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I had one of those dreams again, the kind where you wake up exhausted and tired, red-faced and crying. I think I freaked my husband out when he came in and saw me. I know I freaked myself out in the course of my dream. I had the full gamut of sleep paralysis, and the fear that I was going to wake up in another time (this time, 1984), and at one point, my jaw muscles started chattering uncontrollably.

But this post is not about the weird sleep or the fragments of the dream I still hold onto.

This post is about childhood.

I know that, for myself, childhood was a long, extended period where I felt I had no control over anything, and that many of the petty things that I did as a child are direclty related to that lack of control. I see what I assume are examples of this kind of behavior all the time in the children I know. Some of it is the issue that the brain--you're making new pathways, you're dealing with how to handle the chemicals that wash over those cells, and the chemicals just get more intense as you approach puberty.

You are a child, and you're not in control, and you want to be and nothing makes sense. There are problems you see when you're a new person that you can't believe the older persons let exist. I remember the first time I learned what "rape" meant--we were watching the evening news, and the announcer said it, and I asked my mom, and she said, "It's when one person forces another to have sex." I remember the first time I saw the KKK on the news, and I asked my mom, "Why is that legal?" And she didn't know. And that was just the beginning, and I feel incredibly lucky that my first knowledge of some of the most horrible things in life came through the news and not something more personal that affected my own body or someone I loved.

I have a friend who--I hope this isn't saying too much--has imprinted strongly on Doctor Who, and this friend has been examining the reasons for the imprinting. The things jumped out at me in that analysis: the Doctor knows something is wrong, and then he tries to fix it. He believes the problem exists. It's an important first step, you know? But he also takes action. Those are the two things we want our parents to do. That we want the world to do.

And while my friend was talking about this, I realized that the one and only thing I've had that gut- and heart-connection with lately is Avatar: The Last Airbender. Which is about kids confronting evil, kids saving the world. And I realized that was a big theme in my childhood reading, in my childhood longing: I wanted to save the world. I wanted to do it as a kid, because the adults sure weren't getting it done.

And I've watched all of this cartoon and I'm thinking strongly I might sit down and watch all of it again, because there is such a longing inside of me, inside of the child that's still inside of me, to save the world. To notice the problem. To believe it exists. To take action. To do something.

I don't see a lot of options anymore, for saving the world. I don't have the ability to do much for political action--I vote in every election, I write my congressman, but I'm not going to run for public office. I should probably go vegan or at least vegetarian, and I'm working on that. I try to reduce my carbon footprint, but I know I need to do more there. Most of us do. I don't write well thought-out explanations of the evils of the world for the education of the internet because my brain doesn't work like that. And what else is available to us, to those who notice the problem? We rescue cats, and we raise our kids the best we can... but there's no Firelord to fight, is there? I mean. If there is, let's go fight him.

So. What's left for me? Art? Yeah, probably art.

As a writer, and particularly as a writer for children, I feel like it is my job to illuminate the present, the past, and the future, to show the problems, to show people trying to solve the problems. That's about all I can do. It does not make me a woman of action, by a long shot.

Does it help?

In my dream this afternoon, during my teeth-chattering nap, when I thought I was going to have to go back to age 9 and relive my life up to now... All I could think was, "This time, I'll do everything right."

And that's why I was crying when I woke up. I was thinking in the dream of all the things I would do differently in my life: spend more time with my grandparents, try harder to have a relationship with my father, give my mother less of a hassle, save more for college, be nicer to that friend in junior high....

After I'd been awake for about an hour, after I'd been playing with my 7-year-old nephew for an hour, I looked at him and realized he's only 2 years younger than the self I was dreaming about. How unfair am I being to my 9-year-old self? I wondered. You were just trying to learn how to live in the world. How could you possibly also have saved it?

For a good chunk of the dream, I knew if I held on, I could stay in 2011, and if I let go, I would end up in 1984. And I had to keep convincing myself to hold on. My husband. My book--I just spent a day in Manhattan working with my editor. And there was a voice who was telling me it'd be okay, I could still have my husband, and my book. It was just a matter of dedication.

(Like time travel is that easy or something.)

But I didn't believe the voice. So I held on.

But the other thing I didn't believe, and this was something I've been struggling with my entire life: if time travel were possible, I would be able to go back and make things perfect. I woke up crying because I was also remembering all the times I suppressed rage and hurt and disappointment in an effort to make things better with my dad, or to spend time with my grandparents, or to be less of a hassle to my mom. I already tried all of that, and it wasn't good for me. I'm still learning how to have emotions like a human, not a Vulcan (though the Vulcans always made perfect sense: you suppress the emotions because emotions are just too devastating otherwise).

So, what I have--all that I have--for this world-saving thing is: my memory of the problems I could see so clearly as a child; my compassion for my nine-year-old self, and all the other nine-year-olds out there, no matter how old the shell surrounding them is; and a publishing contract.

That's it. No conclusion but for that. I suspect I should have something more.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 4th, 2011 02:41 am (UTC)

“You are a child, and you're not in control, and you want to be and nothing makes sense.”

Yes! This exactly! I had a happy and safe childhood, and yet, I was terribly frightened precisely because of these issues. I wonder about the people who paint childhood in rose colored haze. Did they forget this part?

And are you kidding? It is so important, so so important to write, particularly for children. I was brought up by books. Each book I read was like the thoughts/imprints of the authors. Some I agreed with, some I disagreed with, I was better off with all of them because they exposed me to new things, and they were fun, interesting so it wasn’t like swallowing castor oil. Yeah, sure, I talk about Italo Calvino, but the people I loved to freakin death were Sherwood Smith, Robin Mckinley, L.M. Montgomery. I read and reread their books every year. I have passages memorized by heart. I turn to them when I’m upset. They gave me aspirations, modes of behavior. They taught me empathy, strength, kindness, how it’s alright to be terribly afraid, or awkward and different.

When I couldn’t figure out how to talk to my relatives or how to bridge the awfulness of growing up in a small Midwestern school where no one quite understood what it was like to juggle multiple cultures, yet I was also strange to my relatives, I read and read and read and that was happiness and belonging.

Children’s authors are like surrogate parents. Never doubt the importance of that. Movies and TV have a way of creating distance. Books put a voice directly in your head.

A close friend of mine who is a gifted scientist was brought up in a very religious household, the kind that denied the existence of evolution. She was perpetually torn between her parents and her teachers. Books saved her. They opened up new worlds, new minds, made her realize that there was another world out there and she just had to hang on until she could get out of her house. They gave her a refuge inside her house.

I read books about strong girls who went out and kicked ass, and I thought that’s how the world works. You go out and kick ass. And it’s so important to be immersed in that kind of a world, to never doubt it, so that when someone tells you you can’t kick ass, it’s ridiculous, the stupidest thing you ever heard—there’s a strong base in you that knows this is how the world works.

I am so excited about your book. You are going to raise a generation of children. Regardless of how well your book sells (and I am sure it will do so well) people you would never think of will read it, will remember it, and will be influenced in a million ways they could not begin to cite. I don’t leave my books face down on the table because of Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock. I got out of my temper-tantrum ‘being angry is cool’ phase by reading Frances Hodson Burnett’s “In the Land of the Blue Flower.” Tiny book. Picture book in fact. Maybe unbelievable sentimental, don’t even know if I could read it today, but it’s the reason I don’t fly off of the handle and scream my head off whenever something goes wrong.

I am so grateful to people who write for children.

(also, if you did everything right, if you were so nice to that friend from junior high, how would you be able to write about flaws, what would you teach people if you made no mistakes?)

Climbing off of soap box now.
Apr. 4th, 2011 10:47 pm (UTC)
This is deep. Serious navel-gazing here. Thanks so much for sharing.

Lack of control over your own existence. Yeah, that's a big reason childhood sucks.

Trying to have emotions like a human and not a Vulcan. Yep. That's why adulthood sometimes sucks.
Apr. 6th, 2011 11:48 am (UTC)
It seems to me that the childhood feeling of having to save the world is the result of the adults in our lives not saving us from things. Parents are supposed to step up and create a feeling of safety and to swoop in and "save" us when life is too big and scary. In my own case, if something wasn't alarming to my parents as adults their attitude to my childhood alarm was "stop being silly, that's not scary"- totally denying the reality I was experiencing and eventually making me doubt my own perfectly reasonable reactions to events. Parents need to understand that the reality of children is not the same as theirs and that they are supposed to "come down" and respond appropriately from the CHILD's worldview. Telling children to suck it up and be adults is like kicking your dog for shedding.
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