This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away. (Anne Lamott)
Is there a central metaphor around which each life is shaped?
I read about this at the ripe age of 25 and it resonated deep inside, but it was decades before I began to remember (and understand) the ways I played as a child, the place where metaphor thrives.
As a girl, I climbed upon my Nana’s bathroom counter to wedge myself between the large wall mirror above the sink and the mirrored medicine cabinet beside it.
There between two reflections, which I could manipulate by opening the mirrored cabinet door to just the right angle, I’d find a hallway of faces looking back. All mine.
Is narcissism my metaphor?
Some would say so particularly those who fail to recognize the sacrifice and generosity of the craft of memoir.
Admittedly, there were those years when I played the Queen, bestowing upon my imaginary subjects everything they needed and also those years when I starred in backyard song & dance & theater productions and orchestrated others doing the same–younger siblings & cousins & eventually entire neighborhoods–complete with ticket sales & concessions & telephone pole posters which morphed into forming my own clubhouse and hosting Muscular Dystrophy Carnivals and community clean ups.
BUT MIRRORS. In addition to the mirrors above my Nana’s sink, I loved the mirrored-house mazes on the boardwalk–the puzzle of distinguishing illusion from reality. I never minded the bumps on my forehead, and long after my companions had abandoned me for other rides, I’d persist, spending all of my tickets, until I could make it through the maze bump free.
Apart from mirrors (which seem to expand into a personal relationship with the Sun and a lifelong romance with light), there was a form of a play in the body that stayed with me for some time.
I discovered it on sleepovers, I suppose, while lying on my back talking to friends. I’d hoist my legs into the air, with my hands on my lower back, and when I was alone, I imagined myself walking on the ceiling in an upside down world.
As a yoga teacher, I would call this a supported half-shoulder stand. As a child, it was a homecoming in Philadelphia, New Port News, Denver, West Point, Wildwood Crest. Even now if I look at the ceiling long enough, I feel the transformation inside.
No matter where I lived, I often sought out the classmate who was out of the ordinary, particularly those whose parents spoke a different language and who ate different foods and listened to different music.
My favorite school field trip after the one to the Navajo Reservation was the one to the United Nations. Just the sight of the flags lit me up, and still does.
Food was central to traveling for me, and I still recall my delight (or was it a dream?) of the restaurant shaped like a tree, each branch leading to a buffet from a different part of the world. (Much like the offerings from our local farmer market here in Vermont.)
Early on conversation emerged as a form of play. At a young age, I leaned into the big questions, the argument, the sussing out what mattered most–with friends, relatives, and adults I met in the lobby of the hotel or the grocery store or the hospital where my father and grandfather worked.
Later it was history that compelled me. Not the patriarchal glorification of conquest and war, but the stories of lives lived. Like those my great-grandmother told and those I read of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which my friends and I reenacted out on the open field, after lunch, becoming pioneer girls each recess.
Excavation equally captured my imagination–the Leakey’s work as archaeologists, the discovery of ancient cultures, the Cliff Dwellings. At the end of sixth grade, I bought my social studies textbook so unable was I to part from it.
When I became a sixth-grade social studies teacher myself, I taught through story–beginning with those of each student, harvested from their homes and the traditions of their ancestors, and then further back in time exploring what gave rise to the first communities.
Between mirrors and stories, there was another way I played as a girl back when 2,000 miles separated me from my Nana and her mirrors. This play came forth when my mother began drinking during the day.
I played alone.
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5…
If didn’t get into the house before…
3, 2, 1…
My Nana would die. I would die. Everyone would die.
Play isn’t always born of joy. It is also a matter of survival. A chelation of the toxicity of the world outside. Even now.
Play never came easy to me as adult, too anxious was I to sit down and play with my own children, but put me back at the beach, and I will plop down in the wet sand, and cover my legs with it, and fashion drip castles and moats, and then run into the surf to jump in the waves.
Perhaps some people have a single central organizing metaphor and others a buffet from which to harvest the devotion of a lifetime.