A Return to Innocence

“I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more – the feeling that I could last forever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort – to death” -Joseph Conrad.

              As the great Beatle, George Harrison, once said, “All things must pass” – it is only a matter of time before the sea of change washes away that which we hold precious. I remember when I first experienced this realization for myself, this realization that every soul must reach at some time or other, each in its own way, each sacred.

The flowers of my youth blossomed in rich soil.  My family lived in a middle class neighbourhood, and although we were not a religious family, my brother and I were raised with an exceptional sense of morality.  It was this sense of morality that lent our household an austere atmosphere during those early years.

My story commences at ten years of age, a gentle snowfall cascaded from the heavens, the romantic kind usually reserved for postcards. My friend Neil and I were walking home from school. He reached into his pocket, handing me a piece of Hubba Bubba; in those days, Hubba Bubba was the Rolls Royce of chewing gums. I will never forget what he said next as I popped the gum in my mouth, “Guess what? This pack of gum is stolen.”

Revulsion overcame me. I was about to spit the gum onto the concrete, then and there! I said nothing. My weakest point had been struck, my sense of morality had been offended, and I could no longer look in the direction of my friend.  I was embarrassed for being friends with a heathen. I was the accomplice of a criminal, a thief, a depraved soul who would burn in hell, be reborn as a chimpanzee or hyena, and rot in the realms of the destitute. I went home that day withdrawn, unable to eat, or even play with my brother, I told my parents I was sick, and went to bed.

As I fell asleep, my sense of revulsion towards Neil was gradually replaced by a feeling akin to awe.  He had marched into the store, and stolen a pack of gum.  He walked out with a pack of Hubba Bubba for nothing; he spent nothing, paid nothing. He had gotten the gum for free, and he had done so because he willed it so.  As I became drowsier, this feeling grew, and entirely swept away my initial feelings of disgust.

              A week passed, and the whole time Neil remained in my mind. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him at school.  He carried a secretive smile on his face, bore a look of valour, giving chocolate bars and packs of gum to all of our classmates. He drew smiles from the girls, and had the respect of the boys.  He was a hero, a champion of schoolchildren everywhere, Neil was Robin Hood; he stole from the rich, and gave to the poor.

              There is a particular day that remains imprinted in my memory, and it is one that I am likely to never forget. In those days, I, like every other boy in grade five – well, those who had outgrown the “cooties” phase, anyways – had the biggest crush on Samantha. She was the prettiest girl in the entire school, and the object of my boyhood affections.  I was waiting outside the cloakroom for Neil after school, while he was talking to a smiling Samantha.

              As we were about to leave, Samantha leaned over, giving Neil a long kiss on the cheek.  My heart fell out of my chest. I was so enveloped in jealousy that I could not speak to Neil as we walked home.  I wanted to walk around with that smile on my face, that secretive look, I wanted to be the Robin Hood of grade five, I wanted Samantha to kiss me. In short, I had an identity complex. I wanted to be Neil.

              As we were walking home, Neil ducked into one of the alleyways that coursed between the streets of our neighbourhood.  I followed somewhat hesitantly, my parents strictly forbade me from walking through the alleys. If they ever discovered the truth, I was certain to be grounded for a week.  But, to show cowardice in front of Neil, and his caution-to-the-wind attitude was not an option, so we kept walking.

              About halfway down the alley, Neil stopped, pulled off his backpack, and set it on the ground.  He reached in, and handed me a Twix bar.   I glanced into his open bag, and saw a dozen chocolate bars and another dozen packs of gum, taunting me from within.  This was the largest single bounty I had ever seen! Dumbstruck, I asked, “Did you…did you, steal, all of that?”

              “Well, you make it sound as if I did something bad, or something like that,” he replied. “The store has so many chocolate bars, and packs of bubble gum, so I took a few, so what?”

              More than his words, it was the grandeur with which he spoke that remains imbedded in me to this day.  That evening, I returned home in a jovial mood, falling asleep swiftly and easily, conviction gripped me in its vice, I knew with sound resolution what I was going to do in the morning.

The morning was cold.  I walked into the 7-Eleven around eight thirty, half-an-hour before school started, and there were several other customers in the store when I entered. An overweight, German woman was working the cash register.  I nervously strolled down the comic book aisle and looked through the selection – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Green Hornet – my mind was elsewhere. I gathered my nerves, and sauntered over to the candy aisle.

              The cashier was reading a magazine, and paying me no attention whatsoever.  I could have purchased what I was going to steal, my parents gave me a healthy allowance, and I only spent it on the odd comic book or pack of baseball cards. I had the money, but, today was different; today, I wasn’t going to buy anything. My fate was etched in stone.  I took a final glance at the cashier; she was absorbed in the latest issue of Seventeen magazine.

              My hand reached down for the cherry flavoured Hubba Bubba, seemingly of its own accord, sliding the pack of gum up the arm of my coat. I felt like running. What was I doing? For a brief moment, I was going to remove the gum from my sleeve, and return it to its rightful owner, the box.

I walked back up the candy aisle, and turned the corner, heading straight for the door. The cashier looked at me, her gaze catching mine, this moment lasted centuries. She knew that I was a thief, she saw me slide the gum into my sleeve, and up the arm of my coat. She knew that I was guilty. She nodded her head, and smiled, telling me to have a swell day.  I did not say a word. I did not even smile. I exited the store with a horror stricken expression on my face.

After arriving safely at the schoolyard, I popped the first piece of tainted gum into my mouth.  Every single chew was accompanied by shameful guilt. I was now, too, a heathen, a depraved soul. I had disavowed Father and Mother, and everything sacred; I had broken the code of morality that governed our household. I no longer belonged to the bright, happy, world of my parents and brother.

I now belonged to a much darker world, a world of thieves and criminals.  However, somewhere in the dark recesses of my heart, a pleasurable sensation accompanied my shame, in some deluded way, I now felt superior to my parents and their world. Amidst these conflicting emotions arose a snowballing fear:, surely, my parents would read the guilty expression in my eyes; surely, they would know I was a criminal. My teachers would know, the other schoolchildren would know; Neil would know; Samantha would know; surely, everyone would know.

              The principal would summon me to his office, and pronounce that I was expelled. My parents would send me to military school. Surely, I was doomed.  My face would be on the front page of the newspapers, “Ten-year old thief sent to boot camp.”

              Yet, nothing of the sort happened. Life carried on, pretty much as usual. I was now, however, accompanied by my conscience wherever I went. By day, it was my haunting shadow; by night, the Devil himself terrorized my sleep. I wanted to die, then and there. I was waiting for the angel of mercy; my appointment book was ready. I knew deep down, however, that, in the end, I would overcome my shameful guilt. I knew that I would repent and be forgiven, and I knew that I would forgive myself, for, ultimately, this was the forgiveness that mattered.

When my own conscience was appeased, and had come to terms with my actions, I would smile again, and a certain amount of innocence would return to me.  But, it would no longer be the same. I had tasted the forbidden fruit, and I had liked it. I knew that I would steal again, and that I would transgress the line of morality once more, many times more, in fact.

The looking glass of my childhood years was shattered. I was empty, a feeling with which I would become acquainted over the years to come. As George said, “All things must pass,” the waves rise and fall, and the seasons change without end; left to the master alchemist of time, so do the seasons of our lives. The springtime of my youth faded away too soon, the evanescence of a dying flame, leaving its fragrance behind to waft in the autumn breeze.  The flowers will return in the springtime. Fresh scents will permeate the air, purity will be restored, and all will be forgiven.

Conrad, Joseph. Youth, a Narrative, and Two Other Stories. London: Penguin Books, 1975. Print.

Harrison, George. All Things Must Pass. Apple, 1970. CD.