Threshold – I
"Show me a child at seven, and I will give you the man."
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.
The full serialized text here:
Feel something. Twice a week.