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Claire McCarthy, M.D. Headshot

Shrinking in the Shower: The Wisdom of Childhood Magic

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Alamy
Alamy

The other evening, as I was trying to get him into the shower, my 6-year-old son Liam explained to me the meaning of the phrase "hits the spot."

"There is a spot," he said, pointing to his chest. "It's small when you are little," he explained, putting his thumb and index finger close together, "but it gets bigger when you grow up. When you eat something, it passes by that spot and you feel good." He wriggled out of his pants. "Sometimes it makes you feel dizzy -- but in a good way, like how I feel when I drink hot cocoa." He demonstrated by spinning around, narrowly avoiding the bathroom scale and towel rack. "It makes you just want to lie down."

"So that's what 'hits the spot' means," he said, as he got his socks off and climbed into the shower.

Liam has explanations for everything, from moonlight to sleep to how airplanes fly. Sometimes they are pretty close to accurate; Liam asks lots of questions and listens to the answers and is developing a remarkably good grasp of a remarkable number of concepts. But sometimes they are purely fantastical. And yet, the logical, matter-of-fact way he explains them to us (patiently, too, as if we are beings of lesser intelligence) makes them seem somehow plausible and possible.

Around Liam, possible stretches.

As we finished the shower, making sure all the shampoo was out of his spiky hair and that he'd soaped and rinsed everywhere, Liam looked down at himself and said, "I feel smaller."

"Like you shrunk in the shower?" I responded. "Well," I said (not thinking about the ramifications), "sometimes things do shrink in hot water."

His eyes got big as I helped him out of the shower and wrapped him in a towel. "I really do feel smaller, " he said, dropping the towel and getting on the scale. "I think it was a bigger number before."

I have no idea what Liam weighs so couldn't dispute with the necessary certainty. "You're not smaller, sweetie," I reassured him. But Liam was not to be convinced. He put on his pajamas. "These were smaller before, " he said.

A memory came to me suddenly, of an afternoon when I was 9-years-old. I was walking home from elementary school with my best friend Katie Gorman. It was a really foggy day, and the crest of the hill on Kemswick Road disappeared into the mist.

"Maybe," I said to Katie, "when we get to the top of the hill we will walk into a different world."

Katie stared up at the hill for a while. "Maybe we will," she said finally.

We walked silently and slowly, our eyes on the top of the hill. As we walked, my heart quickened. It was silly, it wasn't really possible, but -- what if it was? There was something about the heavy mist that made the day and the road feel different from anything before. I thought of Narnia and the other wondrous places I'd read about in books and how in those books ordinary people got to have extraordinary adventures. Why not me? I imagined what it might be like -- and felt excited and just a little bit hopeful that maybe the world could indeed have some magic.

As we got to the top of the hill, it became clear that the only thing on the other side was the downslope of Kemswick Road. Of course there was nothing else. We didn't talk as we walked down the hill.

I've never forgotten that feeling as I walked up the hill. It was wonderful, that sense that the impossible might not be impossible after all -- that possible could stretch.

We think of it as a silly childhood thing, stretching possible. We laugh at it in our children and take it as a sign of maturity when they stop doing it. But living it every day with Liam has got me thinking that it's not silly at all -- and that we shouldn't stop doing it. Narnia may not have been at the top of Kemswick Road, but if you always let your thinking be limited by what people have told you is possible, you will never discover anything new. In fact, it's that ability -- or maybe just willingness -- to imagine other explanations and solutions that has led to every great discovery.

I knelt down in front of Liam and tugged at the bottom of his pajama shirt.

"Maybe you're right," I said.