Thursday, September 23, 2010

Remember Me

Note to visitors:  This is a long post, but it has bears, pictures and music.  There are three single-track music players and a multi-track player with a playlist of memory songs.

I was waiting for a plane at an air terminal when I saw a two-year-old gleefully running from, then back to his mother –– who, upon each return landing, spread arms wide, smiled hugely, and yelled "Craash!" This was repeated a dozen times, the mother unconcerned about the time-after-time pattern, also unconcerned about place, the wider world of other passengers, boarding and arrival announcements, general bustle.  At times, when the towhead was at the outer reach of his run, his mother would say, "That's too far," and the boy would stop, swivel, charge joyfully back to crash again, little legs churning as if in a Roadrunner cartoon.

A while later, the boy looked out the window at the tarmac below.  A thought tumbled out:

     "... truck, Mommy."
     "Yes, it's a truck."
     "... a fire truck, mommy?"
     "What kind of truck, mommy?"
     "I don't know."
     "... a mail truck, mommy?"
     "I don't think so."
     "... a email truck?"
     "I don't think so."

This is lovely.  Two people create a space within an airport, time is not pressing (even with a plane to catch), and unlikely things can be entertained, such as email trucks.  And one person, the mother, is reliably available to her son –– encompassingly so, as if she filled his sky.  Her presence and responsiveness sponsor her son's playful explorations.

A bit later, a man of perhaps sixty years, who had been on the edge of the mother-son space, smiled at the boy (who had just crash landed again).  "I'm going to see my mommy," he said, his lined faced softer, eyes bright, as if momentarily channeling a boy within.

The boy looked up at the man, pointed to his mother and said matter-of-factly:

     "My mommy ... ."

Let us leave the airport now –– reluctantly, since the mundane was charmed and charming –– so as to talk about it.  What strikes me is that a mundane place can become a charmed place, that a busy airport can become briefly enchanting.  The little boy clearly was living in a charmed circle, but I also felt touched by that circle, as did the older man with the bright eyes.  There is something powerful about being held in the attention and responsiveness of another, and some of that charm even transfers to those who witness it.  Charmed spaces are charming spaces.

   Anyplace is Paradise:
   Elvis Presley

So ... magical relief can sometimes be near at hand, or as Elvis Presley put it in 1956, "Anyplace is paradise when I'm with you."

Living is easier when the world we inhabit recognizes our expressions and initiatives.

Having set this out, I'd like to focus now on the reverse situation: what happens when our expressions elicit no response, when "... truck, Mommy?" is left dangling.  Typically, we feel disappointment when initiatives and life-state changes go unnoticed.  Such changes may be major –– significant successes or setbacks, life crises –– but more frequently, they are lesser everyday initiatives ("... truck, Mommy?"). Either way, a lack of recognition may leave us disappointed, somewhat stalled.

And I think this stalled feeling is cousin to grief, that sorrow occasioned by loss of someone or something.  Except that, unlike grief, the loss here is of a wish to be recognized –– so that when the expected wind never arrives to fill our sails, deflation follows.  (This presupposes that it is reasonable to expect a friend to respond to our overtures, assuming that friend is neither depressed, narcissistic, drunk, nor otherwise self-absorbed.)

Fortunately, we are seldom stalled forever, although it is true that certain life routes may be abandoned.  What releases us from our doldrums, either to resume the tack we were on or switch to a new one?  For some the simple passage of time helps.  For some, a certain temperamental boldness backs them up, since those with inherent verve more easily rebound from deflations and move on to other things.

For most others, two related attitudes help to restart us, faith and belief.
These attitudes are not synonymous, though each shows a confidence that things will work out.

Of the two, faith is less explainable and trickier to discuss: it's just there, in whatever measure, in the rigging of a person.  I think it operates quietly much of the time and kicks in more noisily when needed.  Belief is similar but more empirical, grounded in prior hands-on activities.  A sailor can be becalmed, yet have faith in the steadiness and safety of vessel and voyage.  That same sailor can believe in his knowledge of tide, wind, craft, and likely outcome, but his belief is a byproduct of learned experience.  Faith knows matter-of-factly that things will turn out OK, belief is pretty sure they'll be OK and can give you reasons why.

Faith in one's safety and agency, and belief in one's value, both can offset bruised hope and reinvigorate.  Of course acquiring and sustaining either faith or belief is seldom easy; many, maybe most of us, have much mental work to do before we can resume sailing.  And those with shaky faith and belief will likely have a harder go of it.

I imagine there are libraries of theological, psychological, and philosophic texts on these issues.  Much can be found in the works of D.W. Winnicott, and I am drawn specifically to Christopher Bollas's distinction between fate and destiny, also to the thought of Ernst Schactel.  (See informing sources at the end of this post: some sources so permeate my thinking that they are difficult to peg to specific sections.)*

Just now, I will emphasize one strand of Bollas's thought: the importance of feeling known and it's connection to feeling loved. Meaning: to feel deeply known, to feel that one's particularities are recognized, held, remembered in the mind of another, is to feel loved (Bollas, 1989).  Bollas stresses particularities of knowing.  This is not a fuzzy, "Honey, I'll love you 'til the seas run dry."  This is, "I love the way you hung those paintings in the hallway, with the eggplant color in the one kind've working off the ochre in the other."  The sense here is that someone really gets it, has been paying attention.

(Bollas's is a useful definition of love that could spin out in several directions: why older people treasure the company of peers who "knew them when"; why people attach themselves to eras, or objects of those eras –– as if oldies music, say, were an entity that "knew" them, contained some part of them; why it is generally not a sensible idea for a long-married man to ditch his wife and move to Acapulco with the office intern.)

So when major (or minor) life expressions pass unwitnessed by significant persons, it can not only disappoint but disappoint in an insidious, festering way.  We feel not just off the radar but possibly unloved.  And if unable to harness faith and belief, we can get stuck in a slough of despond, perhaps even retaliate by refusing to recognize the other, thereby becoming more stalled.

   Keep a Knockin:
   Little Richard

For a raw version of such retaliation, here is Little Richard's "Keep A Knockin'" (1957).

The thing is, the people near us who are inexplicably far from us on occasion, unresponsive, seemingly uncaring, these people are usually just mired themselves in their own preoccupations.  The flip observation made earlier –– that people may be too "otherwise self-absorbed" to respond to us –– may be more true than not.  Perhaps naively, I prefer to think that people are limited (for whatever reason) in their capacity to acknowledge our initiatives and course-shifts, versus my imagining that they intend to be or know they are hurtful.

Put otherwise, sometimes we all forget to remember what others need; we are "absent" when the situation requires presence.  Thinking of it this way universalizes it, lessens the sting of non-recognition.  We needn't take it personally; we can't always be our best selves, and maybe some absences should be excused.  We would then feel less hemmed in by hurt feelings and could free up the mental space necessary for faith and belief to take hold again.

Still ... it is comforting to be known and remembered the first time around. It frees us to go out into the world, choose and change courses, cast our offerings about without undue care.

In the last chapter of A.A. Milne's The House At Pooh Corner (1928), there is a poignant variation on this theme.  Christopher Robin is growing older and will be leaving the 100 Acre Wood:

     Christopher Robin was going away. Nobody knew why
     he was going; nobody knew where he was going; indeed,
     nobody even knew why he knew that Christopher Robin
     was going away.  But somehow or other everybody in the
     forest felt that it was happening at last.

Eeyore has written a good-bye poem; all the animals sign it and give it to Christopher Robin, then drift off, feeling awkward and distressed. Pooh and Christopher Robin are left alone, and there follows a dialogue about aging, being known, and remembrance.  Christopher Robin tells Pooh that what he loves most is doing "Nothing," defining this as:

    It means just going along, listening to all the things you
    can't hear, and not bothering.

An interesting sentence.  Doing "Nothing" is partly about a careless puttering about, but it is also about "not bothering" during moments of non-orientation as one putters.  You can be "listening" for orienting stimuli yet not worry when "you can't hear" them –– sort of like drifting at sea, listening for a foghorn, but "not bothering" when you can't hear it.

I infer that doing "Nothing" requires an attitude of faith.

But Christopher Robin is on the edge of leaving his childhood world of care-less wandering, of doing "Nothing."  He seems most aware of his deepest love at the moment he has to leave it.  There are intimations of a more structured and constricting adulthood impinging on his mind-frame.  And these intimations take shape in the place where he and Pooh are talking, at the top of the Forest in a place called Galleon's Leap, where a vista opens upon a far wider world:

     ... Sitting there they could see the whole world spread
     out until it reached the sky, and whatever there was all
     the whole world over was with them in Galleon's Leap.

     Suddenly Christopher Robin began to tell Pooh about
     some of the things:  People called Kings and Queens
     and something called Factors, and a place called Europe,
     and an island in the middle of the Sea where no ships
     came, and how you make a Suction Pump (if you want
     to), and when Knights were Knighted, and what comes
     from Brazil.

There is a breaking of something here.  Up to this point in Winnie-The-Pooh and The House At Pooh Corner, Christopher Robin has been a character in the woods, a benevolent and participatory friend to the animals.   He lives in a tree with a green door.  But in these closing pages, he is drawn into the wider world of history, science, "Factors," and drawn away from the 100 Acre Wood and its enchantment:

          Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was
     still looking at the world, with his chin in his hands,
     called out "Pooh!"
          "Yes?" said Pooh."
          "When I'm ––when––––Pooh!"
          "Yes, Christopher Robin?"
          "I'm not going to do Nothing any more."
          "Never again?"
          "Well, not so much.  They don't let you."
          Pooh waited for him to go on, but he was silent
          "Yes, Christopher Robin?" said Pooh helpfully.
          "Pooh, when I'm––you know––when I'm not
          doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?"
          "Just Me?"
          "Yes, Pooh."
          "Will you be here too?"
          "Yes, Pooh, I will be, really.  I promise I will be,
          "That's good," said Pooh.
          "Pooh, promise you won't forget about me, ever.
     Not even when I'm a hundred."
          Pooh thought for a little.
          "How old shall I be then?"
          Pooh nodded.
          "I promise," he said.

I find this passage vastly sad.  Christopher Robin is on his own here, even though he is with his friend Pooh.  The life change he is going through is painful; it is hard for him to speak, and it is desperately important that he be remembered by his bear.  To move on he has to store his child self in his bear, and that storage has to be lifelong.  In some area of Christopher Robin's future self, there must always reside a living endowment of childhood, some beating trace of a boy who lived safely in a tree with a green door.
A.A. Milne, Christopher Robin, and Pooh

I interpolate here that Christopher Robin was the real son of A.A. Milne, that the father wrote bedtime stories for his son in which Christopher and his stuffed bear were characters, and that those stories were compiled into Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.

In addition, the real Christopher Robin had a relationship with a real black bear at the London Zoo.  That bear had originally been named "Winnipeg," after the hometown of a Canadian soldier who had brought the bear to England during World War I.  (See Winnie-The-Pooh.)

Christopher Robin Milne at the
London Zoo
Thus, Pooh is a bear laden with meaning and remembrance: a storied bear commingling with real black bear and real stuffed animal; a storied Christopher commingling with a real Christopher who listened to and stored bedtime stories; a father in whose lap, real and metaphoric, Christopher was held. This could get dizzying, but for our purposes let us accept that Pooh has valuable and special properties.

Special in a remarkable way.  For although Christopher Robin cannot yet know this, his bear has to do more than remember Christopher's deepest self.  He must also be able to call to the adult Christopher and remind the man that a boy lives inside, recalling for him his deepest contentments.  In later life, when Christopher Robin will be living amidst "Factors," at times perplexed and "silent," he will need a memory nudge from Pooh.  He will need to hear, "Yes, Christopher Robin?" when he is stalled.

Christopher Robin is thus not the only one going through a life change. Pooh himself is altered, having been given a mission, which is to be not only Christopher Robin's memory but a re-minder of that memory.  He will perform that task from the inside now (assuming the grown-up Christopher Robin does not go out and about in the world carrying a stuffed bear).  Pooh is necessarily traveling from outside to inside, crossing the territory from external fluffy companion to internal felt-when-needed companion –– on standby as Christopher Robin's faithful sidekick.

As such, Pooh has been repurposed by his friend.  He will still dwell in the 100 Acre Wood, casually visiting Piglet or searching for honey –– only that 100 Acre Wood is now inside Christopher Robin.  And from that inner place Pooh will do his job, ever "on call" for Christopher, his memory-beeper as well as his memory-keeper, a companion that can trigger a state of mind.

   There Goes My Baby:
   The Drifters

This triggering function is similar to that of the "oldies" music cited before: something holds memories for me, but it also "beeps" me on occasion.  So that the next time I have an urge, say, to listen to "There Goes My Baby" (1959) by the Drifters, I will be in touch with a 1959-me, yet I will have also been "beeped" by that earlier me.  What feels like an "urge" to spend time with a special interest is an instance of having been paged by that latent interest.  (See this blog, Dreaming My Star, for a discussion of self-beeping; also, "Being a Character," Chapter 3 of Being a Character [1992], by Christopher Bollas.)

If asked, I could not tell you precisely how music calls to me, or how an internalized Pooh might call to an older Christopher Robin.  But perhaps this is a psychophysical question that need not be asked –– how a stuffed bear can be listening to, open to, and present for Christopher Robin; or more accurately, how the memory of a stuffed bear can be open to and present for Christopher Robin, this being a question about the internal movements of a memory-bear.  (Crossword puzzle enthusiasts will be aware of a phenomenon in which the answer to a word-clue sometimes pops into mind the next day, even days later –– as if solutions take their time, follow their own movements.  In the case of Christopher Robin's Pooh, maybe a situation in which the older Christopher is puzzled will be sensed by a memory-bear "open" to this situation ... and ready to provide a life raft.)

All we really know is that this bear, this very special beloved bear, has been invested with foundational properties by a young boy, properties having to do with easy exploration in trusted waters.  These properties do not simply vanish when the older Christopher understands toy-making, fibers, and stuffing.  Cherished trustings and interests may be off his radar but they are still in his ocean.  Not only do they not vanish, it seems unbearable for him to move on through life without his bear-part to hold these essences.

Finally, this: when sometimes we forget what others need from us, so too do we forget what we need from ourselves –– a reliable flotation.
This returns us to faith.  It's hard to put into words but something there is that holds us up in difficult times. Our experience of staying afloat precedes our knowledge of logs, charts, suction pumps and Brazil.  It is there in the reliable presence and responsiveness of a mother in an airport, a mother of a two-year-old who knows he can safely explore, knows that something will prevent his going "too far," knows he is never off her radar.

Always known, he can be simultaneously at sea yet anchored in familiar moorage.

Perhaps faith is a substrate of unregistered beliefs that comes from having lived in an enclosing and supporting world, from a time when we were not that verbal, not overly involved in assigning descriptors ("King," "Queen," "Brazil") to things, and when we were too absorbed in doing "Nothing" to categorize anyway.  Such an unregistered trust in one's buoyancy –– faith –– is felt more than understood.  As such, it makes palpable one aspect of an "unthought known" (Bollas, 1987) from earliest life.

So "Bother!" if a friend fails to acknowledge me, but foolish me for dwelling too long in my doldrums.  I can fall back on a deeper knowing, which is that when I lose my moorings, fall away from myself, I can always re-find them and me –– and keep on sailing.  All I really need do is let myself drift, and I find that I'm still afloat.  My vessel was seaworthy before ever there was a clear record of me, my craft, or sea:
          Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin
     put out a hand and felt for Pooh's paw.      
          "Pooh," said Christopher Robin earnestly, "if I––
     if I'm not quite––––"he stopped and tried again––      
     "Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t
          "Understand what?”

(And then, wonderfully:)         

          "Oh, nothing."  He laughed and jumped to his
     feet.  "Come on!”         
          "Where?" said Pooh.         
     "Anywhere," said Christopher Robin.

Here are the last lines of The House at Pooh Corner, spoken as a coda by A.A. Milne:         

          So they went off together. But wherever they go,         
     and whatever happens to them on the way, in that         
     enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy         
     and his Bear will always be playing.

Both reader and author are now, like Christopher Robin, at the edge of story.  We are all going away from the charmed space of the book, possibly to catch a plane.  The childhood story is over for us too ... until the next time we feel "an urge" to take this story off the shelf.

*See, by Christopher Bollas: "Being a Character," in Being a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self-Experience (1992); also, Forces Of Destiny (1989); also, Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known (1987).  See, by D.W. Winnicott: "The Five-Year-Old,” in The Family and Individual Development (1965); also, "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena" (1951), in Collected Papers: Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis (1958).  See, by Ernst Schactel: "On Memory and Childhood Amnesia," in Metamorphosis (1959).  See this blog, Seaweeds, for a discussion of Winnicott, or Fate And Destiny and Dreaming My Star for applications of Bollas's thought.


Galen Johnson said...

Thank you for this very moving and deep blog. It seems like all the wisdom one needs is found in children’s books and watching children play. I also think of faith as more affective having to do with our deepest feelings and cares and belief as more cognitive. Thus, it is not surprising that faith in the generosity of life is intimately wed with love and home and Mom (and Dad too) and the “unthought known” from earliest life. Kierkegaard once wrote a really great book about this called Fear and Trembling, and he was stuck on Abraham and Isaac and the “big” faiths and loves, but maybe all we need is Christopher Robin’s trust in Pooh to remember him until he is 100.

I recently had the pleasure of watching a man in his 60s engage a shop clerk near the Appalachian Mountains with the story of Christopher Robin and Pooh. She turned out to be much more than a shop clerk and knew a lot about Moms and the power of Pooh (she said the “tao of Pooh”) and the art of “doing nothing” and even the meaning of spalted wood. I learned a lot that day.

I did not know of the “real” Christopher Robin, son of A. A. Milne, and the “real” Pooh,” black bear at the London Zoo. Thanks for the reminder that we are all “at the edge of story” at the most unexpected moments and I suspect A. A. Milne didn’t write a children’s book at all. Please keep these researches and writings coming.

-- Galen Johnson

Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

Please pass on to Todd and Cyril my congratulations on crafting such a fine essay. I remember this from several years back and find the airport story as powerful as ever. It is always refreshing to spend time in the world of these three Christophers.

Unknown said...

AND... I'm glad to re-meet the bearable.

Kit said...

Thank you, Douglas, for your responses to this particular overture of ours. It is a gift to be considered a third Christopher, and it makes things more bearable.

Comments are appreciated: