(Response to Daily Prompt: Toy Story for Blogging 101)
My memories of childhood toys are vague – a favorite stuffed animal or video game doesn’t particularly jump out, no matter how I dig. Other things come to the fore when I think about childhood, play, and how I spent my time.
My mom met the challenge of single parenting (on an often very limited budget) head-on. It was the time before the internet. She hit the library while I read books. She was on a mission to find awesome, interesting things to do on our budget. My cousin and I (and often our gaggle of four family friends) piled into her little, overheating-prone sedan and hit the road. We played in quiet beaches and rugged tidepools, wandered the vast, hallowed halls of public museums and the intimate spaces of small museums run by people who had a passion for their collection. We went up to the mountains, floundered in the snow, hiked to waterfalls, and got into mudfights in rivers. We tried to fish off a pier at midnight, faced down a pack of feral dogs, and fell asleep like a pile of oversized puppies, dirty and grimy and content.
We drove those winding, mountain roads in the middle of the night, just because we could, just because we were curious, just because the moon was bright and the world around us was breathtaking and we weren’t done exploring yet.
In contrast it was just Mom and me the first time I ever laid eyes on Yosemite National Park. It was a quiet trip, both of us intently focused on greater expanse of the natural world around us. We drove those winding, mountain roads in the middle of the night, just because we could, just because we were curious, just because the moon was bright and the world around us was breathtaking and we weren’t done exploring yet. The moon and the car’s headlamps illuminated wide-eyed deer and a lumbering juvenile bear, and the flash of the patterned tail of a raccoon disappearing into the brush by the side of the road.
We might have taken advantage of discount days at the museum, but one thing my mom never skimped on was art supplies. Once I figured out not to eat the paint I had pretty much anything I wanted at my disposal – paper and canvas, brushes, acrylics, watercolors, Prismacolor pencils, pastels. I remember my very first attempt to create en plein air. I sat by a small lake with my sketchbook and tried to capture a family of ducks and the disruption of the water’s surface as they paddled across, single-file. It sucks, by the way, but I was around six or seven if I remember correctly. Of course it sucked, I’m no Picasso!
These were my toys: the courage to explore, the self-sufficiency to get out there, the curiosity to appreciate the world around me and the need to know more, see more, experience more.
These were my toys: the courage to explore, the self-sufficiency to get out there, the curiosity to appreciate the world around me and the need to know more, see more, experience more. My mom found opportunities to nurture these qualities and facilitated them with a pair of hiking boots and a bunch of art supplies.
So no, I don’t much remember my childhood toys. I remember them existing, I remember enjoying them, I remember being one of the first kids with Pokemon cards and one of the last kids with a gameboy. What I had and what I explored and played with and grew up with seem to be two entirely different things in my mind.
Today I know I wouldn’t be who I am without these ‘toys’. These intangible toys in my childhood became invaluable skills as an adult, an integral part of who I am, what I do, and how I enjoy the world. How I survive the world. I remember being prone to recurrent bouts of depression as a child. I know, without a doubt, that if I wasn’t raised this way – in such a vast, dynamic world that requires, demands, nurtures deep exploration – that I’d be dead. Depression compresses your world into something so small and dark that it seems it’s impossible to find your way out. PTSD and anxiety make the world seem so chaotic that it’ll unravel your whole being the second you step out your front door.
The intangible toys I was given in my childhood armed me with memories that could pierce through the coffin of depression and re-interpret the chaos of anxiety. Memories to remind me that what the illness shows me isn’t what’s real, or isn’t the entirety of reality. The explorer’s spirit I was given stayed my hand during many suicidal nights, because while I may have loathed myself, I didn’t loathe the world, and my curiosity was strengthened enough that my self-loathing wouldn’t overpower it. When the illness told me everyone and everything I loved was better off without me, that tiny little anchor kept whispering – what would I miss if I was dead? Just one more day to see something new. Just one more hike along the river. One more painting. One more art gallery. One more walk with the dogs by the ocean.
The intangible toys I had as a kid were shaped by experience, sorrow, joy, exhilaration, and age. I play with them now on the trail and through brush and canvas, and wield them as weapons against my illness. I have no earthly idea where the pokemon cards are now, but my favorite childhood toys are with me 24/7, have grown with me and help me grow.