I was driving home; the fog had begun to lift and pale sunshine was dancing on the daffodils… so I have no idea where the thought came from. There was nothing to spark the train of thought.
“I wonder if that was really her name?”
In modern parlance, it was one of those OMG moments.
I don’t even know where their names surfaced from. Faces I always remember.. names? Not so much. And it was a long time ago.
When I arrived home, I went rummaging through the few old photos I have of my childhood.
Somewhat over half a century ago, and for a few short years, my two best friends were Penny and her brother, Said. My paternal grandparents worked with children at the local orphanage and these two were the closest to my own age at the time. I still have two photos of the three of us together on a day trip to Blackpool with my grandparents. Their faces are captured just as I remember them. I wondered where they were now and how life had unfolded for them both, but that wasn’t what had set me off…
It was Penny’s name.
The children were Indian and Hindu, or so I was told. It has taken me half a century to wonder about that. ‘Penny’ isn’t traditionally an Indian name as far as I can find out, or not with that spelling at least. Said for a boy is, I find, generally given as a Moslem name with Arabic roots.
There could be any number of reasons why none of that seems to add up to what I ‘knew’ about my friends. Perhaps their names had been changed. Maybe they had been Anglicised once they were in the orphanage. Neither their country of birth nor their religion never came into question… all the children attended the Church of England Sunday school at the Zion Baptist chapel anyway. My paternal grandparents were Spiritualists… and the odd mix of religious input was a good learning ground. Grow up in a melting pot and it isn’t hard to see that the innermost heart of all faiths look the same.
I only knew the children as people… as my friends… and that is always enough. But that isn’t the point here. What had really struck me was that I didn’t actually know anything ‘about’ them. Even though I have always believed that I did. For over fifty years, what I thought I knew about them may have been wrong. Even down to their real names. I knew them as Penny and Said, Indian Hindu children. None of that may have been accurate.
That’s where the OMG moment came in.
It is something we all know but probably never actively consider and the conscious realisation of it had struck me like a brick between the eyes… we live in a hand-me-down reality.
When you think it through, almost everything we grow up knowing, except through our own personal experience, is passed to us from someone else. And they had it from someone else before them… ad infinitum. We call a cat a cat because the very first time we point a chubby finger and ask, “What’s that?” we are told that it is a cat,. We have no reason to question what we are told about our reality when we are very young… we simply trust that the information we are given by our grown-ups is correct.
When it comes to cats, dogs and cows, that isn’t so much of a problem. The creature concerned has become established in our collective consciousness as a cat, dog or cow, regardless of what language we are using. We have consensus based on long observation of a continuous physical phenomenon.
Objects are fairly easy to agree upon. Abstracts, though, are a different matter… thoughts, opinions, morals, ideas and beliefs… even ‘facts’ of history… are passed down to us and we accept them when we are very young Much of that teaching is not an active giving of information so much as a process of absorption by osmosis, drinking in all we can in order to learn how to function in an adult world.
We learn through an unconscious trust in what our adults teach us and all our later beliefs about the reality we live in are inevitably coloured by them. We may question, disagree or rebel as we grow, but even our denials and rebellions are negatively rooted in what they, with the best intentions in the world, have taught us.
We learn to form our vision of ourselves through our reflection in their eyes, even if it hurts and we see ourselves as disappointing or ‘not good enough’ in some way.
Both consciously and unwitting they share all they know with us, but…
What if they are wrong?
One thing is certain, if they are, we ourselves are perpetuating their misconceptions, passing them on to our own children in an unbroken line of error.
There could be untold wonders out there that we do not see. Cannot see… because we have been taught they do not exist, or are impossible…mere fantasies. The fairies at the bottom of the garden… the imaginary friend you played with as a child… what if they were real, blotted out of consciousness and replaced with cats, dogs and cows… a nice, solid reality we can all agree upon. Reality does not have to be a concrete commodity. Hope, love, imagination… even the air; they are all real…and all invisible.
Too weird ? What if our divisive borders are only man-made… lines drawn on a map? What if wars had never been a necessary evil, but only a power game played with human pawns by the arrogant? What if the great god Mammon is a fabrication and we really can afford to feed the hungry, house the homeless and raise our children in safety?
Too fantastical? What if you had always felt yourself to be of value, just as you are? What if you had always believed that you could achieve your dreams? What if joy wasn’t something to perpetually chase but part of your being?
If the children that I knew were born to other names, within a different religion or from a different country from those I was told, it does not change how I knew them. It only means I was given a few erroneous facts. It is the invisible reality of the friendship that counts and that stays in memory. And even after fifty-odd years, it is still able to teach me I need to look at reality with the eyes of a child…and learn to see it for myself.