To Live As If I Believed: The Thin Spaces of Children's Literature

Sunday, February 15, 2015 - 5:35am
Photo by David D

To Live As If I Believed: The Thin Spaces of Children's Literature

Do you remember what is was like to believe in Santa? Do you remember the anticipation with which we once went to bed on Christmas Eve, and the wonder with which we woke? While I am able to recall it, I cannot feel the wonder anymore. The believing is something I know that I did once, but the joy that came with it — of seeing the world as a place where magic happened — depreciated with each year of age and experience.

The books of my childhood, though, kept the boundary between the material and the magical thin. Youth protected my credulity: my ability to believe in the seen and the unseen, in the world beyond the book and the world within the book. When I open those same books now, I believe all over again. I retreat through a portal into the unseen, I meet old friends, and I witness old wonders.

I’m nearing forty, and I have yet to latch onto books for grown-ups. I have almost finished re-reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s a book about two children who run away to New York City and live for a week in the Metropolitan Museum. I bought the book for my kids.

Piketty, Gone Girl, and self-help books stack up on my bedside table, because the volumes that actually end up between my bed sheets, again and again, are off an attic shelf bequeathed to my children: A Wrinkle in Time, The Last Battle, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, to name a few. And Dear Mr. Henshaw, Cannery Row, Charlotte’s Web, to name some more. As I gleefully crawled into bed with Mrs. Frankweiler last night, it finally dawned on me why.

The canopy of bygone bed sheets, where I discovered these books for the first time as a child, were a "thin place." They suspended the boundary between the world in which I lived and the world in which the characters of the books lived. To paraphrase Kristin Dombek, it’s not that I exactly believed in the universes created by Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, or John Bellairs, “but I lived as if I did.”

Childhood is guarded by the hope and audacity to believe in things which people, individual experience, and rationality will gradually make difficult to maintain. This willingness to believe is a way of seeing, which our society allows as long as we are young. It is an unbridled way of looking at the world which we are encouraged to recant as we mature.

As an adult, I have known only one experience where irrationality and the unseen remain unbridled and protected. Art has kept the boundary between my "grown-up" world and the immaterial thin. Remember that scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy Dufresne broadcasts a Mozart aria from the prison speakers? The boundaries of the jail are suspended as he listens to that aria. Through the beauty of the music, he and his inmates defy the confinements of their physical situation.

Because God belongs to the immaterial, art has, by default, sustained my perception of the sacred unseen and the divine. Literature, museums, music, and the creative process have, as thin places, bridged my adult faith with the unbridled believing of my youth. They have formed the mason jars of my faith, preserving it after I began to believe critically.

Art has been the reason that, despite the confinements of churches and people, I still believe in one God, Creator Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible — and in:

» The paintings of Ilya Mashkov in Moscow’s Tretyakov Museum;

Italy. Nervi. Landscape with aqueduct (1913).

(Ilya Ivanovich Mashkov / The State Tretyakov Gallery.)

» El Greco’s long-faced saints in a Las Palmas Cathedral;

St Sebastian (1577-78). Oil on canvas, 191 x 152 cm.

(El Greco / Museo Catedralicio, Palencia.)

» Dmitri Shostakovich’s string quartet in C minor, opus 110;

» A hazy YouTube video of Martha Graham’s Lamentation;

» My cassette recording of Ted Hughes reading W.H. Auden’s “Stop all the clocks”;

» The opening sentence of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis;

"One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.

» Living room dancing to A-ha’s “Take on Me”;

» The airport scenes in Love Actually;

» The counterpoint sung by Violetta and Alfredo’s father in La Traviata;

» The Professor’s logic in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“Logic!" said the Professor half to himself. "Why don't they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn't tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”

Art is the reason, then, that God feels so much closer when I re-open a children’s book and feel a familiar world unfold, its threshold lapping forward with the invitation to live “as if I believed.”

When the Old Testament prophet Isaiah writes, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call on him while he is near,” it’s not, for me, about finding God through good timing, but about seeking God in thin places. It’s not about chronos, or chronological time, but about kairos. Art is created in kairos — an indeterminate time, unbound by the clock, where God is ever present. When art is shared and experienced, that thin place erupts open again for the mind and heart of the believer.

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Anastasia Hacopian

is an American freelance journalist who followed love to the Netherlands ten years ago. She studied German language and literature in Berkeley and Berlin, where she finished her doctorate on Franz Kafka. She now writes for Dutch newspapers, Medium, and her website, anastasiahacopian.com about art, faith, multiculturalism, and motherhood. You can follow her on twitter at @ahacopian.

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Reflections

what a litany of thin places.....beautiful. breathtaking. uncannily, mysteriously, i have been thinking of this same connection between my capacity to hold the possible in some suspended third place, and the exercise of that capacity first born in the pages of children's tales.it's the imagination that allows us to take the flight to see and touch and be transported. to believe. in the many conversations i've had with friends who want to believe, who wish to believe, i've traced my capacity for believing back to that origin. in children's literature, in make-believe, a world i inhabited with such force, i too was growing the tender shoots that would carry me forward when, as an adult, i asked, "where is my God?"your litany of wonders here is a true catalog for the ages. thank you for so brilliantly curating, and for giving us much to think about here....

Someone once told me she didn't think it wasn't possible to "hold" that ineffable experience, to suspend it...I know what you mean about wanting to. Art gives me the framework to move in and out of that space freely. Thank you for your kind words, about the "litany" and the "curating." These are only a sample of course, and so personal. It's meaningful that there are others who identify with it.

Yes. I so loved this reflection because it speaks my mind so beautifully.Thank you for putting into words these feelings of deep connection in "the thin places". I offer Stella Adler's quote, "Life beats down and crushes the soul, and Art reminds you that you have one."

I'm moved that these words speak the ruminations of your mind and heart. Yes, to art reminding us.

keep

My first education course in the 90's was Children's Literature, and I was hooked on the magic. The pendulum had swung far from the 60's, when I was in elementary school and all we had was Dick and Jane and SRA. The pendulum has swung back to the 60's again with the Common Core focusing on nonfiction and 'close reads' as a way to teach comprehension. Will this inspire a love of reading? It only makes it a chore as it was for me as a young child. CC is all about teaching children how to test, defend your answer, find proof in the passage. The magic is gone, and the teachers know that this is killing the spirit of what it is to be a child..

Being an expat, I'm unfamiliar with CC. The Dutch give their children a lot of room to be autonomous, play, and decide for themselves what they like and don't like. Lack of pressure to excel has its good and bad sides here. But with less indoctrination, they rank as the happiest kids on the planet (UN stats). And they have Annie MG Schmidt, a writer I am happy I got to know here. She's Dutch magic.

Thanks for your reflection, Judy. I'm a teacher, too, and mourn what has happened to literacy education in the past 15 years.

As I read, I was catching my breath before staff meeting and after a hectic drive on slick, snow packed roads-- and honestly, I was feeling the full weight of adulthood. My children on the other hand were elated as they looked out their windows, "Mommy! IT SNOWED!" Thank you for reminding me to enter the thin space of kairos when it is offered to me with such joy and enthusiasm.

I'm sitting at my desk, reading your post before staff meeting and after a harrowing drive over snow packed roads--fully feeling the weight of adulthood. My children were overjoyed to look out their windows, "Mommy! IT SNOWED!" The scarcity of chronos so engulfs daily life that I needed your reminder to step into the abundance of kairos. Sadly, I read this after I turned down an joyful, carefree, childhood "thin space" invitation to be amazed by creation. Next time: I won't.

I think we regain the ability to sustain our perception of the magic as we grow older, ironically. I mean, often we're either young Lucy or the Professor, aged in years and wisdom, when we have the eyes to see (again). In the meanwhile, we're struggling not to stay Susan. From one parent to another, be easy on yourself. I know your frustration, I have four young ones. The snow is a pain, but temporary, as these young years...

What a lovely post, Anastasia. It led me to your equally lovely website of writing, and more offerings of thin places and kairos. Thank you.

Thank you very much for your encouragement! How amazing that these places are unseen and ephemeral, while we all meet each other here...

Dear Anastasia,
This is a ordinarily extraordinary article. I loved the way you applied the Celtic idea of "thin space," to the realm of children's literature. I'm a college student and am re-reading the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (it's by my bed) and have two picture books on my desk to keep the world of imagination and fantasy close by.
I also appreciated the way you showed how art bridged the gap between culture and Christ. Love it when those bridges are built! Keep up the good work!

The bridge between culture and Christ took time to articulate, and I am really floored that other people of faith are saying they identify with it. It's all the stuff we believe in, but it's hard to put into words: the mystery of the unseen. The picture book near my bed now - Circus Time, the Golden Book. So glad I can bequeath my kids that magic. Thanks for your words!

Amen. "Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time." Thomas Merton

Beautifully put, (Thomas and) Roger. Thank you.

This is, indeed, a beautiful reflection. The art of van Gogh, for me, is that kind of art that transcends what we know about beauty and God's nature.

Me, too. Especially his blossoming almond tree.

This is magnificent. Life has been extremely difficult for 5 years now. This is a wonderful reminder of what's possible, and it validates that I'm not alone in wanting, and in fact needing, this reconnection so badly.I searched out and found Thurber's The 13 Clocks recently. Another book that provides this Magical Doorway is The Wind In The Willows; it's on my nightstand now. Thank you so much.

I want to share this with my friends who are fighting aging as I believe the thin space discussed here is available to those of us who are beginning to be limited in the physical realm.

There is a certain innocence with which we approach children's literature, both as children and later as adults, that perhaps aids our belief. This was a beautiful post, and I have long found that children's stories are often the ones that touch me most profoundly.