At seventeen, in keeping I imagine, with most seventeens I could not wait to be eighteen and proclaim myself adult. Adult enough to do all the things thus far forbidden even if I was really too timid or scared or plain perplexed to really want to try them. Nothing would be out of my reach, I would emerge from ugly duck-dom as the rightful swan and I would, clearly discover all the things that the adults before me had failed to find. I would invent love and sex and I would invent drinking and I would travel to far flung exotic places and I would absorb by osmosis more wisdom than any adult before me – dullards all – could ever hope to. At seventeen.
At seventeen I bought a book which seemed to wink at me even though it’s cover was pummelled and punished, tired and tawdry in the second-hand shop I favoured in our local town. Favoured because I was not yet allowed to go out and make my fortune and my mark on the adult world and therefore I did not have a purse distended with high-value notes. Of course that was bound to change when this mythic majority was attained. At seventeen. The book was ‘The Little Prince’, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s charming, touching and poignant allegory of a small prince who leaves his own tiny planet and travels the universe, odyssey-style experiencing all the whims and foolhardiness of adult behaviour and eventually encounters the narrator who has crash-landed his plane in the desert and whose life will be forever altered by their sojourn together. I am sure that the fact that I read it first at seventeen cemented my love affair with this book all the more thoroughly.
These days I keep two copies at home, wherever my home at that moment is. One in English, the other in French. If you stay in my home wherever that home is at that moment, you will find a copy of the book by your bed (in the language I think you would prefer). There is no instruction nor implied obligation that you should read it and I expect, in reality, most of those staying in my home wherever that home is at that moment, tactfully leave it where it lies putting it, I hope affectionately, down to well-meant eccentricity.
These last few days I have found myself more wistful than usual and I simply couldn’t put my finger on why. Then yesterday my youngest daughter sent me a film clip of her birthday party. Surrounded by her closest friends she is opening their joint present to her. The delight, the laughter, the tears of piquant joy keenly tangible. I felt an aching sadness watching because I was not there. As neither should I have been. My daughter was born in 1995 which even for one as mathmatically disabled as I, means she was twenty two this birthday. She had previously reported to me that this implies that she has no choice but to be a genuine adult going forwards. She has run out of excuses. She is no longer eighteen nor twenty-one. And she is not seventeen. I realised watching this little video that my melancholy is born of something quite simple. Thirty years of being mummy to my child-children is now formally over. They have all crossed quietly over to that place I longed for at seventeen. And I shall mourn their passing softly whilst delighting in the young women they have become. The adults inventing love and sex and drinking and real wisdom that old dullards like me surely never knew.
But I hope they never lose the child that lurks inside them. The child I cared for and nurtured and protected. The child that believed in fairies at the bottom of the garden, the child that positively hurt with excitement on Christmas Eve, the child who saw things through naïve eyes that prompt the profoundest wisdom of their lives. The precious child within. The essence of our adult self, if only we remember to protect it with all our might and never let it go.
I have reflected and now I can move forwards. And I offer this to the arcade of entries in this week’s Photo Challenge titled ‘Reflecting’ of which you can feast upon the entire beauteous banquet here
The photograph of The Old North Bridge in Concord MA was taken by my daughter when staying with us last summer. That she captured it and that it presents a perfectly reflecting image in tandem with the recent crossing of her own bridge to fully fledged adult, whatever that implies, made it, in my mind, rather appropriate.
PS: The title of this piece, is of course, a quote from the book. In context, it concerns the little boy trying to understand why, if thorns can’t protect a flower from a marauding sheep, why the rose would bother to grow them. The narrator, preoccupied with ‘matters of consquence’ fobs him off with the instant and unconsidered answer that flowers grow them out of spite. The tyrade this illicits from the far wiser mind of the child goes thus:
“I don’t believe you! Flowers are weak creatures. They are naïve. They reassure themselves as best they can. They believe that their thorns are terrible weapons . . .”
I did not answer. At that instant I was saying to myself: “If this bolt still won’t turn, I am going to knock it out with the hammer.” Again the little prince disturbed my thoughts:
“And you actually believe that the flowers–“
“Oh, no!” I cried. “No, no, no! I don’t believe anything. I answered you with the first thing that came into my head. Don’t you see–I am very busy with matters of consequence!”
He stared at me, thunderstruck.
“Matters of consequence!”
He looked at me there, with my hammer in my hand, my fingers black with engine-grease, bending down over an object which seemed to him extremely ugly . . .
“You talk just like the grown-ups!”
That made me a little ashamed. But he went on, relentlessly:
“You mix everything up together . . . You confuse everything . . .”
He was really very angry. He tossed his golden curls in the breeze.
“I know a planet where there is a certain red-faced gentleman. He has never smelled a flower. He has never looked at a star. He has never loved any one. He has never done anything in his life but add up figures. And all day he says over and over, just like you: ‘I am busy with matters of consequence!’ And that makes him swell up with pride. But he is not a man–he is a mushroom!”
The little prince was now white with rage.
“The flowers have been growing thorns for millions of years. For millions of years the sheep have been eating them just the same. And is it not a matter of consequence to try to understand why the flowers go to so much trouble to grow thorns which are never of any use to them? Is the warfare between the sheep and the flowers not important? Is this not of more consequence than a fat red-faced gentleman’s sums? And if I know–I, myself–one flower which is unique in the world, which grows nowhere but on my planet, but which one little sheep can destroy in a single bite some morning, without even noticing what he is doing–Oh! You think that is not important!”
His face turned from white to red as he continued:
“If some one loves a flower, of which just one single blossom grows in all the millions and millions of stars, it is enough to make him happy just to look at the stars. He can say to himself, ‘Somewhere, my flower is there . . .’ But if the sheep eats the flower, in one moment all his stars will be darkened . . . And you think that is not important!”
He could not say anything more. His words were choked by sobbing.
The night had fallen. I had let my tools drop from my hands. Of what moment now was my hammer, my bolt, or thirst, or death? On one star, one planet, my planet, the Earth, there was a little prince to be comforted. I took him in my arms, and rocked him. I said to him:
“The flower that you love is not in danger. I will draw you a muzzle for your sheep. I will draw you a railing to put around your flower. I will–”
I did not know what to say to him. I felt awkward and blundering. I did not know how I could reach him, where I could overtake him and go on hand in hand with him once more.
It is such a secret place …. the land of tears
I always cry my own tears when I read that passage because it permeates to the heart of my own protected child-self nestling deep inside.
Your bonus because her wonderful song, which in truth, apart from her petite figure in contrast to my rather more gangly frame, WAS me at that precise age, has been shamelessly ransacked in the text of this piece, your bonus therefore is Janis Ian: