Stories From My Childhood

I taught myself to read at four or five.  The  book was called, I think, “Henry the Helicopter”; there’s an image in memory of calling out “Mom, what’s this word: ‘T H E’?” from my upstairs bedroom in the house we moved out of before I was six.

By the time I was eight, many more books and stories had entered my experience.  Three in particular stand out; I read each one many times, and have never forgotten them.

Each of those three started something.  Each one set me on a path that has continued over the intervening sixty+plus years.  I’d even say that each one generated a new version of myself; all three of which have lived together ever since, sharing my thoughts, my spirit, my sensibilities.

The first one was Dickon Among the Indians.  It started me on a lifelong absorption in tribes, cultures, religions and their stories and their agents.  I’ll say more about that later.

The second one was Stratosphere Jim and his Flying Fortress.  This was crude science fiction.  Four years later, when I encountered the real thing in writers like Asimov, Heinlein, and Arthur Clarke, they felt familiar.   For me, at the time, SJFF was my first thrilling adventure story, a Star Wars for the late 40’s.

The third one was Pilgrim’s Progress.  The path that this set me on eventually became philosophy and literature.  Of course, the religious concepts were familiar to me, even at eight; but the story seemed a little odd.

I read it with curiosity and bewilderment.  I had the vocabulary (or acquired it on the fly, from context), the bare facility with reading, and plenty of imagination.  But I had only eight years experience of being human.

We were not well-to-do.  We lived on forty-four acres at the dead end of what, three miles to the west, was the main street of the town.  Our nearest neighbor was a little over half a mile away.  There were my parents and us five siblings, I being the middle.  Grandma, in decline, had come to live with us a couple of years earlier, and would move in another year to a rest home in Grand Rapids.

My mother’s father had been a pastor — we referred to them as “domine” — of the Dutch Reformed Church.  I knew him only through the library of books we inherited after his death, in 1917, of influenza.  These included some large sets: I remember two or three dozen volumes of 19th-century poets, a dozen of European history, a six-volume set of myths and legends from Greece and Rome.

The Pilgrim’s Progress must have come to us from him, the Reverend Meengs.  It was a late 19th-century edition, with many illustrations which had evidently been collected from a variety of earlier printings and publishers.  They were a wildly diverse set; I wasted a lot of effort trying to reconcile discrepancies in their presentation of Christian, his companions, and the geography of his journey.

Well, what, really, did I absorb from John Bunyan?  Surprisingly, not much in the way of religion.  Which brings us back to DAI .

Dickon Among the Indians was fire-damaged: the dust jacket was missing, and the covers were warped, the spine discolored.  My brother Phil, seven years older than I, had bought it at a flea market.  (He was also my source for Stratosphere Jim and his Flying Fortress.)

DAI was a window into another kind of life, another way of living, speaking, learning, and even worshipping.

It’s been said that to really know one’s own native language, one has to acquire a second one.  That’s what Dickon did for me: I understood, reading it, that the religion of my family and of the surrounding community — its services, offices, institutions, and creeds — constituted a vocabulary of conventions  for addressing whatever in human experience was divine.  And I came to understand that the Delaware Indians Dickon lived among in the book used another set of such idioms.

Of course I could not have said this at the time.  I simply enjoyed being with Dickon, among the Indians.  But the position I’m articulating here was pretty well established in my thinking by the time I reached high school.  And all of that had started with my reflecting on Dickon Among the Indians.

True Names

Wizards, in the world of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories, know the true names of things.  And of the powers that are in the world.  And sometimes of each other, or of the persons they deal with.

The true speech is primordial; in that language it is impossible for a wizard to lie.  Dragons can lie, however, even in the true speech; it is their native language.

Do we have anything analogous to this in our world?

Maybe.  Surely, for example, a toddler’s first language is like this.  His speech is a near-miraculous power over things; each new word, all by itself, is an incantation, a spell that creates a new thing in the world.

Roy Rappaport, in the introductory chapter of Ritual, Religion, and the Making of Humanity, noted that our acquisition of language, both as individuals and as a species, furnishes us with two important powers:

  • lying
  • imagining alternatives to what is

But before a child achieves either of those, there is perhaps a brief time in which all speech is the true speech of Earthsea: words make things exist, parents enact things into existence by the power of their voice alone,

This is the magical time, before one learns falsehood.

Remnants of true speech are left to some among us, I think.  Those remnants cannot be written down.  There is no dictionary.  There are only ostensive definitions.

Denise Levertov’s poem The Elves comes to mind.  It has bound Rosemarie and I together from the beginning, forty-six years ago.



Well, let’s get started then.  These are my interests:

  • philosophy
  • religions
  • music
  • literature
  • go
  • software engineering

In philosophy, I put the highest value on clarity of thinking and writing.  My heroes, in the past century, have been Wittgenstein, J.L.Austin, Charles Taylor, John Macmurray, Roy Rapaport, and George Carlin.   I’m not professionally active.  But I will present some essays in this blog.

Philosophy is a discipline for the mind; it is a joint — and mutually challenging — effort of finding true things.  My deepest conviction is that some experience of this practice is every human being’s native birthright.

My religion is Christianity.  I’ve read in other religions, and absorbed some ideas from them; but I’ve never made any of them the center of my religious practice.  My childhood religious training was in Christianity; converting to some other religion now, sixty years later, would effectively chop my life into two parts, and that would be intolerable.  It’s more straightforward to simply absorb new insights, as they come along, into my spiritual perspective, and abstain from modifying the basic vocabulary in which I express myself.

I worship at a small Episcopal parish nearby.  I’ve been there since 1995; sang in the choir until a couple of years ago, been a lector (scripture reader at services) right up to the present, led discussion forums on interesting topics from the history of our religion.

I have no sympathy for the public utterances of fundamentalist evangelicals on matters of politics, social mores, or the physical and biological sciences.  Their errors, in those domains, are too numerous to list here.

On the other hand, the popular atheism of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and the like, goes right past me; I can’t recognize my own worship, or my own god, or my own religion, in any of their descriptions.
The religion I follow is intensely and irrevocably personal.  It attends to persons and to a personal god; it knows nothing of human institutions, even religious ones such as churches, parishes, denominations, or conventions.  (These may be composed of profoundly holy persons, but that does not endow the institutions themselves with any haloes.  Religious institutions are artifacts in and of human culture; no such organization can have, or represent, or engage in, any sort of spiritual life.)

The religion I follow does not convey, or consist of, impersonal theories about the nature of the world.  It consists primarily of things that I do, and a battery of standards by which I steer myself, and a provocative vision of how persons can best relate to each other, and a deeply ingrained communal memorial to the man this religion is named for.

In music, I have one hero: J.S.Bach overwhelmed my spirit sixty years ago, and no other musician has ever displaced him.  I do accept and honor a few lesser gods: Beethoven, at an entirely opposite spiritual pole from Bach, and Ravi Shankar, for bringing me music from wholly outside my native traditions.

What about literature?   Hm . . . I read nonstop  until I was around forty — taking time off only to become a husband and then a father.  My admiration for the work of Ursula Le Guin is, well, unbounded.

I have a small output of poetry — maybe fifty poems in that many years.  For the past five years I have led a local workshop in poetry: reading it and writing it.

Finally, go.  (This is the board game — black and white stones on a 19×19 grid — that arose in China at least three thousand years ago and came to Europe and the Americas only in the 19th century.)  I’ve played on DGS since 2003, currently at 10kyu.

That’ll have to do for now, I guess.  Future postings will expand on each of these topics.  In the meantime, we will pass the time speculating about some recent advances in neuroscience, the spiritual discipline of playing go, how philosophy and common sense are profoundly interconnected, and the mind of J.S.Bach.