The children have littered their end of the table with cellophane straw wrappers after gleefully launching them at each other like blowgun darts. They land haphazardly amid the plates of half-eaten macaroni and cheese and the gnawed bones from the barbecue ribs. The adults are finishing the fruity remnants of their improbably named, slightly overpriced cocktails. It is a busy, cheerful dinner with friends after a long day of swimming and play; we are squeezing the drops from the last sunlit days of summer.
My Samantha bounces over and drops a scrap of paper in front of me. It reads: THE KEY TO LIFE IS IMAGINATION. – SAMMY
“I love it! Did you think of this yourself?” I ask.
“Well, yeah. It’s pretty much my philosophy,” she answers, seriously. Then she breaks into a mischievous grin and returns to her pals.
They are furiously busy folding bits of their paper placemats into tiny fans. They decide the tiny fans look like hair bows, so they stick them behind their ears and whip out their iTouches for selfies. Then, they discover that if they empty out the tiny boxes of crayons the waiter left them and blow into them, it makes a satisfying, whistling noise. “I’m keeping this box forever!” Sammy announces. The grownups smile, wistfully.
The next day, I find her note and ask her, “So, what does this mean to you?”
“Imagination is important,” she says. “It’s how you get through most of things in life. Well, for kids. I guess some grownups, too, but it depends on your job. Like, you guys aren’t doodling all day long, probably.”
I tell her that actually, I know some people who do that as their job, but I want to know more about how imagination gets her through life. I feel, as I sometimes do when we have these conversations, like I’m sitting at the feet of a squirmy little Buddha. She’s so connected, so sure of herself in this moment. If someone asked me that question right now, I would hesitate. Where do you come from, young space traveller, I wonder.
I think back to an evening a couple of months ago. I was sitting at the kitchen table writing, or trying to write while Clooney the cat helpfully stepped on my keyboard and stuck his furry butt in my face. Sammy wandered by with one of her latest drawings, and I told her how amazing it was. She hadn’t done much drawing this past school year, and what she had done for class was very simple. Then, one day, she sat down to doodle, and I saw that she was using her old art class techniques. Value. Perspective. Detail. All in childish third grade style, of course. The gates swung free, and creations came pouring forth. She drew Pokemon characters and girls walking into the sunset and household objects. I told her I thought it was great that she’d gotten back into it. She thanked me, and then to my surprise and dismay, her little shoulders slumped and her body rocked with huge, silent, shaking sobs. “Oh, no, what’s wrong, baby?” Had I said the wrong thing? Did I make her feel self-conscious? I berated myself. She came and sat in my lap. “I’m just so thankful,” she said. “I thought I lost it. I thought it was gone.” The word ‘gone’ broke on a shuddering breath. I felt my heart compress like a crumpled aluminum can.
I held her and stroked her hair and kissed her wet cheeks. I told her that every creative person, everyone I know who makes art or music or writes, feels this way. That I feel this way all the time. I told her making isn’t like math or science where you observe and remember and figure out problems, although there’s some of that. Creating comes from inside you, and that is wonderful and hard. I told her about my friend Jordan who wrote a whole book to help people push through the times when they feel like they just can’t do it. I showed her Chapter 10 of A Writer’s Guide To Persistence where she talks about writer’s block. “You have this, Mommy?” Sammy’s eyes were wide. “Oh, my baby. Yes. Often. And I want you to remember the next time you feel this way, because you will, I promise, that this is part of the process. I want you to tell yourself, ‘This is part of being an artist.’ Okay? And then you go do some really terrible drawings because the important thing is that you keep going. Go ahead and draw some real stinkers. You can throw them right into the trash afterwards.” She giggled and sighed. She barely fit in my lap, but she stayed and nuzzled her head into my neck.
Right now, she’s rolling around on the couch like a puppy, casually dropping wisdom from her cornflake-crumbed lips. Persistence is part of the equation, but she reminds me that there’s more:
“Kids imagine in, like, a playful way, and it keeps you from getting stuck. Like, if you need to figure out what to do ‘cause you’re bored or maybe you make a wrong mark in your drawing – just turn it into something else.” She waves her arms as though in invocation. “Ta-dah! Now, it’s a new thing. I learned that in art class. Kids do that a lot. I don’t know if grownups do. I mean, I don’t think you guys use your imagination playfully like that.”
She’s right. I most often use my imagination to conjure up worst-case scenarios and zombie apocalypse evacuation plans. Or, I use it to play out arguments that haven’t yet occurred or revisit the greatest hits in my cringe-worthy catalog of self-loathing. I don’t spend nearly enough time blowing straw wrappers and making crayon box whistles.
“Do you think it would help grownups to be more playful with their imaginations?” I ask.
“Yeahhhhh, but I don’t know if you can. You have work and boring stuff. But, like, it helps you to figure out solutions. Like when my art teacher drew a cat on a tissue box. I never thought of that!” she says. The discovery that you can apply your creativity anywhere, even a tissue box, was life-changing, she says. “I want to keep my playful imagination forever, if I can. It just makes life more fun. And beautiful.”
Today, I am wearing my 10-year-old little girl wonder-goggles. I’m trying to remember that what I see isn’t all that is, and that mistakes are just a turn in the path.