All The Space I Ever Needed
Life since then has been, for me as for so many of us, one of big cities, rented apartments, stressful jobs, and, of course, family responsibilities that at times feel like carrying a mountain on your shoulders.
Over the years, and increasingly as time passes, one comes to the realization that the walls we gradually build around ourselves as adults, thinking them the vital structures that protect and sustain us, end up feeling, once we’ve lived within them for enough time, like a perimeter fence (No, why fence? Fences you can see out of. A set of walls) that keeps us confined to the patch of possibility that we presently see for ourselves. They enclose and define the “living room” we have chosen, in the literal sense of the term, or that which we feel is what we can manage.
But there was a time for me — wasn’t there for everyone? — when the world was free-range.
I grew up in suburban New Jersey, in a small commuter town called Westwood to which my father, a recent arrival to the country, would travel back from his bank job in Manhattan by train every evening, often after night school at Hunter College. We had moved there from New York (we lived in Queens, where I was born) when I was five. The house and plot — tiny by today’s McMansion standards — felt, upon moving in, huge. I shared a bedroom with my younger brother on the top floor (there was just the ground floor, a top floor, and an unfinished basement), and the only other room on that floor, besides a bathroom, was a bedroom still clad only in padded insulation foil filled in between the vertical timbers (we called it “the silver room”) where my mother had installed her ironing board. The ground floor had an unheated enclosed patio next to the garage; a smallish kitchen with dining area; and a long and slightly narrow living room. A short hallway led to a ground-floor bathroom and my parents’ small bedroom.
As spacious as the new house seemed to my formerly urban young self, it was our new front yard, even more so the backyard, and especially our street and surrounding neighborhood that opened up my universe as I never could have imagined.
At the back, a vast (to me) expanse of lawn ended with a narrow thicket of trees, mostly elm with some birch, through which ran a miniscule stream, no more that a few inches wide. Squirrels would dart through the upper branches of the trees; blue jays and the occasional robin or oriole would flit in and out of the bushes; and bees would hover in and out of the honeysuckle on the side of the property that constituted the dividing line with that of my friend, Billy, who was a year older than I (squeezing the miniscule amounts of nectar from the honeysuckle blossoms directly into our mouths was a summer treat). In the front yard, far less frequented except for a tree I used to climb, a blue spruce towered alongside the garage, just beyond a small rock garden which struck me as being quite exotic for area.
It fully realize as I write this that all this description can’t possibly evoke for the reader anything like the feeling of nostalgia for that house and yard that it does for me.
Harder still, however, is to communicate the sense of freedom that I felt back then. I had space.
Space to roam, for one: we were the exact opposite of today’s latchkey kids. We walked the 15 minutes to and from our elementary school without adult chaperoning; regularly ignoring our parents’ admonition not to take the shortcut through the woods. After school, on the weekends and for the whole summer we were permitted to ramble wherever we pleased under the sole condition to be home by dark (none of us owned wristwatches); and free to invent whatever pastimes the environment and available materials allowed (one summertime favorite was to roll down a grassy knoll in Billy’s backyard on the inside of a rusty oil drum, which occasionally also served, when filled with water from a hose, as a one-man swimming hole).
Our bicycles — mine a gleaming black single-speed Schwinn a tad too big for me that I received on my eighth birthday — gave us every bit as much the feeling of total autonomy as a car does for an adult. Anything was game; everything was a game. We’d walk our bikes to the peak of the mountain of debris at the town dump and freewheel down a narrow dirt track to its bottom, miraculously avoiding to cut ourselves to ribbons on the broken glass and opened tin cans that lined our route. Several streets over, we’d go exploring the entrance of a huge concrete pipe that gave onto a pond full of tadpoles and mysterious concrete blocks. We’d organise bicycle races from the top of our sloping street to the lower end; and retrofit our beloved steeds with a playing card attached to the frame with a clothespin in such a way that the card would be buffeted by the spokes of the rear wheel, producing a sound which we liked to think was pretty close to that of a motorcycle.
But just as important as the lack of physical boundaries that we enjoyed was the psychological space we were permitted. Despite the ongoing Vietnam War at the time — or perhaps because of it — we were allowed the full scope of childhood rather than being subjected to our elementary school years as a training course for the rat race of adulthood. School was school, and that was it in terms of learning activity. None of us had tutors or did Kumon Math or took foreign language lessons or went to coding camp. Homework assignments were light and infrequent; and the only after-class activity organized by the school was a sort of basketball league with one game a week, which only a few of us joined. There was some encouragement by the school for us to take up a musical instrument and practice playing it at home: my choice and apprenticeship of the trumpet lasted all of three weeks before, by common agreement between myself and my parents, it was decided that it was not going well and could be safely dropped.
Not having any sort of schedule structured by parents resulted in a randomness of pastimes which, although not particularly applicable to adult life or suitable for listing on a resume, enriched my life in ways that are with me still. Catching fireflies and putting them in a glass jar with holes poked in the lid, thus constituting an all-natural flashlight on summer nights. Building a treehouse (no girls allowed!) in my neighbor’s willow tree, the only access to which was a thick rope we had to shimmy up. Wrestling matches with my teenage neighbor from across the road, on his front lawn, which he would never let me fake-win and invariably ended up with me being pinned down in the fresh-cut grass while simultaneously managing to ogle his pretty blonde older sister coming back from some errand.
We had cultural space as well. Television was considered pretty safe by parents in those days, so we watched plenty of it. The shows often had a subtext which I only understood much later: hierarchical superiors can often be asses (McHale’s Navy; F-Troop); rules are made to be broken and authority can be made to look foolish (Hogan’s Heroes); you can’t necessarily trust extended family members all the time (Lost In Space); there’s always more than one point of view when getting to grips with a problem (Star Trek) and getting what you think you wanted doesn’t always work out as smoothly as you think it will (Green Acres, I Dream Of Jeannie). Other shows — My Three Sons, Leave It To Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show— had far more up-front moral messaging, which was fine with us as they managed to be entertaining nevertheless.
There were shortish novels that we had to read for school, but beyond that, (aside from, for me, the weekly arrival of the latest issue of National Geographic Junior), we’d invest our reading time, and the few coins cajoled from our parents, in comic books, most or them with a military theme (Sgt Rock; The Haunted Tank). My parents were by no means pro-military or pro-war (they grew up in Naples, Italy under a regular rain of Allied bombs, and my father felt we had no business being in Vietnam), but no political influences were ever exerted, one way or another, on what we chose to do in our free time. And what we chose to do was to be pint-sized armchair generals. Together with the other neighborhood boys, we’d spend hours arranging hundreds of those green dime-store plastic soldiers into carefully arranged trenches, ready for an enemy assault. We all owned quite authentic-looking plastic pistols, rifles and submachine guns and waged pitched pretend battles with them. Bits of actual military accessories handed down to us by older relatives — a helmet liner, a first-aid satchel, a brass bullet casing, an Airborne patch — were the most prized of possessions.
But perhaps most important of all our liberties was the space of expectation. It was a given that we were expected to do well in school — at least it was for me with my immigrant parents — but the expectation never translated into any kind of actual parental pressure. The execution of our homework was not supervised; a poor quiz or test result simply elicited an encouragement to try to do better next time; and, above all, achievement during those years — whether in academics, sports or any other area — was never posited as the key to a successful adult life in the future. Excellence was never the goal: our happiness was. But we were allowed to construct that happiness ourselves: it was not researched, purchased and assembled for us.
We were however expected to conform to those behaviours that defined the kind of persons our parents wanted us to become: respecting anyone older than us; keeping our language clean (at least around adults); finishing the food on our plates; being thankful for anything given to us or purchased for us ; and conducting ourselves, on the whole, honestly (I once stole a feather — yes, a feather — from a neighborhood yard sale, and when a full-scale investigation revealed the crime my mother practically made a federal case out if it: interrogation, confession, public apology, punishment — the works). I think that those behavioral standards, too, were more than anything rooted in the belief that they would shape a more healthy and happy life for us.
Just before my tenth birthday, my father’s job took us to live back in Italy. We sold the house, I said goodbye to my friends (I never saw them again), and that was it. A lot of the positives described above kept constant in the years that followed. But many other things, as they inevitably do, began to get a bit more complicated.
If there is any takeaway here — and I realize that my childhood was probably a lot different to that of most people who will read this, especially non-Boomers — it is that we need to safeguard the concept of “space” as much as we can in our lives, in all the dimensions touched on above, and especially — especially — in the lives of our children.
Without a doubt that’s harder than ever to do so, and we have to adapt that effort to the different realities and contexts of modern life and society today. Life has become so much more uncertain, in so many ways. Our natural response a feeling of a more unpredictable future, or a more dangerous one, is to be more cautious, to set up protective mechanisms, to try to exert more influence over real and potential events. But in doing so, we may also be cutting off any avenue to a path that allows us to manage future situations more flexibly, more creatively, more effectively. We need to figure out a way to protect the vital concept of “space” from the desire for control.
We also need to resist the concept of space, or the word itself, being twisted into meaningless constructs or trendy notions that mean something else entirely. Social networks (“MySpace” being the first to gain popular traction) were never about freedom of expression: they’re about tricking people into contributing to the creation of a gigantic advertising platform. The “safe spaces” set up by administrators at some of today’s universities are not about any need for young adults to feel “protected,” they’re about censorship and intolerance. “I need some space,” expressed in the context of an adult relationship, is not about a need for greater personal autonomy: it’s a diplomatic way of telling one’s partner that they are somewhat annoying (or, more often than not, to prepare for a breakup).
No, the true essence of space is something different. It’s about having slack, room, time, to discover. It’s about finding your own truth, little by little, not a pre-packaged one imposed upon you. It’s about building a self, including making mistakes, failing, falling, and getting back up again, bruised but wiser. It’s having the freedom, over time, to experience and to learn and to love. I suppose, when all is said and done, space is about growth… or perhaps it’s more about the physical, psychological and moral oxygen necessary to grow.
I was fortunate enough to have plenty of it growing up. For those five precious years, in my little house in my little town, it was all the space I ever needed — and has been ever since.