The Garden State is aptly named. Even in our nondescript neighborhood, there are flowering trees and shrubs everywhere. I take pleasure in smelling each blossom and talking to the flowers as if they were people.
I am five years old, living in a Philadelphia suburb on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. I find friends not just in the gardens but also at school. Carla comes from a middle-class black family. Our favorite times of the day are recess, when she can teach me more jump-roping, and snack time, when we, if we are chosen for the privilege, wheel the squeaky red wagon down the hall to get the milk and cookies for the class snack.
It is 1970, and teacher strikes are rampant that year. Because I can’t go to school, I watch a lot of Mr. Rogers on TV. The gentle Neighborhood of Make Believe is more real to me than the evening news that is filled with images of white police hitting black men. I miss seeing Carla, but I am occasionally allowed to spend the night with her, where our whispered secrets and flowery dreams shared in the double bed fade away into sleepy contentment. In the bathtub, Carla’s black hand touches my white one often as we playfully fight through the bubbles for rubber duckies and Barbies. Neither of us feels awkwardness about our nakedness, our skin colors, our innocent touch. After our bath, Carla’s mother feeds us pancakes with lots of syrup. She is soft-spoken, yet firm, and when I leave, she always engulfs me in a big hug. Besides the safety of friendship, Carla and her mother give me something else—respite from the hazards of home.
I am the youngest of five children who are all within six years of each other, and I am old enough for my stomach to tighten in knots because of the tension between my parents and the squabbling between my siblings. By stealthily turning a knob and opening a door, I can disappear into a different world of flowers and grass and sun.
But wasn’t there loss of innocence even in Eden? In my outdoor sanctuary, I find a snake in the grass. Freddie is an overweight sixth grader with an appetite for little girls. His back yard abuts mine, and he is always on the prowl for me, with gaping eyes and groping hands. One time he traps me in the gutter under a huge pile of leaves, and another time he smashes me up against the garage door. I don’t know why, but I don’t even consider telling my mother or father about Freddie. And yet, despite Freddie, the beauty of the outdoors, like the embrace of Carla’s mother, brings safety.
There is an undeveloped lot across the street with bushes and mature trees that flourishes as my own little world. I take to climbing the trees to be out of Freddie’s hulking reach and into the arms of the swaying branches and the gentle touch of the blue sky. My ascents toward heaven cleanse me of my dirty Freddie feelings.
These times of serenity are too short, and I am continually forced back into the clutches of the indoors. Somehow, in the midst of the family chaos, one of my older sisters discovers that I cannot yet read fluently. She is appalled and takes me in hand—literally. She points to a word, and whenever I say it wrong, she punches me on the shoulder—sometimes lightly, sometimes harder. And so I learn to read very well, very quickly. Despite her unsound methods, my sister’s teaching is well-meant. She gives me the key that unlocks books, and I gravitate toward those stories in which virtue is cherished and wholesomeness is valued—other worlds with gardens more beautiful than I could imagine. I also develop the skills of escaping into the real outdoors and of climbing trees with a book under my arm.
One day, Freddie slips on the ladder of his above-ground pool and slices his large leg open. Isn’t this his just punishment for abusing me? To my great relief, I find that Freddie cannot move quickly for several weeks. I laugh as I run through the snake-free grass. Then, shortly after his accident, my family relocates to a new state.
Some months later, even though I am out of Freddie’s reach, I am homesick for Carla, so when my mother has to travel north to New Jersey on business, she takes me to Carla’s for a visit. After the first few uncomfortable minutes, we are back to our old selves, sleeping in the double bed and splashing in the bathtub. On the drive south, my mother is tired, so she picks up a hitchhiker to keep her company. I watch from the back seat as he slides over in the front and attempts to touch her. My mother quickly pulls over. Fortunately, the man gets out of the car without further trouble. But for me, it is another way my eyes have been opened in New Jersey.
Many people define innocence as not knowing—having no understanding of evil. But I think it is possible to be both “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Good judgment comes with experience and perception. It tells us not to pick up hitchhikers and to stay away from Freddies. But wisdom also does not shy away from trying to understand the roots of hard things that don’t always make sense—like racial hatred. Looking at truth in the right way doesn’t cancel out innocence, but rather invites it. Is it possible that true innocence is seeing and experiencing evil without letting it affect who I am or how I think? Can I remain untainted despite the circumstances I live through?
Some of my adult friends have called me naive, but if this is true, it is purposeful. I still choose to embrace the child-like faith that produces wonder rather than cynicism. And while my New Jersey memories are mixed, all the flowers, trees, books, blue sky—and what they symbolize—still win over bitterness and distrust.
And I hope that as a result of the awe I am still learning to cultivate, my innocence is the same now as it was during those days when my hands touched Carla’s as we splashed in the bathtub, and all of Eden was within my reach.
Several years ago as I was driving across the country, I began writing pieces that had to do with the states I was moving through and my thoughts toward what I had experienced in them. This developed into a series of essays that I call States of Mind.