Ah, the delicious moments of lying in bed before a restful sleep, blankets warm and soft, pillow forgiving. Dreamy, dozy moments recalling blissful moments from that day and anticipating the wonderful adventures of tomorrow.
Yeah, not for me.
When I was a girl, I worried that precious quiet time away. I performed my little nighttime rituals. I ignored my sister, who ignored me back. Ignored me! The gall! The indignities one suffers when sharing a room! I aligned my pillow with one particular edge of one particular flower on the particularly peculiar green wall paper. Kinda like this, but with more sheen and less hipness. It was the 70s, you know, a decade swathed in avocado and burnt sienna, sheen and shag, chest hair and Tab. Wallpaper is supposed to disappear into the background. That is the very purpose of wallpaper. Not this wallpaper. It wanted attention, even negative attention and therefore acted out.
Once I put the pillow in the right place, I organized a zoo of stuffed animals on the bed. I relegated some to a line up against the wall. Two got prime positions cuddling next to me. I mentally transmitted words of comfort and love to those animals. I dared not speak aloud, lest my sister overhear and break the magic bubble by speaking or breathing too loudly. My stuffed animals could read my thoughts, but only when I chose. Sometimes I needed to keep things secret from Bear, my stuffed koala. (What? A four-year-old is going to name her bear “Dog”? Oddly enough, most of my creative outlets involve variations and skewing of reality. I would be hard-pressed to create a science fiction world. I could never write a fantasy book. I could never write a Gossip Girl type book either, but that’s more a function of principle.) I flipped the pillow back and forth to find the “cool side” of the pillow. I order my bedding from the McDLT line.
The WhatIfs showed up. My guess is they lived in the wallpaper, in tribes. The Nasty WhatIfs. The Happy WhatIfs. The Weird WhatIfs (this was me, after all, miniaturized and more mentally undeveloped. Insert your own joke here.)
I remember spending many kindergarten nights powwowing with the Worried WhatIfs, particularly about the workbook we used in class for reading and writing practice. The inside cover had the common imprint that most workbook and textbooks do: THIS BOOK BELONGS TO: and then a chart. Year/Name/Class/Teacher. I took that as law. I filled it in. I assumed someone would want this workbook…this filled-in workbook…when I finished, perhaps to be used the next year, perhaps to be kept as part of the Permanent Record, along with tardy slips and results of the annual scoliosis test. It did not occur to me that once I wrote in the workbook, no one else could use it. The problem was that early on, I wrote on the inside front cover. I practiced my stars. I practiced them so that when I pretended to play teacher at home, I could give myself stars for outstanding work and outstanding effort. I thought my own pretend school work was pretty awesome. (We had a mini-chalkboard in the basement that we liked to play school with. I remember my sister trying to teach me the concept of carrying in math when I was four or five. I didn’t get it. She got mad at me. She was six or seven. We didn’t play school after that. I was too dim for it to be fun for her.)
I concocted several scenarios of Mrs. Adams, teacher extraordinaire, collecting my workbook at the end of the year. The WhatIfs suggested painful reproachful looks from the lovely Mrs. A. To keep things fun, they sometimes mixed it up with other horrific scenarios. There was one WhatIf fantasy involving me getting yelled at (that, for me, to this day, is something I don’t deal well with). There was the fantastic disappointed breathy, “Oh, Jackie.” Then there was the call out, where the WhatIfs ran the mental movie in my mind of Mrs. Adams holding up my star-covered workbook to the class as an example of what not to do.
I don’t recall Mrs. Adams being a yeller. Most kindergarten teachers aren’t. I do recall her using gentle shaming techniques when we were in our reading circle once. It involved the same accursed workbooks. “I see someone’s eyes on someone else’s workbook. I see that person writing the wrong answer down. Now I see two people doing it! Now threee!” It wasn’t me. I remember covering my work with my arm and shielding it from the prying eyes of the little spies all around me. I liked doing my own work, and I loved the recognition it got me. I thrilled being called a Good Girl. That lasted a long time…I dressed the part up through freshman year of college. Knee socks. The key was knee socks. The key is always knee socks.
I had an entire clan of WhatIfs that dealt specifically with crayons. Similar situation. Back in the days before parents had to supply these things, each of us had received a small box of 10 crayons. My blue one got lost sometime around Thanksgiving. I remember trying to find it when I wanted to add blueberries to the picture of a cornucopia we had to fill in.
Mrs. Adams had a box of misfit crayons, all nubby and without good tips. Hundreds of them. I had to borrow one of those to make the little lines of blue at the top or bottom of the paper to indicate sky or water. I worried that she was going to collect those crayons at the end of the year and I would be in a similar situation as with the workbook. Again, did it occur to me that the box of misfit crayons had to come from somewhere? I didn’t ask my mom to get me new crayons, because she would have asked why. The shame of confession brought in a branch of the WhatIfs, bedraggled and bearded, mopey and dirty. We didn’t have the same brand of crayons at home, so I couldn’t just bring in my blue crayon and replaced it much like parents always seemed to try to replace dead hamsters on sitcoms in the 80s. They were always caught.
At the end of the year we just dumped our crayons in the big plastic box. No questions asked.
Mrs. Adams was pretty cool and had a bit o’ the Flower Child in her. She took us outside and tie-dyed shirts with us. She taught us about vegetables by having us make soup in class. I think I brought in parsnips, which I thought was really cool. She was kind. She introduced us to the concept of scavenger hunts, albeit rather easy ones. She read Amelia Bedelia to the class because I brought it in from home. I liked how silly she was, although I didn’t get the clever idiomatic twists at that time. She let me bring my brother in for show and tell when he was only 4 weeks old (My mom also came in! What a surprise!). He was a hit. I worried WhatIf I never had as great a teacher as she for the rest of my school career…
Bonus Blog Points to those of you noticing a distinct lack of common sense in my worries.
I would wonder a lot about life as a grown up. College scared me at the age of four or five. My parents talked a lot about college. It was a place of hard work and independence. It was an expectation. The question wasn’t “if” we’d go to college but which college we’d go to. (I’m happy about and grateful for that.) I liked the idea of the learning part (Hey, we got to tie-dye in college, too, although not in class. We also had giant Scavenger Hunts). I was just worried about the taking care of myself part. WhatIf I was alone? WhatIf I got scared? WhatIf I got in trouble? WhatIf I got in over my head? I didn’t lose those worries until after I graduated and was applying to graduate schools. Incidentally, I was alone, I did get scared, I didn’t get into too much trouble or in over my head. I survived.
I would do the math and figure out how old I was going to be when the year 2000 came around. I would always be proud of myself for remembering that since my birthday is in November, I wouldn’t be 28 on January 1, 2000, but rather 27. I would turn 28 that year. 28. I remember wanting to be blond and telling myself that I could go blond at 30 (I tried. It was hilarious a mistake.) I wondered about getting married, which would happen before I went blonde. (It didn’t. My marriage/hair color timeline was all out of whack.) I assumed I would be happily married and a really terrific writer/performer on The Magic Garden.
I imagined myself happy. I didn’t need to worry about that.
I wondered about WhatIf my parents died. Usually this involved some form of bus accident. There were no busses in the ‘burbs of New Jersey where I lived, so I have no idea where that came from. Not even school busses. I remember having arguments with myself about if one parent would die, which it “should” be. Who would take better care of us? Who would know that my sister tormented me? Who was I mad at that day? Elaborate fantasies. Probably developmentally normal. Probably.
My WhatIfs didn’t confine themselves to the drowsy hour of 8:00.
The sleepy town where I grew up had a murderer running amuck (amuck, amuck, amuck!) once. He was hanging around the school and the police department, who up until that time really only dealt with traffic violations, locked down the school. No one was released from class without an adult coming to get them. We weren’t told why we were locked down, only that there was something dangerous outside the school. WhatIf my mom wouldn’t figure this out and I would be stuck in class and my mom would wonder why I never came home. She did. As far as I know, all kids were claimed and no one was left to wither away in their tiny classroom, their parents staring at an empty plate at the dinner table saying, “If only we knew what happened to Johnny…”
My WhatIfs are sometimes quelled by the WhyNots? The WhyNots are full of potential and make my heart beat fast. WhyNots are the risks and rewards. WhyNot date Huzzy? WhyNot quit your job and pursue what makes you happy? WhyNot apply to grad school? WhyNot attempt to reconnect with people from your childhood? WhyNot audition? WhyNot try rolling out cookie dough? (I didn’t say they were all noble.)
The WhyNots stopped in the creative sphere awhile ago. Duty called. I taught. Teaching was safe. Teaching let me be creative to an extent. Teaching let me dabble in theater with the kids. It was, ultimately, a shadow pursuit of something I really wanted.
I thought the WhyNots would be my champions in improv. They were on the first go around (before I got pregnant.) The second time, I never quite knew to go with what I knew or to go into the silly zone. Neither seemed to work. My WhyNots apparently got into some sort of bar fight with the WhatIfs. The WhatIfs won. My WhyNots almost died in grand fashion, like Johnny in the Outsiders.
Maybe nothing gold can stay, but the WhyNots reinvent themselves more often than Madonna, although they aren’t nearly as socially relevant or interestingly dressed. My WhyNots are scratching their way back into my consciousness. WhyNot do this show? WhyNot write something? WhyNot you? WhyNot now?
The WhatIfs are the roaches of the ego: hard to destroy and fed on a diet of Twinkies and Diet Coke perseverations. My WhatIf worries extend mostly to social situations. What if this tiff with this relative comes up? What if he says this? Does he mean that? Does he mean something else? Queen to Bishop 2. I can worry about what might happen at a party for weeks. It’s ridiculous. These I write down now. They are the seeds of the Project. My WhatIfs, when harnessed, are amusing, real, outrageous ideas for stories and scenes and amusing anecdotes for the inevitable appearance on Chelsea Handler. (I can dream, right?)
If people can see the beauty in roaches, I can see the potential in my WhatIfs.
The WhatIfs are the pea beneath my mattress, nudging me to consciousness. There is the added advantage that this makes me the princess in this little analogy. I would definitely sleep better in a tiara.