Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fear and the Loss of Imagination

by Mike Crawmer

Two recent news stories got me thinking about childhood, parents, and imagination.

The first story told how the residents of a small Vermont town are battling the new owner of a farm. The 62-year-old owner plans to build a house—his family’s third—on the farm, but first he intends to remove a centuries-old cemetery from the property. His reasoning: He doesn’t want his three children—all under the age of 6—to be exposed to the "sadness of life" inherent in an old burying ground.

In the second story—part of a series on childhood obesity—the mother of an overweight 10-year-old talked about how excited she was when a new family moved in down the street. The family included a boy her son’s age, a new playmate, she thought, someone her son could play with outside. However, in the 11 months since that family moved in, the new kid on the block has not been seen outside his house after school. Not once.

Dreadful graveyards. Addictive TVs. Mesmerizing video games. Fearful parents. Closed doors. Drawn curtains. Manifestations of fear, the biggest killer of imagination.

I consider myself lucky, in the imagination department. I grew up on a farm. At night I’d fall asleep in a big old stone house that creaked and groaned to the shenanigans of its resident ghosts (or so I imagined). Summers I escaped the ghosts, sleeping on a cot in the lawn under a canopy of twinkling stars, picking out with my fingers Pegasus and Cassiopeia and the Big and Little Dippers and wondering where the shooting stars came from and where they went.

Hidden in the woods behind the house was a large mesa-like pile of stones. It was probably formed when the fields were cleared a century and a half earlier for planting. But to us kids it was the foundation of an ancient Indian temple, now home to snakes and the skeletons of sacrificial captives.

In the barn we played hide-and-seek among the cliffs and tunnels we created out of bales of hay and straw. I quit playing that game the day I came upon two eyes staring back at me in an otherwise dark tunnel. It could’ve been a large rodent or my imagination, running on overdrive as I worried that the jerry-rigged bales would collapse and crush me.

My favorite spot for letting my imagination run free was the old cemetery on the hilltop. Several generations of the original owners, a family named “Strong,” resided there. (I was too young to appreciate the irony of the name Strong gracing so many tombstones. Death defeats even the Strong-est among us, you might say.)

The weedy plot was enclosed by a dilapidated split-rail fence. The oldest stone—a hand-chiseled, blackened rock—featured only a date: 1799. Small tombstones marked the premature resting places of children taken by diseases, accidents, and, I was sure, snake bites. The newest monument was dated 1905. A few stones had fallen or been pushed over. All the graves were easy to spot--as their contents decayed, the ground collapsed inward, forming shallow indentations. I imagined all the jewels and gold rings buried beneath my feet, but I was too lazy to do the digging required to retrieve them.

I’m forever grateful to my parents for letting us live as kids. It saddens me to read stories like the two cited earlier. All children should have the chance to discover the power and joy (and occasional fright) of their imaginations. I mean, who’s going to write the stories in the future if the kids of today are robbed of opportunities to imagine the weird, the wonderful, the impossible and the strange?


Anonymous said...

When I was in grad. school we did an exercise for our qualitative research class on imagining our favorite play space as a kid. No one mentioned Chuck E. Cheese or anything too structured. Instead, they mentioned places which gave "scope for the imagination" (as Anne of Green Gables would say.) Places like groves of trees (which became trails for Lewis and Clark) and the throw rugs on the floor in front of the bed (which became islands between waters filled with alligators). I worry what would will happen to kids that have everything handed to them, pre-formed.

And Mike, could those eyes have possibly been those of a barn cat?

Annette said...

More likely the eyes belonged to a possum. I've found several possum faces staring out at me from between bales of hale. It's always a shock and the source of a good laugh later.

Farms are wonderful places to grow up. I was always "going exploring" out in the fields. The remains of an old springhouse became an artesian well. One gulley out behind the barn became "Blue Valley" from Walter Farley's Island Stallion books and I still call it that today.

Thanks for a walk down memory lane, Mike.

Joyce Tremel said...

Great blog, Mike!

Although I was a city girl, we had plenty to do outside. We'd go out in the morning and only went back inside to eat. At night, we had to be home when the street lights came on. We'd play Batman & Robin, with a bath towel for a cape. We played baseball, rode scooters and roller skated (I still have my skate key). On rainy days, we sat on the front porch and read books.

With my own kids, I always made them go outside and play. Video games and TV were restricted. It didn't hurt them a bit!

Joyce Tremel said...

By the way, I LOVE cemeteries. The older the better!

Anonymous said...

Mike -

I'm one of those kids who had to stay inside most of the time. There's nothing like enforced captivity to spark the imagination -- I mean, what else can you do but read and watch tv and make things up?

I also grew up almost next door to a cemetery, although I was rarely allowed to go walking in it. That was St. Peter's Lutheran Cemetery in Lincoln-Larimer. My house was the last one on a street that dead-ended at the cemetery fence. Between my house and the cemetery lay a dahlia field where, every spring, a horse-drawn plow was used to turn the soil. I found at least one Revolutionary War-era grave in that cemetery. Every Memorial Day, someone would place a 13-star flag on that grave. Since my few forays into the cemetery were in daylight, it never seemed too scary. The house, on the other hand, was definitely haunted!

Anonymous said...

Interesting, and illuminating, way to look at things, Tory. Thanks. As for the creature, I think you might be right, Annette. We didn't have cats on the farm; we were dog people. Cats weren't welcome.

We'll have to go cemetery-hunting someday, Joyce. Jim doesn't share my fascination with graveyards, tho he's gotten used to me pulling the car over so I can check 'em out (as long as we're not obviously trespassing).

Gina, you make a good point. I've read about many writers who developed quite elaborate imaginary lives while stuck inside either from illness or parental control.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I myself went through several childhoods. One during those normal years and another as a young adult that wasn't ready to grow up just yet.

My young years were devoid of video games and even a lot of TV. I'm dating myself here, but I remember going with my Dad to buy our first color TV. I spent plenty of time outdoors (no air conditioning) and a lot of time on my Grandmother's farm. While I look backon those experiences fondly, I'm not really certain how much creativity it spawned. What I do know is that I fell in love with nature.

In my 20's came the dawn of early video games (atari, yes PONG, and the first Nintendo). Maybe its my nature, but those games DID spawn creativity and stimulated my mind. It didn't do anything for my physique, but what a fertile land of imagination it was.

Anonymous said...

Great blog, Mike. I remember spending a lot of time outdoors as a kid, whether it was playing games on the street of my grandmother's house with my cousins or making up adventures for myself in the woods during my family's many camping trips. As an only child, though, I also spent a lot of time inside alone, which is what fostered my love of reading and writing.

I have strict rules about how much TV and computer time my daughter is--and will be--exposed to. But I do understand the fear element of letting kids out unsupervised, especially with all the horror stories on the news today about abductions, etc.

Let's not forget, too, that sometimes the best journey into imagination starts by opening a book.