magical childhood

Sometimes I forget how magical my childhood was.

Sometimes I’m reminded.

Over Thanksgiving, which Bear and I spent at my parents’ house, I was going through some old stuff. A wooden trunk, brimming with watercolor paintings, cloth-bound journals, felt boots I’d made, and the slender, bleached  deer jawbones I’d found in the woods.

I used to imagine, as a child, that a portal might open up in the forest, and I could step through, into another world. In that other world, I might meet wandering mages and disgraced royals, passing through the great forest in belted tunics and doe-skin breeches, carrying staffs and swords and hidden daggers. Wearing talismans with strange symbols.

The trunk in my childhood bedroom is a little like a portal. Opening it, I was overwhelmed. I stepped back into another world. I remembered, all at once.

I had such a weird childhood. So weird that sometimes my mind works really hard at making it appear normal. Occasionally, it succeeds, and I am able to think of myself the way I think of other people. I was a kid. I liked boys. I got in fights with my girlfriends. I tied my sheets together and climbed out my window. Like everyone else. OK, maybe not everyone does that last thing. But still. I was dorky. I read fantasy novels all day. I went to college like everyone else. I got good grades. I went out into the adult world of New York City. I worked. I tried to find my way. There. Normal.

But it’s surprisingly easy to forget the way it actually was.

The way I dreamed. All the time.

The way I lost myself so naturally in worlds inside my mind-– so much so that I could see the whole world, outside my mind, as full of magic and potential. The way I could be alone in the forest for hours, drinking it in, imagining rich scenes and later writing them and painting them and drawing maps and crafting outfits. The way there was so much room, just to be, and so much room to be anything I felt like.

My childhood, it sometimes occurs to me, was incredibly spacious.

There’s something about fantasy novels and scenarios that really appeals to a lot of kids. Especially kids who don’t fit in. I dated a nerdy  guy who by then was getting his PhD, and he told me about how, as a kid, he’d gotten picked on a lot at school. His skin was a different color than a lot of his peers in the neighborhood. Sometimes, he got beaten up. He told me that he used to walk the perimeter of the school’s fenced-in yard at recess, making up stories in his head and repeating them over and over. The stories were about great kings who lived in a Tolkienesque world of good and evil and dramatic mountain ranges. He felt like these kings were his friends. He felt like these stories were the only thing that got him through the day sometimes. I know a girl who is still obsessed with dragons and fairies, even though she’s in her mid-teens now. Her peers think she’s incredibly weird. Over the years, I’ve watched her embrace the weirdness, dressing defiantly in fantasy costumes, defining herself as a freak who doesn’t care what anyone thinks. She can’t very well just become a normal girl now. It’s too late. Everyone knows she likes dragons too much. Recently, she had to change schools because things got so bad socially.

(it wasn’t just me….some of my friends loved to dress like wandering princess warrior mages, too)

The dorky kids can LARP and play D&D, but I’m not sure I would’ve been one of them, if I’d gone to school. Like I’ve said before, I’m not sure how dorky I actually am. My guess: not very.

But I was lucky. Disappearing into my fantasy worlds wasn’t weird and dorky and lame. It didn’t mark me as a freak or prove I couldn’t cope. No one even had to comment on it. And so it quietly made me who I am, without me having to defend it or fight for it or be cut off from it in a lurching transition to normalcy. I didn’t have to choose.

(I spent hours following this dragonfly, to get this shot)

Because there was so much time. There was time for studying the Civil War and reading historical fiction and hanging out with friends and competing in piano competitions and composing music and cooking dinner with my brother, and there was also time for magic. For letting my mind wander. For letting my breath get taken away by the sweetness of nature– the mystery of the forest, the promise of the horizon.

I forget sometimes– here in New York City, where I have learned to elbow expressionlessly through throngs of people on a subway platform, wait in a forty-minute line at Trader Joe’s without wincing, read all of my books on my phone, in transit, and keep my lovely long white curtains closed, because outside the window there is another brick building rather than distance. It’s not that I don’t love this place. I love it more than I could ever have imagined. I love the complicatedness, the history packed into every square foot, the compromises that people make automatically that make them more interesting, the sense that most of us really want to be here, the sense that we’re in it together, the rumbling subway ride to see so many nearby fascinating people and things. But sometimes I forget the way I used to be able to interact with a stream, for hours, alone, letting my mind play.

Often I am tangled in self-doubt and sharp-toothed ambition. Come on come on come on, says the voice in my head. Succeed!! Make something of yourself! Do it now! Get ahead!

I forget that I am, essentially, a dreamer. That I always have been.

The proof is in that trunk.

I opened it, and as Bear wandered off, a little bored, I stared inside, and I remembered.

34 comments to magical childhood

  • I love it that my 13 year old homeschooler still likes dressing up, pretending, making movies, and creating stories in her head. Thank you for reminding me how important it is to make space for this in our busy lives.

    • kate

      YAY! Making movies sounds really fun. I used to record music a lot. I still have those songs. Sometimes these days I’m like, “I really should write music!” And then I think I don’t have time. One of these days, I’m going to make some time.

  • Sarah

    I love your description of your childhood. My 9 year old son still retains such magic, more than the schooled kids I see, I hope he remembers his childhood just as fondly!

    • kate

      Hooray!! I hope so, too. I think he probably will. But you should probably keep some clues lying around, to remind him :-)

    • My kids have been home one year (this month) and they have reverted back to more imaginative play than they’ve done in years. (They are eight and ten).

      The stuffed animals that I thought were a waste of space (once they got into school, they were barely used) have taken on histories and personalities; video game attachments are turned into laser blasters; a clock radio becomes a control center in a wicker basket.

      It’s marvelous to see them continuing to act like kids without the group-think of a classroom (who’s popular; who’s not, blah blah blah).

      There’s lots of time and zero judgment about meandering in their imaginations. They became more of who they are without apology. My son had a monologue today that characterizes him as an existentialist. My daughter likes to watch the front-loaded washing machine. She says, “These buttons are the eyes, this knob is the nose, and it’s chewing the clothes clean….This laundry basket is ‘Chuck’…the washer and dryer don’t always get along…”

      I wonder how much less connected to each other they would be if separated by two grades and a hundred kids on a playground (and only given 20 minutes/school-day to play). I wonder how few revelations they would have if on a steady diet of someone-else’s-agenda for eight – nine hours a day.

      • kate

        My brothers and I used to play for HOURS at a time with Beanie Babies. We decided which animal was which person we knew, and picked the best ones for ourselves, of course, and off we went.

        Bear talks about how separate from his brother he felt growing up, sometimes. They were in different grades and were of course supposed to have different friends. There was just a sense that they weren’t supposed to be friends, too.

      • I’m so happy for your kids, Jennifer. My brother and I are also two years apart, and played together until he was around 11 (and I 9) and decided that he didn’t want his little sister hanging around. I wish we could be better friends now, but being separated by school for so many years has made it much harder.

        By the time I got out of school at 15 I had forgotten how to play. Four years later I’m still struggling to remember, but it’s getting easier. 😉

  • Thank you so much for this.
    My sons spend most of their waking day is fantasy worlds. They create their own stories, going back and forth saying lines and co-creating their world. Then they use legos to build it, or run outside to act it out in the open air. I really do feel grateful they have the space for this without guilt or judgement.
    Love and light.

  • i love this! i want this so badly for my children. they are young and so imaginative and creative. i don’t want peer pressure to cause them to lose their magic!

    • kate

      I hope it won’t! Some of my peers really loved being crazy and creative and silly and fantastical with me. They are a big part of my good memories about exploring magical worlds. I think something different happens in a large group, though.

  • Jen

    Sometimes it’s eery how your posts sound like they’re coming from a grown up version of my unschooled 10 year old daughter (who, yes, has tied her sheets together and climbed out the window).

  • Jennifer

    thank you for the reminder that those big open spaces are where my kids will find themselves, I get anxious thinking I need to fill them up so they will get more stimulation, but not so true.

  • Jennifer

    …and just to mention, my 8 year old has talked about tying her sheets up and climbing out the window, she wants to make a zip line from her window to the ground, has already split her screen in preparation. unschooled since the beginning.

  • I love this post, Kate!! And totally identify with it. My sister and I had a similar childhood, filled with daydreaming and pretend and time in the woods and making stuff. And, of course, reading lots of fantasy novels (I was big into historical novels for a few years, then started reading mostly fantasy. And I still do, today!).

    I remember a year or two ago I posted a Youtube video interviewing my sister (then 16, I think) about unschooling, and she was wearing her grey cape made years ago for a Gimli Halloween costume. She was small enough when it was made for it to be cloak-sized, but now it’s most definitely a cape, and she wears it around the house a lot and occasionally outside the house, too, in place of a more conventional sweater. Of course, Youtube being what it is, there are multiple snarky comments on the cape, which both me and my sister just laugh about. I was surprised when the video first started getting those remarks, though. It hadn’t really occurred to me that most teens don’t wear capes!

    We are definitely weird unschoolers. And we’re quite happy about that! 😉

  • kate

    Gimli! Love it.
    And wow, this is bringing back a lot of cloak memories. There was one in particular, that I sewed with two friends…Actually, we each made our own. They were all gray on the outside. Mine had red lining, and of the other’s had blue lining. The colors were symbolic, of course. Mine represented fire, and my character, Ruin Lissuin Aranel (of course we had our names worked out) was a fiery princess, who was part elf and part demon. This is making me happy, remembering.

    Thanks for the comment! Yay, weird unschoolers!! :-)

    • Haha, those sound like awesome cloaks!! I still have a sweeping black one that was made for an assassin costume (again, can you see the fantasy novel influence there?). Glad to bring back such great cloak memories! 😀

  • Also, I sort of relate to the forgetting how weird your childhood was thing, though in a different way since I continue to be a part of various communities that are…I don’t know, I guess maybe counter-cultural is the right word, so it’s more that sometimes I forget what normal is entirely, and then get hit every now and then with the realization of just how weird my life was and continues to be!

  • Paysh

    This is awesome. You totally made felt boots. !

    I had a really rich pretendlife as a kid, too. But school and sometimes the amount of time I spent not at home (I went to daycare morning and night and during the summer a couple years) interfered with it. It was painful being dragged out of my head like that and held in this often ugly to me environment. I felt what was like this overwhelming desire to go back to sleep. Only it was more like a desire to go back to awake, since I couldn’t make myself pay attention in school.

    Still I feel like that world (pretend) was with me all the time. And still is.

    I used to draw for hours a day and I remember once, in 4th grade, during class (but after I had finished my assignment), I was drawing… working on a drawing I really liked and was feeling really pleased about… and the teacher started talking (after most people had finished their assignments I guess), and as she was talking, she walked all tralala like everything was fine over to where I was sitting and without saying a word/while continuing to talk to the class (almost the worst part), ripped the drawing out from under me swiftly, walked back up to the front of the class, crumpled it up, and threw it in the recycling bin. She never missed a beat, she kept talking. I felt like I had been punched in the guts, and I do right now talking about it. And I hated myself for not standing up to her (as I would have to my parents).

    Also, I think it wasn’t just school that got in the way of this pretendlife, but also the message I got from about… everywhere that I really wasn’t supposed to be doing this, I was supposed to be doing something else.

    This rich pretendlife feels like something that happens because it’s important, and is supposed to, and feeds something in us that’s hungry and growing. Always growing but maybe growing especially much when you’re a kid, the way when you’re a kid you can sometimes put back loads of food and burn it all off and then come back for more in a couple hours all frenzied.

  • Tanya 323

    Beautiful post. I don’t quite feel as alone. I, too, used to read fantasy books and daydream all day about those worlds. I still “visit” even today, in my mid twenties. It still offers me a renewed hope and sense of joy about life. Thanks for this. <3

  • I enjoyed reading this. Sometimes in life, those trunk/portals need to be opened.

    Please send that beautiful Princess who loves dragons my way. She’d fit right in with our neighborhood teens. We’ve turned them all into weirdos and life has never been sweeter.
    I documented their last adventure here:

  • I love hearing about your magical childhood because it reminds me that my eleven year old daughter is awesome and will be capable of being adult awesome one day. :) She spends almost every waking minute either writing fantasy books or reading fantasy book. Or playing zelda. Which, let’s face it, is just another fantasy book. :)

  • This is such a fantastic story! The minds of children should be given much more freedom to explore and just be. The best education my daughter got was when I pulled her out of school and took her to France for a month when she was 14! No better education than life.

  • Bethany

    I’m 23 and I *still* imagine a magical portal in the woods of my back yard that will take me back in time to a magical kingdom.

  • Shannon

    This is JUST what I needed to read today. :-)

    We just returned from traveling for 4 months. It’s only taken a week and a half for me to feel like I’m not “doing” enough with them. This is such a good reminder of how important it is just to have time to be. Thank you.

  • Beverly

    Fantasy is important for everyone. I could have kissed Peter Jackson when he stood up at the Golden Globe Awards and said, “Escapism is entertainment.” I think too many people confuse drama and entertainment these days, to the detriment of our societal psyche. While it is good to know how horrible human beings can be to one another, that is not all there is to our race, and I personally feel that over-emphasis on dramatic, ‘serious’, and ‘realistic’ venues reduces our emotional flexibility, as well as our esteem for ourselves and our fellow human beings. But what do I know? I’m just a 40 year old dork who reads fantasy novels and plays D&D with my friends, (who range in age from 14 to 70.) :)

  • Love, love, love your blog – have been reading over posts this morning then stopped to put some things in the attic. While there I came across a small bundle of dolls from my childhood. I brought them down and showed them to my daughter who has asked to keep them. They watch me now, across the room, in their clothes sewn by my childish hands, reminding me of things I’d forgotten…

    As I sat down here and read this post, I remembered how I too was a dreamer – how teachers always told my mother that I would do better in school if only I dreamed less.

    Between you and those dolls this is turning into a day of reflections I hadn’t anticipated. Thanks for the pause.

  • Sara

    I just discovered your blog, and I have to say I am enthralled to read you. I am unschooling two little boys, 5 & 7, and this particular post really feels personal. I was always a dreamer, who somehow managed to also do well in school, but who always felt like a sham. My oldest son also lives almost entirely in his head, usually with no props or toys whatsoever. I am so thrilled to watch my sons live their lives, and I often wonder what it would feel like grow up unschooled. Reading your blog is giving a magical glimpse into that.

  • I’m really loving your blog, Kate. I totally identify with the childhood described in this post, as well as the sense of being excited about completely different things (cities! clothes! culture!) as an adult. How maybe the point isn’t the particular activity, but being able to be fully who you are at any particular time. As a writer and teacher of homeschooled classes, I see the importance of this both in my own artistic life and for my students. Way to live it!

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