Monday, February 11, 2008

With Lots of "Suddenlies"

My girls were watching an episode of Wishbone on PBS the other day. This is one of those shows on public education which it's hard to object to: cute dog, responsible kids, and the great works of literature, all in one package (though the fact that one character's parents are mentioned as being divorced made me pause when the girls were younger). In any case, the episode they found delightful recently involved one of my favorite novels: Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey.

As the girls eagerly discussed it with me, mentioning that the Wishbone story line didn't really explain how the book ends, and wanting further details, I reveled in the opportunity to share information about this wonderful novel with them. Catherine, the novel's heroine, I explained, has been reading lots of novels of mystery and suspense, the Gothic horror genre that preceded today's mystery story. She loves the mysteries so much that she begins to imagine them all around her, especially while she is visiting a friend of hers at an ancient abbey which might be presumed to be haunted, or to contain dark secrets beneath its mossy walls.

As I told them about the book, Hatchick sighed happily. "I love mysteries, too," she said. "Especially the ones with lots of "suddenlies..."

I've been thinking about that; about the connection between mystery, and suddenly, and childhood.

Children love the word "suddenly," I think, because their experience of it is nearly all good. Babies clap and laugh when the jack-in-the-box suddenly appears; young children are amazed when, suddenly, it's their birthday, and everyone is singing to them and giving them gifts and cake. Even as they get older children have good associations with the word "suddenly." Suddenly a friend knocks on the door, wanting to play in the yard; suddenly Mom decides she's too tired to assemble the Martha Stewart-esque "Cooking Made Difficult and Excruciatingly Healthy" recipe she had been planning to prepare for dinner, and calls the friendly pizza man instead. Suddenly there's time for a bedtime story; suddenly there are ice cream treats in the freezer. Suddenly a bath turns into an aquatic adventure; suddenly Nancy Drew has been captured by the bad guys--but the child is confident that this heroine of the mystery will just as suddenly outwit her captors and escape.

As they get older, though, even children start to learn that "suddenly" isn't all good. Suddenly you trip and fall as you are running; suddenly you turn to a page in your math book that's really, really difficult. Suddenly you wake up ill on a day when you had something fun planned; suddenly Mom tries to put away your laundry and discovers your secret damp and moldy rock collection that you're convinced is a true science project, but Mom angrily calls "a total disaster." Suddenly you realize that you are bored, or tired, or lonely, or confused; suddenly some thoughtless grownups were laughing at you, but you weren't being funny--at least, not on purpose. Suddenly, one day, someone you knew well or even loved isn't there any more, and a great well of sadness gets in the way of trying to understand what death even means, or why it had to happen. And suddenly, before you even knew it was passing, your childhood is behind you, and you are making the bittersweet passage to the adult world.

And adults don't really remember the joy of "suddenly." We try, sometimes, but we don't have it in our possession as much as we did when we were small. "Suddenly" means things like taxes that are almost due or appointments that have to be scheduled; it means a loss of control, something unplanned or chaotic. It means that suddenly that clanking noise the car has been making has to be attended to and will cost too much; it means that suddenly gas prices are too high, or that pink slips are appearing on co-workers desks. We see "suddenly" in such things as catastrophic illnesses or our fears of the same; we see "suddenly" in an inexplicable series of failing grades our child exhibits in a subject we thought they were grasping quite well. Suddenly we can't plan to sell our house because the market is softening; suddenly there's only one candidate left standing on "our side" and it's not someone we want to vote for. "Suddenly" no longer has a magical ring to it; we are too far removed from the joys of childhood to see "suddenly" for what it can be.

But then we grow even older. Slowly and gradually, not suddenly at all, we come to terms with our aging and our mortality; and "suddenly" starts to make sense again. Suddenly we hear from an old friend we haven't spoken to in forty years; suddenly we are settled in a retirement home, and enjoying our new life more than we thought we would; suddenly we hope to see again the loved ones and friends long gone, more strongly remembered than the people we met yesterday, or last week. Suddenly we find ourselves looking forward to the life beyond this life, to remembering that what was promised, what lies in store for us beyond this world, surprises much better than ice cream in the freezer or a sudden warm day in February.

The mystery of this life and its meaning will be answered one day; and like all good mysteries, it will be answered suddenly. In fact, I think that Our Lord who rose suddenly on the third day has lots of "suddenlies" in store for us, beyond our capacity to know or even guess.


freddy said...

"It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly a shot rang out!"

Sorry! Couldn't resist! :)

But, seriously -- beautiful thoughts!

Mary Poppins NOT said...

Oh that was nice. And so fitting. I am in the early forties, and "suddenly" scares me. Thankfully, I have small children to remind me of the good side of suddenly, and you have given me hope for the return of the happy suddenly.

Karen E. said...

Suddenly, I find myself needing to get off the computer, and sadly, I don't want to.

But, I'll be back. Suddenly, when you least expect it. :-)

What a beautiful post. Thanks.