In the world of clown, literal thinking is funny. You tell a clown to duck, and they start quacking, you say, “Split!”, and they try to do one; and we all know what happens when the words “walk this way” are used. Comedy like that plays on the fact that there are subtleties, that there can be more than just one meaning to a word or an expression, and that sometimes a phrase can have a connotation that seemingly has no relationship to the actual words used. How many of us have actually been in a ship, much less with someone else, and yet say, “I’m in the same boat.” The words and phrases are a stand in for something else, symbols that our minds de-code and then understand.
Sounds complex - this “decoding”, doesn’t it? So how do those of us who don’t work in the military cipher division figure this stuff out? The imagination. That lovely little (or hopefully, not so little)e part of our mind that sees between the lines, interprets that there’s more than black and white, and creates what is not literally there. We all have them, but just like some of us have not been acquainted with our psoas muscle in a while (it’s the BIG muscle that wraps around from your lower back, into your groin, and connects the top of you to the bottom half of you, and is used in every step you take), they are woefully under used. And like a muscle which is not worked out, the imagination can wither.
I wish I could say that I see this withering only in adults, but sadly, what moves me to write about this now is that I have seen it at younger and younger ages. Just today, I saw a child of seven or so not able to pretend to be ANYTHING they wanted. More, and more, I see a sort of deadness of the imagination, that makes me want to jump inside their brains and paint messy, out of the line pictures, OR dress up like a loin and ROAR!!!! What frightens me is not that, “Gee, this kid is never going to be able to imagine enough to be in their school play, or write a short story for a homework assignment.” It’s that without the ability to see more than what is evident and literal; these kids grow up missing so much of life. To quote the Little Prince “That which is essential is invisible to the eye.” To not be able to take the folktales that the ancients have blessed us with, and think just because they may not be “true”, makes them less real is a – and I know I’m using a heavy word for this, but I feel it – TRAGEDY!
In our work at the Morristown Juvenile Detention Center and Shelter, we four storytellers, see it over and over again. We watch these young people listen to our tales, with more attention that I get any place else I perform – and that is no lie – but they are unable to understand that while there may not be a real mystical tree, or demon with ten heads, or a place where people’s wishes come true, it doesn’t mean that these stories have nothing to do with their lives. Time and time again, we are astonished that these bright young people, seem unable to make the leap that the dark woods may not be an actual forest, but perhaps represents a place inside oneself that is somber, cold, and sad, or that the old woman at the side of the road offering wisdom might be the voice you hear inside of yourself, called your intuition.
Just last month, in THE MOST uncomfortable storytelling sessions I have ever had (and may it always stay the MOST uncomfortable), a young man – bright and articulate, could not see the metaphors and symbolism in the stories to such a degree, he was angry at us for wasting his time, and, I felt he was saying, lying to him. My fellow storyteller (Paula Davidoff), and I tried – she a lot more clearly than I - I have to say, to get him to understand the meanings and connections that could be found in the stories he had RAPTLY listened to, but the more we talked, the more he pushed back. For him there was no “grey” – all black and white.
That conversation did two things to me – it saddened me, and then, in the same way I have always responded since I was a teen, and was told to do something I didn’t want to do – it made me more determined! It made me see, even more, the value of storytelling and folktales, and it reinforced in me a sense of purpose. I’m not a shrink, a social worker, a classroom teacher, or a guidance counselor, but I am an AVID user of my imagination, and I intend to use that skill to reach who I can, whenever I can. It may not always work, we tellers may not always break through, but as I watch this epidemic of “no-imaginationitis”, I know I have to do something, and luckily for me I have the ammunition of the fabulous folktales from a multitude of lands to use. And I know that out there, there are storytellers, librarians, teachers, moms, dads, aunties, and grandparents that take up this cause. So, here are my closing words to those of you who see the spread of “No-imaginationitis” in our fine land. Take the kids you can and reach in and draw them out – dance, paint, read, dress up, EXPRESS!! Imagination is not a skill that should go the way of the dinosaurs. Let’s help kids evolve into human beings with rich, colorful imaginative inner lives, that will lead them to deep, meaningful outer lives.
Got a little preachy there at the end, I know, but I believe it all. Thanks for reading!!! Julie Pasqual