When I was about nine years old, I had a very fatalistic view of life. I had a firm grasp of the concept of my own mortality and had an acute fear of dying. I was convinced that I wasn't going to grow up, much less make it to the 21st century. I was convinced that all the people that I knew and loved, and many others who I didn't know, were going to perish alongside me in the painful fire and brimstone of Yahweh's wrath!
I had been raised as a Catholic, and was well versed in all the horrors that awaited me if I crossed God too often. We all made mistakes of course, but, hell, God could only take so much; enough was enough. I had read and studied the Bible stories and prophesies of doom well by this age. This esoteric knowledge, combined with the talk of adults around me about an imminent nuclear holocaust after the Bay of Pigs incident in 1961, had me spellbound and frightened out of my wits. The fact that I was a creative as well as a religious child, served to only feed my already rampant imagination with tortuous visions of skin melting off my flesh like candle wax.
It was in the winter of '64, that I remember my childhood perceptions changing so drastically. It was shortly after the assassination of the U.S President, John F. Kennedy, who had been ruthlessly gunned down the previous fall in Dallas, Texas. If anyone asked me where I was at that precise moment in history, I could easily answer that I was in the first half of grade 3 walking back to school with a friend after lunch who had just viewed it on television. As I listened, horrified that such an event could happen, my stomach churned at the realization that other equal horrors could take place. I had heard adults say a worldwide nuclear holocaust was a distinct possibility before the end of the century. Although the year 2000 seemed very far away to me then, I shuddered at the thought of my impending mortality.
Other events that winter also shook my perception. My father, who I had previously feared and idolized, suddenly appeared profoundly human when I witnessed my mother through a living room window help him get out of a snow bank he had fallen into when he had come home drunk from a New Year's Eve party at the local Canadian Legion during a heavy snowstorm.
My older brother disappointed me too that winter, by stealing one too many cars and breaking into one too many gas stations before he was finally caught and sent to reform school, depriving me of exciting sibling company and turning me almost instantly into an only child. Living with strict over-controlling parents who were old enough to be my grandparents, I often secretly fantasized that one of my older sisters would come to claim me as her own and rescue me.
But no one rescued me. Instead, like clockwork, at the beginning of March, the telltale spots of German measles erupted, just as they had with regular measles the year before and chicken pox the spring before that. I felt like I was under some kind of triple curse.
On each of these occasions, my mother would immediately usher me into a darkened bedroom from which I was to be protected from any source of natural light and not emerge for a full two weeks, lest I become blind. I knew what cocooning meant long before it became popular.
As I loved reading and drawing, the thought of going blind frightened me. I could think of no worse fate, except for the nuclear holocaust. Until then, I wanted to see as much of the world as I could before I perished, so I remained obediently cloistered in my room.
I spent my time playing with toy farm animals on the rolling terrain of my quilt, inventing stories, coloring in my coloring books, and doing the homework dropped off each day by a classmate or friend. I was able to do these things within the narrow parameter of light afforded me from the kitchen doorway during the day and a dim bedside lamp at night.
Wearily, I accepted my mother's doting care in the form of her multiple home remedies: hot water bottles and hot mustard plasters for my chest, bowls of steaming hot water with a drop of Vick's vapor rub swirling in it, ( I had to inhale the fumes with a sheet thrown over my head to "sweat it out") and best of all, as many servings as I could possibly get of her delicious homemade preserves of apricots, crabapples, peaches, plums and wild saskatoon berries, an exquisite delicate wild berry that is indigenous to the Canadian prairies.
All of these homemade preserves were a precious commodity in our house- hold, kept only for making pies or for serving to visiting relatives. The only other time the preserves were brought up from the cellar was when someone was sick. In those days, we were too poor to own a refrigerator, so my mother had to preserve everything from the garden and from cases of fruit purchased in the fall.
My father's primary act of nursing me back to health was to offer me a cup of boiling hot lemon tea with honey in the evenings while he was making one for himself. I could not sip the tea at first without burning my mouth, despite his assertions to drink it as hot as I could stand it. I would thank him and let it sit beside my bed until the curling steam dissipated.
When I did finally emerge from the dinginess of my enforced cocoon two weeks later, I did so like a new butterfly, tentatively trying out my new wings. The first day I was able to walk back to school, in the un- censored sunshine and fresh open air, I felt delirious with sensory pleasure. The trickling water of spring runoff into the rain gutters and drains was an enchanting symphony to my ear; the gushiness of the soft damp earth beneath my feet made each of my squishy steps in new runners light and spongy. I gaily stepped into puddles to gather the wet and brightly colored pebbles that glistened like jewels, even though they turned drab and ordinary on my window sill the next day when they dried.
All of my senses had been reawakened from my two week long isolation. After this enforced period of sensory deprivation, I felt as if I were seeing and hearing things again for the first time. The sighting of a robin, calling for his mate, a harbinger of spring on the prairies, absolutely delighted me. I had not seen such a puffed up crimson breast nor heard a sweeter song.
I swore I could hear the buds of the trees snapping open to reveal their tender baskets of newly formed leaves. The aroma of the sap running in the veins of the Manitoba maples almost intoxicated me. The sky was a more brilliant hue than I ever remembered, and since when were the tiny emerging blades of grass such a delicate emerald green?
The warm spring winds and rays of sun caressed my cheek like the hands of a sensitive lover. With all of my senses of perception heightened, I felt a new delight in being alive that spring, and even though I did speculate on the possibility of sudden death or destruction lurking around every corner striking me before I reached maturity, death did not hold the same power of dread over me. I was too busy absorbing all life had to offer to let my thoughts be constantly cast in death's murky shadow.
But soon my fatalistic view of life returned. I became aware of death in other ways, not as merely a part of the natural cycle of life, but as a result of the more unnatural political forces that caused human death and suffering needlessly in the world, symbolized by my acute childhood fear of "the bomb".
This developing social and political awareness awakened in me a sense of responsibility and a realization that I might one day have an effect on the outcome of world events. This led to my becoming a more politically aware and active teenager and young adult.
It was with genuine relief that I woke up on New Year's day of the year 2000 to find my body was still intact and the world had not been totally shattered to bits. But the fear of a worldwide nuclear holocaust has not been alleviated, as I witness the mini-holocausts and acts of cultural genocide that are being perpetuated around the globe each minute of every day.
If anything, being alive at the turn of this new millennium, whether it occurs at the stroke of midnight in the year 2000 or 2001, should awaken in us a renewed sense of personal and collective social responsibility for the quality of life on this planet in the next century. Rather than succumb to the prophesies of doomsayers, we need to trust our own innate wisdom to form the political will to change the course of human history in a positive direction in the new age.
Nell Arzab is a multi-media artist, haiku poet and writer. She has published some of her poetry in Poetography: Image as Muse and has exhibited some of her poetry in 3-d form in an art gallery. She previously worked for an e-zine called Disgruntled and has been an editor, assistant editor, and copy editor in Columns at Moondance since 1998. She presently works as Assistant Editorial Manager. Her webpage, The Uncaged Bird, is dedicated to the exploration and exposition of creative writing and haiku poetry.
E-mail Nell at: email@example.com
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