Okay, bear with me as I explain. I was quite susceptible as a child, open to everything because I’d been exposed to so many different people, cultures, and languages, that anything could, in fact, be true and I wouldn’t know it. I also trusted in the people around me, in part because they treated me as a person. However, that doesn’t explain the sea urchins and hook-worms so I digress. My mother lived up to the ancient tradition of using tales to teach important lessons. Whether those tales had a basis in fact or not, the underlying lesson did. The only trouble was that sometimes the context of the lesson got lost in the story.
And that’s where we come to sea urchins and hook-worms.
I had a strange upbringing that included spending summers on a largely untouristed island in Greece. It had become a haven to an ex-pat community of foreigners from all over the world…and us. If you want the image of a child running wild, that was me on Paros. I went where I wanted, did whatever I felt like, and barely touched base with my mother…who was off doing her own thing. We had a few rules, such as if we were near home, we have to spend an hour at noon out of the sun, and a few benefits such as paid meals at the taverna below where we were staying so we didn’t have to scrounge for food or use up our allowance if we didn’t choose to. But beyond arranged time spent together, my sisters and I roamed our side of the island, both sides of our bay, at will. We went together, with friends, or on our own.
One of our favorite activities was climbing the breakwater all the way out to the ancient structure at the end, now an abandoned collection of walls and fallen stone. The path involved scrambling and leaping from boulder to boulder while the waves splashed up to and over the top of the rocks. Every inch below the waterline, and sometimes above it, held black sea urchins clinging to the surface, their spines ready to pierce our skin.
What gear did I wear for this grand activity? Flip-flops if I felt like it. Otherwise, I went in bare feet. I have no memory (which is not to say it didn’t happen) of wearing socks and shoes when we were there despite the prickly animal and vegetable life. Whether through luck or skill, I never slipped low enough to get pierced, but I had quite a few close encounters on those rocks…and a healthy respect for the creatures…though not enough to eat them.
Now, take that image of a young girl burned dark with the Mediterranean sun, my hair so blond it looked white, feet clad in flip-flops or nothing…and move her to the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C.
No little tavernas here where the goats for dinner were slaughtered on a flat rock out back, where water had to be drawn by bucketful from a well and left to sit overnight to filter out some of the sulfur, or where evening light came in the form of smoky glass chimneys over oil wick lamps.
No, this was land of the manicured (okay, mowed) lawns, exercise clubs instead of open land, and controlled woodland parks.
I cannot remember how it came about, but I do know I was running around on our front lawn in bare feet as I had been used to when my mother explained to me the dangers of hook-worms. She described what they were, that they were in the grass, and that they crawled into your skin. It was enough. From that moment, I stopped going barefoot almost completely. I still get squeamish when walking on grass, and the layer of callus that prevented anything from getting to me is long gone.
Logically, I know that getting a hook-worm in a place where there is quick access to medical care hardly compares to sliding down the side of a wet rock and collecting a grand load of sea urchin spines, but the reason why we still have fairytales, why those stories are told to make children know not to wander in the dark woods, is because those tellings sink into a deep part of us that’s stronger than logic, stronger than knowledge, and cares more about what goes bump in the night than the context. I can tell this to you now with full knowledge that it makes no sense, but it doesn’t stop me from hesitating before stepping onto grass in bare feet.
So what teachings did your family pass on to you as a child? Did any stick with you long after you knew them to be untrue, whether because they were, or because you expanded them past the context in which they had meaning?