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Burned Bridges

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In life, you will read a handful of books that will change the way you see the world, books that connect with your soul and books that provide you with inspiration and guidance as you make your way through life. Nearly thirty years ago, I read a book by Katherine Paterson that impacted me deeply. Last Friday night I watched that same book, Bridge to Terabithia, come to life on the big screen and was surprised with the emotions that swept over me. The main character of the book, Leslie, and I had a lot in common - smart little misfits that loved to make up stories with their vivid imaginations.

My brothers and I grew up shooting at trees pretending they were 100-foot monsters. We ran and hid from space ships that were clouds. We were Eskimos in our backyards in the winter and cave explorers in the recesses of our closets in the summer when it was too hot to play outside. We built tents with blankets that stretched from one end of our bedrooms to another while camping on Mount Everest. We ran through ditches collecting crawfish and frogs and pretending the rocks we found were valuable jewels. Our backyard, our neighborhood, was Terabithia.

When I read this book in grade school, the reality that a child could die was incomprehensible but her fantasy world made perfect sense to me. As an adult, reading the book to my own child before we went to see the movie, I was shocked by how little detail Ms. Patterson actually included in her book regarding this imaginary place and the characters that inhabited it. I realized that the appearance of the characters and the world of Terabithia was my own - I dreamed up the vision of that place, and my world was nothing like any one else's. It was not necessarily her descriptive words that drew me inside but her words brought me to a place and my mind made her world come alive.

Reading chapter by chapter, night after night, I asked my daughter Mairin to close her eyes and describe to me what she could "see." I wanted to know what her Terabithia looked like. I was delighted to see her world come alive with smelly trolls, gentle giants, brave warriors, a regal palace and crowned monarchs. It was beautiful, warm and sunny, full of flowers and soft pine needle floors. She was there. She was drawn in and sucked vicariously into a place she had never really been before - her mind.

Mairin's world, like so many worlds of children whose siblings have autism, is steeped in reality. Everything is concrete. Everything has been black and white and full of binary options as we taught her brother to speak and function. Fantasy for our family is clearly a luxury that we just don't have time to revel in. It is all we can do some days to make it through the basics of the day and brush our teeth before we collapse at night.

Unlike me, a little girl who hit the backyard every morning as soon as I finished my breakfast cereal and didn't come inside until my mother was hoarse from screaming before supper, Mairin spent the majority of her formative years inside a locked house. Her brother is an escape artist. He likes to get out and wander. Until 18 months ago, he couldn't tell anyone his name without very specific prompting. My key ring looks like a warden's - different key for every door, security alarm always on when we are home or away, safety first - life second.

Because our lives have been chaotic, the only way to survive has been extreme order. My friends constantly tease me about the OCD level of organization around our house. The pantry looks like the husband from Sleeping with The Enemy put the groceries away but is designed to keep Liam's food on one side and our food on another so that everyone who comes in and out of our house is clear on what he can, and cannot, eat because of his special diet. Toys on the shelves are organized into labeled plastic containers so that therapists can get to them easily for the skill du jour being taught. In fact, toys in our lives are no longer playthings but tools to try and reach Liam. We had to teach him how to play but even now, when he plays with his figurines, he simply quotes whatever Disney movie he is acting out before him. The order and structure of the last
nine years has strangled the creativity and imagination out of both of my children during a time when it should be at its peak.

The morning after the movie, I decided we needed to test the limits of our learned playskills and transition to an imaginary world. We packed a picnic lunch, our crowns, capes, and a spear we just caught at a Mardi Gras parade and headed for the hills. I knew my kids would have difficulty realizing that Terabithia might be in their backyard but in the right setting, I knew they could find it in the Tunica Hills 90 minutes north of town.

We hiked all afternoon. We crawled over boulders and ran behind waterfalls. With the vision of the movie and the words of the book fresh in their heads, the imagination transplant was taking hold. We ran from trolls and shot our "stick" guns at the bad guys. We forged a little stream as if it were a raging river. We even found a huge vine hanging near a bridge and swung on it pretending that we had crossed over into Terabithia. Liam wore his crown and Mairin wore a
Superman cape to signify their royal status. By the orders she was barking in her most haughty accent atop the boulders, I knew that Mairin was most definitely the queen. I could see it on her face, but more importantly, she reflected the magic in her eyes.

The last two generations, my generation and my parent's generation had an amazing gift. By virtue of the Industrial Revolution, the human race developed enough machines that life became simpler. Our parents didn't rely on us nearly as much as theirs had to work and help out around the house and we were allowed to run free and explore. Not that the generations before ours weren't creative, just that we had more time to explore our minds since we weren't doing chores
from sunup to sundown seven days a week. As a result of increased leisure time, baby boomers and their children developed a level of creativity unparalleled in human history that allowed the second half of the last century to explode with invention and innovation.

The outcome of that invention and innovation is that everything is done for us now. We see what we could be thinking. All of our dinners come frozen or in box mixes. We have all of these devices designed to save time from email to cell phones. We even have "reality" defined for us in television shows that show us a "slice of life as it happens" without creative twists. But with all these time saving inventions, we have increased our levels of stress and that stress carries over into our kid's world.

When was the last time you took your children out and threw yourself on a blanket just to stare at the shapes of the clouds? Have you showed them the art of braiding clover into a crown? When was the last time you turned off their television, banned all electronics and threw them outside after breakfast on a Saturday and told them to find something to do until dinner?

Mairin turned nine last Friday. She is halfway to adulthood. She has spent her childhood as a miniature grown up caring for her older brother. The emotions that I experienced watching that movie were not due to the death of Leslie per se, but because of the death of what she represents - childhood imagination. I made a commitment sitting right there in that theater to revive it. It is too soon that life takes hold and fills us up with marriage, divorce, careers, medical bills, Visa bills, politics and strife.

This is their time to explore their minds. We have to protect that time for them and give them that chance to grow or we will wind up with a generation of creatively deficient people that will do exactly what we have taught them to do - surf through life instead of living it.

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