When I picture myself in childhood, I don’t see a child; I see a tiny adult. It’d be nice to remember childlike trust and playfulness, but I don’t. I was locked seriousness, and I stayed locked in for far too long. These days, I’m beginning to grow beyond it.
At least I came by seriousness honestly. My memories of early life revolve around monitoring others to prevent harm. Before age six, while my mother was still alive, I monitored her moods and tried not to trigger a trip to the psychiatric ward by damaging the furniture, growing bored of a gift, or some other normal kid thing. After her death by suicide, when my sister and I moved in with our dad and his new wife, I learned to monitor my stepmother’s mood in order to anticipate her sadism and—if possible—grovel enough to derail it. A few year later, at my dad’s insitence, I started monitoring my sister. There was little I could do to protect her from herself, but I tried.
Life seemed so serious, I found it hard to interact comfortably with peers. And because my family didn’t spend time with other families or the local community, I often lacked opportunities. Getting relocated annually led me to see relationships as temporary, unreliable, and not very satisfying.
Social interactions confuse me still. Chatting amiably? Kinda hard for me. Interpersonal resonance? That’s difficult. I often feel cut off from others, as if in a fog. As I grope to connect, I tend to be either too revealing or too reserved. Though I’ve improved in recent years, I am learning skills most people master in childhood.
Much of this will sound familiar to those who suffered abuse, loss, or neglect. Much goes missing.
In my case, one missing ingredient was play. Children learn interpersonal skills by playing with others, yet I never got the hang of it. The only part that made sense to me was winning. When instead I lost, I felt shattered. I’d sulk or I’d rage. Once, in Minnesota, I walked a long ways home through the snow after losing an elimination round in a marbles tournament. When I entered her house earlier than expected, Della didn’t ask what had happened. Of course she didn’t care. She ordered me back—not because it would be good for me, but because she wanted me out of the house until my dad picked me up late in the afternoon. The humiliation of returning—cold, lonely, defeated, and scared—didn’t teach me to play less seriously.
Another missing ingredient was good modeling. My father lacked interpersonal skills himself, and his viewpoints were anti-social. He mocked people who conform and obey the law. He prided himself on breaking norms and encouraged me to do the same. I admired his independence, but his recklessness scared me. I watched warily when he threw beer cans out of his convertible to discourage tailgaters.
I followed my dad’s lead unevenly. Sometimes I was defiant. I yelled at teachers, shoplifted, bought and sold drugs, and drove while stoned. But sometimes I was deferential to authority, eager to please. I wasn’t a kid who thrived on being a rebel.
No doubt my memory is biased. There must have been lighthearted times I’ve forgotten. And, if I’m honest, there are some I remember but don’t dwell upon. Even so, it seems obvious my child self was more serious than was healthy.
Thus, prior to the John Muir Trail trek, I was serious and competitive, but unfocused and lacking social skills. I was old in terms of hard knocks but young in terms of emotional development and sense of identify.
With its adventure, exertion, wildness, and fasting, the trek triggered a growth spurt. When I returned home, I felt proud of myself. I started paying attention in class and striving for good grades. My intense competition kicked in, and I began standing out scholastically. I remained isolated from my peers, but I felt liked by teachers. Because I hung out with stoners, I wasn’t a typical geek’ but I began to see my social unease as part of a smart kid persona.
All this was largely positive, but it came at a price. The joy and play of being in the mountains faded as I focused on study and grades. My seriousness deepened. When I got to college, I didn’t join a fraternity, nor did I socialize much. As the years passed I sometimes attempted to be more social. I’d attach myself to a group, trying to fit in. I worked to cultivate friendships. But I was morose, insecure, intense, and self-absorbed. My efforts generally ended in disappointment and feelings of rejection.
I’m still serious and fairly isolated, but I’m feeling a shift. For the first time in my life, I have multiple friends. Even better, I’m learning to lighten up, to play.
Not long ago I spent a weekend at a “Spirit of Play” retreat. The leaders set up tables of art supplies, and one was stocked with colored play-dough. I made a nest filled with spherical eggs of orange, yellow, and plum. Its base was surrounded by a ring of forest green leaves. On top sat a tiny blue bird, dwarfed by the eggs below.
The nest was inspired by a gift I received from a colleague long ago, when I still worked as a surgeon. It was tiny bird made of blue glass, with a card that read, “The Bluebird of Happiness”. The message was needed but I wasn’t ready to heed it.
I might be ready now. Since the Spirit of Play retreat, I’ve taken a step back. I’m thinking about what went missing long ago. I feel inspired to focus less on growing up—studying and producing—and more on growing down, into my original self, beneath all the pain. I feel playful roots reaching toward a long-buried, childlike joy.
Today I’ve written about seriousness, and in other entries I’ve described harmful choices. It’s easy to feel shame about all this, but I honor the truth that I was young, the product of an unhappy family, and burdened by trauma.
I also honor the truth that ever since the John Muir Trail, when I see a path toward growth, I step onto it. Sometimes I don’t see one for a long time, but eventually—I’ve discovered—one always appears.
Maybe that’s what the JMT gave me above all else: the experience of a new and beautiful trail that took me places I hadn’t dared imagine. Following one such trail taught me to keep an eye open for others.