Thursday, January 6, 2011

Childhood Epiphany

An epiphany is defined as "a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience."

When I was three and a half years old, I experienced what I believe now, and felt to have been at the time, the first instance in my young life of what I later understood to be a kind of epiphany. We lived then [1951-54] in a little cottage in the Richmond (California) hills. In the years after WWII, the East Bay was still "filling in" with houses, and there were still empty lots scattered throughout the hillside neighborhoods, in those days. (Little did I realize then that I would one day take up permanent residence a little over a couple of miles from this location.)

Since I wasn't yet of school age, I spent most of my days playing outdoors, usually by myself. There was a large empty corner lot adjacent where grass (hay) grew to well over three feet during the Summer, and it was an ideal place to hunt and explore for a four-year-old. The kid below (not me) will give some idea of the situation. Someone years before had worked on cars, and the ground was "oily" and black. Later still, I think, someone had burned refuse around the same general area. There was detritus and litter, metal and plastic and wood fragments lying around. This stuff just fascinated me!

I can distinctly recall sitting for hours on sunny days, the tall grass literally over my head, hiding me from view, examining and arranging old bottle caps, gas caps, nuts, bolts, fragments of dishes, rods, perhaps a penny or two. I was convinced--I had the distinct feeling--that all this stuff could somehow be made into something. I was a kind of scavenger or explorer, and somewhere in this mess I could locate a magical object or set of objects, which I could assemble or arrange in some kind of order that would bring--- what? I'm not sure, but there was a dramatic anticipation. I would go back in the house for lunch, and tell my mother that I had found something very important, and needed to get back to it.

This was beyond a sense of play. I wanted solitude, and I knew, I think, that I might--probably would--fail in my intuition that something important was possible. The feeling decayed over time, as I was less and less able to recapture the sense of excitement which I'd first experienced. Playing is when you know that the activity is a kind of exercise, an empty routine which you perform either to hone your skills, to kill time, or to structure activity in an artificial way. But this wasn't what I was feeling. At the age of 3 1/2, I already was having the kind of mental event which would eventually lead to my enjoying art and science, and speculations about life and the universe.

No one told me I was supposed to have this feeling then. It was something I conjured up spontaneously. I don't suppose it's very unusual for boys (or girls) to have this feeling, but it may well be an innate kind of predisposition towards exploration and adventure. It's a sensation that doesn't necessarily die out with maturity. By the age of 7 or so, I was searching the ground for arrowheads and coins and strange rocks, with much the same sense of anticipation. I knew by then that there were mysterious phenomena in the universe, and that unusual "finds" and discoveries could be of some value or interest. I thought the best place to find them was on the ground, where they had been left, or deposited, or occurred naturally "in nature."

Is this the scientific impulse, or an impulse towards mystery and the unexplained? What speeded up my pulse and quickened my attention, at age 3? Was I thinking to embark on a journey of discovery, or of the making of a bogus system of objects and categories which would have no relation to truth or "reality"?

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