would be my pleasure, but I’m afraid the adults have left, so it’s my responsibility to see that you are taken care of.”
There is a world of difference between “cared for” and “taken care of.”
“Well I’ll just be down here, so you can leave me be.”
“But I haven’t even told you what today’s rule is though.”
“No more rules, Margaret.”
“Oh no? I think you’ll find this one particularly interesting…”
“I’m not playing.”
She smiled, and there was something triumphant about it. “Suit yourself,” she said softly as she turned away.
Something seemed terribly wrong. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he had just been duped. He frowned and tried to remember what had happened. It was important. Maybe if he remembered in time he would be able to change it…
“Sootie!” he cried, leaping to his feet in a flash of horror. His eyes opened and he was looking down to the bottom of a swimming pool. His daughter was in a rabbit hutch there. He reached down and pulled her out, but she was already lifeless.
“You should have listened to the rules,” Margaret was tutting behind him. “You might have made it in time if you hadn’t been so busy sulking. But that’s your choice.”
His temples were pulsing and his hands were shaking. He was going to hurt her. But before he could there came a sudden tear at his heart, like it beat too hard and had burst a little.
“Ohh!” he cried, collapsing to the floor. He tried to sit up but his heart rent again and he fell back once more.
“Oh no,” he murmured, “Joyce, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry? What do you have to be sorry for?” A gentle hand cradled against his cheek.
“My heart, I haven’t kept it like I was supposed to. One rule, and I broke it. It’s gone!”
“Why do you hold onto all of these things, Simon? Don’t you see how they’re just tormenting you.”
“Well I–I have to–”
“No, you can let them go. Will you let them go, darling? Will you?”
Her hand was over his fist, not prying the fingers open, but inviting them to do so on their own.
“What’s inside of there?” Suzie was asking.
“What?” he asked, shaking his head. “Oh, it’s a surprise. I got it for you, but I haven’t given it to you yet.”
“Is it that necklace?”
“Why…yes it is. It is, in fact. It’s your necklace.”
“Oh thank you! May I have it now?”
“No…I mean I want to, but something happened…”
“Oh not the drowning at the bottom of the pool again.”
“No, I was mistaken, that was something else. But something still happened, and it was too late to give this to you.”
“Well give it to me now and things will be different then, won’t they?”
Simon looked down and tried to open his hand, but he couldn’t. It was locked like a vise, the way it would if he was writhing on the ground having a heart attack. Or the way it would if he were pulling her hair.
“Let go of me!” Margaret shrieked, trying to wriggle out of his grasp but he wouldn’t let her. “I will punish you so badly!”
He didn’t care, it didn’t matter. He had passed that point. He simply tightened his grip, one hand around her hair, the other around her neck.
“Please!” she said, the first time he’d ever heard her use that word towards him. “I didn’t even actually say half the things you remember me saying. Or at least not the way you remember them.”
“You didn’t have to.”
Another throb of his heart and for a moment his vision blacked out to perfect whiteness.
“Why did you name me Suzie, anyway?”
“I don’t know, I just always liked that sort of sound in a name.”
“And why do you think I drowned in that car accident, Daddy?”
“Didn’t you? Don’t go so fast, it’s too wet!”
“There was an accident, but I didn’t drown.”
“Didn’t you? I’ve dreamt so many times that you did.”
Another throb, and he seemed to feel upside down, his lips were cold.
“Simon listen to me, it’s Joyce. Please let go.”
“I can’t,” he strained. “It’s broken. I never even got to give her your necklace.”
“You did, it’s around her neck now.”
“You’re choking me!” Margaret spluttered.
“No,” he snarled “I’m drowning you. I’m drowning–”
Wait no, he couldn’t breath. He was the one drowning! He opened his mouth but his lungs were deflated and couldn’t draw anything in. He was trying to swim up, but his hands were still in fists.
“Just let go!”
“Daddy, please let go, let me see what’s inside.”
“I can’t,” Simon cried. “I can’t let it go.”
“You’ll regret this!”
A shout was rumbling inside him, unable to break out into the audible world, tormenting him and constricting his throat. It kept growing. Louder and louder, though never heard. A suffocating wave of–
“Simon?” A quiet stillness fell. He seemed to be floating on the top of a wave. It was white all around him.
“Simon, it’s okay. I’m here with you now. I need you to try to focus on my voice.”
There was still a chattering, but it was strangely muted, like it came from far away. He tried to listen to Joyce’s voice, but it was hard.
“Just listen to me. The more you listen to me the more disconnected you’ll be from all the rest, the more you’ll be able to let go.”
“I broke it. I lost it.”
“You only say that because you’re holding onto those moments. There were good ones, too, don’t you remember them?”
“It’s okay, just relax,” her hands were stroking over his fingers, teasing them apart. His heart was stopping.
“I lost them. These others are all I have.”
“They define me.”
“No, you’ll find the rest soon.”
His fingers were unclenching. All his body seemed fuzzy, soft, disconnected.
“It’s alright,” she soothed. She was wiping away the last tears.
“I lost it,” he cried.
“I kept it.”
He let go.
I tend to be a very visual thinker, using mental images to represent emotions and experiences. For this story, everything began with me imagining two hands crumpling up a paper from a magazine. That crumpled page could no longer be read normally, but one could still make out individual words and pictures here and there, and could infer the basic meaning of it, such as whether it was an article, advertisement, or fine print.
I wanted to write a story like that. One where the reader didn’t need to understand the details, just the gist. As I suggested on Monday, my intention was to literally wrinkle a story, and by so doing give it the feel of a mind that is fraying.
The validity of all Simon’s memories and feelings are suspect. They blend so constantly into one another that one cannot tell whether he is recalling actual events, extrapolating implied meanings, or living out fantasies and fears.
But while the clear divisions may be impossible to find, I think the character of Simon is still understood. He is lonely, he is regretful, he is holding on to hurt. He has seen beautiful and wonderful things, but he is obsessing over the negative. It is his own grip that is crumpling his page, creasing it so that we (and he) cannot see the wholeness and completeness. His great quest is to relax his vise so that he may accept his full self.
And while Simon’s affliction may seem grim, I think that many of us can relate to it. Far too often we define ourselves from our trauma and regret. The emotions that tie us to our lives, to our very selves, are usually negative. We describe ourselves as “not something enough.”
Because of Simon’s insistence that his life be defined by these elements, it took an entire separation of self from life before he could let go of those parts. While he ended up finding his peace, hopefully each of us will be able to secure our own a bit sooner.