I read somewhere (and I really, really wish I could remember where) that if you get stuck trying to figure out what to "be" when you're a grown-up, you should look back and see what you did for fun when you were nine or ten years old. Not what your hobbies were, or which sports you played, or which subjects you were best at in school (though those might play a part), but the thing you did on a winter afternoon when all your friends were doing other things and your mom was taking a nap. (Ahem.) The thing you did when you were supposed to be doing your homework. The thing you woke up early to do during summer vacation. The thing you loved, when nobody was watching and there was no reward for doing it.
When I was nine or ten, I read a lot and I wrote elaborate stories. I invented whole families of sisters (five or more usually - the better to use all my favorite names), and then I invented their lives. I sat with my best friend on my living room floor, and we went through the gigantic J.C. Penny catalog that came twice a year, choosing page by page what my characters would wear and which bedspreads would decorate their fictional bedrooms. Then I wrote about it in small, neat cursive. I still have a few of these stories. They're terrible, full of gratuitous detail and lacking any sort of a plot. But they represent my childhood passion, and so I keep them.
I did other things, too: played t-ball and soccer, went to catechism and piano lessons, went camping and rode my bike, had sleepovers, swam in my pool, played by the creek across the street. But writing was the thing I turned to when there was "nothing to do," and these days I still get a small thrill when I see the word "writer" attached to my name. On a good week, I have a few moments where I catch myself submitting an article I wrote or meeting an interesting person for an interview and I can't believe my good fortune, and I haven't stopped feeling grateful for it yet.
That best friend, the one who spent parts of her childhood cutting things out of the J.C. Penny catalog? She took those ideas - furniture, fabrics, colors - and drew and designed elaborate houses with them - the settings for my childish novels, if you will. These days? She's a de-facto interior designer, that friend that everyone calls to choose paint colors or put together their mudroom or re-do the baby's nursery. Another friend admits she logged hours in her childhood basement making up silly songs, putting on "shows" for her family, and getting voted class clown; she's getting paid for her work as a stand-up comedian and has an agent booking her events.
Annie's been spending hours and hours lately setting up elaborate tableaus of tiny toys and figures. These last few days, she's been on break from school, and she can occupy herself indefinitely putting together outfits out of fabric scraps for her dolls and animals, creating entire wardrobes out of ribbons, ponytail holders, string, clips, and sequins. Sometimes this involves her entire bedroom floor being covered in can't-be-moved arrangements of "furniture" and "people" or "wedding processions," and it does drive me a little crazy. But she's completely immersed in it, to the point that she has to be dragged to the museum to see the Titanic exhibit or forced to play outside in the snow for an hour.
I don't even begin to know what to call what she's doing - design? fashion? pointless mess-making? But the thing I love is that she's doing it for herself. It's something creative she can indulge in outside of the daily homework, piano practice, soccer conditioning, school-going, family activity routine. And the thing I worry about is that, as a society, we're not giving our nine-year-olds much of this kind of time at all. I worry that kids who get whisked straight from school to tennis lessons to ballet to swimming to ski school won't know what they love to do when nobody's watching; that if, when they're a grown-up trying to figure out how to create a career out of doing the thing they love, they are asked what they did for fun when they were eight or ten, they legitimately won't remember. I worry that we're programming our kids to perform constantly, to ignore that small, creative voice deep inside.
These days, I feel awfully lucky to be building a bona fide career doing something I've always loved. I hope it will be possible for my girls to do that, too, and I'm doing my best to give them some time here and there to be "bored," and to figure out what their passion is. As spring and summer approach, I'm committing to pushing them outside with a bucket and some paint, to letting them dump out an entire container of Playmobil and mix it with Play-Doh, to letting them "cook" something with limited guidance, to forcing them to figure out what they enjoy. I'm so glad that my parents did.