Why yes, this is about you, my imaginary friend, yes, you. Strictly speaking, you are real; you have a physical presence, you exist in space and time – but you exist in my imagination, too.
I know some things about you. You are kind. You are private. You take pride in doing things well, and you have good friends with strong bonds. You take infinite care with my feelings, and you are protective, a little bit. You are funny, and the honest expression of your feelings leaves me breathless, at times. You choose to try to please me, and could there be anything more endearing?
My friend, you are beside me much of the day and through the night, too, though you are not actually here. Your hand in mine, the touch of your cheek, your arms reaching out for me are a constant presence. Your laughter echoes through these empty rooms, your care and attention walk the forest with me, your regard gives me a sureness that radiates. I want to share with you everything of beauty …
I expect I must get it wrong, sometimes. For my imagination has been shaped and coloured by its experiences and wanderings and reveries, just as yours. But no two imaginations are alike, and perhaps the wavelength swings awry, a time or two. Know this: I will be open to you, always. Always will I want to know what that keen mind of yours is thinking, what your heart is overflowing with, how you are planning to tease me next…
Yes, I love you. Though those are not the important words, these are: you shall always be my friend, and I shall always be curious about you, the deep inside you.
“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars will be laughing when you look at the sky at night…”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
“Dad” is a very special word in my lexicon, though I think perhaps my sense and attributions and nuanced feelings of the word carry few of the common cultural stereotypes. For my dad was not the breadwinner, or the head of the household, or the fearful patriarch. Never did he mete out punishment, raise his voice, or lay down the law.
My earliest memories of dad…He is building my playhouse, and I help. He is putting up my swing set, and filling the big pool. He is taking us to the lake to swim on a very hot summers’ day. Always, always, when he comes home from work he plays with me. On Saturdays, we go to the Crown Point hotel for orange floats – was there ever anything so delicious? We hike, and explore, and bash rocks. (He liked to prospect in his spare time.) He makes me a hot drink every night before bed: brewer’s yeast, molasses, and boiling water. His best friend Les is always at our house, and he is as kind and funny as my dad.
Even when I was very young, I understood that my dad was different. For at my best friend’s house, we were told to be quiet and stay out of the living room when her dad came home. At another friend’s house for dinner, her dad helped himself first and everyone else waited. (At my house, my dad made sure his kids ate first.) Dads were a little distant, and a little fearful in those days, and often reflected the privilege of being male. In fact, my only remembrance of my dad raising his voice was to a male houseguest of ours: “Don’t yell at my daughter!” I was eleven, and it was the first time I remember him angry at a person.
My dad was political, though in a distinctly non-partisan way – he spoke of the cruelty and injustices of the economic system, and the failures and foibles of the politicians, of the way that things might change for the better. When he spoke of these things, we understood that he was speaking of a more egalitarian, democratic society, a culture and an economy that was built around the needs of all people. At the age of ten, we listened together to the federal election results on the car radio – even while on a family vacation – and the importance of thinking about, and participating in the political ideas of the country was forever ingrained in me, along with a love of CBC Radio. Even when he was deeply serious, however, humour and playfulness were never absent.
I am not sure how old my dad was when he built his model railroad village in his basement – somewhere around the age of retirement, anyway. He said he’d always wanted a train set as a kid, and so he built an elaborate one, complete with tunnel through the adjoining pantry storage, and incredibly detailed village, town, and scenery – a model of whimsy and creativity and play that I hold in my heart with a smile. Of course, us kids were all adults then, but we all remember playing trains with dad. When my dad died, among other things he left a carefully collected library of some five thousand books, and I remember looking over and choosing books with a visceral imprint of the intellectual legacy I’d been left: the greatest authors of five decades, fiction and non-fiction, but above all, the world’s great thinkers. As time passed, however, I came to see my dad’s legacy in an even more tangible way: my brothers’ kindness, humour, and patience with their kids, love shining out of their faces.
Above all else, dad, I remember you laughing, and I do look at the stars at night and hear you laughing. I am grateful for the love of learning, the love of the wild places, and the teaching of kindness in everything…my heartbreak remembers your laughter, and is comforted. See you over there.
Here is one of my earliest memories: in kindergarten one day we were playing a game that involved hopping on one foot, and I could not do it. I should explain that my mom was the kindergarten teacher and I only a four-year old, though the others were five. Anyway, my mom suggested I stay home with my dad the next day and practice hopping, which I did. I am pretty sure I learned how to hop on one leg, although I don’t actually remember that part – but I have always remembered my mom’s teaching that one can do anything with a little practice, and thus far in my life, this has proved to be true.
My mom pushed me always to do better, most of the time with a nudge, but occasionally with a fierceness that made us clash. When pushed too hard, I would simply have a temper tantrum, as the family story goes. As I grew older though, the lesson of setting my own boundaries made life very simple, most of the time. I was not caught up in the pressure of my peers at school and elsewhere, but made active choices as to my actions and behaviours at a very young age. I certainly got into trouble as a teenager, although most of this was by refusing to follow the herd. I do remember being mystified that my friends had to hide their behaviours not acceptable to their families – if I chose to do it, my family knew. Honesty was a deep-seated value in my family and deeply integrated into my psyche. There may be a few details missing, but my mom knows every mistake, every misstep, every bad choice and consequences I ever made, and she still loves me. There is a wonderful beauty in such a relationship…Maybe that is why I have always thought of my mom as my best friend, and tell her everything. It is a very different mother/daughter relationship than the one ascribed to sentiment and popular culture and the rather puerile notions of mother as madonna.
Anyway mom, I love you with the same shining light of those four-year old eyes: you will always be my best friend, even when you push me past my limits and piss me off. There may well be a few more temper tantrums: you taught me well. Still, if I got to choose, I would do it all over again, for there is a wonderful beauty in a relationship with such naked honesty. A wonderful beauty. Happy Birthday.
This is an occasion, for here is my fiftieth letter to you. I have kept faith all these years, though others jeer and scorn. There are those that say you are naught but a commercial creation, or a mockery of religion, or merely a peculiar manifestation of an old myth. There are always unbelievers, or perhaps those whose hearts are too small. But every year you have brought marvellous gifts to me.
There are presents I remember, and presents forgotten, but I can recall each and every one of fifty years worth of gifts. The gift of family – how lucky I was there! and the gift of friends, and feasting. The shining eyes, and happy smiles, and the full hearts of those who gather together and know themselves blessed. Which, of course, has nothing to do with presents, and everything to do with gifting. Gifts of time, and love, and memory.
I am alone this Christmas Eve, Santa, and so memory must serve to light the friendly Yule fire. For all that, love may travel the greatest distances, and so I have a full heart knowing myself blessed. The joy and laughter of those that I am not with, and those that have gone over there, echo through my rooms as surely as ever. I love, I am loved.
I have been a pretty good girl this year, although I am cranky if bothered before nine a.m., and I weary of those whose small lives give them delight in banal gossip and vulgar habits of indifference. So I shall ask for a gift – well, two gifts – if I am on your list of nice… I should like a little more understanding, if you please, of those that cannot seem to see beyond their own confining set. And it would be marvelous, would it not, if habits of indifference could become habits of active choosing?
Sigh. I am in desperate need of understanding. For as ever, many seek the joy and magic of Christmas in the mall, and try as I might, I cannot find it there.
Merry Christmas. I love you. There is chocolate cake for you here.
Ah yes, they were strong elder women. They had to be, you know, life was hard, then. Quick-tempered they were, and tongues that could wound very deeply. Then there was another generation of mostly girls (the story of the boys is their own to tell), and they too were ‘strong’. And that generation of beautiful women raised yet another generation of ‘strong’ girls.
Being ‘strong’ had different connotations in different generations, but always it meant being the perfect princess. Smile! Work hard. When your family comes to visit, show them you are in control by being the perfect hostess with the perfect home and perfect children, naturally. Feelings are irrelevant, not important, and must be ground down at any cost. It is the appearance of things that counts, and smile, smile for the camera. For if the camera records a happy, smiling family, then it is a happy, smiling family, right?
Sadness, fear, or anxiety are not manifestations of the perfect princess, and therefore will not be expressed, upon pain of punishment. Sometimes physical punishment, but more often shaming: look at her, she is being sad and clearly there is no reason to be sad and so we will push her to the outside of the family circle for awhile, that will teach her. Every family gathering for unbroken spans of decades begins with an argument, and hurtful rejoinders are flung about, but that is no reason to be sad. If it seems paradoxical that anger is expressed, why, just think of all those natural human feelings being hidden. Anger is strong!
Playing favourites among your children – letting the others know that no matter what they do, they can never be the favourite – that is another way to ensure control of the family. The dysfunctional family archetypes of the scapegoat, the lost child, the hero, and the mascot reveal themselves in personalities at a young age, for they are the means of coping with the bad feelings of the family dynamic. Everywhere and in everyone there is evidence of the feelings being suppressed and sublimated in a myriad of ways such as alcohol and substance abuse, overeating, overworking. Often, all of these. It is never anyone’s fault, what happens to them, always the fault of someone else. To own otherwise would have to be to own the pain and vulnerability of being fully human, of being imperfect, of making one’s way in an imperfect world. Itis just too hard. No matter: for this is a strong family, a happy family, and the pictures say so.
For the small, sad little girl there – in the corner almost – there is no regard, she is not playing the game. It is to that small, sad little girl – and there were many of them – that I write. As gently as I can, I want to tell you that you are not imagining things, that everything is not okay, and that it is healthy to express sadness over what is bad. That vulnerability, expressing your innermost feelings is painful, but that vulnerability is “the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love…”
I know this is hard, but please watch Brene Brown in her Ted Talk. Understand that your emotional honesty will cost you, but that it is preferable to living a life dampened of joy and spontaneity. Emotional honesty may feel like betrayal to members of your family who have not gotten there yet; maybe they never will. Emotional honesty is not cruel or spiteful, not derogatory or shaming or belittling – it is honesty about your own feelings, not the presumption of speaking for another, and above all, it is not blaming. I just want to say it again because it is so important, and so liberating:
Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love.
To that small, sad little girl: I love you. You will be okay, even though it will be terribly difficult. Contrary to everything you have been taught, it is the most vulnerable amongst us who are the strongest. Wholeheartedly, I wish you joy.
Here it is Christmas Eve, and I know you are busy on your rounds. Last I heard you were just leaving the Sandwich Islands, but that was an hour or so back. Anyway, it is the traditional time for writing letters to Santa, although the old story says that the letter is supposed to be tossed into the fireplace, and as it burns, the pieces will fly up and magically reassemble themselves as they wend their way to the North Pole…
Alas, no fireplace here. But still, you do have a Canadian postal code, and I am pretty sure you will read my letter. There is no point telling you I have been a good girl, I suppose. I have been impatient, as usual, with stupidity and willful ignorance, and I am not very cheerful in the mornings. I have tried to be kind, and thoughtful of others, and sometimes I have succeeded. I think I have done my best, but goodness knows that is not enough.
In years past I used to ask for such gifts as world peace, and an end to starvation, and all manner of things of social justice. I have come to realize, though, that your magic is of a different sort: the kind of magic that works one child, or one adult who believes with the purity of a child, at a time. But it is powerful magic, for all that it is not what I once believed it to be.
If we could each bring the magic of happiness to one person this Christmas, what a transformation there would be in the world! The happiness that comes from being special in someone’s eyes, of being treasured, of being seen for who one is.The magic of simple human fellowship, of the fabled good cheer, of the visions of sugar plums that actually come to be in one’s hand. The magic of the old and familiar stories, and maybe room for some person who is new to our world. The magic that sees the glow of love on someone’s face, and remembers the echoes of love from those departed this earth. The magic that looks and sees not a silly and funny old present, but the look of anticipation on the giver’s face, and the radiance of the joy that elevates the gift to so much more than its prosaic origins.
I believe with all my heart, Santa, and so I guess what I am asking for is a more liberal sprinkling of your magic dust this year. The earth and her children – and we are all her children – need you so very much. I know the supply is not unlimited, but a large sprinkle this year might just help us over the hump. Anyway, so I humbly ask.
There are cookies for you here. I love you. Merry Christmas.