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A picture is worth a thousand words, and a lifetime of contemplation

“We are standing before a great lake . . . and suddenly we are returning to a distant past. We dream while remembering. We remember while dreaming. . . . The little becomes big. The world of childhood reverie is as big, bigger than the world offered to today’s reverie. . . . And that is why childhood is the origin of the greatest landscapes. Our childhood solitudes have given us the primitive immensities.”

– Gaston Bachelard

Thirty years ago, I took this photograph of my son gazing out on Jenness Pond in front of my parents’ house, the house I grew up in. I remember it was a brutal, bone-chilling day in early December. We had come down to see if the lake was totally frozen over and to pull the boat up on the bank to safety before it was entombed by the thickening ice.

The shore we pulled the boat up on has special meaning to me; it had also been my resting place. More than 50 years ago, during my young teenage years, I spent a lot of time on this spot, lost in reverie. Yankees of my generation weren’t encouraged to just sit and think, but it was okay if a person did something real, like hunt – and that was my sport and also a way to put a little food on the table. By the age of 10 I was hunting on my own, and that autumn and subsequent ones, I sat here at dusk, camouflaged by the low-hanging pine boughs, hoping to hear quacks and the swish of beating wings, signaling the arrival of a flock of migrating ducks.

Much of the time it was stone quiet as I sat in solitude looking over at Catamount Mountain on the far side of the lake. Occasionally I would hear the hum of a vehicle and watch its lights as it skirted the shore and then snaked up the hill before disappearing over the top.

In my reverie, I imagined that at the top of the mountain, each car was escaping the drab unreality of my world to join the “real world” of substance and excitement.

David Foster Wallace once said, “There’s this existential loneliness in the real world. I don’t know what you’re thinking or what it’s like inside you, and you don’t know what it is like inside me.”

From my present vantage point in life at age 68, I think Wallace makes a profound statement about our individualistic society, perhaps all human societies, and, at least, the 1950s culture in which I grew up. Looking back on it, I can see why my world did not seem real, over and above the fact that I was shy and rurally isolated. It was more than that. And it was more than growing up in a reserved, middle class, New England family lacking plain talk or honest emotion. It was more than that. Looking back it seems everyone was playing a role without knowing why, looking over their shoulders, afraid of mushroom clouds, commies under the bed and, most of all, not being just like everyone else.

But I didn’t know all that then. All I knew was that I felt trapped like the boat in the photograph engulfed in thickening ice. My escape was to go to the lake and sit nestled under the protective canopy of pines, luxuriating in reverie, imagining all the revelations that awaited me on the other side of Catamount Mountain.

It was a rude awakening a few years later when I finally managed to scale that mountain and find out what was on the other side: Rather than discovering the nirvana I had imagined, I found that the “real world” was itself the culprit, the true source of the existential loneliness I was trying to escape.

It took many years for this lesson to sink in, to admit that poets and philosophers like Gaston Bachelard were right: Childhood reverie “is the origin of the greatest landscapes,” bigger and more nourishing than the world.

(Jean Stimmell lives in Northwood with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound. He blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.)

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