“I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.” – Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
A few days ago, I read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
Today, driving through the town that I have lived in for the vast majority of my life, I realize that in my younger days I have lived on two actual lanes. Each of them had an ocean for me, at least in the sense of what the ocean in Gaiman’s work represented for the narrator of Gaiman’s book.
In the first instance, I was the one that lived at the very end of the lane and the ocean was actually a wheat field. The stalks would grow stiff from the earth, reaching for the sky, their leaves rustling as the wind raked through the rows. I would disappear into them, my young body too short to break the upper limits of the wheat, and find myself inside of another world.
When I returned home, minutes or hours or imagined days later, I would sit on the deck and break open husks of the grass that I carried back with me, digging out the insides and chewing on the tasteless pulp. Even later, in bed, I would wrap myself in the sheets and twirl a chunk of the stalk between my fingers while dreaming up the next day’s adventure.
The second lane that I lived on was during my teenage years. In this case, I lived at the start of the lane. On hot summer days I would walk down the dirt road until I reached the house at the end, then I would go around the back of that building and find myself at the beginning of a grassy field dotted with wildflowers. After crossing the hundred yards or so of field, I would reach a river.
That river was mine through those years. It was where I went to skip rocks across the water, to pick at the dried up carcasses of cicadas stuck to the trees, and to challenge myself to submerge my entire body beneath the icy waters. It was also where I went to think about those that have left this world – which, I guess, makes that river even more like Gaiman’s ocean, at least for me.
That wheat field is still some sort of crop, but it’s a green field with short plants that reach no higher than the shins. I don’t know what the plants are, what type of harvest they are producing, only that a young boy could no longer wade into the brown stalks and find the places where this world ends and a new one begins.
That river, at least that particular stretch that once meant – still means – so much to me, still exists. The grassy field, and the wildflowers, is gone. In that place there are now two-story houses with landscaped yards and cobbled drives that are blocked with code-protected gates. Even down near the water, so that only those that belonged to that community can enter, there is a wrought-iron gate flanked by fencing on either side.
Even though those waters surely meant more to me than any of the retirees that have settled at the water’s edge, I am not part of that community.
The wheat has been mowed down, replaced by another crop that generates more income or is easier to harvest. The river has been blocked, deemed off-limits to anyone who does not live there.
My oceans have dried up, they are gone and will never return.
Except for the waves and ripples that still live, forever, within me.
“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” was written by Neil Gaiman and originally published in 2013.