"Give me a child at seven, and I will show you the man." The full text, originally serialized in five parts.
It was a year of deep and permanent impressions. I was seven, and my mother, my brother and I lived in Bergamo, Italy.
At the age of seven, as you may remember, your personality is ready to be lifted from the potter’s wheel and held up in the air like a newborn. You are nearing completion, yet you remain under the potter’s influence: the delicate spout still to be born from the edge of a fingertip, the soft gouge of thumbs has yet to create the dimpled handhold. The possibility remains of an accidental twist as you are removed from the wheel or inadvertent torque as your soft form is set upon its shelf. The success of the entire effort will be rendered in these final moments, the specific identity of the clay, the way it feels in the hand, the way it pours in its own individual and inimitable way. The forever soul of the thing.
There is an old saying that has appeared and reappeared over the years in slight variations, resisting one particular owner, and showing up for different reasons, with different shadings and accents, but always speaking to the same core observation. It begins with “show me a child at seven” and it ends with “and I will give you the man” or “I care not who has him thereafter.” It is attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits among others, both famous and infamous. This idea of the child at seven is a powerful one. It has so much truth in it that it will not hold still.
Give me a child at seven.
And so I remember leaning out of the window in our kitchen in Bergamo and hearing a song on the radio, and for the first time in my life realizing I loved music, not that it was nice to sing along with or that I wanted to clap or touch my hands, fingers, knees and toes, but that I loved music like having a love affair loved it, that there was a deep magic in it.
This awakening came with the wild, heretical notion that it was a better world than anything else I knew. It was a dream world, but a dream world that existed. I remember the exact moment of feeling this and where I was standing and how my forearms leaned into the stone of the window ledge and how the flow of ordinary life passed in the street three stories below as my heart first went swimming in musical eternity. I remember it the way I remember getting high for the first time.
And that year there was a teenage girl who lived across the inner courtyard from us. She was beautiful and dark in a wild, dramatic Italian girl way. I’d see her with her thick splotches of eye shadow and her shiny clear raincoat and bright yellow mushroom umbrella coming out of her parents’ house and then gliding past me on the stairwell. I would watch for her from my bedroom window, and sometimes I could see her in her own bedroom fussing about or laughing or I would hear her playing her music.
I wondered how anyone so young and pretty could ever end up looking old, like women that were truly old or even like my mother who was only a little bit old. I couldn’t see the facial life trajectory to get from here to there. That a sixteen-year-old girl could ever look like a sixty-year-old woman seemed not only sad but impossible. The metamorphosis bothered me, like a trick I would have to live for years to understand because that was the only way to get beneath that riddle, one time-lapse year at a time.
I loved how this Italian girl looked like I loved how all those late-sixties, early-seventies girls looked with their hair curled out at the bottom and their sweet, warm smiles and their big poster-paper cutout flowers on their dresses. I saw them in the supermarket and in magazines and on television, where everything was like an advertisement for Life Itself or a Coke commercial where a world of young people raced across green hillsides holding hands in a chain of freedom and happiness.
Oh, how I wanted that. That exact thing. The singing in perfect harmony. I believed in it, and others believed in it, too, which raised the stakes. We didn’t have any of this in my family, but I could hear it in Italian songs. I could see it in Italian girls. I could taste it in the candy.
We heated our apartment that year with kerosene my mother poured into the kitchen furnace from military looking canisters. The kerosene smelled strong and, as I remember it, the heat was only in the kitchen, or that’s what we could afford to heat, and so we spent a great deal of time in there. But sometimes I used to get up first thing in the morning and sit in a large upholstered chair in the unheated living room down the hall.
I would sit sideways in that chair with its giant winged arms, getting comfortable underneath my blanket before my brother and mother awoke. It would start out wincingly cold, and I would read my Donald Duck comic books as best I could because they were in Italian, and then the seat would gradually warm up until I didn’t want to shift within it for fear I’d lose the just right feeling of the position I’d settled in, the molded pattern of warmth and comfort.
And I looked through those square white cartoon windows onto a beautiful world of blue and green and red and yellow color and happy smiles and tiny cheerful nephew ducks and three little hairs of grass beneath every road sign. I was charmed.
If I had lived in a fairy tale and some Topolino Disney sorcerer offered me the devilish choice right then and there, I would have faithlessly traded my entire life and my family members and gone and lived in that comic book heaven or slipped off in the night with the beautiful teenage girl across the way, and lived in her room of flowery mirrors and misty pink perfume bottles and wet, sparkling raincoats, hiding someplace near her where she might look at me from time to time and slip me candy under the bed or open the closet door and smile with her umbrella twirling behind her, her transistor radio playing Italian songs. At night she could let me out and touch my hair and kiss me beneath her LOVE poster.
That is what it is – what it was – to be young and impressionable in the truest sense of the word. The entire psychic space for feeling and emotion is in play. It’s still being shaped. It remains trainable, the depths and scale and span of the self taking form, the capacity for deep feeling being molded into vast internal caverns of longing. I don’t think it can be done before seven, before the age of foundational memory, and I don’t think it can be done in the emotional dark.
It needs to take place in the consciousness of the child; he needs his hand in it. He needs to be there when the big decisions for his emotional future are being made. He must feel what is happening with desire and say “more” of this feeling or “even more” and “still not enough.” He is the one, after all, doing the brutal carving.
He has to decide, without counsel and out of the reach of adults, how much he wants to take in this life and how high he wants to fly. A space must be created in the heart for each of the desired feelings, and it is an emotional surgery that must take place with the patient awake, this carving out and replacing with the empty nothing of wadded white cotton. And then the child must wait for these spaces to be filled, almost in a state of grief, if they are to be filled at all.
And so I remember the intensity of what I wanted as an awakening child and how much I wanted in every direction.
There must have been shame knowing what I would have sacrificed for it.
It was the school year of 1972-1973. My mother left our father in the fallout of a disintegrated marriage, and she took my brother and me to Bergamo, Italy, a medieval city nestled in the foothills of the Italian Alps.
Beyond the simple escape of leaving the chaos that fall, my mother was pursuing a diploma at the International Center for Montessori Studies. Maria Montessori’s son — and closest lifetime collaborator — founded the center specifically for the training of elementary school teachers. Mario still taught there. The training was the real deal.
To do this, my mother took a year’s sabbatical from directing the Princeton Montessori School. My mother was a pioneer in her own right. In the late ‘60s, she founded her Montessori school in the basement of a convent and grew it for almost two decades. It thrives to this day on the campus she established. I visited it when it was a dirt field and a conversation about bank loans falling through. My mother was also the real deal. I have the receipts.
Montessori was my mother’s catnip. Try this quote on from Maria Montessori: “[Teachers must] regard a child's intelligence as a fertile field in which seeds may be sown, to grow under the heat of flaming imagination." My mother would have travelled to Timbuktu to find the source of that sentence. Yes, the three of us were fleeing chaos, but my mother also directed us towards something with meaning and purpose. Her vision steadied us.
My mother had been a ballet dancer. When the world started to spin, she knew how to pick a spot on the wall.
She became, for those first few fall months, young again, a student. She returned to an arena where she had mastery. She worked away in our kitchen in the evenings with her soft gummy white erasers and her sharp pencils and oversize presentation boards. My mother certainly knew how to study. She was a lifelong teacher, but more importantly she was a lifelong student. All of this served her well until December.
At the start of the school year, the distance from the States must have restored her confidence in herself after such a turbulent decade navigating her husband’s alcoholism, but she also must have been afraid.
Knowing my mother, she wouldn’t have said it out loud or possibly even been able to name the feeling, but it might have served her well to use the word fear, to let it out and unbottle it earlier. It might have relieved the enormous pressure it was placing on the inside of her body. Or maybe saying, “I am scared” or “that was really scary” was a luxury she felt she didn’t have.
But the hot past would have surfaced at regular intervals now in the back of her mind, whispered to her during lectures or as she studied at our kitchen table, a low-grade overwhelm stirring, accumulating like white smoke around her stool, her feet, drifting about the kitchen floor. You wouldn’t have seen it looking in on her doing her homework. Her features would have masked it as as she erased and penciled and erased. September. October. November.
She would have been revisiting the marriage, anxious about returning home at the end of the year, her fear, languid and smoky, sweeping lazily into the floor of every room but the children’s, my mother kicking through it in the hallways, but still laughing loudly and smiling and greeting friends at the front door, inviting them in.
Because now that she was no longer fighting or fleeing, she had the time to pause and think about what had just happened back there. For sheer horror value, looking back from safety can be worse than living events themselves.
We spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s in Switzerland at a family friend’s chalet, where she fell suddenly and violently ill. It was on vacation that she dropped her guard fully at last, and it pounced. The stress caught up with her. She could no longer bottle it up. Ulcerative colitis took her down, and she lost weight and strength precipitously. Her bottle broke.
The brave, vagabond mother with no husband and only the money borrowed from her sister shunted her children home from Switzerland on interminable train rides to Milan and then on to Bergamo. She tried to recover her health in our cold apartment. She moved her bed into the kitchen to be nearer the kerosene stove and the light of the window. There were urgent visits to a doctor in the lower city, possibly a hospital there. It is a blur.
The gravity of my mother’s health was unclear to me at the time. The fact that I didn’t know the severity or wasn’t told remains in a cold corner of my heart where I have packed it away on emotional ice in equal parts injury and gratitude.
Others sensed the stakes. Her classmates rallied around her, looked after her children and maintained warm smiles. They kept her on the team and kept her academic mission alive. Below academic failure for my mother was an abyss that even her children would have been frightened to stare into. So, those classmates knocked at our apartment door, and dropped off class notes, reams of them, from lectures she had missed. They were now her spot on the wall. Their demonstrated love for my mother remains a lesson in fundamental kindness. May they read this.
None of it has been forgotten.
My mother was admitted to the military hospital in Vicenza where the United States maintains a NATO airbase. It was like going through a space time warp. The military gates were a science-fiction portal.
A step past the checkpoint gate, and it seemed I’d walked onto a movie set of America. The roofs were normal like they were supposed to be. They weren’t built from red upside-down gutters back and forth that looked like poor people’s homes. They were straight and neat and trim and grey. Everything was square. They had yards like normal yards and chopper style banana-seat bicycles in driveways – they had driveways — and swing sets and American toys scattered on lawns. The trees were American.
Stores sold Twinkies and Life cereal and Lucky Charms. They had American movie theaters and white chalk outlines for baseball fields and popcorn in red and white tapered boxes, and in the little American town center everybody spoke English — American — without strange accents, without always apologizing and hunting for their English words when they seemed to know them already.
I could have moved onto that Air Force base and been safe and happy forever in the land of Apollo. I’d never stayed in a happier place in my life. There wasn’t an element of life there that I didn’t love. While we stayed there, we were taken to a movie. It was about handsome, brave astronauts landing on Mars. They might as well have been landing on heaven.
This movie wasn’t like La Strada that we watched in a darkened Bergamo library where Italian children sat near us on the floor, where the boys were curious about us, then mocking, then mean, and we had no idea what they were saying, and the sad, round-faced girl in the film was humiliated and trapped.
The airbase was relief from everything. If I’d ever confessed that to my mother, she might have cracked.
“So this is fear, and I am afraid.”
While my mother was in the military hospital, a family on the base took in my brother and me. They were a family of devout Christians, and they were deeply generous with the two of us.
They took us to their church, and there was a free Good News condensed Bible with only the Gospels. It was there for the taking – they wanted you to take it for free — and when I had confirmed this with an adult, I took the Bible home, and I immediately set to reading my free book, in Gospel order, front to back, like a machine, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.
Done. Done. Done. Done.
I was proud of the accomplishment and the pace of it, and there were supportive smiles and satisfied glances between the adults hovering about me. I was doing something special and independently of my family.
In my family I did not have the sense of being special or breaking my own ground. This could be the thirst of any younger child, but it might have been more than that. I still don’t know. Not feeling special enough is my blind spot. (Maybe it is everybody’s.) This vulnerability remains as obscured from me as the back of my own neck.
My Good News Bible was much easier to read than my mother’s bedside King James Bible with its micro-thin, gilded pages and its floppy, ancient leather cover and strange capitalizations and random italics. I didn’t like her Bible’s coagulated typeface and strange words.
My Bible had a clean white cover with close-ups from people from all over the world in small framed boxes. They had different noses and hats and skin colors and countries and hair and teeth, both crooked and straight. The cover itself was good news. The people were intentionally all different, and they were all content and welcoming, pleasant and smiling. This resonated at the center of my seven-year-old egalitarian heart. Those faces were everyone and everything. They were faces for me, and all of it was easy, simple and good.
This was a Bible for a little brother that wasn’t as smart as everybody else in the family, the brother only included in superlatives about “the boys” out of bald diplomacy, a maneuver I was shrewd enough to distrust.
Jesus walked on the water in my Bible, and there was a miracle of fishes and the loaves that he performed on the hill while everyone waited. There were stick figure illustrations of what was happening in the parables, and its language was as accessible as reading a newspaper. It said that very thing on the back cover.
But Jesus wasn’t the point of my Bible, and I believe he would have understood.
I must have carried it with me, because my mother saw my Bible when we visited her at the hospital. She made a comment that she didn’t like this particular kind of Bible. Not that it was expressly bad, but it wasn’t the right kind of Bible. She said something to the effect that the beauty had been stripped out of it, and that I’d be missing something reading it. In her criticism I sensed a “less than.”
But I did like it, and it was not less than anything. My mother was wrong about my Bible. So, I held onto it and kept reading it anyway, and with the approval of the host family and my breakaway religious world opening up, there was a crack of tunnel light. I was now a convert hiding in somebody’s attic. This was an early shot of spiritual independence, something curious that would become a pattern through childhood. I liked my Bible, yes, but I also liked the “this is my Bible, not your Bible” feeling, and I liked the people connected to my Bible. They weren’t less than. If anything, they were more than.
Here, too, was a world I might trade my family in for and disappear forever.
You don’t need to be Maria Montessori to recognize the heat of a seven-year-old‘s flaming imagination.
While my mother was in the hospital, the family looking after us took my brother and me to a make-it-yourself ceramics store on the airbase. Getting to make something at an arts-and-crafts store would have been an exceptional treat.
There was an entire wall of ceramic molds to choose from. The mother told us we could pick any one we wanted. There were flowers and animals and instruments and people, and the higher you went on the shelves, the larger and more extravagant the choices became.
My brother and I knew we should pick one of the smaller ones towards the bottom, but our host family was deeply generous and must have sensed our reservation. So, they told us to pick whichever one you want. We were polite in these situations, over-trained to be “good” in this regard, admonished to select modestly. There was an element of good breeding in it, but there was also a whiff of the undeserving, of shame — in the same way that my mother sat us in the back row at church even when spaces were available further up. But now this new family said take and insisted that anything we wanted to pick was okay.
It was almost too much to be offered “anything.” My parents would have given their children their last breath, but they would not have given us “anything.” This was not in our family’s language or how we expressed generosity, but the root-level hunger for “anything” lives in every child, desire satisfied without friction or boundaries. Take anything.
I considered my choices behind the counter. A painted mold of a fat man sat pleasantly, criss-cross on the left-hand part of the wall, near the top. His hands rested in his lap. He was smiling. He was interesting and different, vaguely familiar. He sat on what looked like a pile of bubbles. I wanted him and, just as quickly, none of the others.
When I pointed to him, I saw from the mother’s expression that I’d made a mistake. I’d stumbled into something, but I didn’t know what exactly, and the mother was too honorable to retract her promise. I’d crossed some taboo line, and this only intensified my attachment. Getting the fat man ceramic was like moving towards the front of the church.
But there was more to it.
I wanted him because he held some secret power the adults recognized but hid from children, and for that reason needed to be understood or felt. The seated man was different in the same way the faces on the cover of my Good News Bible were different. They opened a connection outside of my family, something mysterious and intimate, taboo. My life is a search for the tug of these connections, whether through love, art, substances or faith. I have always wanted the beautiful secrets. I still want the beautiful secrets. They are rope in the sea.
There was an effort to redirect me to a larger ceramic, but I’d found what I wanted, and I was set on it.
“No, he’s the one I like,” I said. I remember my disobedience, the tiniest checkmate on her generosity. I knew what I wanted, and it was on the shelf towards the top. The little, seated man was my “anything.”
I had found my Buddha.
A few days later, we returned for the molds after they were poured. My mother’s health had improved. She was going to be discharged from the hospital the following day, but she would be driven home separately. My brother and I would return to Bergamo before her. Our host family would drive us home, and our downstairs neighbors would keep an eye on us from there.
On our way off of the airbase we stopped by the pottery store to pick up our ceramics. They retrieved my Buddha from a row of shelves where they kept the freshly molded pottery. When he was handed to me, it struck me how light he was for such a large, solid-looking figure, and unlike the painted Buddha on the display shelf he was a flat, ashen grey.
I set him in the backseat rear window for the ride home. My brother had his piece of pottery, too. His was less extravagant, a small boot maybe. My brother, the oldest child, spoke the family language fluently and was rewarded for it. The two of us were cautioned to be careful with our clay molds because they were delicate, and their walls weren’t much thicker than the chocolate in an Easter bunny.
On the ride home, I pulled him down from time to time and studied him, rotated him. I could put my finger into the sharp circular hole that drained the liquid clay out of the bottom and see the hairline lip where the two halves of the mold sealed together. Somebody explained we would have to sand these down before we did the painting.
It was overcast when we got to Bergamo. Our hosts parked in front of our door on the cobblestones of 9 Via Porta Dipinta, around the corner from the funiculare station, and we got out and thanked the family for letting us stay at their house. One of the adults in the front said “be careful with those,” referring to the pottery.
We made our way up the great winding stairwell of our apartment building to the third floor. There was a second door that led out over an internal courtyard and then a walkway to the door of our apartment.
It was grey and cold. The day felt heavy like a Sunday afternoon before a school day. It must have been January. We would check in with the neighbors downstairs. The Cobbs. Michael and Mary Lou. They were the loveliest people in all of Italy that year. They were our Bergamo angels, a godsend. We lived in their bright, sunny kitchen. They held the three of us together.
But Chris and I still spent a lot of time alone looking after each other, just the two of us together, brothers, if you really, really know what that means, and Chris got our hidden key out from under the doormat, and he opened the door into the empty apartment, and as I stepped over the threshold into the apartment I dropped it.
It shattered into a million pieces.
I went berserk.
I screamed at my brother in a rage for reasons I cannot fathom, and he ran away from me somewhere off to the right, retreating to a safe perimeter. I heard him telling me to calm down. The explosion had blown clay bits across the doorstep and into the foyer. For a moment, I calmed down enough to sweep the Buddha into a pan and take the pieces inside because I decided, impossibly, that I was going to fix it.
I was going to fix it. I was going to fix it. I was going to fix it.
The tears filled my eyes so deeply that I couldn’t see the pieces in front of my own face as I tried assembling them back together. Before long I recognized the sheer futility of it. It was gone.
I wept for that Buddha like something had died. The neighbors, the Italian girl across the way, the Cobbs, all of them, they must have heard the sobbing. The twin pressures of desire and sadness exploded into a burst of irretrievable loss.
Eventually, I settled down, and my brother appeared in the bedroom doorway to console me.
The light in the room felt grey. I was standing at a dresser by the window.
I have never again grieved over an object like that.
For thirty years, I couldn’t bring home anything kindled by anticipation without a fleeting relief I didn’t drop it in the doorway. Dropping that first Buddha exacted its small punishment, turned into a touchstone of pain, and opened an access of grief. It became a superstition but more than a superstition. Superstitions are arbitrary. This one was grounded in an event. Call it a koan of loss.
For years, My koan threw off its sparks and smoke. It had clues and key features:
I’m certain the answer related to the doorway itself, the threshold into security. If I’d dropped my clay treasure in the kitchen by the kerosene heater, it would have been long forgotten, a minor item deposited in the trash before the return to America, an object spent, but set respectfully in a cardboard box with the Disney books. But I dropped my treasure at the perimeter of safety.
And both that first time and all the times that followed: I wasn’t carrying just anything of value over the doorway. My superstition threatened only when accompanied by an anticipatory agitation of joy. And these objects have to be something carried for the first time. They can’t be real yet. They can’t be opened. Their bridal satisfaction must remain anticipated. Only the attachment needs to be complete.
I’m guessing that if I had dropped something else in a single one of life’s doorways rowed up after that first doorway, then the memory rooted in Bergamo would have dissipated into an “if it’s not a good time, it’s a good story” anecdotal superstition of coincidence. “Don’t let Adam carry anything into the house,” and “I’m going to stand over here, and, haha, can you pass it to me?” The spiritual fire would have extinguished, and the smoke cleared to reveal nothing but brown Italian tile. My ghost would have slipped away.
But I never dropped anything else, and I never had the wisdom to stop in one of the great row of doorways that followed and smash something there on purpose.
Then one day I was in Seattle and driving home from work, and my mind wandered into that year in Bergamo, and a realization came to me out of the blue. I needed to stop the car. I turned onto the big ramp that heads off Interstate 5, and I veered towards West Seattle. It wasn’t my exit. Chills raced down my arms. I pulled the Honda over so I could focus on the thought and test the truth in it, but I knew without the effort of testing.
I don’t see signs in things, but I would say this was one of a small handful of things in my life that appeared to me as a sign. It appears that it was done to me. I believe the clay Buddha was knocked, in some fashion, deliberately out of my hand. On purpose. For a reason. Like it was planned. Like it had to happen. Like I was set up. Because I knew what happened that day, and why it had happened, and what it was telling me.
Half a lifetime later the mystery unfolded. The smoke cleared, and a Buddha was staring at me.
He had left me a koan, and for forty years I had been working it every time I brought something new home, but I’d been working the koan in the wrong way. I had been so close to the answer, but holding it incorrectly somehow. Upside down even. The answer was right there. I only had to back up half a thought, and I’d see it like an image flipping upside down in the concave mirror of a spoon.
Because I knew. I knew what and how and why as completely and proof positive as the lucky few that hear the sound of one hand clapping. For a moment I was one of the ones that Just Knew without needing to go and prove it to the teacher.
I don’t need to prove it to you either, but there is an offering here for you as well, because you’ve stood in the same doorway, stared down at the same smashed clay, and heard the same disembodied sound of grief. You’ve tried to fix it, too.
Of course, you have. We all have.
It is the point. I’m at least that far.
I don’t want to tell you what it meant.
I’ve told you everything you need to figure it out on your own. You need to notice it for yourself, feel your way towards it. Because he is your problem now. He is your broken Buddha. Take him from me. The glue is in the desk drawer. The dustpan and broom are in the kitchen.
Good luck. It took me forty years to get this far. Maybe you’re there already, or maybe you’ll get it in an afternoon. Some are fortunate like that.
As for me, I’m trying to live with the answer to the koan now. Because it is like I’ve been shown everything I’m doing is wrong: the music at the windowsill, the Italian girl in the stairwell, the astronauts and the air base, the Good News Gospels, the Disney nephew ducks, the lamppost with three hairs of grass, the better, warmer family, the pottery statue of the Buddha. But I went and moved things from their proper place. I touched when I should have watched.
(I was seven.)
Now making peace with the first koan is the second koan.
The truth is, I was happier with the first. Because I turn the thing over and over in my mind, and for the life of me I don’t know how he could be smiling.
Feel something. Twice a week