(164) When I Was a Boy

I recently finished two novels, both of which took place in the Mississippi Delta, but during different time frames. A new setting was needed for my next book, so I’ve picked up a brand new release called The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader.  The setting is the English Midlands in 1255, and the main character is a seventeen-year-old who has taken the vow to be locked in a cell and live the Rule of Life — basically just praying her life away. This character, named Sarah, caught my attention right away with the opening paragraphs:

I had always wanted to be a jongleur, to leap from the shoulders of another, to fly and tumble, to dare myself in thin air with nothing but my arms and legs to land me safely on the ground. An acrobat is not a bird, but it is the closest a person can come to being free in the air. The nearest to an angel’s gift of flying.

But that was as a child, when my body was secure, like that of a boy, and I felt myself whole and able to try anything. That was before my arms and legs grew soft and awkward and my woman’s body took away those strong, pliant surfaces of skin, before I knew I could bleed and not die or, worse still, carry a life inside me and die because of it.

There was so much recognition for me in this. I grew up with brothers all around me, so I always just did what the boys did. I loved climbing trees and dangerous hills, where I had to cling to tree roots to pull me up. I loved wading in rivers and skipping rocks and balancing myself on the boulders.  I’d fling myself off swings at the park and climb fences just for fun — even if there was an opening. My older brother taught me every available sport because he wanted someone to play the game with. Baseball is the one I learned the best, and I can still toss out a pretty good pitch.  A few years ago, when I was a Golden Apple finalist, I was asked to toss out a pitch at the boys baseball game at my high school.  They didn’t expect I could actually do it.  The look of surprise on their faces!

But the point here is clear — we have to give up something as we grow up.  And it isn’t just girls who do.  It is men, too.  I have studied quite a bit about the fact that there is no real ritual for a boy becoming a man. Many times boys make their own rituals, some that are pretty devastating like joining a gang or going to prison.  In general, however, we are a culture that does little to help our boys.  Yes, there are religious ceremonies, and they help. But not everyone participates in those.

The quote above brought to mind one of my favorite songs by singer/songwriter Dar Williams.  It’s called “When I Was a Boy” and I swear, I never can listen to it without crying.  I don’t want to pontificate about it — it speaks for itself.  Dar has done a great job capturing all the nuances of the change we endure. Here is a video someone made, and the words below.  See if this doesn’t make a tear well up in your eye — especially those of you with sons.

I wont forget when Peter Pan
Came to my house, took my hand
I said, “I was a boy”
Im glad he didnt check

I learned to fly, I learned to fight
I lived a whole life in one night
We saved each others lives
Out on the pirates deck

And I remember that night
When Im leaving a late night with some friends
And I hear somebody tell me
Its not safe, someone should help me

I need to find a nice man to walk me home
When I was a boy
I scared the pants off of my mom
Climbed what I could climb upon

And I dont know how I survived
I guess I knew the tricks that all boys knew
And you can walk me home
But I was a boy, too

I was a kid that you would like
Just a small boy on her bike
Riding topless, yeah
I never cared who saw

My neighbor come outside
To say, “Get your shirt,”
I said “No way, it’s the last time
I’m not breaking any law”

And now I’m in this clothing store
And the signs say less is more
More that’s tight means more to see
More for them, not more for me
That can’t help me climb a tree in ten seconds flat

When I was a boy, see that picture? That was me
Grass-stained shirt and dusty knees
And I know things have gotta change
They got pills to sell, they’ve got implants to put in

They’ve got implants to remove
But I am not forgetting
That I was a boy too

And like the woods where I would creep
It’s a secret I can keep
Except when I’m tired
‘Cept when I’m being caught off guard

And I’ve had a lonesome awful day
The conversation finds its way
To catching fire-flies
Out in the backyard

And I so tell the man I’m with
About the other life I lived
And I say now you’re top gun
I have lost and you have won
And he says, “Oh no, no, can’t you see

When I was a girl, my mom
And I we always talked
And I picked flowers
Everywhere that I walked

And I could always cry
Now even when I’m alone I seldom do
And I have lost some kindness
But I was a girl too
And you were just like me
And I was just like you


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