The Art of Imagination

When I was young, I was fascinated with the silverware basket in my parents' dishwasher. Fascinated. It was one of those kinds that had a trapdoor compartment for small pieces, and I was constantly removing it from the dishwasher and flapping open the trapdoor and marveling at the structure of the whole thing.

I realize how odd this sounds, as I didn’t have any particular interest in the cleanliness of my silverware. The plastic mesh basket mesmerized me for another reason entirely, and it had to do with The Secret of Nimh.

Yes – that old eighties gem of an animated film. I loved it, even though I didn’t really get it, and even though I was certain that Mrs. Brisby’s name was actually Mrs. Frisbee, because I knew what a frisbee was, but I had never in my life heard of a brisby. I don’t know what it was about the movie, but it appealed to me in a tactile sense. Mrs. Frisbee was always clutching things in her delicate mouse fingers: the packet of medicine for her son, the glowing red pendant. I used to wish fervently for such a packet that I, too, could clutch to my chest as though my imaginary son’s life depended on it. Had my mother sprinkled a pinch of dill inside a square envelope and handed it to me, I don’t think a happier child would have existed.

And that PENDANT. My standard for costume jewelry in those days pretty much firmly rested with that pendant. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

What does the silverware basket have to do with all this? Obviously, it was a cage, similar to the cages the rats were trapped in at the laboratory. (Although this sounds morbid, I was too young to understand the implications of such cages and the cruelty that took place inside them. To my mind, they were more like the cages they kept hamsters in at the pet store. Those cages were the MOTHER LODE. They were so cool – ramps and doorways galore! But we couldn’t get one, my mom said, because we didn’t have a pet to put in it. I tried to explain to her that the cage did not necessitate a tenant, but she was having none of it.)

It’s crazy, looking back, at how much I relied on my imagination as a child. It was truly all I needed. Granted, even as an adult, I still tend to mentally wander off the beaten path more often than not, but this is nothing compared to the amount of time I used to spend in Imagination Land when I was young.

I have a distinct memory of holding a plastic clothes hanger in one hand and a shoelace strung with large plastic buttons in the other and somehow using these tools to play Robin Hood. The clothes hanger was my bow and arrow, and the button string was one of those chains the Sheriff of Nottingham used to lock up all those poor impoverished citizens.

My younger brother Austin and I used to spend entire summers playing with a single sheet in the backyard. One bed sheet, old and faded and ever-so-lovingly grass-stained. That sheet contained universes of possibility. It was a raft floating in shark-infested seas. It was a rope dangling from a turret window in an enchanted castle. It was a parachute, a spaceship, a giant human-eating plant, a wedding dress, and many, many other things. One sheet.

I was Luke Skywalker all the time, too. All the time. Man, Luke was so cool, I didn’t even need any props. Whenever Austin and I would ride in the car, the old eighties-model Chevy Blazer became Luke's X-Wing, and the other vehicles on the road our would-be assailant Tie Fighters. Fortunately, we were savvy enough to blast them into oblivion with a mere pew-pew of our infrared laser beams.

These days, as an adult, I pride myself on my imagination. I’d venture a guess that I spend a lot more time dreaming of the impossible than a lot of other people my age, and I like that about myself. But still . . . sometimes I miss those halcyon days of limitless mental adventures. I mean, now I see the silverware basket in the dishwasher on a daily basis, and it no longer inspires a spell of whirlwind creativity. Bed sheets no longer transport me to a world of leprechauns and lava. And if I see a clothes hanger on the ground, I simply hang it up instead of using it to fire invisible arrows at my imaginary foe.

I am reminded of an experience I had a few years ago, when my friends’ then-four-year-old daughter took me by the hand, led me to her room, and sat me down in front of a plastic bin full of toys – animals and princesses and things. “Play,” she instructed me.

Tentatively, I picked up a plastic brontosaurus. “Play what?”

She stared at me as though I was an idiot – the same exasperated look, I’m sure, as the one I gave my mother all those years ago, when she told me we didn’t need a rodent cage just because we didn’t have a rodent to put in it. “Just pretend,” she urged me, thoroughly exhausted at my inadequacy. Like, obviously this is so easy, and this boring-ass grown-up has no idea how.

I had to wonder if this was true. Have I forgotten how to play pretend? As vivid as I like to think my imagination still is, is it merely hanging by a thread?

I’ve had some time to stew on it – and here’s what I finally decided on.

I've still got it - in my heart, where it really counts.

I may no longer pretend my bicycle is a racehorse and I am a jockey – because frankly, I have no interest anymore in being a jockey (and I am far too tall, but that’s neither here nor there).

I do, however, pretend to be Jason Bourne on a regular basis – like, whenever I drive too fast on purpose, or whenever someone says something mean to me and I’m feeling particularly misunderstood, or whenever I’m scared to get a bikini wax because of the ungodly pain.

And when I sing along with my favorite music in my car, the road falls away and suddenly I’m a rock star, writhing around on stage in front of six million screaming fans.

If I’m at a show and dancing with reckless abandon, I know I probably resemble Napoleon Dynamite having a seizure. But in my head . . . damn, I look good.

And there’s something else I pretend every day. I pretend to be a grown-up. I look like one (as much as someone with purple hair can). Sometimes I even feel like one. But the stronger part of me – my spirit – still just wants to chase butterflies and draw murals with sidewalk chalk and make “food” out of Play-Doh. Deep down, where it counts, I think I will always be about seven years old.

So, no. I haven’t lost my imagination. It’s changed with me, yes – but I still use it every day. It keeps me in check – it prevents me from getting too caught up in this material world of work and money and things and stuff. It reminds me to focus on what really matters in this life: people, laughter, love, and good times.

It keeps me young at heart. And really, I couldn’t ask anything more from it.

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© 2020 by Ali Owens​