On Falling From Innocence (final version)

My stepmom has a belief that at some point in their early life every person has one experience that permanently shapes who are they are and who they’ll become.  She calls this a fall from innocence.  It is the moment a child realizes something about the world and discovers that life isn’t simple and perfect.  It’s an incidence that will be permanently imprinted in their memory and personality.

It could be the moment they were rejected by friends they thought cared for them.  It may be watching someone they love get hurt, or losing a relative at a young age.  It may be some simple passing comment that no one else will remember.  But for some reason, these moments stick. 

This isn’t a particularly well-known philosophy.  It may not be scientifically proven and I hope it never is.  This fall from innocence is something that has to be pondered and discovered and truly believed in.  I do trust that there is one of these moments in each of us, something that has been affecting and influencing us for years.   

My mom is not a therapist or a psychologist (though she could have excelled in these fields, I’m sure).  She is simply a woman who understands how people work, what drives them, and what hurts them most.  I’ve seen her, on several occasions, bring this topic of innocence up to friends of mine.  More often than not, they are left shocked and in tears when they realize that there has been one experience from their past constantly affecting them for so many years.  Time heals the pain of the moments, however, the effects are immediate and long-lasting, for better or worse.  People can’t help but cry when they realize this.

There are some people in the world who I believe hold on to much more innocence than the rest of us.  In certain respects, of course, no one can remain truly innocent for an entire lifetime.  However, some of the people I’ve met have taught me that there are ways of holding on to innocence when everyone else seems to get caught up in turning away from it. 

For those born with a disability, life often delivers plenty of challenges.  But I have also seen firsthand the full and blissfully happy lives that some people, despite their disabilities, are able to create for themselves.  My aunt is one of these people. 

Wendy is forty four years old.  She loves unconditionally and it is difficult not to love her.  She can be masterfully manipulative and insists on having the last word.  She is unbelievably stubborn. 

She is also wonderfully innocent.  She wholeheartedly believes in Santa Claus.  If you pretend to steal her nose she will do whatever it takes to get it back and put it back where it belongs.  A small gift or a few coins will make her laugh for hours. 

She is intellectually delayed and completely deaf.  She has never heard the people around her saying that Santa isn’t real and therefore remains a committed believer and huge fan.  And part of her really believes that it’s possible for her nose to be temporarily stolen because no one has ever told her that it’s not.  There are a million things in the world that make her happy.

With these simple statements I barely cover a fraction of who Wendy is.  I intend only to demonstrate this part of innocence: the people who cling to it much more easily, and who don’t often realize what they have to lose.    

Even as my siblings and I grow up and slowly lose our childhood innocence, Wendy stays the same. We begin to take part in the “real world”, but Wendy has had her own special world since she was born.  It has different guidelines and different lenses than those through which most people see.  Maybe this isn’t a good thing.  But might it be better if the rest of the world didn’t understand how to hate or hurt anyone?  If everyone lived like my aunt, who knows what the “real world” might become. It may be a lot better than the world I find myself immersed in, the place where people continue to hurt each other for reasons I’ll never understand. 

The Innocence Project takes a very different approach to the goal of understanding and maintaining innocence.  The organization has used DNA testing and physical evidence to release over 300 wrongfully convicted prisoners from their sentences since 1992.  Many of them serve more than 20 or 30 years of their sentence before finally being allowed to go home.   When these wrongfully convicted men and women return to their lives, they often find that everything they used to know has changed.  They have lost relatives, friends have moved away or abandoned them, and technology has advanced beyond what they imagined could be possible.  They don’t know how to act around people, they don’t have skills enough to get a good job; they often feel lost in a world they no longer understand. These people, many of whom are innocent of any crime, have lost much of the innocence they may have had through years of abuse by a system that wouldn’t believe them.  In spite of our laws, this country no longer upholds the ideals of ‘innocent until proven guilty’.  Over time, this saying has unknowingly transformed into ‘innocent until assumed guilty’. 

            I’d at first thought of this as a different type of innocence than my other explorations of the word.  However, I soon saw the connection between all of my thoughts.  Now every time some new meaning of innocence crosses my path or a memory sparks in my mind, I remind myself that it is just one word and its possibilities are finite.  There is no wrong connection.

The world can’t seem to decide on what innocence really means.  Is it something children are born with and lose as they grow up?  Perhaps, but where is the line drawn?  Does a child lose their innocence when they go to a funeral for the first time or find out Santa isn’t real?  Is it when their parents get divorced or when something terrible happens and they hear it on the news?

I have my own theories and speculations, though I don’t know if I even agree with myself at times.  The idea of innocence seems so simple until I think about it, even just for a moment.  It is then that I realize I have no idea what to believe.

The dictionary lays it out so simply.  It has three options for the meaning of innocence.  The first, being guiltless of a crime or offense.  The second, used to refer to someone’s virginity.  The last, purity or lack of corruption.  Are these three simple descriptions enough to encompass an idea that clearly confuses so many of us?

I don’t believe that all adults are completely devoid of innocence.  I’m not cynical enough to think that every person is completely corrupt or impure.  In fact, I tend to trust that everyone is good until proven otherwise, no matter what they believe about themselves. 

However, if I consider the dictionary, this means that most people are at least somewhat innocent.  But in a time when mass shootings outnumber days in the year, when people drop bombs without a thought, and kidnap children while they sleep, how is it possible for anyone to stay completely innocent?  I fear that kids lose their childhood purity and wonder too early.  They are forced at too young an age to confront death, murder and violence. I fear that we no longer know what to do to fix our own societies.  I fear the world will slowly forget innocence ever existed.  The fact that it is so easy to lose makes it all the more precious.  And perhaps this slippery, disappearing nature of innocence is also the reason that it’s so hard to define.


Reflections on Scars (final version)

                               I.            Forehead

My sister was the type of kid who could be reduced to a puddle of tears by the tiniest of wounds.  Bumps, scrapes and stubbed toes became theatrical demonstrations of pain.  At times my mom would fashion tinfoil ‘Academy Awards’ and present them to her for a “Moving Performance in a Dramatic Role”.

 Over the years she’s gotten hurt and scarred just as often as any other kid, but it is her worst scar that has left the deepest impression on me.  We were very young and playing in our room.  I was dragging a favorite blanket behind me while she chased, laughing.  She fell and hit her head on the side of our pretty wooden dresser.  The cut was so deep I swear I saw the startling white of bone through the crack in her forehead.  I’ve doubted this memory often, considering how young I was at the time, but I know it’s true.  I haven’t forgotten a single moment of this day.

There was blood on the carpet and I was scared, convinced I’d killed the little sister I had always thought myself to be the protector and guardian of.  My parents tried to hide their panic, but couldn’t.  They took her to the hospital and left me with a neighbor.  My sister came back with seventeen stitches on her head that I refused to look at. 

Thirteen or fourteen years later there is still a scar, fainter now, running down her forehead.  And I still blame myself as the one to put it there.

I’ve cried more about that scar over the years than she did when she got it.

                            II.            Arm

My aunt has one of the most noticeable scars I’ve ever encountered.  It is seven inches long, running across the back side of her arm, through her elbow.  A few years ago she fell in her bathroom (which she will happily and dramatically reenact for anyone who asks).  The injury was bad enough that it required casts, slings and physical therapy over the span of many months, in addition to the surgery that left the scar.  Looking at it now still makes me anxious.  It’s so startling and severe. Part of me—a small, cynical part--wonders if less precision and care was put into the stitching of the cut, just because they knew she wouldn’t criticize the work they’d done.  All of me hopes that’s completely untrue.

My aunt handles pain differently than anyone else.  She is deaf and intellectually delayed and (for whatever reason) also has a remarkably high pain tolerance.  Even badly broken bones don’t register to her as worthy of mentioning. She once broke her foot on our trampoline and showed no signs of pain for several hours, while our family continued to celebrate whatever birthday or national holiday we happened to have gathered for.  It wasn’t until we noticed significant swelling that she was taken to the doctor and a clunky cast was put on. 

This inability to tell if she’s gotten badly hurt or has just stubbed her toe will never stop causing me unsolicited stress and anxiety.  She’s uncoordinated and shuffles her feet.  She has terrible balance and pauses before stepping off of a low curb.  I think sometimes about all the bones and muscles that comprise her, that keep her moving and safe, and I truly hope they keep doing their difficult job.  It would be far too easy for them to quit on her and leave her more vulnerable than ever in her uncoordinated, joyful life.

                         III.            Eyebrow

I have a little white scar running through one of my eyebrows.  I’ve heard the story told plenty of times. I was just a year old and ran into a coffee table face-first.  I was taken to the hospital and strapped down to receive a few stitches.  I don’t remember this moment, but I like to think of it as the beginning of the end; the incident that began my never-ending cycle of clumsy and unnecessary injuries.

                         IV.            Knees

As I assume is the case for most people not blessed with coordination and natural grace, my knees have suffered much more mistreatment than they deserve.  The pattern of scars on my knees is almost like a visual storybook, though I no longer know exactly which scars relate to each part of the narrative, and I’ve lost some of the pages altogether.  This absence of memory leaves me with more questions than I feel comfortable with.  How can something that creates a permanent mark not even merit a lasting memory? 

One of them I do remember, with almost too much clarity.  I was maybe ten or twelve years old and had decided to rollerblade to the library by myself.  Unfortunately at the time my brake was out of commission.  I lived in a flat-ish area and decided to take the risk; I suppose I felt a bit ballsy that day.  I was almost to the turn for the library when I came upon the tiniest of downhill gradients.  I started to gain speed, but I needed to slow down and cross the street.  Naturally, I grabbed a telephone pole, spun around it, and flew (with knees and elbows exposed) onto the pavement.  I maneuvered around the cars who had stopped to avoid hitting the poor, embarrassed child and pulled myself off to the grass to assess the damage.  I was bleeding heavily from three separate injuries, the largest and most painful of which sat right on the center of my knee.  I hobbled around for a while considering my options and ultimately relinquished the ballsy persona and called my mom.

These days I look at that scar and laugh at what I must have looked like to those people driving through town.

                            V.            Head

When my brother was two or three, he completed the circle and received a head wound of his own.  I like to think of myself as the pioneer of our family’s head injury proclivity, considering I was the first of us to fall headfirst.  That day I was sitting next to him on the couch when he fell off and hit the back of his head on our new (and apparently equally as dangerous) coffee table. He too was taken to the Emergency Room, this time with his sisters along for the ride.  She and I were then cautioned by a nurse that we may want to stay in the waiting room to avoid the unpleasant experience of watching someone put five staples into our little brother’s head.  Though I’m sure this was still my imagination, in that waiting room I assumed every cry or yell I heard was him.  I could almost feel that scar being created.  Though his hair now covers the spot, I’m sure a quick shaving would reveal the little scar; to match the ones my sister and I wear on our faces. 

                         VI.            Burns

Typically, I think of burns only when I look too closely at my hands, my fingers, and my wrist.  I am no stranger to these stereotypical “I’m not good at using kitchen appliances!” burns.  I have at least five casually sprinkled across both hands.  They mock me.  

However, outside of the context of my own insignificant examples, there are people whose bodies are covered in burn scars.  A young girl who lost her entire family in an arson fire now suffers from extensive full body burns and the health complications they’ve caused.  Two children caught in a chemical explosion at their home, their bodies 70% covered in heavy, angry scars are now teenagers, living with that haunting memory.  A young boy, terribly burned in a childhood accident, later decided to stop letting his scars and fear define him, and became a firefighter.  The next time I glance at the small scars splashed across my hands, I’ll think of these people instead.  They are the strong ones.

                      VII.            The Scars of Others

I remember scars on strangers more often than I remember their hair or the color of their jacket.  My eyes seek out these visual disturbances as if trying to trace them or paint over them in my mind.  It no longer affects me much to look at my knees or hands or head and think about the pain I felt. Yet when I pass someone on the street and notice a jagged scar on their neck or shoulder my entire body contracts in on itself.  I can’t handle the thoughts that flood my mind of this person, this face in the crowd, feeling such pain or being so scared.  Though I will never know how these people got their scars-and most of the time I don’t really want to know anyways-I can’t help but spend moments or hours tracing the scar I saw in my mind, wondering at how it got there. 

                   VIII.            Missing Scars

A few years ago on a family vacation to Washington D.C. I fell (in a rather dramatic and highly embarrassing way) and broke my toe.  In all honesty, this was some of the worst pain I can remember.  But after a few weeks, when it had healed and I had finally stopped limping, all signs of what had happened were gone completely. There is no scar I can point to and say, “There.  That’s from when I broke my toe.”  I’m left with the recollection of awful pain, with no evidence beyond the memories in my own head (and the accounts of eyewitnesses).  And yet, I can look at my knees and see a collection of marks that for the most part now mystify me.  They were serious enough to leave a lasting impression on my body, yet my mind has misplaced their origin stories like some trivial fact read in a boring magazine.

Thinking about this missing scar makes me start to wonder about others. Where are the scars for each time we lose someone we love?  Where are the scars for each time we fail to accomplish some great dream?  Where are the scars for each time someone makes us feel unworthy of love?  Where are the scars for each time we feel desperately afraid?

It seems at times that our bodies can’t separate the real trauma from the perceived trauma.

                         IX.            Thoughts

When I asked my sister to tell me what she remembers from the day she got her scar she said that, like me, she remembers every detail.  She was scared and in pain.  And she has the permanent reminder of it marked onto her forehead.  She says she no longer notices it.  It has become as normal to her as any other feature on her face.   Yet when I see that scar I’m struck by the guilt I felt for hurting someone I loved so much. 

There are many ways of hiding or eliminating scars.  People sometimes spend huge sums of money, merely to erase the lines on their skin.  Why?  For the most part, I’d assume they do it for the sake of others.  They want nothing fixable to mar their features; like most people, they strive for flawlessness.  But maybe for some people, they are erasing for themselves, covering up not the physical anomaly but the mental association a scar inevitably leaves.

But where is the line drawn between the physical, lasting scar and the emotional mark it creates?  And why do we have these scars laying on our bodies while others infiltrate our minds?  I don’t know that I have an answer yet.

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