When I was a little girl, I used to spend hours playing in the front and back yards of my parents' house. I'd sit in amongst the plants, mesmerized by the flowers, bugs, sticks, and stones that I found there. I used to build little tiny fairy towns out of leaves pegged together with sticks, packing the dirt in to indicate the floor plan, then adding furniture, walls, and roofs. I was fascinated at the thought that these little creatures of my imagination would people the little villages at night, after I had gone to sleep. I imagined them living their quiet fairy lives, darting in and out of the doors of my little leaf towns.
When I was 25, the summer after I graduated from college, I decided to go on a solo backpacking trip around England and Ireland. I had never traveled alone before and the trip proved to be one of the defining times of my life. I still sometimes smell a smell like that of the peat moss burning in the grey skies on the west coast of Ireland, even though I sincerely doubt anyone in Richmond, California is burning peat moss. One of my adventures involved traveling by bus to the city of Cong, outside of Galway, where they filmed the John Wayne film "The Quiet Man." Cong was a tiny little town, basically a bar and some houses. I stayed in a hostel a little outside of town. I knew nobody, but soon struck up one of those insta-friendships with a gender-bending punk rocker from Seattle. Anyway, during my visit to this creepy little place, I started feeling anxious. I can't remember why, but it might have had to do with being lonely there, having no transportation and very few buses out of town, and sensing a strange, dark energy in that town. I can't remember where the punk rocker was the day I went on a hike and found myself in a mystical forest, like the kind you'd read about in kids' books, with green moss all around, wet, dripping, primordial branches, and a still, dark pond in the middle of it. It was like I had stepped out of the modern world and ended up in a Tolkein novel.
I was anxious, lonely, and probably a little bit frightened. I was alone on my first solo trip, away from family and the comforts of home. I was in a place of weird vibes. So, to quell my anxiety, I sat down in that wet forest, by the edge of the silent pond, and started making fairy houses.
You may have heard of the term "flow", coined, some say, by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, and referring to a state of relaxed, focused, joyful attention to a task, when nothing else seems to intrude and we lose time. You may have had experiences of getting so lost in a task that you looked up to find that hours have gone by and you didn't even notice. That's what happened in that damp forest in Cong, Ireland. I lost time, and in the flow state, the agitation and anxiety left me.
In that hour or two that I spent building a tiny little town for nonexistent beings, I went back into my childhood and was five or six or seven again, finding solace in the miniature world right in front of my eyes. Nothing else mattered and there were no threats out there. When I came back to my world again, I felt better. I went back to the hostel, and, I believe, took the next bus out of town (which was the next afternoon.) But that afternoon in the forest stayed with me and the memory comes back to me sometimes. Inevitably I wonder when I lost the instinct to play the way that little girl - or the 25-year-old about to go out into the world of grownups - played.
Last week I was at my sister's house for dinner to celebrate my mom's birthday. It was dusk and the sun was sinking. The front door was half open, and from my chair I could look out and see my four-year-old niece standing in a patch of flowers, mesmerized by the flowers and bugs. She and everything around her was limned with golden light from the setting sun; everything glowed. She hummed as she peered under the leaves of the yellow dahlia, looking for who knows what. I sat, entranced, remembering myself as a little girl and how it felt to be wandering in the world of the plants and tiny folk. It's good to know that world still exists out there, and that I can still - at 40 - find it anytime I want.
top photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rounien/3510680891/
bottom photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/eleda/2862485209/