Monday, February 28, 2011

A Memoir of My Imaginary Life

today i was grading papers for one of my literature classes. 3 of the students had done response papers to one of my favorite short shories, Jan Neruda's "Saint Wenceslas Mass," the tale of a young boy who sneaks into Prague's Saint Vitus Cathedral and hides there all night. He has done this because of a local belief that St Wenceslas comes to his chapel every midnight to say mass. the boy plans to be the first to actually witness this. as the story moves on, we get a magnificent if slightly crazy description of the mass as the boy imagines it must be. it's a long, complicated, perfect evocation of the imaginative life of a little boy;  my students found it as perfect as i did.

as i sat there looking at those papers and at neruda's words, i thought about my own make-believe life as a chlld. idly, i began tracing my later imaginary worlds, through my teens, young adulthood, middle age, and through the present.  I've thought about those fantasies from time to time, of course; now i realized i'd never seen them as a contium, a kind of parallel to my real life.  walter mitty, in progression.

They started, as such things do, with imaginary friends.  I suspect they have continued with such friends, transformed into images of real people in my life.  My first imaginary friend i don't remember at all, except through my parents' tales.  I was apparently quite dedicated to Boidy Grief, whose odd name my father thought must have been inspired by my hearing the phrase 'void of grief.'  i love that story, but don't regard the unremembered Boidy with affection.  i was still pretty young when my next imaginary friend arrived, from the face on a poster for some child's product.  her name was Polly Pigtails, and she was cutely girlish in a way i never could be.  Still, she had the good sense to share my every belief, and she liked to do what i did. We spent a lot of time together, and soon acquired a third party for our happy little consort.  Marie was fuzzier looking than Polly; I must have seen her on an early TV show, or a comic book.  she wore the same A-line dress every day, and had long blond hair.

Our big project together was to build a huge mansion, in which we lived in a household of all children, with no adults around.  it was not, however, an anarchist heaven: i was the ruler, polly the second-in-command, and marie the third.  all the kids who lived there were fuzzier even than marie, but they were very happy with our rule.

as polly and marie faded away, i had, briefly, an identical twin, and we understood each other much better than our parents or brothers did.  we both looked like a 1950s movie star in a bathing suit, never mind that we were under 10 and that i had buck teeth. i think the image came from a coloring book; my nameless twin had a distinct cartoon-lady look.  i don't recall any adventures or projects we shared; she just spent all her time understanding me.

Strangely, i don't recall any imaginary freinds in my high-school years--which is odd, because with one exception i didn't have any freinds at school, which was a ghastly catholic institution that certainly called for any escape mechanism possible.

by college, i had become politicized through the civil rights movement, at which time my pretend world didn't include made-up people.  i never followed the freedom riders south, and it's probable that i pictured myself going to someplace like mississippi, where i taught all the illiterate negroes how to read and fought off  men like bull connor.   if i did have such fantasies, they faded in the events surrounding  the real-life civil right heroes, like the 3 young men murdered during 'mississippi summer.' the fact that one of them had gone to my school and i had seem him around made imagining his fate far too grim, and imagining myself in their position but surviving would have been far too trivializing.

but the 60s counter-politics provided "scope for imagination" in other areas.  for a long time, i saw myself in a nameless but embattled north american country, whose dictator was supported by US dollars and US political leaders.  I lived in the mountains and i was the leader of a strong group of indigenous freedom fighters.  Why they had chosen as leader a 20-something weakling from new york was never clear.  Of course i had learned a lot in my brief but torrid affair with Che Guevara, so that must have helped.  As did the fact that I had been tortured hideously without ever breaking down and given information that could threaten my comrades.  In the process of the torture [which never occurred as part of the fantasy] i had gotten a nasty cut on my face, which left a fetchingly fascinating scar on my cheek.  When i returned to new york and showed up in slinky silk gowns to fashionable society parties, people were curious about my scar.  but like the scarlet pimpernel, i could never reveal my true story, and besides, i disliked the attention.  [that may well be the most absurd aspect of the entire fantasy.]  Because of me, the nameless country finally succeeded in overthrowing their dictator and the CIA, which made me a heroine of the revolution, though my modesty forbade my accepting any formal acknowledgement of my role. [alas, i wish i could send that fantasy self  to the mideast today, so i could resolve all their problems and come back in time to get the right wing out of power in America.  i personally have no interest in being president, but i might be able to convince the country to elect bernie sanders.]

the nobly acquired scar remained a great part of my imagninary life for years--until i was in the midst of fending off some hero-worshipping leftie while i was walking toward the dentist's office. the 2 lives suddenly merged in my mind, and i knew to my core that the pain of the novocaine needle going into my gum would instantly elicit any secret i might have, whatever the results.

in more recent years, my make-beleive life  has toned down pretty seriously.  my make-believe friends are real  people, who are as impressed with my intellect as my south american comrades were of my skill and daring.  I have spent many happy hours being interviewed by bill moyers, whose producers made him stop having me on so often, because i was so fascinating that he kept cancelling all his other guests.  this has also become a problem for keith olberman and rachel maddow, which will be harder for rachel now that keith is off tv, since it will double her obligation to keep me on the show for the whole hour, at least once a week.

i've come a long way since polly and marie, and from the bathing-beauty twin. or maybe not such a long way. i have never lost my love of reading fiction, and what is a good read but a visit to an imaginary world in which you are implicitly a part?   and if my  young make-believe freind in the neruda tale asked for my advice, i'd tell him to stay away from Saint Vitus church from now on.  If Saint Wenseslas ever does celebrate mass at midnight, miracle though it will be, it won't hold a candle to the boy's vision.  my child,  you've seen what you came to see.  cherish it. real life has its own place, and a very important place at that.  but it will never take the place of your imaginary world, or fill your need for that world.  in the story, the Saint Wenseslas of the boy's imagination places his heavenly hand on the child's head.  Accept, with gratitude, that eternal benediction.

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