We tend to relegate J.K. Rowling, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll to the children’s section of the library, and of our lives. The fantastical worlds they create, and the mythical creatures they populate them with, are looked on with increasing skepticism as our own lives become increasingly real. Willing suspension of disbelief seems to be a concept limited to childhood, when our own lives were lived mostly in our minds. When your plastic barbies can have tea parties and your tiny railway track actually goes places, its easy to humor fancies of Narnia and the Cheshire cat. But once even your dreams are taken over by mortgages and job applications, and real life looms in empty corners, threatening to overwhelm you when you’re not paying attention, there is no room left for flights of imagination.
I was wondering today, however, that most of what we adults (and I use that term loosely when applied to myself) hold dearest in life, and believe in emphatically, are no more than mere illusions. The idea of soulmates, a job that interests you and pays the bills, enjoying life after retirement, are all just ideas. There are people who have these things, but I am not one of them. Still I go on believing in all of them, and like a tiny cartoon in a video game, I’m steering my car desperately so that I can collect all these little treasures along the way. They might not be on the screen right now, but I know that they will be there eventually. They must, because I believe in them. Its the eternal Tinkerbell conundrum: can something ever be real unless you believe in it? Also stated as: if you stop believing, even the realest of little fairies will die.
My favorite book growing up was Peter Pan. And again, growing up is a term I use loosely, as at 22 and 5 feet 8, I have certainly grown older and up literally, but figuratively I have not made a dent in my life. Which explains why, in hindsight, I loved James Barrie’s world so much, feeling kinship with the boy who never grew up. The most magical thing about books is that occasionally someone expresses an emotion or an idea you felt you were grappling with alone, and in that moment, in spite of the fact that you have absolutely no idea who the writer is, you know a part of their soul. In that moment, you are no longer alone in your thoughts and feelings. It is the most visceral of connections.
James Barrie died half a century before I was ever born. Unless I manage to wrestle my way into heaven (another one of my blind beliefs, a raison d’etre for this bloodbath called the modern world) and James Barrie happens to be there and available for a chat, I will never meet him. In this life, I have made no attempts to know him personally; I have diligently and deliberately avoided all biographies and movies and plays, which is no mean feat considering how tempting Johnny Depp can be. I feel no need to investigate his life and circumstances, I know him well enough. I read a book he wrote, and felt the terrible tragedy and incredible hopefulness of it. That is how I know him. And I know him well enough.
Although he was not aware of it, he knew me too. He understood my fear of growing up, of jobs and second names. He got the urge I have at times, to fly away, although in his case it was literal rather than metaphorical. I am not the only one he helped, he also set up R Kelly for a lifetime. What is ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ if not a paraphrasing of Peter’s lesson on the importance of faith, trust, and a little bit of pixie dust? In fact, he set up all motivational speakers all over the world! Oprah needs to write this man a check.
More than anything else, he understood how even in the best of circumstances, the most Darling of families, you can yearn for something else. He told me its okay, its allowed, even if I take the hapless infants I was babysitting along with me on my most fantastical of journeys. We all want to escape, to the Neverlands of our dreams, and we should. Occasionally. But, most importantly, he reminds us that we cannot stay there.Try as we might, happy as we are in the worlds we create, we have to go back to the real one. Peter Pan is not the story of the boy who never grew up, but rather a story of how growing up is inevitable. Its hard, and daunting, and, lets say it, boring. We all yearn for a little bit of magic in our Mondays and Thursdays. Which is why we must remember to keep the window open, remember that the occasional fantasies and escapes are allowed. In fact, they’re encouraged. The only way to keep our sanity in this world is to be a little crazy. As Lewis Carroll put it, all the best people are.
As per its standard description in bookstores, Peter Pan is a fairytale for children. I beg to differ. It is the most masterful of reality checks. I read that book as a child, but I held onto it to navigate my way out of my childhood. I hold onto it still, its my little dose of magic at 3 pm on a Thursday, when the urge to fly out of windows is at its strongest. It validates my nostalgia for my childhood, and encourages me to take off to my own little whimsical Neverland. And then, ever so gently, it reminds me why I cannot stay away forever. “Forever is a very long time Peter.” That, and that make-believe is all well and good until you have to make-believe your dinner.
So we all leave our Never lands for the real world, firmly reestablishing our skepticism, and suspending our ability to believe. However, I know that as long as I hold my well-loved copy of Peter Pan in my hand, as long as I refuse to pack away my childhood books, I have a constant reminder of these wonderful grown ups who held onto the pixie dust well after they were officially out of the nursery. Even though I have to wear suits, and go to schools and learn of solemn things, I keep the window open just a little. And every so often, when life becomes a bit lack luster, I take off. Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.
“Why can’t you fly now, mother?”
“Because I am grown up, dearest. When people grow up they forget the way.”
“Why do they forget the way?”
“Because they are no longer gay and innocent and heartless. It is only the gay and innocent and heartless who can fly.”
“What is gay and innocent and heartless? I do wish I were gay and innocent and heartless.”