When I was a kid, life wasn’t like it is now.
Everything was different. So very, very different.
It all started on Saturday morning. Or was it Sunday? Hell if I know.
Back then, I lived at my grandparents’ house. Joliet, Illinois. Corn capital of the world. I didn’t have any bills. I didn’t care about mortgages, cars, money, or girls. I didn’t care about anything, really. Well, I mean…other than my grandparents.
I was seven-years old. Life was good.
No, not just good. Life was f**king idyllic.
Back then, unlike now, I was happy as a clam to wake up at 5AM. Before sunrise? Yeah, I was up. Before everyone else in the entire city? Yep. You bet. It’s not like I had to commute to work. Or commute to anywhere. I had absolutely no plans for my life.
None. Zero. Zip.
What about school? Well, what about it? I didn’t dread school back then. I mean, we had hour-and-a-half recesses back then! And long lunches. And small classrooms. And kickball, lots of kickball.
And you know what?
The world felt right. Life was easy. My deepest worries were which brand of cereal I would eat, what kind of candy my grandma kept hidden in the dresser, and whether or not we had lemonade in the fridge. In hindsight, I think I could’ve lived ten centuries in that life and never questioned it.
It wasn’t just that I was having fun. Or that I had the truest form of freedom. Or that my grandma made pancakes every morning for breakfast.
No. It was something else.
It was in the air. In the water. In the clouds, the trees, and the giant stalks of corn blowing in the field behind our house.
It was in the snow. It was hidden in our spooky garage. It lived in the cracks in the sidewalks which ran between our house and playground at the street’s end.
It was pure f**king joy.
Sometimes, when I’m lying in my bed just after waking in the morning…
Or when I’m out walking in the woods with no one else near…
Or when I’m driving at night, no music playing, nothing but me, the lines on the highway, and the stars wheeling…
I can still remember.
I can remember being in elementary school. Sometimes, just sometimes, my grandfather or my dad would show up in the middle of class. To the other kids and to the teachers, it must’ve seemed bizarre. But my grandpa or my dad would say something like, ‘Jeremy’s leaving school for the day.’ The teacher would protest, but moments later, much to everyone’s shock, I’d be sitting in the car, windows down, the world rushing past. Why’d I get to leave early? Sometimes it was to drive up to Chicago to see a Cubs’ game. Other times we’d ride out to the countryside, out in the spaces between cities (back when such things existed) and we’d just drive. Just ride toward freedom.
Just us and the wind.
And I swear, every once in a while, I can close my eyes and feel that same wind on my face. It doesn’t feel like adult wind. It’s kid-wind. It’s otherworldly. It’s f**king sorcery. Know what I mean?
But it wasn’t just the wind. See, back then I played baseball. Not the super-competitive, worried-about-my-fastball-velocity stuff I worried about when playing semi-pro ball as an adult. No, not at all. On Saturday mornings (usually cloudy, misty, and cool in the Midwestern springs) my grandma would drive me out to the ballpark. I’d meet a few coaches and plenty of kids, and we’d play ball under the racing clouds. Sometimes it would rain. Sometimes it’d even storm. But most of the time we’d run around out there on those green, green fields for what felt like days. How long did it really last? I don’t know…maybe a few hours every Saturday. But it felt like forever to us kids.
And if I close my eyes, I can still smell the grass. I can still see those clouds. I’m almost there. God, how free we were. How I miss being so free of worldly care.
In remembering it, in traveling backward through my modern adult mind, these things are just not the same. Not quite. The grass back then was kid-grass. The clouds were magic. I try to go back there in my heart, but I can’t. It’s too far away. Those days lie across an ocean of time. And if I think about it too long, it feels tragic. I could almost curl into a ball and weep with my full-grown eyes until they’re empty.
How many of these moments can I remember?
Almost all of them.
The whir of my grandparents air-conditioning (one of those in-window metal boxes which blasted frigid air into our kitchen.)
The roar of my grandfather’s lawnmower, a beastly thing which terrified me.
My grandmother’s voice lulling me to sleep.
The sound of wiffle balls flying off my plastic bat and landing in the cornfield.
The mournful, but achingly soulful winter wind buffeting our tiny house.
The time I was sick for seven days on the couch.
The way Halloween seemed to last hours and hours…and hours.
The thousand times I woke up early, treated myself to two bowls of Captain Crunch, and watched cartoons while nestled on the floor in front of the TV…all before the sun had even dared to think of rising.
It never ends, this spiral of memories. I’m betting it’s the same for most of you.
When I think back to these moments, they are far, far away. Not thirty years, but thirty centuries in my weary adult heart. And that’s the tough part. It doesn’t matter how hard I ache for them, they escape me. They existed in a world before bills, before jobs, before assignments, grades, and homework. They were king long before late fees, back taxes, damaged friendships, and shattered hearts.
These things were pure.
No, not just pure. Sacred.
And how many things are sacred? Really and truly? So, so few.
We live under great burden these days, don’t we? Isn’t that what life is? Heavy. Hard. Expensive. Go ahead. Count the cost of all your pain, all your loneliness, and all your struggles. You’ve survived, obviously, since you’re reading this, but you’re far, far removed from your freedom as a child. Aren’t you?
The price of our great technological advancement? The cost of convenience? It’s greater than we know. I can see it in my son. He’s seven now (God, how quickly they grow up!) but his childhood is nothing like mine. He carries weight…already. He knows things of which I was ignorant at his age. So many things.
He knows about bills. About politics. And divorce. About broken hearts.
And for as much as I’d like to shield him, my effort would be useless. I can no more stifle his knowledge than I can stop the sun from rising tomorrow.
The loss of innocence is a quick thing. Quick…and silent…and irreversible. And perhaps even tragic.
And so I hope, hope beyond hope, actually, that when you close your eyes and dream of your faraway days, the green grasses of your childhood, and of your grandma’s pancakes (hopefully she made them) your memories are sharp. I hope, if only for a moment, you can go there. That you can forget what it’s like being an adult.
And that for one moment in your mind, every so often, you can be a kid again, and your heart is whole…
J Edward Neill writes fiction and philosophy books, and he usually makes them tragic.