Last night I discussed The Secret Garden with my children's literature class. It's a book I often teach and one that I love as much now as I did when I was young. Many of my students love it, too. We talked in class about why this is so, and for many of us, it comes back to the garden itself, which is, of course, a deeply symbolic place, with echoes of Eden, and the roses themselves, like Mary, appearing to be lifeless while they are actually quite "wick" inside. More importantly, though, we simply love the idea of a secret place where children can go that is separate from the world of adults, a place like Neverland or Terabithia where their imaginations help them solve problems, build friendships, perceive possibilities, and create a sense of who they are and who they want to be.
When I was a girl, I had more than one such place. All the kids in the neighborhood played in the woods across the street from my house. We built forts, played hide-and-seek, told ghost stories, and ran wild through the trees. As I grew older, those woods changed; grownups thinned the trees, built more houses, expanded their yards, and the woods became more like a stand of trees. Not secret anymore.
Undaunted, my friends and I shifted our focus to the field behind my house. That field is still there today, miraculously. It's smack dab in the middle of houses and yards on three sides and a highway on the other, but it's large enough and the grasses and wildflowers grow tall enough that it provides plenty of secret places for kids. We built many a fort there with scraps of old wood, truck tires, and whatever else we could find. Time was different in the field--hours and minutes ceased to matter. What we cared about was play. Because play, when done well, is serious business.
Our construction jobs were not limited to the woods and the field. We often built forts in and around our house, some more permanent than others. There were always the Saturday-morning-cartoon-watching forts made of blankets and chairs and pillows. Those were fun, but fleeting. On rainy days we would sometimes head for the attic and string sheets up to build fortune-tellers' tents. The Ouija board and Tarot cards came out on those days, and we scared ourselves silly. I remember also a tiny, magical fort my brother once built outside in the narrow space between our house and our neighbors' stockade fence. It had a real door with hinges, a chair for reading, and a little shelf for treasures, for we always brought treasures and necessities to the forts we built. As a kid you understand what William Morris meant when he said, "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." Everything we brought, from favorite books to tins of cookies, was essential. There was nothing extra, not only because it wouldn't fit, but because, well, why bother with anything else?
I often wish that more grown-up houses were like kids' forts--true havens, magical places where we go to retreat from one world and enter into another, better place of our own making. I always aim for that in each place I live, but I think I forget and start bringing in things I don't need or love. I have two ideal models for a hideout: one is the hobbit hole of Bilbo Baggins; the other is a gorgeous tree house like the one below. Maybe the hobbit hole will be my winter home one day and the tree house will be my summer Shangri-la.
What hideouts did you have as a kid? Do you have any now? What would be your ideal hideout?