Was there a moment when you knew that fantasy was the stuff of unformed childish thinking, unaware of the world as it is? Did you let go of that fantasy for the sake of something more realistic, more mature to match your great big kid self in his or her high single digits years and serious about becoming a grown-up? I did.
As adults we’re taught to never let go of our dreams, to chase them if they’re slipping through our grasp We’re told in cheerful posters with uplifting messages that our dreams, our passions, are the stuff of a great good life. We’ll never regret anything as much as letting go of our dreams.
I think most of those adventures and destinations we hold as our deepest dreams are the second dreams we adopt. Maybe the third or fourth as we mature into the double digit years and become ever more aware of limits imposed on us by reality. There is no stronger drive in the human animal than autonomy and creating something of ourselves, by ourselves, and for the naked pleasure of knowing we are our own creation. We do whatever it takes to reach that end.
You might think this is balderdash, but go back to when you were tiny, see yourself alone and acting out who you were going to be. Were you wearing a magic cape or have your mother’s dining room centerpiece on your head because it looked like the crown of a princess?
Did you have the finial of your four poster bed in your hand as you belted out every song Shirley Temple ever sang? Did you dance every dance she ever danced with your hair a frizzy mess because you demanded your grandmother set your hair with bobby pins in hopes of waking up with ringlets? I did. I was gonna be Shirley Temple, re-make every movie she ever made and star in them all. It was Shirley Temple or bust.
There was no heartbreak the day I stop mid-song, took a good long look at my second-grade self in the mirror, and knew the dream was over. No longer was I a cute little pre-schooler, and get a clue kid, I never had dimples, save for that annoying one on my chin that blew the entire illusion. Goodbye, Shirley, it was nice knowing you. Time to move along like a good kid.
Putting away childhood fantasies is easy. It’s part of growing up we all accept. Oprah Winfrey put hers away. She grew up an abused child who found comfort in reading. Books were her companions and her comfort. She read obsessively, and she “got” the bigger stories in the small books. You’d think someone with that kind of early addiction to books would dream of being a writer. Not Oprah. She wanted to be Barbara Walters. She chased that dream into broadcast journalism, eventually settling for becoming the richest, most powerful woman of the 20th Century. Poor girl. Poor little quitter.
But wait a minute. Who was it that landed the interview of the 21st Century with Lance Armstrong? Oprah Winfrey. For three hours, longer than any interview Barbara Walters ever achieved, Oprah grilled him directly and without mercy, just as Barbara Walters would have done, if she’d been able to land the interview, and if she’d had the stamina to prepare then endure such bold questioning. Poor little girl Oprah. Poor little quitter. When Armstrong was ready to come clean with himself and the public, he picked on Oprah as the one to whom he’d bear his shame and deceit (to the best of his ability).
I wondered how many others watched that interview focused on Oprah and the realization of her childhood dream as I did. How many were left saying, “What? Did Armstrong say something? Was it important?” as I did because they were cheering and crying through the realization of an unreachable childhood dream. A dream that slept through all those years of fame and fortune.
That was hot stuff, but probably something I saw because I wanted to see it. Nobody else seemed to be talking about it. Armstrong was the center of attention.
But then I had an experience a few weeks ago that whipped me back to Oprah’s interview and the importance of irrational, unrealizable childhood dreams. I was working with a development professional in my field and listening to her summarize my project in terms I’d never realized before. The more she talked about the strong parts of my work (after ripping apart the portions that weren’t working), a fog dropped over me, muffling her voice and obscuring all signs of direction. It was the surreal fog of awakening inside a dream set loose from a long buried treasure chest.
I had written a story exactly like a Shirley Temple movie. I thought I’d written about the love of a father and the healing power of paternal love, but I was wrong. At no time during the writing process was I ever aware I’d written what the coach was telling me I’d written. That project is doing fairly well at the moment, as did another project very much like it I’d written years earlier. That other story was about a little boy and his father, but as I sat in my fog listened to the distorted sounds of my thoughts in the mist, I realized it was just another Shirley Temple story done in drag.
Do we ever let go of irrational childhood fantasies? How much do they drive our work as creatives? Picasso once said at the age of eight he could draw like Raphael, but it took him a lifetime to see as a child. In our modern culture we spend big bucks digging for our authentic selves and uncovering our purpose and passions. The Romans, ever practical, made it easy. Their belief was our purpose was to be found in what we liked. Our likes as children were the voice of our daemon, that ethereal being sent by the gods to shape our destiny and stay with us until we die.
Could it be that simple? What we like as children is our destiny? Could it be that easy? Do we block our ability to resonate with others because we’ve blocked the resonance of our own irrational, uninformed, ill-conceived mysteries of childhood? We do speak of our inner child, but only in terms of how damaged they are and in need of healing. What about the perfect little child inside of us that dreams without boundaries?
Look around at the explosion within indie publishing. What dominates the explosion? Romance (ah, Prince Charming!), YA paranormal (I’m a magical princess with dragons asleep at my feet), SiFi creations (look at me! I can fly!), horror stories (tell me that scary story again!). Did you clean out kitchen cabinets of pots and pans and make mud pies all day long (bet you write a food and craft blog now), or play soldier (bet you’re in a corporate job these days)?
In real life I cuss like a sailor and walk like a honkey-tonk woman. I write with a clenched fist and eyes focused to the daggered tip of an editor’s red pencil. Every. Word. Is. Calculated. Every sentence is censored by craft. I’m never satisfied with what I’ve written. I’ve been to university, dontcha know, and learned all the tools of my trade, but I always seem to drop them. This past year I’ve written nearly a million words, but none of them caught fire until that sneaky little girl caught up with me, whispering the lyrics of Good Ship Lollipop in my dream-deaf ear.
Maybe we could all benefit from going back to the shapeless days of our childhoods and observing the perfect creations we once were. Watch the games we played before knowledge of games with rules took over. What games did you play when there was nobody to play with and you were the boss of you? What childish fantasies did you have of magic and pies made out of mud, or saving the world from the bad guys? Watch you in the rear view mirror and remember. Can you feel that little twerp tugging at your now?
You’ve got nothing to lose. You’re a grown-up. You know the patterns and problems of communication. You can bring that perfect wild child that is the soul of you back to the present.
You can sit together and tell each other silly stories, and your laughter will blast every roadblock in your path. That child can barely form letters of the alphabet with her un-trained hand, but that’s what grown-ups are for.
We craft our perfect selves and tell stories of our silliest dreams with form, style, purpose, value, and a voice as irresistible as a child’s tickled belly laugh, sailing the seas of imagination on the Good Ship Lollipop.