— Roald Dahl, The Minpins
Four-year-old Kate loved Curious George. She loved his books, his shows, and his little stuffed self. She loved the little monkey so much that when her mom and grandma announced they were taking a trip to New York City, Kate was certain they would see him. He lived in the big city didn’t he? Her family, worried about her inevitable disappointment, pondered how to handle the situation. After careful thought, they told her most people head out on vacation for the long Labor Day weekend and George probably would too. Kate was undeterred. She was excited to meet Curious George in person.
It was suggested they all sit down and write George a letter. “I’m going to be in your city. Can I see you?” They helped Kate address the envelope: Curious George, c/o The Man in the Yellow Hat, Central Park West, NY, New York. Kate agreed it was a great idea.
Once at their hotel in New York, Kate waited by the window. The next morning, a little gift bag addressed to Kate appeared outside the door. Attached was a card. George was indeed going out of town, but wished her a good visit and hoped she would enjoy a few gifts.
“George is nice,” Kate said as she carried the bag back into the room. Mom and Grandma breathed a sigh of relief.
Kate was excited. She knew that George had ridden a tour bus, too. When they boarded she sat right next to the driver and kept a close lookout. Grandma and mom again began to bite their nails. Before they knew what was happening Kate leaned over to the driver—eyes wide—and asked,
“Do you know Curious George?”
* * *
Children want to believe. If the adults in their lives aren’t there to create the stories for them, their nubile imaginations fill in the gaps. My five-year-old daughter has a fleet of stories churning along in her room at all times. Each little fuzzy creature has a personality, a cozy bed and a story. If there isn’t a toy handy, then her fingers and toes become a talking, leaping family of winged horses.
As for the tales we spin for them, how far will we go? And why? When a “fairy house” my parents recently helped them build was accidentally crushed in the yard, I immediately considered whether to tell my kids the fairies had moved to a booming new fairy neighborhood or if the fragile, carefully constructed home was crushed by a workman’s heavy boot.
The magic we spin for children takes maintenance. There are unpredictable factors involved. But how much of prolonging the illusion is for their benefit and how much is for ours? George is a fictional monkey from books, sure, but Mom and Grandma made a choice. We love you, they said, and we’re going to take us all on an exciting trip—together.
At the beginning of my first year of teaching, one of my third grade boys approached, looked me straight in the eye and said, “You know, Santa Claus isn’t real.” I froze. I had underestimated the seriousness of my career choice. “Nonsense,” was all I managed to mutter before he trundled off to recess. For the rest of the day I wondered whether or not I’d used a convincing enough tone.
How much was I responsible for? How much are any of us?
I’ve known parents who stayed up late Christmas Eve to stamp reindeer hoof prints around their living rooms to extend their child’s fading belief in Santa. A former teaching colleague had his first graders so worked up about leprechauns, they almost rioted to check their traps the next morning. I recently heard a story of a mother who invented “Hannakuh Charlie” to help her child deal with the fact that there was no figure who represented their holiday. Charlie was just some dude who showed up for eight days.
We want to show we care for children, certainly, and to create the wonder for them we might have had in our own lives. But how much of our desires are made up of the selfish, all-powerful feeling of spinning a yarn to round-eyed excitement?
Whatever the reason, we’re pretty certain we’re doing them a favor. Are they upset when the illusion ends? Maybe. Often once they’ve digested the new world-altering information, they’re satisfied that their wish to grow older is finally coming true—as crushing as that reality is to the adults surrounding them.
But there can be some beauty in the transition. When the kids are too old to believe (in Santa, the tooth fairy, whatever), and they are connected to adults who get that, there’s an enchanting exchange of “I know you know that I know, but let’s keep playing.” A willing suspension of disbelief becomes a bond to keep the fantasy alive.
And speaking of adults, who is looking out for us? No one thinks to peek into our night-light lit bedrooms to ponder our imaginative well-being. It’s up to us to weave our own tales. We turn on a game, read a novel, catch a movie or head out to a show. We seek the magic of escape on our own. Buying tickets and hiring a babysitter might be less charming then Pegasus fingers, but the goal is the same. Life is hard. We want to believe. We need things to look forward to, or as Picasso said, “to wash away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
I became more conscious of how important enchantment is to me, to us, only when I began to notice what happens when the magic is interrupted.
I used to pass an Italian restaurant on my bike commute home. One day I came to the stoplight alongside a duck boat bus in the middle of its tour. A man in his chef whites was leaning against the brick wall outside Buca Di Beppo Italian restaurant taking his break. He smiled at the waving, duck whistle-tooting tourists and seemed to enjoy the attention, so he performed an impromptu break dance routine on a nearby piece of cardboard. It made my afternoon to hear the cheering as the man blew off steam with such a generous act. When I saw him do the exact same routine a couple weeks later—right down to the look of humble surprise on his face—I was crushed. With some bad timing I had unknowingly peeked behind the curtain. Enchantment disrupted.
Consider what else happens when the spell is broken: Listservs fill with heated complaints at the cancellation of a beloved television series (“Firefly” comes to mind). The delay of a professional game rarely causes smiles for fans. The hilarious episode from the hit show Portlandia about a couple who tries to continue their beloved Battlestar Galactica series by writing an episode themselves has 300,000 views on YouTube. When someone tells you how an anticipated book or movie ends, you want to punch them (maybe that’s just me). I heard a tale of a teenage girl taking her friend down in the middle of soccer practice because she had spoiled the ending of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Hearing the final score of the playoff game before you have a chance to watch the recorded game at home—maddening. The list is endless. Magical escape stripped from us feels like being burgled or cheated. Instead of providing relief it adds strife. Consider why we use the term “spoiler” rather than “timesaver.”
Author Vladomir Nabokov said writers (and this could be applied to any artist) can be considered “a teacher, and as an enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates…. To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time.”
There is a reason artists work so hard to make their craft look easy, parents kick themselves when they forget to take a bite from Santa’s cookies or put money under the pillow, and tour guides practice their routines. Do it well or don’t do it at all. Sometimes those magical moments are all we have. People want nothing less than a perfect escape or you’re going to hear about it. And if you do it well, you better be ready to provide more. We crave the experiences that make us walk outside and view the world just a little bit differently—even for a few moments. We need something to believe in, something to look forward to because, again, life is hard.
The exceedingly busy brain-researchers have found that we’re more hardwired for this than we ever knew (though really, we knew). Story started for us as a way to learn to survive, and as a way to help make sense of what we didn’t understand (still true), but though we learn from them all, compelling illusions that feel real are what we crave.
So I do have a responsibility: to confirm Santa isn’t nonsense, to not whisper the end of a favorite novel to that person on the train. We all do. Moments of enchantment are small gifts. Part of the mystique is that we don’t always know what will give us that escape—when an event will come along to brush the dust from our shoulders.
So go ahead, deceive someone toward his or her surprise party, give that beloved book to a friend, and tell your dad about that film you know he’ll love. Grant an illusion. Hand over some magic.
The gesture can be as small and simple as a complete stranger leaning over to a little girl to say, “Of course I know George. He was just on my bus yesterday. I’ll tell him you said hi.”