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18 May

Achtung, Baby

When I was 11 years old, I stole a horse.

Borrowed might be a more accurate description – it was always my intention to return the horse – but still. I took a horse that did not belong to me. It was summer, I was visiting a friend in the country, and we were bored. We were out for a stroll on a country road when we spotted some horses in a field and decided that it would be a really great adventure to just get on those horses and go galloping across those fields.

So we did.

The only problem was, I was hardly an experienced rider, and galloping bareback on an unfamiliar horse with only a dusty mane to hang on to is not an easy thing to do. I lasted about five minutes into the ride before I was tossed, up and over the horse’s head and into the grass, as the horse leapt over a fence. I was battered and bruised and scraped and more than a little dizzy. But I’ll never forget the exhilaration. I had flown. I had seized that great animal and – filled with gleeful terror – hoisted myself on top and flown away toward the horizon, soaring for forever and forever and forever on the wind and it had been magnificent. I lay in the grass for what seemed an eternity, while my friend sobbed over my scratched-up body, and breathed in the smell of grass and horse and dirt and tears and felt the breeze ruffle my hair and sting my scraped-up cheeks and felt alive.

I’ve never forgotten that feeling. I’ve ridden many times since (never again, however, bareback and never again in short terry-cloth shorts), and had a great many adventures, but I’ve never again captured that exact feeling, that feeling of tossing yourself like a leaf into the wind to be flung and spun about, knowing that however hard you land it will feel like a flutter. That feeling of being so incredibly small and vulnerable and at the same time indestructible. That feeling of exhilaration that only comes with doing something really, really breathtakingly, heart-stoppingly, brilliantly scary.

That feeling that you can only really, truly appreciate, I think, when you’re a child – when you experience your smallness as power, when you feel both diminutive and indestructible, when you thrill at fear. I can see the glimmer of this feeling in WonderBaby, in the spark in her eyes as she spins madly atop some jungle gym, barreling toward the slide, batting her mother’s worrying, grasping hands away, as she races toward the fences, the rocks, the dining room furniture, straining to go higher-faster-further.

That spark in her eye thrills me, and terrifies me. It thrills me because I remember that spark in my own eye, and the circuits of electricity coursing through my veins to light that spark. I remember the thrill of balancing precariously in the highest limbs of a cherry tree, my lips and fingers stained pink from the purloined fruit, gazing down at the grass below and wondering what it would be like to just let go and fall. Or tiptoeing around the bushes that surrounded the decrepit old house of the ancient woman who lived near the pond, hoping to catch a glimpse of her in the middle of some terrible spell-casting ritual, hoping to hear her cackle and shriek, hoping to run away, terrified, giggling and screaming, back to the safety of our tree-forts and hideaways. Or racing down the steepest hill on our bicycles, daring each other to let go of the handlebars and the pedals and let our limbs fly as we careen faster and faster and faster. Or stealing a horse, and falling off, and loving it.

But it terrifies me, too, because I remember. I remember how intoxicating those feelings, that buzz that no narcotic, no liquor can ever replicate, that sweet, exhilarating intoxication that makes you dizzy with excitement and insensible to danger, that makes you do things like drop from trees or stalk little old ladies or steal horses. I see that spark in WonderBaby’s eyes as she strains to climb higher and higher and higher up whatever mountain of wood or metal or sand or furniture stands before her, and I think, she will just keep going. She’ll want higher and higher and faster and faster and she will not stop climbing and racing and speeding into the sweet exhilaration of fear.

And it scares me because I – having left Neverland long ago – am now mortal and fleshy and bound by time and space and body and I feel fear as a threat, as a warning, as a reminder that I am no longer nor was I ever a leaf on the wind, fluttering, landing with a whisper. I know that the wind is not gentle, and I know that I break, and I know that she breaks. I know that beneath her wings there is flesh and bone and blood; I know that no matter how immortal she seems or feels, no matter how removed from the exigencies of time and space is her experience of life, no matter how freely she flies… I know that she is as bound to earth and body as am I.

But I also know this: that being bound and feeling bound are two very, very different things, and that once upon a time, a long time ago, I felt unbound. I flew. And the memories of this flight are among the sweetest that I carry.

So. I want for her to fly, as much as she can, while she still believes that she has wings. I want her to be dangerous, to tilt into the wind, to aim at the sun. I want her childhood to filled with speed and light and the delicious tang of fear. I want her to build castles and forts and hunt monsters and spy on witches and race dragons and eat cherries in the very topmost limbs of the trees.

I want her to steal horses.

Inspired by the Dangerous Books For Boys, which is also for girls, and for grown-ups who remember being dangerous boys and girls. It’s posted as part of the Mother-Talk Blog Bonanza.