In a world of pure imagination

I recently had the chance to review the stage musical adaptation of “Mary Poppins,” so I took 4 year old Lily, who – other than wondering when, after two and a half hours, it was going to end (she wasn’t alone) – enjoyed the show a good deal. But during intermission, she asked me, “How did Mary Poppins fly?”

In the few seconds I had to consider my answer options, I bypassed my knee-jerk compunction to tell the truth (I always thought I’d be that “Miracle on 34th Street” mom) and opted instead for a far more open-ended response.

“I don’t know, sweetie. What do you think?”

When Lily looked puzzled, I added, “Well, she had her umbrella up. Maybe a strong wind swept her up into the air?”

Lily nodded and said, “Yeah. Maybe it was the wind.” But she didn’t sound wholly sold.

And indeed, a few weeks later, out of nowhere, she said, “I think Mary Poppins flew on strings.”

“Oh – you do? What kind of strings?”

“On her dress,” she said, like she’d been thinking about this a while and had finally settled the matter.

“You might be right,” I said, telling myself that because we were sitting close to the stage, the wires were pretty visible.

But then some other part of me thought, with a little sense of disappointment, “Oh, God, I’m raising a Mini-me.”

Yes, I was the kid who was skeptical of EVERTHING. The Santa story, for instance, never really took root because the details of the story just didn’t add up for me. All the kids’ houses in one night? How is that logistically possible? And reindeer don’t fly. Why would this small subset be different? And how would everyone’s stuff possibly fit in one sack? And why was Santa’s wrapping paper the same as ours?

For this and other reasons, I’ve concluded that I was probably the least fun child of all time to raise. My mom isn’t around to confirm this, but that’s my hunch.

Now Lily, despite the challenges she throws our way as a strong-willed kid, is generally terrific fun. I sometimes worry about her skeptical streak – but perhaps I shouldn’t. Yes, she called “stage trickery” on “Mary Poppins”; but she’s pursued a few really charming, fanciful ideas of late that make me hopeful that she’s taking in, for the most part, the temporary magic of childhood.

Lily’s many, many messages in bottles

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE: Lily’s now learning how to write her letters at preschool, but apart from that, she sometimes likes to sit and just loop a ballpoint pen across a blank sheet of paper, line after line, and pretend she’s “writing.” One night, she decided she was writing letters to her two four year old cousins, Abby and Zoey, as well as their families and Joe’s parents.

“It’s says I want to have dinner with my cousins at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, so we can eat dinner and run around and be crazy.”

“How is everybody going to get this message?” I asked.

“I’m going to put them in bottles, and then put them in the water,” she said, continuing with her work. “Just like in (the book) ‘Mermaid Sister.’”

And indeed, after filling one sheet, she’d concentrate all her focus and effort on rolling it up as tightly as she could; grab a plastic or glass bottle from the recycling; and push the paper into the bottle.

By the time Lily went to bed, we had a kitchen table full of message bottles.

But before then, I’d said, “The reason the girl’s message was delivered in the water in ‘Mermaid Sister’ was because she was writing to a mermaid. But your cousins and Grandma and Grandpa aren’t mermaids. How are they going to get it?” I didn’t touch on the fact that even if they received it, they’d just see loops on a page. (I know, I know. If I don’t want to raise a total skeptic, I need to tamp down my own tendencies. But I really wanted to hear her explain her thinking to me.)

“In the water!” Lily said. “I’ll put it in the water and they’ll get my message.”

Hmm. OK. Clearly kids this young only think things through to a point; then it’s like that Far Side cartoon where a student’s doing a complicated problem on a blackboard where it reads “Then a miracle occurs” before the solution. But that’s the beauty of childhood magic. Even though I strained to see how she’d envisioned the plan she was carrying out, I loved that she had the vision at all. And several of the bottles still remain with their message intact – though I did nudge her aunt and grandparents to mention that they’d gotten a request for a dinner to happen soon. Lily got very excited about the fact that her messages had gotten through. And I don’t regret that one bit.

PUMPKIN YOGA: A few weeks before Halloween, we went to the local farmers market and Lily picked out about five small pumpkins.

Last year, she had a ball “decorating” little pumpkins like this with markers. And while she had a blast with little pumpkins this year, too, she took an entirely different approach.

One evening, as we got Neve ready for bed, Lily said she wanted to “play pumpkins.” Joe and I looked at each other and shrugged. OK. Sure. We’ll all “play pumpkins” after Neve’s in bed.

So after Neve fell asleep in her crib, I came downstairs and found Lily wearing just a nighttime Pull-up – clearly, she’d started on the journey to change into jammies and got distracted – and she was lying on the kitchen floor with Joe; each of them had a little pumpkin balanced on their forehead and another on their stomach.

Lily instructed me to lie on the floor, too, and though there was only one little pumpkin left, she told me to put my feet in the air and balance the pumpkin on them, as she and Joe did the same. (I’ll note here that this was no small feat for Joe, who’s not the most flexible person. But to his credit, he did it.)

Lily had us do various poses, sometimes without the pumpkins, and she often praised us (“Good job, Mommy!” “Yeah, like that, Daddy. Good job!”) along the way. She even had us do a kind of half-handstand, where you walk your feet up the wall until they’re level with your hips.

What baffled me was that this very pose was something I had done in my yoga classes several times. And Lily’s regular praise and encouragement, the zen tone of it all, also echoed my longtime yoga teacher. So I kept shaking my head, wondering, “How on earth did my four year old daughter come to be this little yoga instructor?”

And indeed, Lily ran our “pumpkin yoga” class for about 40 minutes, and stopped primarily because it was her bedtime. Who knew some little pumpkins could provide an evening’s entertainment for all of us?

IN THE AFTERGLOW: Joe was running an errand with Neve one weekend day when Lily asked me to play down in the basement with her.

What she didn’t mention was that she wanted to do so in complete darkness. Why? Because she’d just gotten a glow-stick bracelet and didn’t want any light to take away from its super-cool-green-glowiness.

After some negotiation, I convinced Lily to let me walk down the steps with a flashlight so I wouldn’t break my neck. Once down there, though, I toed my way carefully through the sea of toys on the floor (we have a finished basement, which houses the girls’ playroom) and settled next to Lily, who was holding the glowing bracelet, a small Sleeping Beauty figure, and a tiny plastic Flounder (the fish from “The Little Mermaid”).

With only the glow from the bracelet, Lily made up a bizarre, charming adventure for Sleeping Beauty and Flounder, incorporating random toys she grabbed off the floor in the darkness. Sleeping Beauty usually stood, and flew, within the bracelet’s circle, while I was expected to contribute spontaneous additions to the “adventure” by way of the things I fished out of the dark.

What struck me while playing this game was how a room full of old, familiar toys were suddenly imbued with exciting new life, simply by virtue of a dollar glow stick bracelet. That’s all Lily needed.

Which makes me think that we probably often underestimate a kid’s ability to entertain themselves. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of finding the right prop that will capture their imagination and send it off and running.

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