The one in which I fall through the looking glass
I recently found myself falling into a tiny cupboard of a bookshop. It was disheveled and eclectic, the very sort of thing one dreams about owning if it were possible to earn a living reading the day away on a Hogwarts set.
Within the stacks I found a small treasure, an old copy of The Three Musketeers (which, despite my obsession with Alexandre Dumas, I still haven’t read), and then behind the counter as I was checking out, I caught the twinkling gaze of an old copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Illustrated by Margaret W. Tarrant and inscribed with a note to Betty from her Aunty Gertie in 1925, I couldn’t resist. I bought the tattered old book stained with decades of other people’s tea and instantly became transfixed by the sheer imagination it requires to conjure up a white rabbit in a waistcoat running late for tea as a young girl naps leisurely in the garden.
Imagination is a beautiful thing. I don’t remember large chunks of my life because I was in another world in my head while I was doing them. The Buddhists would tell me to come back to the now—to feel the waves of the ocean as they knoll against my skin. But, quite frankly, there are much more interesting things happening in my head.
Like what if scientists eventually discover that those currents are more powerful than air currents, so we invent underwater pods that propel us around the world faster than airplanes or the boring company? And what if Jules Verne once stood in that very same sea and wondered the very same thing and that’s what inspired him to write one of my favorite novels, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea?
Children get it. When my three-year-old niece recently watched the original Mary Poppins, she became enamored by the world Mary and Bert painted on the sidewalk and then jumped into. She asked her dad if she could go there someday and he gave an idle, “sure, honey.” Now she keeps wondering when we can go to “that magic place.”
The fact that she believes this is a place she can go is wonderful. And it is because of that suspension of belief that authors like Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, and C.S. Lewis found an audience writing children's books. Who else would see the awe in an existential walrus waxing poetically to a clan of oysters as he eats them, a boy who never grows up and flies away to Never Never Land, or a family who falls through a wardrobe into a mystical winter?
I think when adults lose their imagination, sometimes they try to recapture it with hallucinogens. Often, when I hear adults talking about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Peter Pan they spout mythologies about Lewis Carroll or J.M. Barrie tripping on drugs in the park as they dreamed up the magical worlds they created.
There is no evidence that either ever did such a thing, but rumors abound precisely because adults find it implausible that a sane, sober, adult could come up with such literary nonsense as small bottles that are not marked “poison” and have “a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast.”
As recently as last week two friends tried to convince me that the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was about an LSD trip. Because of fantastical elements like “marmalade skies” and “kaleidoscope eyes” (and the fact that the nouns of the song title spell out “LSD”) the assumption has long been that the song was about a trip—and it became fantasized as such.
But, despite his proclivity for writing LSD-inspired songs, John Lennon repeatedly told interviewers that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was not one of them. The song title was taken from a drawing his son made at school and the lyrics were (perhaps not coincidentally enough) inspired by reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Wait what? Sober adults having an active imagination? That can’t possibly be true. No one just thinks like that naturally!
Actually we do. Some people believe in religion (A magical land we go to after we die? All of the dead people coming back to life? Must be trippin!), or the supernatural (Visitors from another planet? GHOSTS? The madness!), or techno-futurism (Colonizing Mars? Extending our life expectancy past 200? Preposterous!) And yet, those beliefs are powerful!
Take the placebo effect. The fact that we can believe we are taking medicine—even if we are taking no medicine at all—and it actually works 30 to 75 percent of the time—is proof our imaginations inform our realities. I remember a family friend who once put Lucky Charms marshmallows in a medicine bottle and doled them out to her daughter for everything from mosquito bites to itchy knees—and it worked!
Not only can we use our imaginations to our benefit, but we can also use them to our detriment—such as with hypochondria (the exact opposite of the placebo effect). Unfortunately, I’m no stranger to this phenomenon.
But we don’t have to be high to see things differently. We can believe odd things as much as we want. In fact, I’ve been known to believe odd things with great regularity. Like the time a random man passing me in the park touched my shoulder and said, “there will be a child, she is blessed,” and my husband and I immediately took ourselves to the vasectomy clinic.
I think a strong imagination is one of the most important powers a person can cultivate. And it is very much something that can be cultivated. As the queen from Alice instructs, “I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!”
The Beatles were inspired by psychedelics, this much is true. But they also deliberately sought out their imaginations. John Lennon was inspired by Buddhism to include the sound of “thousands of monks chanting” in a song. George Harrison saw someone playing a Beatles song in a sitar in India and took up the instrument and incorporated it into the album.
I once read an article about the artist Claire Keane who drew the concept art for Disney’s Tangled and Frozen. To design the murals that decorated Rapunzel’s tower she painted a wall in Disney’s art department, taking notes on what someone trapped in a tower might think and dream about.
Right now, I’m writing a Utopian novel that takes place in the far future so I bought a book of drawings by Ernst Haeckel to help me imagine what flora might be like in the future. And I’m not going to share my ideas with you about that because I’m superstitious that if I do, you’ll take my idea and write the book yourself! Another preposterous belief! And it’s not even breakfast!
I get it—the end-result of a Buddhist mind is that we can be present in our current reality. But the end-result of an active imagination is that we can create a new reality! Possibly even a better reality! Just think of Elon Musk—thanks to an insanely active imagination he dreamed up a fossil-fuel free existence and an interplanetary future, and now he’s actually set out to create it! (Probably inspired by science fiction novels and Total Recall.)
As Agustín Fuentes says in his article “How Did Belief Evolve?”: “We must believe in ideas and abilities in order to invent iPhones, construct rockets, and make movies. We must believe in the value of goods, currencies, and knowledge to build economies. We must believe in collective ideals, constitutions, and institutions to form nations. We must believe in love (something no one can clearly see, define, or understand) to engage in relationships.”
I agree. So do excuse me, but I must be off dreaming strange things! You never know what wonderful things might result from them…
Until next time.
P.S. I’m leading a Substack workshop for fiction writers on June 30th! You can register for that here if you’re interested.