One of the most life affirming things I have seen in a long time is three kids that live in a house on the highway between my town and the next. Every time I drive past they are in their front yard playing. And they are not playing with electronics, motorized remote control toys, giant jungle gym slides or anything else most kids seem to expect these days. In general, they have always chosen something mundane and ordinary, something we as adults either take for granted or completely ignore. They take these objects and seem to build an entire imaginary world around them, a world of excitement, magic, challenges and joy. Maybe it’s three colorful utility buckets full of water, or some old sheets carefully hung from trees. Once, it was a stick. They were running, jumping, crouching and laughing as they bounce around their yard, peeking around bushes, running screaming across an open space, having more fun with that stick than some kids have at a laser tag arena.
I see all this 15 seconds at a time as I drive past their house at speed, so what I see and how I interpret it is certainly flawed. That actually gives me more freedom to experience their story any way I like. I could feel sorry for them, assuming they are in the yard because they can’t afford more expensive pass times like video games and basic cable. Instead, I choose to feel proud, proud of what they mean for the human race, assuming they do have the choice, or at least their parents have the choice. I believe they are in their yard interacting with the real world and using their own imaginations because they know it is a better way to live. I hope that they use books, movies, and TV only as fuel for their own stories, picking up where the imagination of those distant authors leave off and carrying it in to their own new chapters, extending the stories in ways the original authors could never imagine.
Finding the sweet spot between starving the imagination and shackling it is a difficult task. We are social creatures, and our creativity blossoms when we work together, each of us building on the ideas of others. Eliminate all creative input and our imaginations atrophy, recycling the same ideas over and over. You can have too much of a good thing, though. Flood us with a completely realized imaginary world and a quickly evolving story and we tend to just sit back and enjoy it, again letting our own imaginations atrophy as we passively experience another’s vision. A little conscious effort to find the balance will go a long way.
The next time you finish reading a book or watching a movie, choose some aspect of the story that is unrealized and flesh it out in your mind. Imagine an unwritten conversation, or the untold story of a journey taken, something that happened before the story began or after it ended. Now tell that story. You can sit quietly and just imagine the dialog and actions, or act it out in front of a mirror. Even better, find a friend that shares your love of this particular story and act it out together, complete with props and costumes. Stories are living things, and giving breath to your imaginary worlds feeds your soul, making the real world more vivid, more present, and somehow, more real.