I wrote this last month. I wanted to share it here for the release of our debut album, The Kingdom Belongs to a Child.
Every once in awhile at night when I was a kid trying to get to sleep, I would get a strange sensation. I would feel the inner me—my soul? —roll over toward the wall, whereas the outer me—my tangible body—kept facing my sister sleeping in her twin bed. It felt like a pleasant stretch before joining the two back together. After my dad died last year, I thought about this a lot. It was some personal evidence in the possibility of the afterlife, that my dad’s consciousness still existed somewhere, that who he was in the end had little to do with his physical body.
Yesterday, I read What It Is by Lynda Barry as part of a class I teach. Reading this book felt like listening to the conversation my inner and outer selves have been having since I was born. A conversation that has been increasing in volume little by little, that sometime during the last decade I began to decipher, and that over the past year I heard at full volume while we made our record. This conversation is a reckoning between all that is tangible and logical with all that is indefinable and ethereal.
Austrian writer Robert Musil wrote in The Man Without Qualities that we have given up what is intangible in exchange for what is tangible. A child does not know a chair is red; he looks at it in wonder of what it could be. Nevertheless, we must tell our child that the chair is red. For the child, the red chair transforms from a possibility into an absolute truth. We hammer out in children that possibility of what the chair could be in the interest of what something is, without question. We do this because we’re worried our kid won’t succeed in school, knowing colors, numbers, and all else, which of course is absolutely necessary (Gabriel). As we label things as absolute truths, however, we lose more and more of what is not tangible. Musil questions what it is we are losing. He thinks we must first believe in something before we can understand it. We’ve lost even the belief in our possibilities, this inner elusiveness, trading it for the absolutes we invariably apply to ourselves. We take these on as firmly as we define the chair as red, the labels that define who we are. It is our attempt to have control, giving answers to things that are unanswerable. Life is not worth living “without a spark of that mysterious fire” and that this “truth is something without end” (Musil).
My 3-year old son loves to play with matchbox cars. He speaks to them and speaks for them. He pretends to feed them and he puts them to bed. He hugs them when they’re hurt and he helps them when he gives them broken tires. These cars are his friends. He spends uninterrupted hours in a world he has created that I cannot see. I’ve been able to make out some details. There are roads across the couch. There are train tracks floating in the air down the hallway. It rains in our house, the wood floor is mud sometimes, and the woodgrain on the kitchen table are parking spaces. Train whistles, car horns, and engines fill his ears in our quiet house. Miraculously, when my son is struggling to do something on his own, such as putting on his shoes, he asks his “angry car” or his “screaming train” for help and then my son can do it. His relationships with his car-friends bring out an inner wisdom that doesn’t necessarily come from anything I’ve done as his parent. It is all coming from inside of him, from this slippery, intangible place of knowing.
Barry points out, and studies on stress physiology have proven, that we perceive reality and the imaginary the same way (Patton). Our bodies cannot tell the difference. It’s why turning off the lights downstairs in my childhood home made me bolt up the stairs in a panic. I imagined there was a monster chasing me, so I truly experienced the sensation of being threatened. Conversely, it is why I could experience a joyous autonomy and fearlessness just by pretending to drive or pretending to be my 3rd grade teacher. Our perception tells us that our inner and outer experiences are equal.
Barry says this place inside all of us is “alive in the way thinking is not, but experiencing is.” It’s where we have “conversations with people long dead, where we can enter a room that we haven’t entered in decades and smell it” (Barry). Novelist Graham Greene called it the “compost” containing the fog of all memory, experience, and what we imagine. Writer Robert Olen Butler said that when we enter it, we are walking in the space from where we dream. It is the “wilderness” in which we create, traverse, and get lost and found (Rilke). Poet and Philosopher John O’Donohue referred to it as a “constellation of ideas and feelings that surface from the depths of the distance within,” and that we must “trust this indirect, oblique side of [our]selves”. Hermann Hesse did just that when he said he “ceased to question stars and books” in exchange for the “teaching[s] his blood whisper[ed] to [him].” This inner aliveness is what Lynda Barry says is “at the center of everything we call ‘the arts,’ and children call ‘play’”. She calls this inner aliveness the kingdom. Her use of this word was particularly moving for me since we named our album The Kingdom Belongs to a Child for reasons, among others, this book so aptly illuminates. We’ve given this formless inner place many names: soul, spirit, wilderness, kingdom, intuition, unconscious, gut feeling, memory, imagination, mysterious fire.... It’s elusiveness makes language dissatisfying in the pursuit of defining or explaining it. The kingdom becomes clear, known, and tangible only when we make something from it, that has “grown out of necessity” to acknowledge and make real this obscure place that is constantly moving and shifting (Rilke). I remember a teacher telling me it’s like moving through a dark cave. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke described it as “books written in a very strange tongue.” When I’m writing, even this very essay, it’s like soaking in an ocean of darkness that I both fear and desire, feeling it pull and push me, take me under and toss me out, never knowing what I will find when I reach below the surface. In the darkness and in time, there is a tether to grasp. Barry calls this “staying just behind the line.”
In Western culture, we do not consider dreams or visions as valid sources. In college, I audited a Native American History class where I studied dreams and visions that were considered not only the rich, spiritual histories of the tribes, but were also the important evidentiary documents. I considered then, what were the visions and dreams of Ben Franklin, for instance? How would they enrich or shift what we know of him and the beginnings of our democracy if we considered them legitimate? In my personal life, my dreams have often warned me of unsafe situations. They’ve also led me to tackle what I was afraid to attempt. They’ve helped me make peace of inner conflicts. They have given me understanding of what my rational, logical mind couldn’t reconcile. As in Black Elk Speaks, “sometimes dreams are wiser than waking.” Nighttime is “womb-time” when “our souls come out to play” (O’Donohue). The most important dreams of my life haven’t slipped away. They have stuck around as pivotal moments of clarity, the historical documents of my own personal sense of spirituality.
As Barry sees it, our kingdoms come to us through images and symbols, the universal language of pictures. It is the kingdom of individual perspective. How we experience something is separate from our logical understanding of what happened in reality. For instance, I could tell you I grew up with brothers. I could try to explain what that was like staying true to the tangible, logical sequence of details and events that everyone who was there would agree upon. But my raw, authentic experience of having brothers is more formless and slippery, and comes to me more like what Native Americans consider a vision, through something completely nonjudgmental and unself-conscious, from some inner knowing that I don’t understand and too often have doubted. Through play, what is formless is given form. If I play in my kingdom, I can share something that is more than thinking, more than even I can fully understand logically, but nonetheless I understand experientially. In my kingdom, my brothers appear as balls made of hands and mouths, and at anytime one of them can hurl across the room and shatter glass. If I am in the way, one of them could kill me. When I catch one of them, we bounce onto the ground and we fly into the sky, reaching as gloriously high as the airplanes, where we look down on our childhood home, scoffing at how miniscule it seems, how powerful we are, but how easily we come down and get stuck on the roof.
My kingdom holds the true experience that is mine and no one else’s. I can go to my kingdom and experience my childhood room again, where thousands of faces hidden in the pink flowers of the wallpaper watch me. Eyes hang down like vines, curling around my sister’s neck. Men in tuxedos sit inside my music boxes with their bows on the strings of their violins waiting to play, anxious to play, demanding to be played. Every toy is the last morsel to eat that my sister and I scramble to cram into our mouths. If I really go into the heart of my kingdom, I feel my siblings and I are mismatched socks in the dryer, tumbling together, colliding softly, twirling in turns, one buoyed up by the other. The door opens and Mom and Dad put us on their feet. We’re happy to be so close to them. We feel the weight of their bodies on us. We rip the threads of ourselves trying to climb up to the crowns of their heads.
On this very subject, John O’Donohue wrote, “No one else has access to the world you carry around within yourself; you are its custodian and entrance. No one else can feel your life the way you feel it. Thus it is impossible to ever compare two people because each stands on such different ground.” When I trust the kingdom of my experience, images emerge that I know won’t match up with anyone else’s experience of the same thing. Perhaps this is one reason why Kurt Vonnegut, after two decades of trying to write about his war experience and the Dresden firebombing, was finally able to articulate it through the fictitious character Billy Pilgrim, who gets unstuck in time and kidnapped by the alien Tralfamadorians, among other bends in reality.
According to renowned child psychologist Garry Landreth, “play is intrinsically complete.” There is no reason to say good job to my son for making a world with his cars. He is not seeking approval. There is no aspiration other than to continue playing. There is no need for me to reach in and shape his kingdom. Major depression and psychopathology in young people has risen five-fold since the beginning of the 20th century. Studies, including a recent one by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University, conclude that this is not due to “changed diagnostic criteria”. Dr. Peter Gray attributes this to the decline of free play in children. He states that “by depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives.” Gray believes we do this because we think we are helping our children be prepared to succeed in the world, but what we are doing is teaching them to value goals that are extrinsic instead of intrinsic. “Children,” he says, “learn quickly that their own choices of activities and their own judgments of competence don’t count; what matters are their [parent’s and] teacher’s choices and judgments.” If a person’s “emotional sense of satisfaction comes from progress toward intrinsic goals”, such as through more “spiritual or emotional delving,” then he can have control over his emotional well-being. But if a person’s satisfaction is based on the approval and rewards granted by others, something over which we have very little control, then that person has distressingly limited autonomy over his emotional state. Gray warns that, “we may think we are protecting [our children], but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the chance that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and various other mental disorders.” When we deprive our children the freedom to play, we are limiting their possibilities through our unquestioning adherence to absolutes.
Just by acknowledging that these kingdoms exist, within us, surrounding us, helps me understand how to help the kingdoms in my household flourish, including my own. If I reach my hand into my son’s kingdom, it could be a step toward killing a possibility. If I tell him, “No, this is the way to draw a road,” I could be the force that comes between him and his trust in his kingdom. If I unintentionally shame him and his playing, he might turn against his own kingdom, betray it, and start looking to me to tell him what is the right and good way to play, to be. For Barry, her kingdom began to darken when her teacher explained to her class what was good and bad art. Within my son’s kingdom, I cannot be in control or judge it. Since acknowledging his kingdom, I can fully sense it, swirling around him. This morning I walked into his bedroom and he told me that there were bees and butterflies everywhere. Playing produces images that give shape to the shapeless inner self. It makes a space in the physical world for the inner part of ourselves for which we have no other evidence than what comes out through play. In this way, perhaps playing is the most spiritual of spiritual practices. The bees and butterflies help me understand what’s going on within my son. As he gets older, I’m sure those images will get ever more complex and challenging. If I told him, “No, there aren’t really bees and butterflies in here,” I am putting up for debate his right to an experience, to his feelings, to a perspective, an authentic experience. I would be putting his very existence into question.
In her book The Art of Asking, musician Amanda Palmer points out that we have periods of collecting, connecting, and making. The kingdom contains all we have absorbed, but it is also the place where we connect these pieces in a way no one has ever connected them before, whether the pieces are other art, music, numbers, scientific theories, or bricks, etc. Our skills and intellect give us the tools to bring it into the world. Our kingdoms are the incubators that bring all the elements together. The playing and the object produced through play is what is unique—not ourselves, not even our kingdoms. About art, Immanuel Kant said that to make something considered genius, a person needed the skill to promote “internal harmony or the ‘free play’ of our mental faculties” to elicit the pleasure of beauty (Freeland). When we play, as children or adults, we are uniting the internal and external to form an “object” the same way water, dust, and temperature form a six-armed snowflake. The process is what makes it complete. What is made from it—the art-object—is something else entirely, separate from its maker, that continues on a journey with whoever beholds it.
This uniting of the ethereal and physical in my young son is an emotional walk. He’s devastated when the car garage he’s made out of his pants is destroyed when he has to wear those pants. Yet, his kingdom can mostly thrive at the same time that he is noticing the absolutes of the physical world with little encouragements like, “You can make a car garage out of some other pants when we get home.” Through play, he is learning the necessary absolutes of the world, that glass will break, the road is dangerous, and mosquitoes aren’t fun.... I can teach him all he needs to know to be safe, healthy, and gracious, yet at the same time, I am the guardian of his kingdom, “the guardian of someone’s solitude” (Rilke). If he wants to bang the wall as part of his play, I can honor it by saying, “The wall isn’t for banging, but the drum is.” O’Donohue wrote, “In order to keep our balance, we need to hold the interior and exterior, visible and invisible, known and unknown, temporal and eternal, ancient and new, together,” and when we do this we “befriend the worlds that come to balance in you.” The ethereal and physical find a resolution. One doesn’t have to nullify the other.
Barry writes about when her friends started to disappear. The monkey in the painting suddenly stopped blinking. When will my son’s car-friends disappear? When will he replace the possibility of what his toy car could be in his kingdom with the absolute of what his toy car is in reality, a dead metal and plastic object? Does this have to happen? For Barry, her kingdom at some point was no longer alive as she navigated the absolutes of good and bad art, of real and not real, and she began copying other artists rather than making what came organically through free play.
My kingdom and my friends within it disappeared too. As a kid, I had to pile all of my stuffed animals in a mountain on my bed because I couldn’t bear the thought that one of them might feel neglected if he didn’t get to cuddle with me and the others while I slept. As my kingdom darkened, I held onto one stuffed animal. A grey stuffed mouse named Pookie Pumpkin Puddin’. Even though by then I knew Pookie was that tangible thing of cotton, polyester, and plastic eyes, he still kept my kingdom slightly alive. When I held him at night, he truly did comfort me. He was a mirror to the love in my heart. He gave me compassion when I had no other way to show it to myself during those moments of shame, guilt, and loneliness.
As we form our identities and personalities through adolescence and early adulthood, perhaps it is absolutely necessary to allow our kingdoms to darken in exchange for the “sphinx of cement and aluminum”—a belief in the constructions put upon us—in order to survive, gain perspective, and eventually join the conscious and unconscious harmoniously (Ginsberg). Allen Ginsberg would have never been able to write the poem “Howl,” which to me is an unearthing of his kingdom, if he hadn’t devoted himself for a time to living by the expectations and definitions of others. For me, dancing ballet tethered me to my kingdom no matter how far I ventured away or how deadened it seemed. I moved in the safe confines of someone else’s choreography, but through the subtleties of my interpretation, I played the harp of my heart, the kingdom of my experiences expressed without anyone needing any more of an explanation other than, “She’s passionate.” For me, the stage was a thousand feet in the air, another planet, where no one could reach a hand in to influence me. On the stage, it was up to me again, the playful expression of freedom no matter what the steps were. My heart and spirit felt large and resonated with what I came into the world knowing, that had been shaped into obedience off-stage, and that I somewhat agreed was beneath the expertise of the adults. As soon as I would leave the stage, I lost the glimpse of this inner place as expectations of success, prescribed roles, and advice and opinions flooded me. I didn’t know how to merge my two worlds without wreaking havoc.
As I got older and branched farther and farther away from my kingdom, I embraced others’ opinions of me as absolutes. They were either well-intentioned mountains I had to prove I could scale (talented, sweet, good, pure), or they were the oppressive stone that beat me to the ground (flighty, dumb, weak, selfish). When I couldn’t trust my inner aliveness and intuitive kingdom, everyone’s opinion was more important than my own and acted as a bully taunting me. In adolescence, it’s easy to hand over the reigns as we seek more approval and a sense of belonging from others to make up for the denied power and love within us. It’s as if we make everyone a surrogate for our kingdom. At the same time, internalizing these negative voices confuses the authentic voice. At some point, I didn’t need anyone to tell me I was dumb to believe I was dumb. I sensed it even then that when I betrayed my kingdom, a pit of pain was forged within it that felt, at the time, irreversible.
When I was 16 and at an arts boarding school, I didn’t know how to be alone, and I hated that about myself. I decided to participate in a self-hypnosis class that was being held at the school one night. The flyer only said it would help busy students sleep better. I didn’t think much of it and went without agenda. The room was cinder block with thin office carpet. The lady leading the class had turned off the lights and lit candles. She had a boom box playing twinkly music. She asked us to lie down and only listen to her. She led us through the self-hypnosis, and without realizing how, I apparently hypnotized myself. The sensations in my body completely changed as I found myself soaking in the wet warm sand where the ocean touches the beach. I could feel the sun. I could feel the granules of sand on my skin. When I looked around, the land was just sand and ocean as far as I could see in every direction. The sun was setting over the expanse of sand in the distance. I remember writing down afterward that I felt my body as a glass of warm milk. That was my experience of it. It felt like being home for the first time, like I met myself for the first time and really loved her. After the class, I felt a little sad that I had to leave that feeling and wasn’t sure how to get back to it. I quickly returned to the black and white, absolutist world of being a success or failure, confined to labels, seeking approval, and my own internal damning that I wasn’t sure how to shed.
Thomas Merton wrote “when we are truly ourselves we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are." True motivation and joy cannot come from self-consciousness, seeking approval, or while camouflaging our true feelings. Play defies the purpose of a protective and defensive cover for our insecurities. When we play or make art in this state, we may be clouded with the constructions we want to make for ourselves or the labels others have given us that we are trying to prove right or prove wrong. We want to be seen in a certain way, so what we make has an agenda. We aren’t motivated to create while we are hiding. It becomes a painful struggle because we are trying to prove that we matter, but trying to prove such a thing demonstrates that we have put our self-worth up for debate, thus continuing a destructive cycle. But the act of playing in itself eventually leads us out of this, no matter the original intention. In graduate school, I worked on a novel about a girl in a coal company town in West Virginia in 1917. It took a lot of research and I consciously thought that the girl’s story had nothing to do with my own. Although at first it was joyous, writing it became a torturous pursuit toward proving myself a “good writer” and worthy of the opportunities I was fortunate enough to have. The writing sometimes felt cautious, contrived, and mimicked what I’d seen of others’ writing. The more I worked on it, though, the more I found myself getting lost in that dreamlike zone of play. Every week when I went back to read the pages I’d written, I felt like an older, wiser version of myself was speaking to me, reaching up through the pages to guide me. The novel revealed to me glimpses of this inner place. Even though I had an agenda to be “good,” the act of playing brought me back to my kingdom. Innocence is “the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object,” wrote Annie Dillard. My focus and devotion on writing—of playing with words—lifted the veil on all I had shut away. So whether we’re copying or not, lost within seeking adoration, or proving ourselves, there’s still a connection being made to our ability to play, concentrate, and lose ourselves within our inner playgrounds.
Barry writes about her mother as the monster of her nightmares, the force that terrorized her kingdom into a frozen state. When I was a kid, a monster appeared to me in a recurring dream. It was a shadowed man on the edge of a stage walking heel-to-toe toward me as I sat alone in the front row. It always came with an anxiety flush and a much needed trip to my mother’s bedside. For Barry, her monster was the Gorgon, a depiction of Medusa from a movie she saw, that came out in her playing and her art. The Gorgon helped her love and understand her monster, her mother. For me, the shadowed man came out in everything I did. He was always there, throughout my novel, in every song, lurking in nightmares. The philosopher Schopenhauer said, “Opposites throw light upon each other.” There have been no greater forces in illuminating the hidden parts of myself more than the monsters and bullies of my life. They have helped me acknowledge that the kingdom was really there when I felt so clearly their breach of its walls. Saying no to them was like killing the bear holding my baby. I needed them to consciously reclaim my right to an experience and, in doing so, I was finally able to acknowledge theirs.
Rilke wrote that sadness brings us closer to ourselves, as long as we don’t carry it around “like diseases that are treated superficially and foolishly.” My kingdom was at first full of pain because it contains my authentic experience, rather than the picture I might feel safer or more comfortable sharing. This place doesn’t care what I am comfortable with or not. It is the baby in the crib who hasn’t learned to stop crying. It is the opposite of the socialized personality. At first I sat on the couch with a guitar and wailed, not caring at all how I sounded. It didn’t matter. The kingdom was a big, open wound. Feeling sadness doesn’t make us sadder. Rilke asked, “Why do you want to exclude any disturbance, any pain, any melancholy from your life, since you do not know what these conditions are working upon you?” Sadness is the light upon the map that leads us through the wilderness. Nietzsche wrote in The Birth of Tragedy XVI that art’s “beauty triumphs over the suffering inherent in life” and that “pain is obliterated” by art. Through play, and the subsequent art-objects produced through play, we become our own heroes, no matter the tragedy, no matter the loss endured.
Barry said her map and compass were the books and music that made her feel alive again. For me, this was Gillian Welch, pulling me out of bed and throwing a bucket of cold water on me. Then Joanna Newsom took me to a riverside and fed me a picnic of the trout she caught with her hands. When I was 31, I found Patti Smith in my kitchen with a knife. She said she needed to toughen me up. Then there was Jean Ritchie, singing in an abandoned sanctuary, where I felt her arms reach lovingly toward me to pull me in with her. I walked in their kingdoms where they ignited my own. With mine illuminated, I got to witness my husband’s unfold before me like a vast landscape. In the traversing, we found more kingdoms in the friends who told us to keep going and whose kingdoms we had the honor to witness and encourage. The musicians whose canopies we climbed in awe and adoration, in trust and the safest and most empowering of partnerships, became the guardians of our album. Our lives continue in “widening circles that reach out across the world,” (Rilke).
Recently, I witnessed my son hitting a balloon into the air with his matchbox car. He was playing with a much older child who understood the matchbox car was just a dead object, not something real as my son was experiencing it. My son’s face was lit in ecstasy as he spoke for his car, “I’m going to hit it again and it’s going to go high!” He squealed in that wonderful, innocent delight that so rarely leaps from a grown-up. The older child tried to get my son to play at something else. “Your car doesn’t talk, “ the child said. My son didn’t notice, too engrossed in his kingdom. I looked at him, sensing his vulnerability for the first time, feeling deepening tenderness for the fragility of his web between his inner and outer parts. I know he will need to step away from his kingdom sometimes as he grows up, perhaps purposefully break it in the balancing of the inner and outer, the tangible and spiritual. In my awareness of this part of him, though, I can hopefully help him trust it in time, and thrive within it as well as outside of it, consciously.
As a child, I placed the block on the floor and my essence hung in the possibility of the next block. As an adult, the tools might be more complicated, but the experience is the same. I write a line, and it informs the next. I ride it like a wave of possibility and of I-don’t-know. My hand of absolutes cannot reach in to say if it is good or bad, or even to say what it is yet. When it does, I excuse the thought for a time. Tell it to come back later. When I am at play, I am always the beginner. I can’t really know if I will ever write a song that will matter to someone else. All I can do is make it and keep re-making it until my heart is fully resonating. Barry says we have to get lost. Nietzsche said this is our perpetual transcendence. We have never fully arrived. Now that our album is finished, I know that I can only be proud of it the way I am proud of my son. I cannot hold my album as something that completes me. I am complete when I am at play. My relationship with the album was through making it, and now that it is made, it belongs to everyone else. It belongs to everyone the way Joanna Newsom or Patti Smith’s music belongs to me. It is this hovering in possibility, this perpetual transcendence that we have when we are children playing, and that we reclaim as adults, consciously. That’s where I want to be. So here I find myself again, lost...within the thrill of being lost, inside my kingdom that has transformed since the last time I was there, completely uncertain, a baby again taking the first block. What will I find there this time? I literally have no earthly idea.
What It Is by Lynda Barry
The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
Hans Gabriel, Lecture, September 2015
Anatomy and Physiology, 7th Edition by Kevin Patton and Gary Thibodeau
From Where We Dream by Robert Olen Butler
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue
Damien by Herman Hesse
Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship by Garry Landreth
“The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents” by Peter Gray
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
But is it Art by Cynthia Freeland
“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg
No Man is an Island by Thomas Merton
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
The Birth of Tragedy by Frederick Neitzsche