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Daniel Sportiello | Friday, January 28, 2011

In the heart of Milwaukee, near the shore of Lake Michigan, lost somewhere in the depths of memory, there is a playground.

This playground unfurls, in every direction, farther than the eye can see. It reaches into the heavens, almost into the clouds, as though it were a citadel — and, like a citadel, it is a holy place, one of everlasting light and joy: it is a place where death has no sting, where the gods still walk, where the lion lies down with the lamb. It is a place beyond the comprehension of men.

This playground exists now only in my memory: it was torn down long ago — not by man or by machine, but rather by the merciless march of time, by the Fall that each of us, in leaving his childhood behind, comes to know. In that time, my world was an extension of myself: things were as they seemed to me to be — and were emotionally charged as I felt them to be. So when I, at two years of age, stood before what seemed a second Garden of Eden — a playground that dwarfed me, that was quite literally larger than I could understand, that promised something that I can now recognize as salvation — I did not know to wonder whether I had deceived myself.

The destruction of this playground was of the greatest kind: to never have been in the first place. Even now, through the mists of memory, I can barely see it: if I look at it squarely, it evaporates as something impossible. I can see it only out of the corner of my mind’s eye — can remember, that is, only how it seemed to me as a child. How beautiful it was, and how fleeting.

“Go play,” my young mother and father said to me, beaming with pride at their firstborn son. They had brought me, for the first time, to Summerfest — the city’s annual lakeshore music festival: the presence of the playground was, I assume, merely a concession to the family values lobby. But this did not deter me as I ran forward, my heart full of paradise.

I had played for what seemed like years — but must have been only minutes — when suddenly I was snatched by my parents and whisked away. “Where were you?” they demanded, desperate. “We thought that we had lost you! Why did you leave the playground?” I tried to articulate an answer — that they were wrong, that I hadn’t left the playground, that they had lost track of me only because the playground was really that big — that, in essence, I had no knowledge of the evil of my action and did not deserve to be sent forth from the Garden — but, in my youth, I lacked the words. I am sure that I would have screamed had I not been so gripped by horror and confusion.

I vowed to return. And I finally did, in a sense. But I was fifteen years old. And the playground was, well, just a playground: it no longer dwarfed me, no longer reached into the heavens, no longer promised salvation. And, I finally realized, it never had: in that original sin, I lost not only paradise but even the fact that I had once had it.

I would, at this point, typically wax philosophical about the loss involved in any Enlightenment. You can imagine how that would go. But I have, in the meantime, at the end of some journey that I do not yet fully understand, found salvation.

In the heart of Saint Louis, near the shore of the Mississippi River, as though pulled from the depths of memory, there is a playground.

It is a place beyond the comprehension of men: it is called the City Museum, though it is not a museum and has nothing to do with a city — except, perhaps, the New Jerusalem. Indeed, it is difficult to describe at all: I could mention its seven-storey slide, its network of caves, its jet aircraft, its aquarium, its circus, and its Ferris Wheel without really explaining its essence. I can say, in the end, only that it is a playground commensurate with your imagination.

But more important than this place, this second paradise, is what it represents: it is an ethical miracle, a salvation that I in no way deserve but have been granted nonetheless. It is an act of grace.

This, the perfect playground, is not in itself proof of the Incarnation. But it is, at least, an indication — even if only a psychological one: it is a reminder that, whatever the conclusions into which life forces us — whatever the iron cage of concepts that we build around ourselves — we can always be wrong. It is a reminder that we sometimes fare better than we deserve — better, even, than we thought possible. It is a reminder that what seems lost in the depths of memory may not be lost after all.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his third year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. Listen to his radio show on WVFI. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the authors and not necessarily those of The Observer.