Where The Sidewalk Ends

Very few American children are unfamiliar with the Shel Silverstein poem “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” Without fanfare and unnoticed by much of the adult world, the humor and profundity of Silverstein’s works have become a magnet to the young. Perhaps best known for his book “The Giving Tree,” Shel Silverstein was a poet, a cartoonist and musician. He died in 1999. Some two decades earlier, he penned the lines:

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
and before the street begins,
and there the grass grows soft and white
and there the sun burns crimson bright
and there the moon bird rest from his flight
to cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
and the dark street winds and bends
past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
we shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow
and watch where the chalk-white arrows go
to the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
and we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
for the children, they mark, and the children, they know,
the place where the sidewalk ends.

The poetry of Shel Silverstein is not explicitly religious. Some adults, in fact, take issue with his work, finding it disturbing, even subversive. The fact that “Where the Sidewalk Ends” brings a sense of calm and completion to multitudes of children, they argue, does not make it true – and certainly not Christian.

The place between the sidewalk and the street is always present with us.
The place between the sidewalk and the street is always present with us.

But there is another side to this conversation. The life of a human being is not a book in which once a chapter has been read it is forgotten, as we turn ahead to the next set of pages. Rather each phase of life has its own value. As we grow in maturity, an irreplaceable part of us is always a child. And at the core of the child that is in each of us is openness to that mystery we call God. It is precisely such openness that “Where the Sidewalk Ends” evokes.

There is a type of subversiveness here to be sure. Silverstein sets aside the yardstick by which the adult world measures accomplish-ment. In its place, the poet urges the child to “leave this place where the smoke blows black.” He asks the young person to move “past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow” to reach a deeper, truer part of his or her nature.

Our faith tells us that within every human heart there is a place of encounter with infinite Mystery. Here we meet God in prayer, experience the demands of conscience, and exercise the option of belief. It is a place of stillness, at times forgotten by adults busy with the traffic of life. Not so with children. Their vulnerability keeps them profoundly aware of their inner selves. With a candor that grown ups find embarrassing, children talk with God in a natural way.

“Where the Sidewalk Ends” depicts a world in which the young, following signposts from earlier generations, advance in a calm and purposeful manner. “We’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,…for the children, they mark, and the children, they know….” There is no loneliness or insecurity. It is life not as it is, but as each of us, deep down, would like it to be. Silverstein is not the first, however, to describe this plane of existence.

In a much earlier time, St. Augustine wrote: “Thou has made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” As Christians we believe that there is uneasiness in the human spirit, that only God’s peace can satisfy. We pray that the dead “may rest in peace.” In doing so we ask that the blessed calmness of Christ’s love be visited upon them. From a faith perspective, the place between the sidewalk and the street is always present within us even if it is only made explicit in the life hereafter.

The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner tells of once having asked a well-known philosopher if he believed in God. “I do not know,” he replied. “But that we are children of God, that I do believe.” Setting aside the intellectualism of a lifetime, the philosopher was acknowledging that there could be truth in the primal sentiments of childhood. Because the simplest truths can be the most profound, Jesus tells us that we must become like little children. By doing so we are promised eternal repose in the garden of our heavenly Father, a place where “the grass grows soft and white…and the moon bird rests from his flight to cool in the peppermint wind.”

LM

May, 2004