Yesterday my son looked up at me and said, in a thoughtful voice, “I think I live mostly in my imagination.”
He’s five. He’s right. Since his birth, when he wasn’t expected to live and then, miraculously, did, I’ve always thought of him as a changeling, an elfin creature returned to us — with half a mind still wandering in the faerie realm. He’s only half here. In the park he flits from branch to branch; he’s an orangutan, he’s a monster truck, he’s a hummingbird, he’s Iron Man. For him and other children of that age, their bodies are an artistic medium: their limbs are mutable, their forms changeable, and the world, wonderous, welcomes their flickering.
I remember being like him, and like Emily. I remember when the inanimate world filled itself with characters. Emily’s Wind Woman is one marvelous example. In my childhood there was a birch that scratched at my window with witch fingers, and the lovely bower of rhododendron in the backyard, which was home to gnomes. I used to feel sad for objects I had to throw away, weeping for their loneliness. Thus I hoarded rocks and shells in small piles because I felt sorry for them being separated (I suspect my mom would come and periodically empty the room of their small spirits, setting them free to the world again). Like Emily, I used to sit for hours at windows and marvel at the clouds and trees, their relentless motion, their everchanging beauty. Montgomery’s writing illuminates the dynamic nature of how children see the world:
It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, veryEmily of New Moon
near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain;
she could never draw the curtain aside—but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind
fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm
beyond—only a glimpse—and heard a note of unearthly music.
Emily believes herself a wisp away from another world. There is magic nearby, the type of magic that transforms. My son believes this too — the real world is razor-thin and beyond it stretches the unreal, where anything is possible.
A lot of days I am too tired to play with my son. He wants us to swing from branches together and collect bananas. He wants us to hunt down bad guys with clues and gumption. He wants us to fight robot invaders, build spaceships and explore strange new worlds, and morph into dinosaur form (“But the dinosaurs can talk, and like, hold walkie talkies,” he explains). I admire his imagination but I cannot summon the magic needed to transform, again and again, from this tired mommy shape into the various elementals of his imagination.
I know I’m supposed to get down on the floor and play with him (long days, short years, blah blah blah) so I manage to do it, most days, for a little while before I tap out. But what astonishes me more is how easy it is for him to summon his wonder. Awe flows through him. Everything is worthy of huge feelings. It used to be easy for me, too.
I was like Emily. I wrote poems, terrible poems, about the landscape, odes to the little waterfalls I hiked past, stories about the faerie castles in the creek. My mind embraced language as an extension of landscape, and as I got older (around 11, Emily’s age, about six years older than my son) my body was no longer the medium for transformation. Words became the medium. My body shifted into adulthood with its weird hairs and bumps, so it was mutating all on its own, no longer a canvas for imagination. Instead, imagination became a thing to be recorded, then expressed, and then crafted and created on the page. I could change into anything in writing; language was the spell that unwove me from my body and made me new, each time I wrote and read. Emily says that a scene might “hurt her with its beauty until she wrote it down.” Her physical pain, and the relief of that pain, are one manifestation of the way that language lodges in our bodies and shifts them, subtly, from inside.
I’ve been reading Emily of New Moon at night when the baby falls asleep on my shoulder. She’s really a toddler now, but I still sometimes let her fall asleep on me. This is mostly because I then get to read my Kindle in the dark, with her soft breathing on my neck. This last month, I have looked forward to finding myself on Prince Edward Island for a chapter or two each night.
At first I thought, well, no wonder I like this book; it’s easy. Then I checked myself: no, I don’t love Emily because it’s easy. Easy means unchallenging, and Emily doesn’t feel flaccid or dull. Instead, it’s animate, dynamic, and kind. I love it because it’s delightful.
Emily is not quote-on-quote serious reading. Montgomery wrote the book for young people, but more than that I think she’s probing at the idea of children’s literature and what entails serious writing. Because despite Emily’s obviously nascent writing skills, she takes herself seriously, and Montgomery takes her seriously. Her fancies, her feelings, although placed in context as youthful, are not set aside as irrelevant. “Emily hated to be told she was too young to understand,” writes Montgomery. “She felt that she could understand perfectly well if only people would take the trouble to explain things to her and not be so mysterious.” In this passage, Montgomery has the wisdom of age to look at her young character (who obviously does, indeed, not understand some things) (like boys), but she also allows Emily’s indignation and honors her desire to be taken seriously. Her emotions are examined and described with the confidence and compassion of a writer who remembers how often children are brushed aside, and how bad it can feel to be told, “You’ll grow out of it.” When a book has stakes that feel real and characters you care about, it is simply good literature. It is lovely, and fanciful, and youthful — and why should those things remain the realm of the young? Why cannot we tired middle-aged folk also claim delight for ourselves? Why must delight be brushed aside as youthful and silly? Can we not love the sway of the wind and get embarrassed by spectacles with friends and fight with those we love over haircuts? Or maybe we don’t, and what a shame that we’ve forgotten how.
I’m interested in delight these days. I didn’t finished Kristin Lavransdatter for this project, not because I didn’t like it — I really liked it — but because I knew in the last section the Black Death was coming. This 2023 post-pandemic me was not ready to see Kristin mourn the loss of her spouse and children to a deadly plague. My kids already feel tenuous, barely possible. I can’t even rip a tiny, imaginative hole where their bodies are, in sympathy, in empathy. It hurts like hell just to imagine.
When do we lose the capacity to imagine so easily? It has something to do, I think, with the world pressing back on imagination as we age, forcing our fancies to reconcile with reality. When I was young, I made fun of my mom for not being able to watch serious films. She always wanted comedies — no dramas, no Oscar films. It was all light fare on family movie night. My dad and I would watch serious films on our own, and I’d ask him, “What’s up with mom?” He told me she felt the world a little too hard. Sometimes she felt it so hard it hurt. What she wanted from fiction was to feel something joyful — not Pollyanna false, not pretending the world wasn’t hard, but laughing despite and with the hard.
Is this what happens to very imaginative kids when they get older and read the news? Earthquakes, school shootings, wars, climate change … the hurt seeps in and we start to retreat like turtles into our shells, safe in our carapace of unfeeling, until we can’t watch any Oscar nominees or finish Kristin Lavransdatter and want to binge comedies on Netflix and not read poetry and can’t feel wonder anymore but only a dull kind of contentment, a thought like I should really feel something more .(Shit, y’all, am I this tired?) I guess I’m trying to figure out, reading Emily: Where did my wonder go?
Because Emily is full of wonder. Her enchantment has kept me sitting on that couch, baby on my lap, smiling into the darkened room and the weird old-snow glow of the Kindle, to see if she will win over her aunt and get her bang cut — these childish, delightful joys that matter so much to her sensitive, exuberant heart.
The poet and essayist Ross Gay has recently made somewhat of a career of the exploration of delight, and his writing plumbs the depths of sorrow, grief, loss and tenderness even as he discusses the things that bring him joy: good coffee, potlucks, pickup basketball, community gardens, skateboarding. In his newest collection, Inciting Joy, he writes about the misperception of joy as a feeling apart from sorrow: “The joy room, the thinking goes, is snug with every good and nice and cozy thing.” But this sealed-up sense of joy, Gay argues, is no joy at all but a kind of acquisitional satisfaction. Real joy is “not separate from pain,” but a messy, interwoven symbiosis. “What if joy and pain are fundamentally tangled up with one another? Or even more to the point, what if joy is not only entangled with pain, or suffering, or sorrow, but is also what emerges from how we care for each other through those things?” he asks. What I take from Gay’s line of questioning is that since grief is inevitable, loss is inevitable, and death is inevitable, then our experience of wonder has to come from our fellowship with others, despite and inside of that inevitable pain.
Every night Emily comes to me after a day of adulthood. I hear the news — thousands buried under rubble in Turkey and Syria, the war in Ukraine marching into its second year, some glacier in Washington has disappeared forever, another school shooting. I listen to my students, who are bright kids fighting the tide pull of poverty to get their education, and think about how hard they have to swim, and how unfair it feels that capitalism is this rip tide dragging them backward. I’m just regular tired, from chores and being patient when small people are yelling at me. In that context, with my baby breathing softly against my body, the delight of reading Emily hits closer and sweeter and harder.
And Emily stands there holding her notebook and searching for buried treasure in the garden, amid the glory of the seasonal flowers, with all her vulnerability and pain. Her book begins with the kind of life-changing sadness that is difficult to imagine: the death of a parent. Being orphaned leaves Emily deeply alone in the world, not only physically but emotionally. Her father is the one person who understands and listens to her. When he dies, she has no one with whom to share the imaginary world of childhood.
The other tragedies in Emily’s life (Rhoda’s betrayal! Aunt Elizabeth’s rules!) rock on the cold sea of those first chapters and the devastation of her father’s death. All the rest of the books sings in its wake: Emily’s joy at being at New Moon could not be as sweet if she had not known that emptiness first. In her grief, she is in fellowship with the Wind Woman and the pixies in the forest and the wild neighbor girl in the woods. She is in fellowship with Cousin Jimmy around the fire telling poems, and her cats curled up in her bed, and Teddy’s delicate sketches. And the threat of death lingers. Relatives talk about how she might die early of consumption, and at various points (poisoned apple!) she expects to die imminently. Emily is awake to the possibilities and realities of loss. Therefore, she can touch real wonder, the mystery that is offered only to those who have their eyes all the way open and keep looking anyway.
Parenthood is a profoundly numbing experience, in some ways. Driving to work the other day, I heard a report on NPR titled, “To reignite the joy of childhood, learn to live on ‘toddler time.’” Well, shit, I thought grumpily, this is going to be another story about how I need to get down on the floor and play dinosaurs with my kids more. But I was happily surprised by the reporting. Rhitu Chatterjee describes the same issue I have with staying present (long days, short years, blah blah blah) and how that experience of time can numb a parent out. So she decides to investigate the actual experience of numbness, exploring how repetition can affect our sense of time. Chatterjee writes that we make memories “when we are in a new place, absorbing all the little details around us. It can also happen when we’re having an emotionally charged experience.” In those moments, time slows. We are present, fully alive to the moment, mindful of every whisper of breeze. This is how kids live. This is how Emily lives, fully awake to the world.
Parenthood, Chatterjee explains, is full of “tedious, boring work” like diaper changes and bedtime routines, the sort of thing that isn’t novel and doesn’t build memories. Thus we have these long, dull days that speed by because we aren’t really fully engaged in each moment. I mean, who could be? I’d have to be a monk to mindfully wipe every poopy butt and not tune out a little. Chatterjee’s question then is how to slow down time. How to get back to that childhood sense of wonder and joy.
Wonder comes in when time stalls, Chatterjee asserts. When the world lifts out of its shell and morphs into something wild and new. This often happens in the presence of a kid, for whom nothing is routine, everything is new and marvelous: the first time you saw an airplane. HOLY COW THAT THING FLIES. The first time you drank fresh lemonade. THIS IS INCREDIBLE. The first time you saw a worm wiggle out of the ground. WHAT IN ALL WORLDS IS THAT. The shape of things seem new, fragile, and unbelievable. Time falls to pieces; we are here, in this moment, staring, jaws slack. DID YOU SEE THAT?
For me, poetry has been that place where time stalls. Even as I age and grow cynical, poetry has remained a place of possibility. Because it relies on associative moves — the basic two being simile (“my snow glove is like Iron Man’s glove”) and metaphor (“This stick is a power drill!”) — poetry enables transformation. Things are like other things. Things become other things.
In poetry, the world metamorphoses, turned hideous and monstrous, beautiful and wild. Poetic
language unfixes me from the blurry underwater of shopping lists and news feeds, makes me see the world with unfamiliar — and thus more awake — eyes. In life, because it is evolutionary adaptive to do so, I become familiar with things. I see a tree and become familiar with tree: trunk, branch, leaf. In poetry, with each odd new phrase to describe it, the tree transforms: seaweed, mermaid hair, tangles of rope. Not only does it unfix from the known, it refuses to stay in one place. It moves, dances, eludes. In the poetic version of tree, Daphne doesn’t stop at becoming a laurel. She shifts again and again, and her power is not in the safety of one form, but in her refusal of one.
Emily, with her attunement to language and to the call of transformation, understands this:
The Wind Woman was waiting for her outside—ruffling the little spears of striped grassEmily of New Moon
that were sticking up stiffly in the bed under the sitting-room window—tossing the big
boughs of Adam-and-Eve—whispering among the misty green branches of the
birches—teasing the “Rooster Pine” behind the house—it really did look like an
enormous, ridiculous rooster, with a huge, bunchy tail and a head thrown back to crow.
Montgomery writes of the animate landscape of Prince Edward Island with a child’s eyes, as each tree and bush becomes some spirited, personified thing.
Okay but I’m not dead inside, I promise. I’m actively fighting numbness the way people fight infection: a daily dose of Rainier Maria Rilke and Natalie Diaz, and a spoonful of Mozart. Oh yeah, and Talking Heads, and Thelonious Monk, and Emily of New Moon. The awareness these art forms provide kicks me up, sometimes, just enough to take a deep, full breath.
But my kids are the best medicine. The other day my son and I were kicking a ball at the school near our house. A great delight of mine is that the PE class at the elementary school often forgets to bring in all the red rubber balls at the end of the school day, so when we saunter over to the big concrete yard, hemmed in with fences and firs, at say 4:30 p.m., we can often snag a ball and kick it around for a while. We don’t take the ball home; part of the delight is leaving it for someone else to pick up and play with for a while. The free-ness of the ball is a kind of un- claiming, the landscape in reciprocity with the inhabitants.
We were being World Cup players because he is always becoming something. I was Messi, I think, or he was Messi. Someone was Messi. Anyway, as we kicked the sky started to change. Slowly bruising plum and then this electric Barbie pink, a color I have only seen in plastic, wiped over with grayish wispy clouds that suddenly went the color of marigolds. The clouds arced across the sky, over our heads, like a wedding arch. I swear there was a moment when everything turned on, like a light switch. I whipped my head up as the sky illuminated suddenly. It split my mouth open. Huge smile. And it didn’t stop: the dome overhead was like an IMAX movie. It kept morphing and growing and changing, electric blue, shocking peach and melty honeycomb, this fiery core across which flecked black specks — squinting, you could see they were crows heading to roost. My son slowly turned to shadow, a dark shape whipping across the playground after the ball. The lights came on at the school. The air got crisp and sweet. And while the Wind Woman smacked around in the firs, I kicked the ball with my kid, who did not die, who could die any day, we all could, any of us, under this sublime, impossible sky.