Last evening I sat on the dark leather sofa in the large, deep red living room of the home of a vanished professor. I watched an entirely predictable movie on her little flat screen television, my cat, finally wound down for her day long explorations of this new abode, settled in my lap. The screen depicted a coming of age story. The rich boy predictably got into trouble in a small town. He was predictably forced to spend the summer there doing community service. He was predictably gorgeous and tortured and fell predictably in love with a local girl who predictably threw over her high school sweetheart for him and then predictably died of cancer. And it was sad in an entirely unpredicted way.
Boy and girl fall in love over a poem by Robert Frost, quoting softly “So was I once myself a swinger of birches. And so I dream of going back to be.” They speak of childhood innocence which they found passed too swiftly and I felt unaccountably sad, for I too was once a swinger of birches, but I never recall the innocence that poets so often use to describe childhood. I don’t recall the carefree, happy days that people speak about. Nor did I ever lay in a green meadow as a teenage woman with my first heart’s love, or run through the woods laughing, or do all those other silly things which seem so beautiful in song and story.
Yet someone must have done these things, right? To be able to write about them so? Perhaps not. We write about elves and magic and dragons and starships travelling between worlds without ever having done any such thing. Does that mean likewise, this beauty of innocent youth does not exist? Am I not really missing anything at all?
I think it did perhaps exist, for others, and maybe once for me, so long ago I do not recall. I do recall being happy as a child, and naïve or ignorant perhaps, but not innocent. I recall worrying about money, about disappointing people, about making someone angry, or bad things happening in the world, even has a very young child. I climbed the trees nine parts of wild exuberance and one part to escape these worries. Still, I do not think I am missing anything, for in the end I had a good childhood, a good youth, a good adulthood thus far. That a poet may be able to instill a momentary wistful longing, a melancholy nostalgia, speaks to the skill of the poet, more so to the imaginary, longed-for past. So, here’s to Robert Frost and his swinger of birches. May we all relive his misspent youth, just in case we missed our own.