Rediscovering Simple Bliss

This past Easter, my mother found a bag of my old childhood toys that I had once, long ago, decided to keep on that woeful day that every pre-teen secretly hates — the day they are asked to sort through and get rid of the things they’ve outgrown and abandoned.

I can vaguely recall the very day I had to pack the bag. We were moving. I mostly remember that I had not touched any of those toys in eons, but having to get rid of them felt strange. There was an unspoken comfort knowing that they were in the corner of the basement of our home. They were like specters of my waning childhood that were finally being expelled.

I was an only child, so a significant chunk of my youth was spent substituting toys for a sibling. I had a playroom with enough trinklets to make me forget I ever wanted a little brother or sister. Because really, who wants to share her gaggle of perfectly blonded Barbie dolls and their obnoxiously pink camper van with another tiny human? Not I, said my six-year-old self!

It didn’t stop at the Barbies, though. There was also the sprawling pink plastic equine estate that belonged to my hoard of My Little Ponies. I had dozens of them. Ones with blinking eyes. Ones with velvety fur. Some even had scratch and sniff asses that smelled like fake strawberries. Whatever some Hasbro genius came up with to reinvent the majestic quality of a plasticky pony – I had it.

As great as those toys all were though, there was one collection that was like the crown jewel of my playroom.

It was my She-ra dolls.

I cannot even tell you how much I loved She-ra. I remember being around four, and having a dress up She-ra outfit complete with a sword, a shield and that crazy Princess of Power mask. I would wear it as I watched the cartoon in the afternoons, while I had the complete collection of action figures engaged in a pantomime version of the basic plot of the episode with the obvious absurdist flare of a toddler who was dressed up like a mythical heroine from another dimension.

I lived in my imagination as a kid, as you can likely tell, and this mélange of toys always welcomed me home from school and eagerly played with me. Which was nice to have because — if I’m going to be honest — the kid who lives in their imagination gets teased a lot. I can attest to that.

I can’t even pinpoint if there was an exact moment when the world within my playroom ended up moving into the unfinished part of the basement of my childhood home. I think finally making some friends in grade school spurred the transition.

The method to my decision-making escapes me, but eventually it all fit into a single plastic shopping bag. Knowing me, it was pretty likely that I saved the most special or unique toys with the sublimely innocent subconscious thought that I’d most likely want to play with when I’d unpack them later, because they meant the most to me and they always would.

And so they sat for over 15 years in that bag, and they waited for me to return.

Handpicked for their specialness, they squished into dusty boxes and passed through three more homes that belonged to my parents, a few storage spaces, and eventually settled in the basement of the home I recently bought – my very first.

Had my mother not been over during the holiday weekend and decided to go on a tear to find a bundt cake tin that she thought she’d accidentally given to me, they may never have seen the light of day. As an aside, I don’t even know what a bundt cake looks like, but I’ll stop digressing…

I was sitting in my living room playing with my 18-month-old daughter when my mother marched upstairs with the plastic shopping bag, and I immediately knew what was inside. My heart kind of opened up for a second and I wanted to scream out, “I didn’t forget you guys, I promise!”

But the truth is, I had. I totally had.

As years went on smoking cigarettes, and writing terribly self-indulgent poems about my awkwardness, and drinking coffee, and then drinking beer, and listening to The Smiths and New Order and Patti Smith and Kate Bush, and trying to learn to draw, and trying not to write because people made fun of me for it, and sex, and love, and loss, and science fiction books, and sad Jeff Buckley songs, and driving in cars aimlessly – all of these things filled the time and space that the memory of a misplaced plastic bag of toys could no longer fill.

And I grew up. And I grew old. And I forgot there was a time when playing with a bunch of silly toys made me happier than any of the things that ever came later did. And it seems so weird, doesn’t it? The idea that we almost try to forget simple bliss sometimes.

We opened the bag. Inside were five or six My Little Ponies in varying stages of grime and unkemptness and my intact collection of She-ra figures — minus the dress up set, which I am still so mad at myself for ditching!

The funniest item in the bag though — the one that made me laugh out loud — was a set of plastic smiley teeth from a long-discarded Mr Potato Head. I used to wear them in my own mouth endlessly for a cheap laugh as a kid. I had seen such value in them that at one point in my life that I chose to keep them as one of my favorite worldly possessions.

As I was laughing with my mother about having kept this mess of old toys for so long, my daughter picked up one of the ponies that I had just cleaned off, and she studied it for a second, unsure of it.

I got down on the floor with her and I showed her how to pretend to trot the horse around, and she giggled. And we learned to make it “neigh”, and she giggled more. We bounced around with these ponies and I saw something firing in her eyes as she learned how to not just chew on their feet, but dance them around, or kiss them, and cuddle them. She was learning how to play in front of my very eyes and she was falling in love with it. Her imagination — the world within her — was starting to ignite.

And so I have to be grateful for the previously unseen wisdom of my pre-teen kid-logic. This little trove of goodness that I clung to as my childhood evaporated around me many moons ago did come back to me, in an afternoon of playing ponies with my daughter. I hope that the joy that we shared together will live on inside her for as long as it possibly can. Because while what comes after is still pretty great, I can see now that the moment in youth where imagination runs wild is a rare and spectacular kind of happy.

Imaginative playtime is worth protecting because I think it makes for an early life-compass on how to create your own contentment and happiness, in general. Or, it will keep my daughter busy long enough to forget about a sibling. Either way, it’s a win win.

Read more from Elizabeth Fraser here.

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