While watching the Paddington movie on an airplane, I caught a tailwind of interesting thoughts about childhood.
Of course I’d read Michael Bond’s Paddington books as a child, but I don’t remember them summing up life in a grand design. This time, however, a life message was obvious, even slightly intrusive: Paddington Bear was innocence, whimsy—childhood itself—and Mr. Brown was straitlaced adulthood in a demanding world.
The intersection of these two forces, their creative symbiosis, and their eventual, amicable coexistence are the desires of everyone in the plot. And it’s achieved.
How do I feel about this?
Well, I think it’s totally bogus. That kind of balance doesn’t exist: most of us wander to one side or another and chase success however we can.
Except, I’ve always thought sophisticated adults and professionals have a way of integrating their inner child and outer adult. And, damn it if it isn’t exactly what I’ve been trying to find in the past few months. My job depends on finding my childhood, in a way.
My inner Paddington and my inner Mr. Brown need to learn to coexist and support and stabilize each other.
Being a writer is, by nature, dealing in opposing forces, often those of chaos and order. I have to interject chaos (a Paddington force) to create and order (Mr. Brown) to write. A balance true in any profession, of course, but in writing, you (hope to) function at the extremes of such forces in order to be successful.
John Gardner refers to child-like play (the creative process) as “jazzing around” and to the productive press as “careful planning”. And then Gardner rather disappointingly comments that:
“The two gifts, one extraordinarily childlike, the other highly sophisticated and mature, almost never show up in one person.” John Gardner, The Art of Fiction.
I think both forces can be found in a single person (though perhaps not at genius levels), but to just be present isn’t enough; they must be functional, nay, thriving. Which is why most writers are crappy at organizing their everyday lives or nurturing themselves as humans, not just as writers. Their Paddington dominates. I have the opposite problem.
I am an organism completely controlled and run by Mr. Brown.
My Mr. Brown–force (order, process, lists, planning) has been in charge so long, and done so well, that he’s trapped me into thinking he’s the only way to do things. I joke about this obsession but only to come to terms with it. I even married an embodiment of this person. And for a while, in the career paths I choose, it was enough. But now, Mr. Brown does not suffice, not by himself. I need new skills, a new force. But where is it? Where is my Paddington?
I didn’t realize how much I had pushed out Paddington until I started writing a year ago and consistently felt at a loss to get lost, to create, to jazz. No matter how I began, I’d run up against an order, a structure, a hierarchy, a deadline. In this creative stasis, I often found myself writing about writing about writing.
If that meta-crap isn’t a sign of a constipated mental process – of which only adults are capable – I don’t know what is.
So, carefully, thoughtfully, I’ve been trying to reintegrate Paddington Bear into my life. More than that, to reintegrate his force of whimsy and creativity into my psyche. First, I have to find him.
Of course, when I say “Paddington Bear,” I mean my version of a magical being who shows up, is iconoclastic, and thus became a perfect friend in a demanding world. My being was a polar bear, I carried her throughout my childhood, literally.
(And like Paddington, she had developed an obsession with human food—in her case, chocolate. I had to cut out her snout from this photo because it was covered in chocolate. Naughty bear.)
At first, she was physical comfort, this thing that was there, in my crib, in my arms, in old photos. Over time, she became more ideological, symbolic. Maintaining her innocence as I lost mine. I got older, she didn’t. I made mistakes. She didn’t. She loved and smiled. Brought me excitement, self-love, patience and, of course, barrels of creative silliness.
Most of all, she saw me. Or I saw myself. Either way, I never felt alone.
But we’re supposed to leave these things behind, aren’t we? To grow up and grow out of them?
We stopped talking. She reverted to a physical comfort. And then just a habit.
And all the good things I had put into her, I lost those too. Slowly, though, almost without perception. Excitement. Forgiveness. Silliness. Childhood. They went away.
In letting go of her, I let go of myself and hid the best parts of me in her.
The creative bit, the chaos, the irreverent jazz. Why did I put them away? Probably to keep them safe. Probably because they weren’t needed.
I didn’t really talk to her until a few months ago. I was writing something silly and needed a muse. Needed to access parts of myself hitherto hidden. Make-believe. I talked to her, she didn’t talk back, not yet.
Dearest bear, you know all that excitement, forgiveness, and silliness I put into you? Do you think I could have some of it back?
She looks at me. Patiently. Forgiving. With her smile. And she was silent.
I hug her into my chest. Her fleece isn’t as soft as it used to be, but my Mom made her a coat, which she wears. And that makes her feel soft.
I kiss her nose. I dance her on my lap and retie her scarf. I prefer cravat style.
She beams at me. Lovingly. I could tell she wanted me to be happy. She didn’t say it, but I knew she was thinking it.
I have to be patient, kind, loving. She’ll return.
Late last night, while I’m holding my bear quietly, my husband comes home. We discuss our days, and he undresses orderly. Shoes first, putting them in their cubby. Then his suit coat, hanging up, brushing off cat fur. Then his tie, carefully placing it on his tie rack and straightening the set. He steps out of his suit patiently, deliberately, and then finds his pajamas, steps into them, and, finally, lifts up the sheets and slides next to me.
In this intimate space of a line extended from the bed to the closet, we gather each night and engage in the act of making things calm, comfortable. Making things home. And we help each other find our best, hidden selves.
He asks, “How’s Polar?” and kisses her head.
“She’s fine. A bit gassy.”
“She said she wants chocolate,” he informs me, like they have a communication, a relationship, I’m not part of.
“I don’t. But she had enough. That is why she’s gassy.”
“I know,” he announces. “And I was going to give it to you, but she ate all of it. I had to clean her paws.”
In a careful movement, he pulls her out of my arms, sits her in his lap, and goes about adjusting her scarf.
“She wanted a Red Baron look tonight. She’s so silly,” he explains as he hands her back to my arms.
“And she stole some socks too, from the dryer.”
“I think she keeps them in a secret cabinet.”
“OK. Let’s look for it!” I look at him, “What time should we set the alarm for tomorrow?”
“This weekend, we’ll look for them? 8 AM.” He burrows down and turns out his light. The curved line of his back begins to rise and fall.
I hug Polar to my chest and return to my notebook, with a few more thoughts, until the warmth of the bed and the weight on my chest lull me to other places. I put Polar softly back in the closet; the bed is too warm for her Arctic sensibilities. And closets are the best place for imaginary friends and other hidden things.
And pretty soon, we’re asleep. Snoring.
All three of us. All the forces together.
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