Dusting Off the Imagination

When I was a child, imagination was my biggest and best toy.

That’s because before Tiger Moms and internet, there was The Backyard.

All the cool kids had one.

I climbed up the rickety stairs over our garage and could just make out Dead Man’s Island off the San Diego coast. Its hills form the perfect outline of a body floating face up.

In my mind it was full of cannibals or wild animals or pirates. Someday I was going to go there in a rowboat and dig for treasure.

I would lie on the floor in the living room and pretend gravity had reversed. I ‘walked’ around on the ceilings from room to room trying to decide how I would make lunch or avoid light fixtures, and stepping over the doorways. You couldn’t go outside of course, unless you were swinging along the fence top.

Once outer space got you, you were doomed.

If you look at a door and can imagine a hundred ways that door could be different, your imagination is working, too.

Frame a black car with color wash…

Will you look forward or backward?

Doorway to inner worlds…

Every door leads to another door…which will you open next?

A person with a wild imagination and the ability to express it is a person living a very rich life. Whether in words or fabric or gymnastics or music, with flowers or a blowtorch, the release of the thing within his heart creates beauty.

In all fairness, an imagination is not easily harnessed and can, on occasion, take you on journeys unexpected. If it frightens you, you could be tempted to close the door on it before understanding what it was trying to say. If it fascinates, you could be pulled into its vortex never to be heard from again, endlessly wandering among the paint pots.

If your child enjoys the wrapping paper as much as what it contained, her imagination has doubled your gift.

Watch this child. She sees the infinite possibility in things.

Or, you know, she could just be weird.

I may be the only child who ever sat and played with dust motes, but I doubt it.

Perhaps I am the only one who will admit it. (There’s always the comment box below if you feel inclined to share.)

On a completely empty, uneventful, and deliciously boring summer morning I sat on the living room floor, staring through a sunbeam.

It came slanting in through the window and wasn’t going to stay long. For whatever reason, I slapped my hand onto the carpet and watched a large puff of dust swirl up into the air.

You could only see it in the sunbeam. Beyond it, the air appeared perfectly clear.

I watched them swirl as my hands passed around them, riding air currents. Another slap to the floor, and the sunbeam was thick with dancing specks.

The first thought was simple enough: snowflakes. This must be what it looks like when snow falls. At least, it did in my swirly snow globe. I did not see snow actually falling until my 30s.

The next thought wasn’t nearly as nice: Whoa! I’m breathing that! Every inhale is putting these little guys in my nose, down my throat and into my lungs! I can’t even see them and they’re getting into my mouth!


I dashed outside, deep breathing the fresh air and wiping at my eyes and face.

I gave a little cough, just to clear things out.

That was a close call! I practically suffocated on the living room floor!

The next morning, I gathered my two little sisters around the sunbeam.

They watched as I made the specks float in patterns.

And then I fulfilled the eldest sisters’ duty by carefully explaining that this was what formed all of the boogers in their nose.

Instant respect.

Also, we played in The Backyard for the rest of that summer.

Release your dazzle.

Cemetery Summers

When I was little, my family moved into a tiny little house in a tiny little neighborhood.

Our neighbors were tiny little elderly folks who kept dusty ribbon candy in glass dishes by the door for small children who may or may not ever have worked up the courage to visit them.

There was old Dorothy across the street. She kept rows of cages filled with rabbits in her back yard. If you were brave enough to chat with her, she smiled at you and gave you a pet guinea pig.

But you had to work your head around the fact that she chain-smoked directly through her tracheal tube.

There was old Mr Jurdo three houses down. He took his morning constitutional around our tiny block and always wore a neon red jacket and a brown cap. He didn’t chat. He grunted at you and cleared his throat forcefully by way of greeting.

We steered our red wagon the other way.

Old Virgil lived uphill by a house or two. He never left it. When you were forced into a polite visit, his dim house smelled of old person and aged furniture and musty carpet. He never moved from his chair – perhaps he had melted into it – so we felt comfortable lingering in the doorway and hollering the morning news towards his good ear.

Only one – and there are many – of the interesting facts of where we lived was that our street ran along the border of a large cemetery.

Four houses down on the opposite side of our street lived a little girl who was besties with my sister and we frequently played there.

She had a little pool and a calico cat and an elevated veranda running along the back of her house.

During the summer, we would sit on this veranda and watch funerals.

We had never attended a funeral ourselves. We had no personal relationship with death.

So we were free to imagine any number of scenarios below us.

Most of the time, we could figure out who the preacher was. We decided whether the deceased was famous based upon how many people were in attendance. If awnings and chairs were set up, you knew it was going to be a long sermon. If flowers completely covered the grave, then the deceased must be female.

We watched the long procession of cars and the long procession of mourners. They would huddle like penguins, then gradually fade away until only the coffin remained, and a lone gentleman standing aloof near the hill.

The curtain dropped on Act 1, but there was more to see from our balcony seats.

We could see the tractor waiting behind the hill. We could see the crematorium, tucked away in another area from the road, hidden far from the burial plots.

Cemetery workers stepped forward and slowly lowered the coffin with wenches. They used the tractor to fill in the grave and put the flowers back into place on the slightly mounded earth.

And then everyone was gone.

The silent movie ended.

Sometimes in the evening when dad came home, our family walked in the cemetery, enjoying the distant ocean breeze. We traced names on tombstones and ran along the edge of the small pond and smelled flowers wilting over the newcomers.

It always felt like a place of peace. Oddly, like a place of welcome.

Like everyone had been snugly tucked in for the night.

And I wonder now, all these years later, what our elderly neighbors felt about it?

Did they ever turn around to peer past their own backyards into the cemetery or did they keep their eyes fixed firmly on the small children wandering through their tiny front gardens?

Did they wait patiently for those rare moments of interaction, however brief, knowing a final welcome waited even more patiently, right around the corner?

And what, then, when those glimpses of the future merged?

Legend of the Boom Boom Stick

Back when I was a kid, my sisters and I got into the usual amount of mischief. Well, as much mischief as you can get into considering we weren’t allowed to leave the yard.

There was the time we decided, one end-of-July summer day, that all the tomatoes in the garden ought to be used up as ammo for the World’s Biggest Tomato War.

It was epic.

But it wasn’t okay.

My parents were traditionalist “spare the rod, spoil the child” types, and discipline played out in an invariable routine when mom had had her fill.

“Just wait until your Father gets home!” she’d say.

And we’d go into hiding for the afternoon.

That night, Dad would come striding into the tiny house and get the daily report, and we’d linger around the doorway, holding our breath and waiting to see if Mom was really going to tell on us.

Sometimes she would let it go, and we were eternally grateful.

For at least two days.

But if Dad started taking off his belt, we scattered. He seldom had to do anything but that to get the message across.

If one of us did get a spanking, the others would all cry along with her.

When I became a parent, I was determined that I would discipline for myself, on the spot.

And I would never, ever use a belt on a child.

My mom’s weapon of choice was the wooden spoon from the kitchen but it was used only as a directional baton, like an ineffectual flyswatter.

It shooed us away, but we always buzzed back.

My two (older) daughters tell me regularly that my two (younger) sons are spoiled rotten.

Their basis for this judgement is the amount of times they’ve actually seen me spank them compared to the times they recall being, themselves, swatted with a wooden spoon.

Apparently, the Legends of the Boom Boom Stick are many.

My children inform me that they spent many childhood hours thinking of ways to defeat the Attitude Adjustor. They knew that wearing their toughest denim jeans was always a good idea.

They put books down their pants.

They thought that if they could only put jello into the proper mold, mom could hit it and think it was an actual bottom being reprimanded.

They snuck into the kitchen and broke wooden spoons in pre-emptive strikes.

They had spoons break across their bottoms which just goes to show, they don’t make ‘em like they used to. Spoons, I mean, not bottoms. I figure those are about the same.

Back in the day when I had five little rascals I can tell you there were days when I was grateful to have the Spoon of Power. It gave just enough sting to remind everyone who was still in charge, and no, you can’t go into the garage and rearrange all of the fishing gear into a fort because I don’t want the baby to eat hooks.

For the seventh time this morning…

Swats were necessary for the dangerous things or the deliberate belligerent ones, but it doesn’t stop kids from being kids, and when things are really going south, you can’t catch ‘em all.

But time outs are the best thing ever invented.

I used to stand my kids in the corner. Sometimes I had to use up all the corners of a room at once.

I would put their finger on a spot on the wall and say, “Don’t move your finger until I say so”.

It worked okay.

But they were still fighting each other with everything except their one finger.

We switched up to putting noses on the wall.

Much better.

You want to set the timer for one minute per year-old of the child.

I just round mine up to an hour and send myself for a nap, to make sure I’ve learned my lesson.

Everyone grew up. Everyone started to behave themselves a bit more each year, and frankly, I got just too tired to bother. Either my sons get into half the trouble my daughters ever did, or I am ignoring twice the things that used to be “rules”.

Mothers do the best they can with what they have on any given day. Somewhere between kids, my discipline style evolved, I understood kids better, I realized how fast they grow and learned what did and didn’t actually matter.

Sort of.

Once in a while I rattle the spoon caddy in the kitchen to see if anyone’s instincts rise to the bait.

And I’m curious to see if my kids will tell their own kids some day “Stories of the Spanking Spoon”.

It always begins, “Back when I was a kid…”