[Note: this first appeared on my blog “Completely in the Dark” in 2013.]
I’ve never had kids or been stepfather to a son or daughter.
In fact, I’m not sure I like children very much.
However a couple years ago I had a vivid dream about a 7-year-old boy. In it he came to me upset, worried, confused.
Seems he’d been misled by someone or something, and he had no one to turn to.
So I opened up my arms and gave him a big ol’ hug.
It was an odd sensation — visceral and elating — and one I’ve never forgotten.
In April 2012, my brother, his wife, and I went to Indiana to bury the remains of our parents.
On the drive through Wisconsin, we talked about their son’s recent breakup with his high school girlfriend, Rachel. My nephew, Tyler, took it hard — as hard as such breakups can be at 17 — but talk centered more on Rachel and her role in the relationship.
They said they thought Rachel was … “odd.” I’d met Rachel before. She regarded me in the “not-likely-to-ever-understand” adult camp — but she couldn’t have been more wrong. However, when it came to my brother and his wife, she totally had their number. While both kids went around all black-clad emo, Rachel had started taking to a new costume — one she never took off — that of a furry red fox with fox-like mask and, well, even a tail.
On that drive, they were happy to pick away at Rachel’s idiosyncrasies, gnawing at the mystery of a 17-year-old who was determined to frustrate the patience of her boyfriend’s parents. Of course it was all calculated. And best of all, it worked. Ty’s parents couldn’t forget the impression she made. All the while I was thinking, “Bravo, Rachel!” I found it amusingly anarchistic.
While congratulating Rachel’s audacity, I was also feeling resentment — from years of my own shame and discouragement at others’ misunderstanding or disapproval — very similar to the experience of a potential artist like Rachel.
You see, play and reverie are my natural state of being. The Family Project didn’t know what to make of play. Sure, we went on vacations and did recreational activities like camping, picnicking, skiing or fishing. Mom used to sew and knit — her way of straining creativity through a utilitarian sieve: making useful things for the Family Project. And while Dad later revisited an earlier fascination with oil painting, it might’ve been because he had somehow in midlife convinced himself that it served no practical purpose, and so he did away with it. I don’t know. I never thought to ask him about it.
When I was a kid, Dad made it clear that “mere play” was being idle — something lazy people did.
And boy, you couldn’t get lazier than me.
For example, last Wednesday morning an ominous Family Project shadow fell upon a rare moment in my own private sandbox.
While searching an old sketchbook calendar, I rediscovered some notes, drawings, cartoons and clippings. BAM! — I was suddenly whipping down the playground slide of reverie and connections I’d forgotten about for years. I felt lighter and kind of giddy — giggling, even — totally abandoning myself to whatever surfaced next.
Then BOOM! — the shadow fell.
If it were a sound, it would be the sound of my father’s voice, similar to the mocking tone my brother used when describing his son’s ex-girlfriend. As a shadow, it darkened the room, filling me with anxiety and self-doubt: “What am I doing now? Is it practical? Is it useful? Shouldn’t I be ashamed?”
For years that sound, that shadow, was all around. It blocked up my writing, my artwork, my self-esteem — everything.
I was psychologically held at gunpoint by an ethic that carries little currency in my world. It began with the Family Project — then expanded into the wider world: teachers, peers, employers, all spouting the bullshit society unfailingly reveres as truth.
Lately I’ve learned to fight back — with irony and humor, learning all I could from writers like Flaubert, Swift, Twain, Vonnegut and, more recently, Saunders. I could’ve veered into icy intellect and tepid sentiment — leading to more cynicism, bitterness … despair.
But then I remembered that 7-year-old boy in the dream, and I see him — picturing him clearly now — beyond his worry and fear.
He’s a beautiful kid. He’s caring, curious, and sensitive. His openness, energy, and optimism are exactly what the world needs.
So, he will be protected, nurtured, and encouraged — God help me — as long as he is me, and I am him.