Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Little Clay Figures

We are all familiar with the idea of imaginary friends. Whether or not you ever had such a friend, you have almost certainly heard about them, seen a movie about them, or experienced the concept in some other way. Some children get bored. Some are lonely. Some have more dire reasons for wanting to create their own entertaining environments. Sometimes, and I suspect that this is more common than not, sometimes it is a combination of factors, both critical and whimsical, that lead to the creation of imaginary friends.

I didn’t have imaginary friends, or rather, I didn’t just have imaginary friends. I had entire imaginary worlds. More than one world, and often heavily populated. Not always, though. Sometimes, even in my imagination, I didn’t want to be crowded. Variety is the spice of life, even if it is entirely fabricated variety.

I have always been a fan of fabricated reality. There have probably been times when I was too much of a fan. Who am I kidding? There have almost certainly been times when I was too much of a fan. That is often how it goes for people with too much imagination and not enough friends. When you’re not fond of the world in which you live, having a powerful imagination means that you get to make up new ones that are more to your liking.

I was not one of those children who had a Fred or a Jerry. No ordinary imaginary friend (is there such a thing?) for me! I have always been an unusual combination of analytical and creative, so while one side of my mind was populating the world with imaginary playmates, the other side was busy demanding that there be a reason why no one else could see them. None of that selective invisibility stuff either. That doesn’t even make sense!

Yes, adult me is fully aware of how that sounds.

The most common result of this internal clash was that my imaginary friends were very small. They hid in air vents, under dinner plates, or inside of my lunchbox. I could carry them around in my pocket or even mail them somewhere, if there was some reason that I could not just take them with me. It all worked out quite nicely, and made for countless hours of self-contained fun. The size limitation even added to the fun because I had to be more creative to make it all work. My imaginary friends came with grappling hooks, jet packs, and various other cool gadgets that helped them to get around and maneuver despite their diminutive size.

Then there was the added creativity of wanting to actually see my friends. I drew faces on pencil erasers, polished rocks, and folded up pieces of paper. I used real toys, action figures and such, though only rarely, and usually only in a “guest star” capacity rather than as my friends. Those toys were already characters in their own rights, and trying to fit a different character on top of them just wouldn’t usually work for someone like me. Everything has a place, and everything in its place. That kind of thing. I used a variety of methods that are probably common to creative children around the world, but my favorite method was the little clay figure.

I used modeling clay or playdough or the kind of clay you can make at home with baking soda and salt, whatever I could get my hands on, and I made little people. They were not fine sculptures or anything like that - I do not possess that kind of skill - but they were created with heart and determination. Sometimes I would use different colored clay for different features, but more often it was a one-clay lump that resembled a two-tiered snowman with stumpy legs and arms that fell off on a regular basis. I would carve in a smiley face with the tip of a pencil or a pin, and sometimes I would make accessories like baseball caps and sunglasses. I wasn’t very good at it, but it was fun to do just the same. I think we need more of that in the world. People should do things sometimes just because they’re fun, regardless of skill. In fact, doing something for fun in the complete absence of skill can, at times, be even more fun. The world needs more fun. We have a surplus of the other stuff.

I have had a fondness for little figures, clay or otherwise, since then. I try to declutter and keep things simple, but there are some things that do not show any signs of changing. Right now, as I look around my desk at the office, I see two cowboy figures (both gifts) and a small porcelain turtle (I am also fond of turtles). On my desk at home, there are two California Raisins figures (both saxophone players, as I was in high school) that I have had for as long as I can remember, a couple of action figures that are probably each older even than the Raisins, and three small diecast metal hot rods. If I were to travel around through other spaces where I have a defined presence, I have no doubt that I would come across the same results. I still collect little figures, and I keep them around me wherever I go for company.

We often do these things without noticing. I certainly knew that Child Me had a compulsion toward little figures - I have told stories about my little clay figures many times - but it had to be pointed out to me that I have carried a version of that compulsion into adulthood with me. It had not occurred to me on any conscious level that this was a holdover of the same psychological phenomenon. Had I known the same history and observed the same behavior in someone else, that connection would have been my first guess. We have so many blind spots that we don’t even think about, especially where our own lives are concerned.

The same imagination that gave life to my little figures as a child can also be used to draw a curtain around things the mind does not want to observe. In fact, it is fairly common that the reason the mind creates imaginary friends is as a method to avoid dealing with more complicated matters: fear, pain, isolation, rejection, etc. The mind is a powerful tool, but it’s also stubborn. It tends to want things to be a certain way, and often avoids looking at anything that doesn’t fit into that way. In order to live a mindful life, you have to not only be aware of this but you also have to be actively watching for and ready to deal with it when it happens.

There is certainly nothing wrong with having and using an active imagination. I could even say that there might be something wrong with not having or using an active imagination. Imagination is what we use to create what does not yet exist, and that is how we solve problems. Imagination is definitely a good thing, but you should make certain that you are using it, and not the other way around.

As children, we are learning to use the tools that make us human. That comes with trial and error, false steps, missteps, and many, many mistakes. Playing pretend is one of the methods, and can often be one of the best methods, of learning. It helps us to stretch out in our own mind and, hopefully, get comfortable with what is in there. In the early stages, your mind will do most of the driving, and you will be the co-pilot, or maybe even just the passenger. This is perfectly normal and expected. Over time, as you develop your thought process, you will increase your skills and, if you keep working at it, you will eventually be flying solo like the expert you really are. It’s your mind. You know everything it knows. You just have to get used to that idea.

I mentioned earlier that these were issues common to people with “too much imagination and not enough friends,” but I believe that half of that phrase is not actually possible. You can’t have too much imagination. The most imagination you can possibly have can do nothing worse than change the world. Imagine that! No, you can’t have too much imagination, but you can have too little control over your imagination. Feel out the spaces inside your mind and stretch your wings. You will make mistakes, but that is how you learn. As long as you are learning, you are living.

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