Monday Motivation: My escape into the woods
I “caught” polio when I was seven. It was an exhausting chase, but I managed at last to bring the virus down and invite it in. It took me on a long journey, unfinished still, that, of course, I would not otherwise have ventured on.
It was a journey that led first to the old Fever Hospital in Johannesburg, where I lay for several weeks in a cubicle that I suppose now was intended to isolate me from all the other occupants of the ward. In a nearby room an iron lung wheezed life into some unseen child. When I asked what the noise was, I was told that if the virus advanced far enough along the branches and twigs of my own nervous system, I too would find myself in its gasping clutches.
And then to the Children’s Hospital where I learned to make baskets and listened to a priest condemning the balloons with which a friendly visitor had festooned my bed.
And finally to the Hope Home, still occupying its stony perch on the ridge overlooking the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. It’s really here that I should have begun my reminiscences – because it was at the Hope Home that I found a way out.
These thoughts were sparked by a passage I came across in Brain Pickings – a fabulous blog on all things creative that lands on my screen every week. It reprinted an excerpt from an essay by the American poet Mary Oliver, who reportedly only just survived a difficult and traumatic childhood. This is what she said:
“Adults can change their circumstances; children cannot. Children are powerless, and in difficult situations they are the victims of every sorrow and mischance and rage around them, for children feel all of these things but without any of the ability that adults have to change them. Whatever can take a child beyond such circumstances, therefore, is an alleviation and a blessing.”
Brain Pickings makes explicit what Oliver hints at, by quoting Rebecca Solnit, an activist and writer, who said of her own childhood that she “disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods.”
Disparagingly, we call lightweight books of romance and adventure “escapist” – as if there’s something faintly unsavoury about galloping from the realities of everyday life. I would never judge anyone for wanting to escape.
Here’s how I did it:
In my ward at the Hope Home, were several shelves of books that no one ever paid much attention to. One afternoon, bored, I took down a volume and opened it. It was very long: 256 pages, in fact. A daunting prospect. I was about to replace it when I happened to glance at Page 1:
“It really was most extraordinary… There was Philip Mannering, doing his best to puzzle out algebra problems, lying full-length under a tree with nobody near him at all – and yet he could hear a voice speaking to him most distinctly.
“‘Can’t you shut the door, idiot?’ said the voice in a most impatient tone. ‘And how many times have I told you to wipe your feet?'”
It was enough to hook me. Instead of slotting the book back onto its shelf, I found a corner somewhere and proceeded to lose myself in Enid Blyton’s Island of Adventure.
I came to several hours later, blinking I am sure, at what had just happened. I realized that, caught between the covers of each book on those shelves was a world different in all respects from the world I woke up to every morning – and I remember the sense of relief that flooded through me.
Here was the chance to escape into new worlds, into entire universes, to experience adventures I’d never imagined, to thrill to excitements I’d never anticipated.
I’d found the path into the woods, and I knew that no one could ever catch me.