There are places that, as a kid, capture the imagination. Outdoors, there is nothing like a wooded valley with a creek, seemingly far from civilization, even if the nearest house is just over the next hill. Indoors, particularly on a rainy day, a basement or an attic compels the imagination to invent untold mysteries. As children, I think we need these places. We need places where dangers lurk, mysteries lie beneath the surface, and doorways to other worlds wait to be discovered.
I was reminded of this recently as I read the first chapters of Devin Brown’s “spiritual biography” of C.S. Lewis, A Life Observed. It’s the second biography of Lewis I have read in the last year (Alister McGrath’s monumental C. S. Lewis – A Life being the first), and the reading made me recall certain similarities between Lewis’s early creative development and my own. Lewis was asthmatic as a boy and, as he grew up in the humid, often wet climate around Belfast, was often kept indoors. Therefore, the world beyond what he could see over the next hills was mysterious to him and excited his imagination. There was no little to be stimulated by indoors either, however. His family moved into a large, three-storey house when Lewis was quite young, and he and his older brother had attic rooms to make their secret spaces and their father’s massive library to introduce them to other worlds, both real and imagined. Lewis took to a special corner of the attic to write his own first stories, complete with illustrations, whereupon one of the 20th Century’s greatest imaginations was birthed.
I, too, had asthma as a child and, living in the humid and highly-pollinated climate of Georgia, was thus kept indoors a decent bit. Not that there wasn’t much to explore outdoors; anything but. My family (my dad, paternal grandparents, and my grandfather’s brothers and sisters) has acres of land, both wooded hills and plowed field. At a certain patch of wood between my dad’s house and my grandparents’, a vein of granite jutted out of the earth into a semi-circle of rocks perfect for sitting; I finally began to use these in later years as a stopping point to write in my daily summer walks. Down the hill and across the field from our house was my great-grandparents’ house, long empty, which I only entered once, very late in my childhood. It otherwise stood a locked, shadowy mystery as I looked toward it on the late summer evenings when I would accompany my grandparents to the garden. Whether it was the sun hitting the warped, aged glass or not, I don’t know, but I used to think I could see a face gaze from time to time from the old windows.
While there was much to be in awe of outdoors, the indoors was where I particularly thrived as a child, much like Lewis. It was not video games that kept my attention, though. Book, notebook, and sketchbook were my friends. I began writing stories and drawing as far back as I can remember. There was plenty enough to discover in my indoor environments, as well, to stimulate the imagination. When I would visit my maternal grandparents, I was enamored, and a little frightened, by their basement. I was convinced that it was haunted (I’m not totally convinced that it wasn’t, but that’s another story). Still, I would play down there with my cousins or (if I could work up a little courage) by myself. My model train set, complete with a village, trestle, and mountain tunnel was a kid’s delight. Surrounded in the basement by slightly older furniture, a long-defunct electric organ, and lots of stuff from when my mom was young, there was no lack of strange atmosphere, and it created a setting for tales as I read of many other basements in books.
In retrospect, all of these activities and environments were like good fertilizer for my imagination. Stories were born from never-ending woods and dark closets. So, when I hear of C.S. Lewis inventing worlds accessed through a wardrobe in an expansive house or A.A. Milne creating adventures in a hundred-acre wood, I do not marvel. They take me back to my own experiences, my mind engaging with the world I was still discovering. With environments such as these, for those who appreciate them, a good imagination is bound to grow.
(Cover image: a photo from the front porch of my boyhood home on a winter’s day.)