Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Welcome To My ImagiNation

Me, age 8
I have always been what you would call "imaginative." Throughout my growing-up years, adults frequently referred to me as having an "overactive imagination." Translation: my imagination was so, ahem, strong that I quite often scared myself silly with the things I dreamed up.

My childhood world was richly peopled with crazy things that I believed with my whole heart. I never had the classic "imaginary friend"; instead, I practically had an imaginary life. I was terrified of my parents' unfinished basement in our first house in Idaho, convinced that monsters lurked behind the looming furnace and hid in the exposed vents and piping in the ceiling (to this day, I harbor a little residual leeriness when it comes to water heater closets and exposed piping). And if there weren't monsters in the basement, well, there were definitely monsters in the closet. Each night when my parents tucked me into bed, I would repeat the incantation, "Please close the closet doors." As long as the door was firmly shut, the monsters couldn't hurt me for the night.

For a long time, I had my own queen-sized water bed as a very young child. That same waterbed still sits at my grandparents' house, and I have to admit that every time I see it I am a little surprised by how much it's shrunk over the years. It looms in my memory as a vast expanse of rolling bed, enormous compared to my tiny body. It sat in the old style of waterbed frame, the kind with those soft pads all around it that always put me in mind of the bumper pads we used in the gutters when I went bowling. And yet: Despite the bed's massiveness, I slept on one tiny piece of it. The piece right up against the edge, to be exact. Practically shoved into the crack between bed and frame. My parents never understood why I wouldn't make better use of my enormous bed and, say, sleep in the middle, like a normal person.

But I couldn't. You see, the Three Bears (yes, those bears) lived on the other side of my bed, in the tiny crack between bed and wall, and every night they crept up to join me on my large mattress. I wasn't exactly afraid of them, but I knew we'd all get along better if I stayed out of their territory. Not once in my whole memory do I have a recollection of a time where I scooted closer to the middle of the bed. Then again, I never got eaten by the Three Bears either, so I guess that proves me right. Right?

While on the subject of sleeping at night, I had a few other quirks, as well. I always had to have a blanket (and preferably a thick one) on me, a preference I retain to this day. In some way I can't quite understand, it made me feel fundamentally safer from one of my greatest fears—kidnapping. I was sure, deep down in my little heart, that I would be safe as long as I was snuggled into a really intimidating blanket. I also had to make sure that blanket was tucked all the way under my chin and pulled up around whichever ear wasn't lying against the pillow. No matter how hot it was outside, that ear had to be covered. I had a deep and abiding fear of somebody coming in the middle of the night to give me "shots in my ears" (for real!), and had to make sure that my ear was never exposed. (Years ago, somebody suggested that maybe this fear came from my many hospitalizations in my first two years of life, where people probably came at me with ear thermometers pretty often.)

And it wasn't just at night that my imagination got out of control. I was horribly afraid of many things, including wolves, rattlesnakes, and any kind of natural disaster. One day in first grade, they announced on the intercom that there was a tornado watch in the area, and that all the children needed to head straight home after school and not hang around playing. As the announcement was read, I was petrified in my seat. I knew that a tornado was coming, that we were all doomed to having our houses sucked away and whirled to Oz, and that I had to get home RIGHT AWAY. As soon as they rang the bell I was off, running home as fast as I could without even waiting for my walking buddy to go with me. And in case you're wondering, no, the tornado never showed.

But the #1 fear of my childhood was a natural disaster of a different stripe: Volcanoes. I don't even remember where this fear cropped up, but sometime in my early childhood, I developed a deep and anxious fear of volcanoes. My sweet young mother decided that the best way to get rid of her child's fear was through education, and so she sat with me and read the whole Childcraft Encyclopedia article on volcanoes, including the story of ParĂ­cutin, a Mexican cinder cone that literally appeared in a farmer's cornfield in 1943 and was 5 stories tall after a week. My terrified little brain latched onto this story, and what it taught me was this: VOLCANOES CAN GROW ANYWHERE! In the Childcraft story, it had said that the Mexican farmer was first alerted to something being amiss when the ground started rumbling and the earth felt hot. Accordingly, I frequently checked the temperature of the ground wherever I was, and I instructed my friends to do the same. I have a vivid memory of me with several friends, feeling the blacktop on the school playground on a summer's day and freaking out that it was hot (and therefore, surely a volcano was on its way). Every night before bed (for years), I prayed that a volcano wouldn't grow under my bed. I frequently had horrible dreams involving hot lava, the most terrifying thing I could conceive of.

I was always afraid that Mount Saint Helens in Washington would blow, and that we would all be destroyed by the lava because there wasn't an ocean between us and the nearest volcano (since water was the only thing I knew of that could stop flowing lava). Somehow, I managed to live in Idaho for 5 years of that phobia without ever realizing that we were living practically on top of one of the world's biggest supervolcanoes.

My imagination trucked along as I grew up. In our first house in North Carolina, I used to sit out on our porch and make up stories about a group of three trees in our back yard. The tallest one I called the King, the prettiest one was the Queen, and a particularly gnarled old dead tree was the evil Grand Vizier, who also happened to be a cannibal. At any given time, I was enmeshed in a story in my head, pretending I was one of the characters from my favorite books or making up new tales of my own.

And eventually, I came to understand that a volcano would not grow under my bed, the likelihood of wolves breaking into my house or a monster lurking in the water heater were slim to none, and the Three Bears probably hadn't actually lived on the other side of my bed.

But that "overactive" imagination is still there. And let's just put it this way: I stay far, far away from scary movies.