Here’s a closely guarded secret I’ve never told anyone: I spent the first eighteen years of my life living in my imagination. I was entirely cognizant of my real life; it just didn’t interest me. Now and then I’d come out of my amazing imaginary world, take a look around and then pop back to Narnia or Little House on the Prairie or wherever my imagination (and current reading) took me. A lot of the members of my “Homeschool Survivors” Facebook group also admitted to living in their imaginations. It’s where we were happiest.
Even the incomparable Andrew Lloyd Weber reveals in his 2018 autobiography Unmasked, “I developed with [my brother] Julian a complete world in which I could hide and where I was truly happy, a make-believe world…”.
That all ended with a bang when I turned eighteen. I guess somewhere along the line, I’d expected all my dreams to come true when I reached adulthood. I’d sail off on the arm of Prince Charming to a magnificent home complete with balconies and fountains and live happily ever after.
Prince Charming didn’t come around ASAP. Happily-Ever-After became Happy-Maybe-Never. And houses with balconies and fountains cost a lot of money…the books never mentioned that!
“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” — C. S. Lewis
It felt like all those wonderful 19th and early 20th century books by authors like Frances Hodgson Burnett and Gene Stratton Porter had hoodwinked me. They promised a reality that didn’t exist. I was so hurt and disillusioned that I boxed up all my favorite books and sent them disgustedly to the thrift store. :O
Twenty years have passed since those difficult teen-on-the-cusp-of-adulthood days and I find myself circling back because, you see, I need the escapism of my imagination in my life once again. Maybe it’s the stress of Michael’s surgery this week that made me realize: I need a magical imaginary escape and, like C. S. Lewis who gave us Narnia, I’m no longer ashamed to admit it. I need the golden buffer of imagination to cushion me against the harshness of this world because I can imagine a place that is so much better.
As C. S. Lewis said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” The world of Perfection pre-Fall, if you believe in the Fall of Man. The world of Eden, the world of Heaven. To me, a world where anthropomorphized animals really can talk. (I expect my pets would never shut up!)
No matter how richly blessed you are, this life is hard for everyone and our culture makes it immensely harder than it needs to be. Michael and I don’t have television service at our home, but when I watch TV in hotel or hospital rooms, the tube beams in immense pressure on us to have the perfect house, car, career, wealth, friends, body, hair, face, children who speak three languages and play five sports as well as expecting us to keep abreast of every tragedy and catastrophe, actually happening or merely imagined, on all seven continents as well as in our own communities. There’s a lot of money to be made from fear.
Frankly, keeping up with our own lives is trouble and worry enough. Hell, yeah, we need some escapism and I don’t just mean the surprisingly stressful worlds created and spoon-fed to us through television, movies and video games. I mean the world of our imaginations.
A friend recently wrote, “I would have loved to live during the pioneer days. Just working all day to get ready for winter. No tv or phones or malls to get in the way.” In her imagination, the pioneer life is golden.
I live that life, to an extent, and to me there’s nothing golden about it. It’s a lot of hard work and old cottages may look cute in photographs, but things are always breaking! But I shouldn’t disabuse her of where she goes in her imagination to escape from the hurly-burly of her day-to-day life. If Little House on the Prairie is her happy place, more power to her. It used to be mine too.
I go somewhere else when I need to escape. I go to Paris of the early 1900s in my imagination. A time when fine wines flowed and the food was celestial.
Or sometimes I imagine I’m living underground in Bilbo Baggins’ cozy Hobbit House behind a round, green front door with a well-stocked larder, unmolested by those hungry rascals, Dwalin, Balin, Kili, Fili, Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, and Thorin. Michael’s crazy about hobbit houses too.
Or sometimes I go and pretend Michel Roux Sr’s Swiss chalet is mine. That I live in utter serenity in the shadow of the Swiss Alps, safe and secure with three Michelin stars under my belt.
Oh, I know none of that is reality but let me dream, will you? I don’t have to deal with the boring minutiae, the nitty-gritty details of life in my imaginary worlds.
When the Minnesota snowbanks reach your earlobes, it’s easy to believe you’re in Narnia. The gray Winter months pass more cheerfully if you’re always on the lookout for Mr. Tumnus the Faun to come trotting down the path, a red scarf wrapped snugly round his neck and his tail looped up over his arm to keep dry.
In Spring, the first robin is always the Good Robin who will lead you to the Beaver’s snug, warm home where you learn that Aslan is on the move and Winter’s power has been broken. Spring will soon be here.
Now it occurs to me that most of my childhood’s safe, imaginary places were either up in attics (Sara Crewe in The Little Princess) or underground in Hobbit Holes. As a child and now as an adult, I’ve always craved one thing: serenity. Underground no one can mess with you. You’re safe and at peace. Isn’t it odd that a child would crave serenity so much?
Wherever or whatever your safe, happy imaginary world exists, don’t be ashamed to duck into it, now and then, when Adulting gets a little too hard, a little too harsh. Let the warm, safe glow of your secret world, C. S. Lewis called his “Boxen,” enfold you. We all need an escape, sometimes, and it’s better than the alternatives: alcohol, drugs, etc.
I’ll leave you with a passage from Wind in the Willows that describes one of my safe, happy places. It’s a word picture of Mr. Badger’s cozy underground home. Nevermind the movie. Just imagine it…
[Badger] shuffled on in front of them, carrying the light, and they followed him, nudging each other in an anticipating sort of way, down a long, gloomy, and, to tell the truth, decidedly shabby passage, into a sort of a central hall, out of which they could dimly see other long tunnel-like passages branching, passages mysterious and without apparent end.
But there were doors in the hall as well—stout oaken comfortable-looking doors. One of these the Badger flung open, and at once they found themselves in all the glow and warmth of a large fire-lit kitchen.
The floor was well-worn red brick, and on the wide hearth burnt a fire of logs, between two attractive chimney-corners tucked away in the wall, well out of any suspicion of draught.
A couple of high-backed settles, facing each other on either side of the fire, gave further sitting accommodations for the sociably disposed. In the middle of the room stood a long table of plain boards placed on trestles, with benches down each side. At one end of it, where an arm-chair stood pushed back, were spread the remains of the Badger’s plain but ample supper.
Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs.
It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment.
The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, exchanged cheerful glances with each other; plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf, and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction.