PETER PAN

Along a narrow trail next to the lake within Kensington Park, surrounded by bushes on three sides, is a small, dark bronze statue of Peter Pan.. The viewer sees a fine-featured ten year old boy standing, raised hand holding a flute to his mouth, looking out boldly at the world. The flute, I suppose, signifies his origins with Pan, the Greek god of nature and the woodlands, whose piping music was supposed to warn the traveler he was near. On the base of the four-foot high statue are carved in relief the busts of Wendy, Robert and the other children, and Tinker Bell. There is no inscription nor marking on or near the statue, and I would guess most of the park's visitors don't even know what it is. The work is simple, elegant, lonely, and rarely visited. I found it long ago, and took the time to locate and study it again. If no wiser now, I at least have the benefit of perspective gained through painful experience.

Kensington Park lies immediately adjacent to Hyde Park. Together they form a vast, six hundred acre expanse of flowers and greenery within the metropolis of London, whose origins date back nearly a thousand years to the Romans. With all this history and civilization around, centuries of things happening and remaining much the same, the park exudes the same feeling of timelessness and peace that I usually experience in a redwood forest. They are different and yet they are the same. Both are wonderful places in which to think.

Peter Pan symbolizes everything the modern world is not. Nearly all of us have rebelled when young, vowing never to grow up and accept adult responsibilities. We have dreamed of flying unaided, knowing the glorious soaring feeling that comes of looking down on the land below. Who hasn't fantasized about living among Indians and pirates, being adored by a beautiful pixie, or of trying in vain to escape a hungry crocodile? No. We have all considered playing hooky eternally, leaving the ceaseless cares of life and the humdrum of fellow students, co-workers and neighbors behind. The Never-Never Land of Peter Pan is romantic, exciting, exotic, and appeals to everyone. James Barrie wrote of it movingly, with nostalgia, and just a touch of satire.

Unfortunately, America's concept of the boy who refused to grow up owes more to Walt Disney's colorful, humorous, entertaining, profit-garnering interpretation of the story than to Barrie's book. I watched the captivating video when my grandson played it for me, and decided highly absorbing spectacles often block out thought. To be charitable, it misses the point. And there is a point.

Barrie was tired of disciplining and restricting himself to the many duties life imposes on us. Enlisting or being drafted into the military for several years, and avoiding an early death in small and large wars is more taxing than playing pirates and Indians. The next stage, working all day at a job that is less than thrilling, bringing home a paycheck, paying the rent and bills, shopping for and preparing food, fathering and raising children, night feedings, changing diapers, wiping runny noses, fighting them to bed, living within the limits of a paycheck, going to bed late and rising early, and doing it year after year also wears a bit thin. Where is the way out? In a manner of speaking, Barrie moved the male menopause back to puberty. Why not simply chuck it all in fifth grade and fly off to a land of adventure?

Did the reader find any of that in Walt Disney's movie or, for that matter, in Barrie's book? What kind of perspective allows such a whimsical but justifiable mental leap. I'm not contending it stems from maturity. If anything, the converse may be true.

Some say the idea of boys refusing to grow up applies to the American male. The Great American Boy-Man. Six-foot tall little boys with beards who dress in men's suits. Hemingway wrote about them and did the best he could to live that way. But childhood is difficult to maintain once young males reach high school, and in four more years they are all thrust forth screaming and kicking through the portals of the real world. To make it worse, society now funnels young girls into the same maelstrom, intensifying the competition. There were this day enough young and old men playing musical instruments in London's subways and on Queensway to make me wince. Reduced to begging, would they settle for Never-Never Land? In a microsecond!

As I gazed at the statue of the confident young boy, I realized all of us today face a real world unaware of Peter Pan. Instead, it emphasizes the three G's: Gingrich; Gramm; and the Grinch. Those words are unique to our American culture and political system, but the same symbols exist in every nation. Russia, Britain, Mexico, France, and China are dealing with significant economic and social problems and have their own Grinches and their own versions of the other two G's.

It is not a situation I particularly like. But I understand that trying to propose practical solutions to nearly insoluble problems is heavy work, and evading them through flights of fantasy has enormous appeal. Whatever one may think of these people, none is a Peter Pan. They are men who try to squarely meet the issues as they see them. I often wonder why. The world ultimately chews up everyone, and it will chew them up a bit sooner for their efforts.

To be honest, Barrie's suggestion that we sprinkle fairy dust on our clothes, fly away from all our problems, and regress into childhood does come up short. But none of it diminishes the beauty of that brave little statue in Kensington Park.