Where do grown-ups come from? Where do the children go?
It was my great delight this week to make a new acquaintance, the friend of a mutual friend. This person spent an evening with me and my students in class, bringing the wisdom of someone who has lived, rather than simply having circled the sun.
He has lived long enough to enjoy many adventures: a children’s doctor, a poet, an artist, an activist, a writer, a gardener….and one who continues to actively create through the course of his life. He did ground-breaking, profession-changing work bringing art therapy into hospitals at a time when most people in hospitals - those who are helped and those who work there - had long forgotten how to play.
He came and did art therapy, with me and my students, as we reach semester’s end. We played with coloured markers. We sang and we danced. He taught us about those in ages past who knew, in their practice of medicine, the healing power of music and art.
Among the many gifts he gave was the reading of one of his poems: “Children’s Doctor”:
I began by aligning bowed bones;
learned the trick from an ER nurse
who lacked the license but took license anyway,
there being no other mentor.
A vain and sloppy art it was:
their pliant ulnas [bones] lined up straight whatever I did.
So I learned another skill: cartooning stiffening casts,
my clumsy craft surmounting puckers and whimpers.
Later we’d play, as I chased them
over and under cribs for H-and-P’s: [history-taking and physical examinations]
outrageously fit-to-bust, go-for-broke,
sweet-as-nuts playful they were.
So where do they go to, these young ones?
And where do grown-ups come from?
It was wonderful to have full permission to play together with my undergraduate students for an evening, and to watch them all remember how to laugh.
We coloured, and made art together. We created space, space in-between the action of our days. It is because of the rests between the notes that our lives make music.
It was marvelous to notice, in that moment, that those undergraduate students (many of them a generation younger than me), and this wise one, who knows ways of healing and medicine, (perhaps a generation older than me) stepped into a space of timelessness, in that space in between where all of us played together.
So where do the children go? And where do grown-ups come from?
Do we grow old only if we stop growing?
We tend to think of human development in terms of childhood development. There is prenatal development, infancy, the toddler, early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, early adulthood: a movement from dependency to relative autonomy. So this would be where grown-ups come from. Children move through stages of development and enter into adulthood.
It is assuming that time is a line, that somehow what came before is past, and somehow what is to come is future, as if somehow we do not take all of ourselves with us wherever we go.
It can have the illusion of finality: “Now we have become grown-ups. Now we are adults, and so we don't behave like children anymore”, as if somehow we have traded in our ability to play in exchange for our ability to work.
For this poor grown-up - who has traded the ability to play, in exchange for an ability to work - is there somewhere to go from there?
What is it that makes the elders old, when so often - it seems to me - it is possible to encounter someone who is timeless? Four or twenty-four, forty-four, sixty-four, or eighty four: when we play together it can all look oddly the same.
Let me offer some suggestions.
It is my experience that we do indeed take ourselves with us wherever we go.
Time, therefore, is not a line. It occurs simultaneously. For the toddlers and the children, the adolescents and the grown-ups exist simultaneously in the texture of the layers of our being.
If I look to those who are twenty or forty years older than me, who have somehow grown timeless instead of growing old, I have the impression that they accomplish this by stepping into the now. They are living not in the past, or in the future, but in the now, and they remember how to laugh, and how to play. They know self-existing joy.
Somehow, with elegance and grace, they have accompanied themselves - taken themselves with them wherever they went - and somehow mended the broken bones enough to remain intact in the process.
We do not leave the children that we were behind, and my sense is that we risk to grow old if we stop growing.
It is the ability to connect with joy that makes the growing possible.
Not that it’s easy, or comfortable necessarily, but that in the process we have remembered how to laugh. For joy is not the result of an external circumstance: it is a state of being.
Time isn't a line. It can only be now. In the moment, we are timeless, and self-existing joy is right there waiting for us.
We all know 60 year old’s who are children - who never really managed to grow up - and some of us know adults who are 6. When do we reach a stage of a relative maturity, independence and self-reliance? When we must.
It is no small feat to bring all of ourselves with us wherever we go. It implies that we are sufficiently whole to have integrity. Can we accompany ourselves in the journey of our lives, and work with what is and what was, such that we can simply be what we are, and not be haunted by it?
Our bones never stop healing themselves. No part of our body ever stops healing, or re-creating, itself. It may be supported by outside intervention: the body itself heals. We can line ourselves up straight, and make ourselves whole again.
Yet, what gives the most healing: the cast that holds the bones in place, or the cartoons coloured on it?
Joy is self-existing.
It is there in the beginning, there in the middle, and there is the end. There is no-where for it to go. It is as natural as breath, and it is deeply healing.
It is not dependent on space, or time, or circumstance, on companionship or solitude, on wholeness or wounds. It is there for us when we laugh, and in the spirit of play.
It implies a basic sense of safety, that we have turned off our inner surveillance cameras sufficiently to relax: in the company of ourselves or others, with crayons or dance, in the woods or by the beach.
Yet, it is the ability to connect with joy – at every stage of our lives - that makes the growing possible. Joy is perhaps the most visible sign of growing.
Joy is self-existing.
Connecting with it connects us to existence itself.
I went for a contemplative walk with some of my students this afternoon. We got to watch a puppy learn how to play fetch. Who enjoyed it more: the puppy, the humans giving the lesson, or those who got to watch?
If you feel you would benefit by more actively, more consciously, more intentionally connecting with joy in your life, schedule regular time to spend with children, or animals, perhaps baby animals. Find a place where you can volunteer, if there are not children or animals in your immediate world. This afternoon I talked to a student who taught young children how to skate this winter. Often, children and animals – especially young animals – help us to remember the taste of self-existing joy.
Joy is self-existing in the way that humor is a natural part of our being. Make art. Use your crayons. Play music and dance. We are fed by it.
Instead of growing-up, or growing old, we will just keep growing when we actively foster our natural connection with self-existing joy.
The poem “Children’s Doctor” is re-printed with permission. It is written by John Graham-Pole, M.D., - children’s cancer specialist and author - is included in a poetry anthology entitled, “Quick: A Pediatrician’s Illustrated Poetry”. You can further discover John at: www.johngrahampole.com.
Copyright © 2019, Adela Sandness