(The original version of this was drafted in early March. There is no longer snow on the ground, and ice skating has given way to bicycle riding.)
All we need is music, sweet music,
There’ll be music everywhere
There’ll be swinging, swaying, and records playing,
Dancing in the street. — Martha And The Vandellas
“You’ve never heard ‘Dancing In The Street’,” I asked in a lowered voice with feigned seriousness as though everyone in the world knew something that they did not, while looking into the inquisitive eyes of my friends aged four and six. They became quiet and earnestly shook their heads “no” from side to side.
“Well, we’ll have to change that,” I said with more feigned gravity.
“Meanwhile, let’s pretend like we have music, and let’s go sing and dance in the street.” I smiled at them. Then, as they’ve come to do often in the days since, they took my hands, a small hand clutched my left fingers, a smaller one curled around my right palm, and they led me outside, while asking me the million-and-one ever so important questions that kids ask.
Sarah, the older sister, Jordan, and I left the village store, and went onto the main road to sing and dance under the summer sun’s retreat.
“What do you want to sing?” I asked them.
“I want Oooga Chaka, Oooga Chaka” Jordan yelled, his hand now freed from mine, arms raised above his head, his face glowing in the thrill of this positively wild adventure of dancing and singing on the village’s main road.
So “Hooked On A Feeling” it was for a few minutes — though I’ve yet to figure out how he knew this one, our exotic musical safari taking place well before the song’s recent resurgence. We three slipped into random song and dance, led by the two star performers, in the middle of the street, on the outskirts of civilization, and we danced in the street until the sun went down.
“Hey, Lucy, look at us, we’re dancing in the street!” they laughed and shrieked to one of the locals who passed us, on her way home from the library.
“Indeed you are,” she said, somewhat amused, somewhat perplexed, mostly concerned with something more important.
Now, the above may smack of kitsch embellishment, but it’s a real story. And I believe it’s grounded in a deeper truth than adults allow themselves to live in — similarly, I’ve come to believe that kitsch is undervalued, for related reasons. In those moments late last summer, Sarah and Jordan became my soul friends, friends who remind me of something that need not change, but we seem bound and determined to let experience devour a precious part of ourselves: creative innocence. One of my great joys this past year has been Sarah and Jordan ecstatically squealing my name, and then unquestioningly running into my arms during our chance encounters. For Sarah and Jordan, life is immediate, free, loving, and nearly wholly imaginative.
I made certain that Sarah and Jordan got to sing and dance to Martha and The Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street” more than a handful of times, from late summer into the autumn. Then one evening, after winter had gripped the air, and several feet of snow covered the ground, I received an email from their mother, Amanda: “Hey, I’m thinking of you. The kids are running around the house singing their versions of ‘Dancing In The Street.’ Been doing it all evening.”
Yesterday, I ran into Amanda and Jordan at the library — Sarah was at ice skating lessons. Jordan saw me, yelled my name, ran to me with his arms wide open, jumped into my arms, laced his legs around me, put his face to mine, puckered his lips, and kept puckering. There we stood, locked for a minute or so, me kissing his face over and over, especially his puckered lips, him laughing and delighting in my unrestrained affection.
I let Jordan slide down to the ground, so that he could throw himself into the snow bank, before making a few snow balls to toss at me.
“So,” I said to Amanda, ” . . . I know the kids have birthdays coming up, and I have a couple of ideas that I want you to see. Not sure if they are age appropriate. There’s a really cute fire truck made of recycled milk jugs on Amazon, but I don’t know if it’s too young for Jordan. Can I send you the link?”
“Oh, that’s sounds very cool,” Amanda smiled, “but you don’t have to get them anything. Just have them over to your house. Really. Just have them over.”
I understood that Amanda was being polite. But later in the evening, I realized that these two friends really do need very little. Amanda wasn’t being polite, she was being descriptive. They don’t need anything, other than a friend who sees the world as they do, in all its imaginative glory. One of their favorite games during the winter was stealing my sweater and playing “catch me” in the store. Grandparents who give them most everything a child could want, but their favorite toy was my sweater; more precisely, my leniency in letting them steal it over and over and over for “I have your sweater, catch me if you can.” They pushed those invisible adult boundaries, and I simply played along. And face painting — using watercolor crayons, we spent an afternoon decorating each others’ faces and hands with fish, rainbows, sunshine, stars, and the indecipherable cryptic ornaments crafted by a four year olds’ fingers. Or combing my hair. They both love to have me sit in a chair and then comb my hair, while taking turns rummaging through my purse and pursuing a relentless q-and-a about its contents.
They still live in the powerful land of make believe, where the boundaries between reality and imagination haven’t been corrupted by the socialization of facts. A tube of gold mascara becomes a magic wand; a Pilates ball becomes a dragon; a living room chair is a fortress; a blue throw rug is a river; a storage closet is a jail cell. (Jordan is obsessed with putting me in jail for littering, despite my protests that I am innocent and my demands for a trial.) Everything is easily transformed for them, and I remember how real and vivid imagination is when we’re young: nearly everything possible can be experienced in that unbound terrain. Little is needed to create a universe — imagination creates the magic entry door, as well as the hills of whatever alternate landscape suits the moment.
There’s so much freedom in a mind that requires little, and demands nothing but its created pleasures. Let the imagination do its thing, and infinite universes emerge.
It’s tragic that we teach kids to need stuff, when lands and worlds already exist for them, invisible realities of greater depth and breadth than anything we can buy them.
Our most precious gift — our imaginative self — is bartered away for banality: Barbie dolls, G. I. Joes, plastic this, manufactured that, or whatever the consolation prize. Slowly, we replace creativity with disposable consumer items, television, and computer games. The imagination isn’t inspired to fill in the gaps with it’s own colors and countries, engage in play that feeds the deepest part of the soul. Unfettered imaginative play feeds us, because imagination speaks to the self that we’re in the process of unfolding, day by day. That’s where the magic of creation resides, for the life lived fully.
Ovid claims that “[i]n our play, we reveal what kind of people we are,” and I’ve come to understand this past year how little adults play. It took me moving from the quintessential land of adults — Cambridge and its oh so important intellectual environs, to see this truth starkly. Adult play is rarely play — most of the time, it looks to me like a series of numbing diversions incapable of nurturing the inner life, the hungriest part of the imaginative self. Play and work become all tangled up in a near psychotic mess that tries to pass for play and life, but more closely resembles an unconscious mishmash screaming “help me, I’m trapped, and I don’t know my way out.”
We stuff the fantasy equivalent of Doritos, Diet Pepsi, and McDonald’s burgers into our psyches 24/7, and then scratch our heads at our collective psychic malaise.
But what if we were really to take to the streets in joyful abandon? What if we really took to the streets, to dance and sing. Gather with friends in happy impromptu gatherings to make music and dance in the street, just as Martha and Vandella’s sang about decades ago?
We need to take our voices back, with courage and without comparison or criticism. Imaginative adventures, for the fun of it, insisting that our responsible adult selves take a time out, banish them to the corner for a few hours, and let the inner child rule the roost for a few hours.
I was at a casual dinner party last week, and it took over ten minutes for a group of ten people who knew each other to open up and really let themselves go, to sing to the “Frozen” title track. Adults, stymied in the privacy of a small group, socialized by years of learning what a dinner party presumably looks like, and apparently firmly convinced about what fun looks like. Most thought singing to a soundtrack was silly, at first. Until they reluctantly joined in. Once they broke free, they actually smiled and laughed and embraced the moment.
The power of freeing the themselves from socialization’s expectations, from the right and the wrong of the way things are, cracked open something deep in this small group. A small and silly foray made them laugh and experience the moment, lighten up and experience life without judgement. It was an impressive moment, one that they won’t forget, I suspect. Small and silly, but powerful and palpable.
There’s a wonderful internet meme that people love posting: “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching.”
My guess is that too many posting that meme don’t actually get off the computer, turn up the music, and dance like nobody is watching. Or better yet, dance in the middle of the street, and not care if anybody is watching. The joy and the unselfconscious experience of playing like a child dancing in the street under a setting summer sun may be the sanest thing we can do as adults.