A GRAPEFRUIT CHARIOT AND A RICE STRAW DOLL – Has A Surfeit of “Stuff” Stifled Childish Creativity?

| October 31, 2012 | Comments (0)










(Dear Readers, As some of you who regularly peruse my site may have noticed, I’ve been missing in action for over a month. My absence was caused by travel to the Pacific Northwest where I visited Vancouver, British Columbia and its sister city south of the border, Seattle. More later on my trip and the impression those two young urban siblings created. Now I must deal with the higher meaning of  a carved grapefruit !)

Hurrying through a maze of glass doors on my way to the gym locker room where I was bound for my first post-vacation workout, flab and short breath in abundance, I passed the early childhood care center, a glassed-in room that housed half a dozen pre-toddlers, infants that were on the verge of walking, small creatures under 12 months of age it seemed, who were engaged in a variety of postures and activities from crawling to drooling. Several sat, Buddha-like, staring contemplatively into space.

What struck me most, aside from their excruciating cuteness and unspoiled natures, yet to be pummeled by our society’s sound bytes of materialism and A-type personality onslaughts, was the enormous number of toys that surrounded them. Piles and piles  – mountains – of mostly plastic, garishly-colored things that leered and grabbed out at these babies in a meaningless glut of over-supply.  I watched as the caretaker, a young woman who seemed overwhelmed and a bit dis-interested in her tiny charges, for want of anything better to do – why wasn’t she singing them a song or dancing with them ? – thrusting these rather boring toys at the babies causing mixed reactions of fright and boredom.

As I waved through the glass at these future leaders and basket cases, my mind panned back to images that had registered in my brain over the decades. I recalled growing up in semi-poverty on the Eastern Shore of Maryland on a bare little subsistence farm where there were NO toys. What we had  were gardens, fields planted in corn and tomatoes and a variety of barnyard animals, principally chickens. My toys were the odd rooster feather, a collection of pebbles that I built into a mini-mountain eight inches high, crowned by a stray bottle top, and an ancient coconut, cracked and dry, that sat in the entrance hall of the farmhouse.

Despite the lack of toys, scooters, tricycles and other expensive children’s baubles, I can say that my early childhood  was happy and my juvenile mind very active. Looking back, it seems to me that the very paucity of items to amuse and entertain me is what caused my imagination to take flight. Barely old enough to walk, as I sat in my grandmother’s vegetable patch among farm implements, a fistful of seeds in my small hand, I fantasized as I looked up to the sky, imagining myself the creator of all things, king of the garden, the maker of vegetables that would grow and feed us. It seemed that everything I touched or looked at became a magical object.

There was no television or cinema where I lived when I was young. We did have a radio that worked sometime and a crank-up Victrola that played  mournful Word War I ballads – “There’s A Long, Long Trail A-Winding” – on scratchy 78 rpm disks. The radio, when it did manage to broadcast, was a thing of wonder to me. Voices, music and sound effects – those creaking doors, that hollow, echoing laughter to signal the arrival of the villain in a dark tale – thrown out into the dim, kerosene-lit room where we sat rapt, thrilled and frighened me causing my mind to take flight to unknown realms never before visited or dreamt about.

Years later I recall a stark, black-and-white British film, “Room At The Top” starring the indomitable Simone Signoret and Lawrence Harvey. In one  scene, Harvey,  now prosperous and upwardly mobile, about to marry the rich boss’s daughter, returns to his old neighborhood,  a forlorn slum  still haunted by bombed-out structures from the war. As he stumbles over building debris, he comes upon a small child, a snotty-nosed, mal-nourished little girl  of four or five playing happily in the rubble. Looking up at Harvey, she smiles and points to a sliver of crab grass pushing up between two battered bricks, telling him, “Look at my garden ! Isn’t it beautiful ?” The life-saving force of imagination is powerful and protects us from the ugliness of the world. Or it used to. With no imagination left to exercise, flooded as they are by “stuff” and gadgetry, turning them into passive recipients of unnecessry technology,  are today’s youth trapped,  the prisoners of electronic devices reducing them to unimaginative, listless zombies ?

I recall, during my years in the so-called Third World, coming across  children in villages amusing themselves by such simple actions as pulling a sweet potato tied to a string, pretending they were steeds and the potato a gilded coach bearing a royal princess to her palace. When I asked the bare-footed farm children where the royal princess was, I was shown a tiny doll made of rags stuffed with rice straw. Her eyes were rice seeds and her crown  a coconut palm twisted and cut into a tiara fit for the most royal of processions.

Several days ago walking through the fruit market in our South Bronx neighborhood, my partner spotted a mountain of gigantic grapefruit for sale and bought the largest one he could find, laughing and telling me, “When I get home, I’ll show you what we used to do with the grapefruit we grew in my village !”

Later that evening when I entered our kitchen I saw that the plump grapefruit had been carved into a coach fit for a king or in this case, a Buddha. My partner had been busy while I took a siesta upstairs. He had transformed the fruit into a conveyance anybody would be proud to ride in: in this case, the Happy God, Hotei, who was comfortably ensconced in his coach riding to a fabulous destination.

I thought of those YMCA tots, innundated under a flood of toys in their day-care center. Would their tiny imaginations ever develop in such a way that, one day, they could carve a godly coach from a grapefruit ? Sadly, somehow I think not…



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