An Obsession

with childhood

Here is a confession: although I wear an adult face and adult credentials on the outside, I never really grew up inside. That may make me immature and prone to laughing at bathroom humor, but I think it keeps me honest and grounded. My strong attachment to the child inside stems from nostalgia. I love remembering the simplicity of innocence especially as I consider the complex world that I must now digest as a forty-something grown up. But then I also remember knowing that this age of innocence was fleeting, that I would eventually grow up and lose it. I was nostalgic for my childhood while I was a child. It is almost as if I was this adult inside a child’s body.

I think my hyper existential awareness was due to the turbulence around me. I was especially sensitive to my unpredictable home life despite having a family that looked pretty normal from the outside. The surrounding mood could change on a dime, and I needed to be ready to deal with it. It would move from extremely happy to frigid and icy in a short period of time, and there was no way to know in advance. It was perhaps the eggshells I walked on that helped me to realize just how fragile the concept of innocence was.

Fast-forward to my mid-twenties, and I found myself writing a doctoral thesis on Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. And guess what the topic was within Mahler’s work? Childhood irony. What would I find in the fourth symphony? Turbulence and darkness of reality juxtaposed to the snow-white innocence of a child. I wasn’t even aware of it as I started working on it. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized why I obsessed over this document, slaved away at it for a few years, and actually… liked it. The thesis reflected my own childhood. I could identify with the piece from a very deep place. It was almost as if Mahler was describing my own life, nearly a century before I was born.

Mahler himself had a tough childhood. It was filled with the hardships that one would find in a regular mid-19th century life. Babies/siblings that do not survive infancy, difficult father, and the racial tensions that existed in Europe (and frankly still exist all over the world)… He himself said that he felt like a stranger in what should be his home. Perhaps that is why he was fixated on the poem “Das himmlische Leben” (the heavenly life) by Peter Sturm, because heaven itself and the innocence that is required to believe in it, to be in it (heaven on earth) sometimes feel like an unattainable goal. So he writes the third symphony based on the poem, and because it takes on a life of its own, he has to move on to the fourth symphony to finally include the poem as a song to his symphonic work.

And I fixated on this topic, too. Can innocence survive the harsh reality of this life? Can heavenly life exist here on earth? Does that heavenly life require the innocence of a child? As I think about my personal experiences, I know why I hold innocence in such high regard. I am fortunate that I understood the fleeting nature of innocence at such a young age… because that awareness helped me to preserve it into adulthood. And look at me now – decades later, I thrive with internal stability no matter how turbulent my surroundings, and the child inside still sings.

A little blurry… but I like this photo because it catches me in a moment of bliss.