This is a blog all just for me. It has no purpose whatsoever except for me to share some of the random nonsense I happen to be thinking about in my day-to-day life. Sometimes it sure is nice not to have a purpose.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Parents As Ghosts In The Graveyard

I just finished reading The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman for a young adult literature group that's meeting today. Nothing like finishing in the nick of time! The book as a whole was an enjoyable, well-crafted fantasy book with the imaginative premise of a baby who is adopted by ghosts in a graveyard after his family is murdered. The boy named "Nobody," or just "Bod" for short, walks a line between the dead and the living. He's able to see and talk with ghosts of the graveyard, but he is still human. He gains special abilities that he learns from the dead, and yet he is still ultimately mortal.

While I enjoyed following the adventures of Bod as he grows up from a toddling baby to a teenager, it wasn't until I reached the end of the book that I finally felt emotionally touched. WARNING: SPOILERS! It is in the last chapter of the book, "Leavings and Partings," that the story seems to suddenly expand to express much more universal themes. It is with Bod's departure from the graveyard that I was able to see how his ghostly adopted parents are not just his parents in some fantastical story, but they are akin to the parents of any child.

One of the circumstances that Bod finds himself in as a living child among ghosts is that as he grows older and changes, the ghosts remain "stuck" or frozen in time. Child ghosts whom he once enjoyed playing games with continue to be children playing children's games as he becomes an adolescent and young adult. Similarly, his ghostly parents are unable to accompany Bod on his journey in life--they cannot leave the boundaries of the graveyard when it is time for him to go out into the world.

As children become independent adults, there is an element of physical separateness at play. I remember specifically selecting a college that was thousands of miles away from my parents, because the physical distance had meaning to me. Locating myself at the opposite end of the country was my way of leaving the boundaries of their control, knowing well that they would not be following me or be within reach. In practice, physical boundaries for living, human parents are much less restrictive than those for Bod and his ghostly family. My parents, for example, could still visit me at college and I could still make trips "home."

The physical distance between my parents and me, however, was representative of a simultaneous nonphysical separation. It was the intangible separation that was the most important to me and probably the most painful for my parents. Years after I finished college, my mom told me the story of when she and my father dropped me off at college my first year. As they drove away from the school, my dad started crying so hard that they had to pull over to the side of the road. For a man I never really see cry, even when members of our family have died, my new journey surely represented a loss that I see echoed when Bod's ghostly parents bid him farewell from the graveyard. My parents were undoubtedly happy for me just Bod hears his mom, "I am so proud of you, my son," but as a parent now, I realize that it may be a joy that is equally wrapped up in the mourning of a loss.

While my personality has always made me roaring to be independent, letting go may also be difficult, scary, or saddening for children. In the final chapter of The Graveyard Book, Bod asks his guardian, "Can't I stay here? In the graveyard?" The answer is firm: "You must not...all the people here have had their lives...Now it's your turn. You need to live." Whether children are ready to skip out the door or whether they need a little nudge, I think that this answer is key. Children "need to live" their own lives and should not "stay" controlled by their parents. This does not mean that children and parents cannot have an enduring relationship throughout life--I greatly cherish the current relationship I maintain with my parents. This also doesn't mean that children do not have a life of their own until they physically leave home. After all, the separation that occurs in real life is not one that happens in a single moment, but is instead a continuous process. In this light, childhood is a series of parents' "letting gos" of their children. It starts from the moment of birth when the baby who has spent months living inside of you is now suddenly an entity living outside of your body. It continues when they learn to take steps on their own without your guiding hand and when they spend time away at school or with friends.

At one point Bod starts to ask, "If I change my mind can I come back here?" But, he is immediately able to answer his own question, "If I come back, it will be a place, but it won't be home any longer." While I feel like the home you grow up in is a place that you always feel connected with and many people often feel comfortable in, this answer rings true for me. Home for me today is not the one that I grew up in, but the one that I have created myself. And, the more I think about it, "home" is not even so much a place as it is a space within me. Thus, in a weird roundabout way, my parents can feel reassured that as compelled as I have felt to leave them, finding my own true home has resulted in just as much a return to them. I recognize that everything that I have now is built on the foundation that they provided me, and that they remain an integral and inseparable part of who and where I am. In the cyclical nature of life, perhaps the separation that children make from parents is necessary so that they can indeed reconnect again someday. This idea ties in well with the closing lines of The Graveyard Book:

There was a passport in his bag, money in his pocket. There was a smile dancing on his lips, although it was a wary smile, for the world is a bigger place than a little graveyard on a hill; and there would be dangers in it and mysteries, new friends to make, old friends to rediscover, mistakes to be made and many paths to be walked before he would, finally, return to the graveyard or ride with the Lady on the broad back of her great grey stallion. But between now and then, there was Life; and Bod walked into it with his eyes and his heart wide open.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant commentary! And I agree with your Bill. ~jnt