I am nine years old.
It is late autumn in southern Ohio. A chilling breeze weaves itself through the grass, rustling beds of leaves while the sun lingers behind dry clouds. In the mouth of a fireplace nestled between floor-to-ceiling bookshelves coals fight for life. A flame dances atop a block of pine swinging its orange hips back and forth along its surface. It is a calm Saturday in late November and I am sitting on a worn green couch with a blanket wrapped around my feet. A stack of Calvin & Hobbes comic books sits next to me; one of them is open on my lap.
I am nine years old, sitting on the couch, reading Calvin & Hobbes.
For the past nine months on this blog, I’ve been occupying myself with a series called “My Life According To Calvin” where I utilize various aspects of Bill Watterson’s world to illustrate different moments of my own life. This has been almost entirely for my own amusement; I read Calvin and Hobbes throughout my my youth and into adulthood. They were as influential to me as any collection of literature and it has been heartwarming if not entirely edifying to return to the archives of my childhood as a means of articulating my current state.
As some may know, the comic strip has a unique story. As an adult, it is the ending of Watterson’s creation that fascinates me the most. In November of 1995, at the height of the strip’s popularity, Bill Watterson announced his retirement from the comic world. On December 31st of that year, the final strip was published.
In the years since then Bill Watterson has not published or produced any other significant works. He is more than slightly reclusive and covets his privacy. Meanwhile fans across the globe bemoan the death of a comic strip they loved and cherished.
But as with everything else, Calvin & Hobbes was doomed to come to an end. All good things must, after all, and the mortality of a six-year-old and his stuffed tiger was never in question. Even if Watterson had dedicated his entire life to creating new strips, simple logic seems to dictate that his inevitable death would have brought with it the end of Calvin & Hobbes.
Or does it?
It seems that, as with many forms of art, there is a substance to Calvin & Hobbes that exists beyond the parameters of its creator. This past summer, I was surprised and delighted to stumble upon a collection of these books in a Central American coffee shop. Numerous forums and blogs are dedicated to its memory, my own being one trite example. We see this across the spectrum of the arts: the Mona Lisa smiles upon millions of visitors a year, the Iliad is still read in high school classrooms and the pyramids of Egypt are climbed by sandaled feet from all across the globe. The boy and his tiger live on, despite the fact that time has surpassed its parametered existence. The cessation of a good thing, the end of something, doesn’t in fact appear to be its end.
For once something has existed will it not always exist? The wind moves though we cannot see it, a word once spoken does not just disperse into the atmosphere and memories are haunting beyond the most potent of earthly powers.
In saying this I cannot avoid the fact that I am (still) nine years old, sitting on the couch, reading Calvin & Hobbes.
Eternity is a frightening concept for any human being to wrap their head around. Perhaps this is because we are drenched in our own personal reminders of it. These reminders are memories and it is the memory of a human being that is its most beloved friend or, depending on the moment, hated enemy.
For the memory pieces together the good, bad, ugly and confusing; it is the anchor of a human amidst the turbulent sea of existence. The memory is an archive of the culmination of moments which, when interconnected and pieced together like a puzzle, bring all of us back not only to the beginning of our story but also to the beginning of the story. They bring us back to the garden and the fall.
For all of us, no matter how diverse our backgrounds, can find within ourselves beautiful traces of the transcendence, fluttering down like golden manna from the sky, falling into our palms and breathing into us the breath of God into Adam, the Hebrew ruah, the spirit moving across the water and shining its creative grace into being. These memories exist within each of us though some have been touched by despair and others remain sparsely alive, watered slowly and sporadically by hope. Others flourish under healthy doses of sunlight mixed with clouds.
Likewise, we can all reach within our memories and run our fingers along scattered ashes: heartbreak, pain, depression and despair, sin and depravity in all its cruelest and most articulate forms. They exists within each of us, as potent as the serpent whispering within our ear. And at their very root is a Polaroid of ourselves, burnt around the edges with our faces scratched out, arm extended, one hand snatching the apple from the tree.
All these things we find within the memory. They are not gone; they always exist.
And what we encounter with the cessation of good things, what “goodbye”, sunsets, graduations and yes, even the early retirement of our favorite comic strip teaches us, is that time itself is a notion conquered by memory. For although the logic of language and human thought dictates that we communicate of things in the past as something that is “gone” or “lost”, there remains a nagging guilt, or perhaps bitter nostalgia, to remind us of the truth.
For I am (still) nine years old, sitting on the couch, reading Calvin & Hobbes.
Likewise, the existence of memory brings within each of us the reminder of eternity, the future existence of all that is. For just as memory transports us back into the garden, so it allows us (if we allow ourselves) to stand upon an overturned box and peer across the fields of time, to look forward to the culmination of the story that began and ends in a new garden on the other side.
For the existence of a memory dictates the necessity of its purpose; if one believes in God then one believes in the omnipotence of the Being under who’s direct rule all things come together. But even if one is not compelled to put their faith in such a notion, they are struck by the inevitable conundrum of having to account for things with no purpose; evolution and chance cannot dictate the creation of a purposeless thing and logic provides no outside force which could, feasibly, supply it.
The conundrum of memory, then, is that there must be a purpose. And what could be the purpose of archived remnants of objects, people, and events that no longer exist save for the foreshadowing of their renewal? What could be the point of a programmatic hope within the soul of each individual, save for the renewal and fulfillment of said hope?
I am increasingly convinced that what has drawn me to Watterson’s work all these years is not so much the quirky timelessness of his creation but the way it ended. The fading notes of a song are its most beautiful portion, for the silence that follows is a reminder of its existence and beckons to the reality that it can and will be played again. Any artist when thoroughly examined will be found with similar traces of eternity dusting their fingertips.
In Watterson’s voluntary and drastically intentional withdrawal from the public eye, however, every scrap of evidence was brought forward into the light. Fans demanded to know why a good thing had to come to an end. Why in a world where spouses abandoned each other, bullets ripped through children’s brains, car accidents took promising athletes, photographs fade and foundations crumble, why in this world did a boy and a tiger also cease to be? In Watterson’s accompanying silence (save for a couple of statements that were few and far between) the jury convened and concluded that, contrary to initial evidence, Watterson’s artwork hadn’t disappeared. For the story in which it played a small part, the story which had lodged itself into the memory of so many people, was part of a larger story, a grandeur story. Nothing had come to an end.
And so I am confronted with the reality in my own life that I am still nine years old sitting on a couch reading Calvin & Hobbes. The pertinent reality of my existence is not dictated by the confinements of time. But rather, from outside of time there is/was/will be an Artist whose story I have been crafted into.
It is this story that compels me. It is this story that becomes my substance. It is this story that prompts me to find hope in the ballad of a boy and his tiger.
It is this story that teaches me, against first instinct, to take joy in the cessation of good things.