Childish Things

When I was a wee slip of a four year old, I remember visiting a friend and following him upstairs to a room that contained a giant cardboard box. It was long, and lay on its side, and easily took up at least half of all available floorspace in the small, book-lined room. In hindsight I suppose it had originally housed a fridge. My friend walked around to the back of the box and called for me to follow him.

I remember looking at it with all the healthy skepticism a four year old can muster. It didn’t look like anything special. In fact, it looked like it might have fallen victim to some sort of cardboard-consuming moth – it was riddled with tiny holes – but other than that it looked entirely unremarkable. I picked my way warily over stacks of books to find a small door that had been choppily cut out of the back of the box, just large enough for a small child to squeeze through without too much trouble. A flap of cardboard had been clumsily taped to the top, and this makeshift door was suddenly pushed up to reveal my friend’s face emerging from the darkness within.

“Come ON!” He said, in that urgent way children sometimes have of making the unimportant seem entirely time-sensitive. He crawled out and tried to pull me down to the floor. “Go IN!”

Dubiously I crouched and lifted up the cardboard flap. I crawled into the gloom and felt soft blankets give way beneath my palms and my knees.

“Lie down on your back!” I heard my friend’s muffled order from outside the box. “You’re in space now!”

I lay down on the blanket as instructed and looked up to find…

Space.

What had looked like a perforated box from the outside was utterly transformed on the inside. The holes were small, and numerous, and they let in just enough light to look like hundreds of stars. I felt safe in there with my gaze turned upward, my chubby child fingers roaming over the invisible blankets. It was a warm, muffled cocoon of cardboard. It was a magical box that had suddenly and efficiently transported me to deep space.

I love this memory, because for me there is so much childhood wrapped up in that instant; that abrupt suspension of disbelief, that willingness to go with the game, that ability to fully enjoy the moment no matter how small, and to make stars out of holes in a cardboard box.

The imagination of a child is so powerful. It carves adventures out of nothing and crafts stories out of nowhere. Everything makes sense; nothing is too fantastical. How can it be when they are learning so much about the world? They are being asked to learn and understand any number of mad-sounding things, what’s one more? There are giraffes, and aardvarks, and elephants… why not unicorns? Why not dragons?

As we grow, we lose a lot of our imagination. We get worried and stressed and bogged down in never-ending to-do lists. Sometimes it can be really hard to just submerge yourself in a moment and enjoy it for what it is. The word ‘fun’ has so many connotations attached; it’s supposed to be spontaneous and frivolous and silly and it drags with it a sort of blue-skies-and-primary-colours aura reminiscent of beach balls and bouncing castles. What adult has time for that on a daily basis? We’re busy people! We have work to do and people to take care of and events to plan and activities to take part in and coffee to consume!

Over time, for the most part, that aimless, pointless fun gets squeezed out of our day-to-day. It gets relegated to holidays or long weekends. It gets saved for boozy nights with friends. We get too self-conscious for silliness. Once we’ve learned to anticipate outcomes, it can be very hard to relax into the simple act of making a mess without worrying about the clean-up.

I think when you’re an adult, simple fun can get paradoxically difficult.

I also think that imagination and creativity is like a muscle. If you don’t use it, it wastes away.

When we’re small we make jelly, and scones, and chocolate rice-krispie buns topped with smarties. We marble Play-Doh until the many colours come together to form a single uniform shade of murky brown. We finger paint. We make sandcastles. We twist skinny horses out of pipe-cleaners, and make butterfly paintings by lobbing paint on a page and then folding it over and pressing it down. We make daisy chains, and dance in our living rooms and it doesn’t matter that the daisy chain isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t matter that our sandcastle will be washed away by the tide, and it doesn’t matter that our dancing looks ridiculous, and it certainly doesn’t matter that the Play-Doh is brown because that just means we can make a big Play-Doh bear out of it.

I’m not saying we should put aside life and responsibility and live as adult toddlers for a week, but I think there are lessons to be learned from our past selves. Children really understand how to live in the moment in a way that we forget as we grow into adults. They understand that things don’t need to be perfect to be beautiful, and that sometimes a big mess is a small price to pay for half an hour of laughter. When we were children, we didn’t always need reasons to do the things we did. We didn’t run around the playground because it made us healthier. We didn’t make each move carefully strategising five steps ahead.  Our reasons could be as flimsy as “because I feel like it” or “because I want to.”

I know that as adults we are expected to put away our childish things. We have to be responsible, and practical. We have a lot of things cluttering up our heads and it feels like there’s barely time to do the things we have to do, much less the things we want to do.

I’m just not sure we should put away all our childish things. I think it does us good to channel our inner child sometimes.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to attend a solo dance party in my living room.

…Because I feel like it!

 

 

Thoughts On… What It’s Like Being An Adult

 

When I was a child, there were always things I had to do before I could go out to play with my friends; homework, tidying, dishes, extracurriculars… Whatever it was, I had to finish it perfectly before I was let loose to climb trees, or to run around in the undergrowth, or to make up terrible, terrible dance moves, or to collect earthworms and snails to “rescue” them from being stood on by careless pedestrians.

I was a weird kid.

Anyway, I would take care of my tasks, and then I was free to leave the house and find my friends*. My mind would empty of school worries or drama, and I would throw myself into whatever crazy fictional plot we had dreamed up that day.  Elaborate scenarios were created during playtime only to dissolve at sunset, imaginary sandcastle worlds washed away by the tide of bedtime.

Today, if somebody were to ask me what it’s like to be an adult, I would say it’s like never getting to playtime.

As you grow older, the tasks and chores start to stack up on each other like LEGO. Not fun LEGO. Not here’s-a-bin-of-multicoloured-bricks-have-at-it LEGO. No. I’m talking Belville LEGO.**  Once you’re officially An Adult™, this Belville stack of  tasks just grows and grows until it becomes a veritable wall of responsibilities; an insurmountable barrier between you and the blank-slate mindset of playtime. Now, at the age of thirty, I can honestly say I can’t remember the last time I had nothing pending. There’s always something hanging over my head.

For example, my immediate To Do List says I have to:

  • Finish this blog post.
  • Work on my course project.
  • Discover the (presumably revolting) reason why my uncarved pumpkin is leaking.
  • Go grocery shopping, because the fridge is empty and I can’t survive without a steady supply of milk.

Then, later, once those are done, I will have to:

  • Feed the kittens, because otherwise they will eat me in my sleep.
  • Make dinner, or I will be eating cereal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner***.
  • Make a few home decisions.

And, more generally, I have to:

  • Clean the windows (this one’s been on the list a while…)
  • Plan on planning a wedding at some stage.
  • Get my eyes tested.
  • Make life decisions.

….And countless other small, niggling things that have been waiting patiently for my attention.

There is never a moment when I’m just… done. I can be done for the day, sure, but I don’t think I will ever have a moment in my life again where I feel like every single one of my tasks have been checked off the list and I can devote myself wholeheartedly to the kind of mindless playtime I once enjoyed. It’s exhausting to even think about, but it’s true. When you’re young, you’re unaware of the people around you shouldering the burden of life’s responsibilities. Slowly, they sneak up on you, and before you know it the To Do List is several thousands of items long and you’re wondering where your abundant spare time went.

I think this is why people call childhood “carefree.” Of course children have worries and chores and struggles and lessons to learn, but somebody has already reached across the able and carved everything up into bite-size chunks. The worries and lessons are usually workable. Except for in tragic circumstances, children’s lives are carefully managed and engineered to ensure that not too many tasks fall on those tiny shoulders.

And then you grow, and your shoulders start to press against something unfamiliar, and then it starts to press down on you, and before you know it, you’ve become the Atlas of your life, with your world carefully balanced between your shoulderblades.

So here I am, the Atlas of my life, trying to fit things into my calendar like an actual old person. Ticking off boxes like An Adult™. Sighing heavily because I realise the To Do List isn’t just the twenty things I have written down, but the never-ending, scrolling list that whirrs through my brain at 3am, making that KRSSSH SHHH WHRRRR SHHHKSH sound that receipts make when they’re being printed.

Infuriating.

Now I better go feed the kittens before they start chewing on my toes….

*ticks another item off the list*

*I know, I’m as surprised as you that I had any at all with my fists full of earthworms.

**Does anybody remember Belville LEGO sets? They were completely rubbish. They were just like regular LEGO, but everything was larger and lacking any sense of fun or accomplishment.

***Which – although this is something that I can (and do!) do as An Adult™ – is something that should be reserved solely for times of stress. Or lack of groceries. Or high sugar requirements.