I grew up in a neighborhood that was like a lot of other neighborhoods, when the boxes we lived in were distinguished only by the names on the mailboxes. It was a place where hard-working Americans circled the wagons to protect themselves from the outside world. Our lives were made up of little moments, all delicately intertwined. Maybe we weren’t aware of it then, amid the school paper drives and the scalloped potatoes and the sounds of the neighbors’ children playing, but life was rich there in our small sanctuary, and precious, and the only thing that could change that was death.
(The voice of narrator Kevin Arnold, from the ABC TV Series, The Wonder Years)
When I was young kids owned the neighborhood. With little regard for property boundaries, we moved through backyards, over fences, played ball in the street or in our neighbor’s yard, and went in and out of our friends’ houses, sometimes without knocking. In the Summer, doors were unlocked and often open, as were windows, and the sounds of families eating dinner, arguing, watching Gilligan’s Island, or listening to Tom Jones (for adults) or Jefferson Airplane (for teens) wafted out of the doors and windows and settled into our souls. We had dominion over all things, and they were very good. Our lives were a succession of little moments that left an indelible mark on our personalities, which somehow became part of who we became.
I threw a rock through Georgie’s window, not from spite but for adventure, listening to it crack, the glass shattering in the still air. I just stood there. I hid in my room, my conscience pricked, until my mother came for me. I had to apologize to Georgie’s Mom, mumbling “sorry” while I stared down at my bare feet. Later, I watched my Dad fix her window, though I never remember him chastising me over it.
When I was three, my mother brought my little sister home from the hospital, pulling up to the curb, the door opening and my mother climbing out with a small pink infant wrapped in a blanket. I don’t recall a single thing that interested me about her. I do remember that when my mother left me outside for moment with her in a stroller, I took the brake off and watched the stroller careen down the hill toward the street as my mother ran out of the front door. My sister survived. I did too, if barely.
My older sister bought the “Meet the Beatles” album when I was six and lay in front of our stereo listening to it for hours. I looked at the picture of them on the album cover, four “moptops.” I didn’t see what the big deal was. Nor was I big on her white Nancy Sinatra “go-go” boots she purchased, she and her friend singing “These boots are made for walking, and one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you” all the way to school sprawled in the backseat, feet hanging out the windows as we navigated the streets of our neighborhood.
We ran through the neighborhood playing secret agent, capture the flag, softball, as familiar with every tree, backyard, sandbox, creek, and street corner as I am with my own reflection in the mirror. We made forts in the woods, caught tadpoles in the creek, waded under the bridge, climbed trees, went night swimming after hours in the neighborhood pool, and walked streets under moonlight envisioning ourselves as super heroes, knowing every house, every family, every person who lived there. It was magical, that time, and though the world was in the grips of racial turmoil and war, that was beyond the horizon for me. The world ended at the edge of my neighborhood, the world I knew.
When I was seven, I fell asleep in my room, only to wake and see my aunt at my door teary-eyed, advising me that my uncle had died. It was my first encounter with death. For a while after that point, I was afraid to go to sleep, concerned that someone would die while I slept, as if by being awake I could stop it. That’s how a child’s mind reasons. I recovered, but I don’t think I ever recovered the sense that life was a playground, Edenic, where nothing bad or at least nothing worse than a scraped knee would happen. The world had fallen, and so had I.
As Christians we believe in the Fall, that cataclysmic moment when evil entered a good Creation and after which our first parents realized they were naked, when it dawned on them that they had fallen and all Creation along with them. But it’s one thing to know this and another to experience it. When my uncle died, I knew something was terribly wrong with the world, that the magical place I enjoyed as a child, a world free of suffering and pain, limitless with opportunity, and full of adventure, had changed. I realized that I too would meet the same fate as my uncle. Everyday from then on confirmed what I first sensed then: that everything was bent and broken, that we were lost.
It was later that I realized that Christ was at work undoing the Fall’s damage, actually bringing healing to a world gone wrong. I see evidence of that everywhere even as I see the continuing effects of the Fall. And yet the world seems alien to me, and I feel estranged, like a man away from Home. I guess I am. I want to feel that same feeling of security and peace and play that I had in my neighborhood as a boy. I want to run and not grow weary. I want to climb to the high places and look out on my Home, the neighborhood I know. One day I will.