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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Don't Be Scared!


I grew up in an old farmhouse that had two dim and musty attics, a dark, multi-chambered and cobwebby basement, a ramshackle garage and a variety of derelict outbuildings - corn crib, wood shed, henhouses, outhouse. The barn didn't actually come to us when my parents bought the house, but there it was right next door: huge, weathered, and full of mysterious, rusted farm equipment. All of these shadowy spaces were populated by wasps and/or spiders and/or mice and/or bats, bristling with potential splinters, and cluttered with hard-to-identify objects the previous (original) family had left behind. You can either interpret this landscape as spooky and ominous or fun and exciting. At various times in my childhood they were all those things in turn; what I can assure you is that at no time was I indifferent to these places. I was always attracted to them, either with a creeping dread or with a spirit of discovery, and I spent a lot of time in them.

Other friends lived in similarly old, minimally electrified, cavernous houses on large properties with tumble-down barns, sheds, guest houses, gazebos, stables, etc. This was the 60s and 70s, in rural New York, and the gentrification push from New York City hadn't yet begun. One of my friends actually lived on the grounds of a sprawling old mental hospital, and we wandered freely, poking our noses into rooms, or trying to wipe the grime off the windows of locked buildings so we could spy. We played in settings that have become horror movie standards, but back then it was just normal: usually fun, occasionally mysterious, with a once-in-a-while dip into real fright. But still normal. It was the brand-new homes with wall-to-wall carpeting, bright overhead lights, and shiny matching appliances that were truly foreign to me. Only one of my friends lived in such an outlandish house as that.

I don't know how many kids today get to roam around by themselves in such liminal spaces. As you may recall from my post about bedtime stories, liminal refers to thresholds. These places are neither here nor there, inside nor outside, inhabited nor empty. They are all between. They are openings, waiting in suspended time. It is here that the hero can experience the call to adventure, the invitation to step into the unknown and begin the quest. Yes, there is fear in the unknown, and fear in shadowy spaces. But I think that I, for one, spent much of this time unconsciously testing myself, measuring my courage against the courage I discovered in stories. If I had discovered a wardrobe that led into another world, I would have been ready.

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