The Intersection of Imagination and Reality
Recent events in the news, the terrible events of the accidental killing of a cinematographer on a movie set in the US brought memories of a dear childhood friend starkly to the surface. And I asked myself yet again, as I have many times since my teens, when does the world of imagination become transposed with that of reality?
In the humid and polluted air of Jakarta I had a childhood of joy and freedom – unlike many expat kids who were limited to their house and school (with a ‘chopir’ (Indonesian for chauffeur) to ferry them back and forth), I lived in a hotel complex with most of its’ 32 acres as my playground. Two pools, a lake (that contained a crocodile for a period of time, discovered when the ducks started to disappear), a bazaar of stores and a few restaurants were scattered throughout the property. A lot of kids stayed at the hotel when they first arrived before settling into their new homes; it was wonderful to have a regular influx of playmates but then they also left after a short time. Luckily though most of them ended up at the international school so I got to usher them into their new country as well as their new school.
One of my favourite people ever to come through was a boy who was just a little older than me, Jon. Now, being a tomboy, I loved playing adventure and all things ‘boy’ (this was the 70’s when activities were mostly gender labelled) – climbing, driving pedal cars, acting out fight scenes – it was all great fun. More often than not though, being one of the only females in the group, I was relegated to the ‘girl’ role, the one who invariably ‘needed’ to be rescued or discovered. It was so boring, all that hiding and waiting.
But oh Jon, he was different. He had an engaging smile and affect that made everyone flock towards him – he was never without friends. He always wore those white tube socks with coloured block lines at the top: red-blue-red or blue-red-blue. They were hard to find in Jakarta those days but once I had a set, I wore them all the time, emulating my friend.
I remember exactly where I was the first time we met – he came towards me with that determined stride leading a gaggle of kids out of one of the long dark hallways of guest rooms as I stood with my back to the lobby doors and the red clay tile under my sandalled feet. He smiled brightly, telling me they were playing a game and asking if I wanted to join. (Of course.) Already delighted with the invitation he asked me a question that made my tomboy heart burst with happiness, knowing I wasn’t going to be relegated to the damsel in distress role yet again: “Do you want a gun?”
Jon and his family stayed at the hotel longer than most, or perhaps it seemed that way since we played together so often. These were the days of the recent release of the blockbuster Star Wars and though I hadn’t seen it, Jon would describe scenes and we’d act them out – leaping aside and around obstacles, guns drawn and scenes blazing in our imaginations. He was Han Solo to my Princess Leia and with Jon, I didn’t mind being in that female role – strong, resilient, and equal. We also talked a lot. Jon’s older brother was in the military back in the States and Jon wanted to follow in his footsteps but as a pilot. I used to draw jet planes and imagined joining him in the air despite his telling me that that the G forces were hard on women (I knew we women would overcome that challenge.) And even after he and his parents moved out of the hotel and into their house (oh, sad day), my brother and I would still visit him to play and hang out. It used to frustrate me that my brother was always invited along but that was Jon: ever the gatherer of people.
All too soon his family were transferred to South America, another oil-rich land, and my relationship with Jon moved into long winding letters about the ups and downs of life. Occasionally I’d receive a letter in return (never as long as my windy missives) in his familiar cramped writing style, sloping sideways off the page. He shared about his baptism, his plans (still to go into the air force) and the fun times: playing the xylophone in the school band (the first time I’d heard of the song Hotel California) and all the school dances. His Mom had written later that he would come home from those dances buzzing with energy, his hair dripping with sweat.
He was the person I wrote to when I was down or bursting with news. I had moved to Canada in my early teens, and he was still in South America. I was envious that he still lived the expat life and my teenage heart wondered if he was dating anyone. They were childish letters, but his mom told me later that he always enjoyed receiving and reading them, even if he didn’t write back regularly.
When I was 16 my parents had booked tickets for us to attend the theatre sensation: Cats. After we were dressed up and ready to go, our parents said they wanted to tell us something and so we gathered in the living room. I don’t recall the words they used but the news was somber: our childhood friend, Jon had died by accidental gunshot a couple of weeks before. I remember going numb and seeing my little brother’s face draining to sheet white. I believe my parents’ thought was that sharing the devastating news before a something fun would help ease the pain and shock, but I can tell you, ‘Memories’ from that musical is forever seared together in my heart to the tragedy of Jon’s death.
When did that toy gun become a real gun?
When was plastic replaced by metal?
Not much later I had a dream of Jon and I together, playing as we used to – carefree as children. Then we were both in jets, flying up and up towards the heavens, smiling with glee at each other through our glass canopies, noses to the sky, spiraling white trails in the blue heavens. And then we turned into bright white doves and Jon went further up, saying goodbye when I could go no further. I had such peace from that dream – a message of love and that ‘I’m alright.’ I later shared the dream in a letter to his mom and believe it gave her some small sense of peace as well.
There are no words to capture the pain of a sudden, violent end to life. My ardent wish is that the family of the cinematographer who was killed by the accidental gunshot on that movie set this week will one day receive a dream or message like that, one that provides peace and a sense of closure.
And still the question remains: when did a movie gun, a prop, turn into a weapon?
When did the world of imagination intersect so violently with reality?
Leaping versus Pushing (or: How Ilse & Ziltan came to be)
Have you ever had that feeling that change was coming, that gut-wrenching, thrilling feeling that life’s about to get really different whether you’re ready or not? That feeling of ‘I’ve got to get out of here’ even if you’re not sure what’s next?
When it happened to me in 2019 I was on a trend of being irritated with work, feeling like I wasn’t quite a good enough mother, partner, gardener and it being spring – a time of renewal and fresh life emanating from the earth – I took heed and quit my job. I’d also go so far as to say that I was seriously considering quitting my career of two decades. It felt like freedom and folly at the same time. Where would money come from? Who did I think I was, to change everything in this way? At the same time it felt like I could stretch myself further than ever before in all sorts of directions I had never even considered or perhaps more accurately, noticed.
Years earlier I was working in a place that ‘made sense’ strategically and although right from the start I was uncomfortable with a group of my fellow staff members I persevered thinking it would get better, that I would get used to it – all the things one tells oneself when something doesn’t feel right but you don’t know how or really want to change it. Eventually I spoke to my boss, the contract holder and asked to be moved to a different location but because it didn’t make sense for the company, the change wasn’t granted. And guess what? Not much later the contract was cancelled, and they got someone else to fill the role.
So when that same familiar feeling came upon me in the spring of 2019 I took heed and leaped, instead of being pushed. Soon after – mere weeks – my ever strong and tireless father suddenly showed signs of an illness, a lurking secret thing that meant his life of world travel would have to be on hold for a while. Not much later the request came to help out – as the family member with comfort in the medical field and suddenly free of obligations – I was happy to have the freedom to move into the role of daughter and support person and realized this was what the urge was telling me – be free to take care of your family.
Six weeks after leaving my career, four weeks after becoming a more involved and supportive daughter my Dad passed away of sepsis before he could be fully diagnosed. He died in the ICU in the hospital where I started my career. It was like time both stopped completely and expanded dramatically in that one moment. I could barely breathe without his breath beside mine, as it had been my whole life. There’s a type of tearing apart, a rending of the heart and soul that happens when someone you have loved for your whole existence walks no more on this green earth.
The week before his death, at my father’s behest, my son and I drove from BC back home to Alberta to go on a much anticipated camping trip – Dad had a treatment plan in place and was feeling good about next steps. Surely, he said, we could go on our trip and come back later in the summer if needed. He gave me money (a novelty to us both as for the first time in decades I had no income) to spend the night at a nice hotel along the way rather than making the twelve hour journey in one fell swoop. I wish when I hugged him goodbye I had told him I loved him, whispered it in his ear, rather than joking about his eighty years.
The next morning I awoke swathed in the soft hotel bed, white sheets surrounding me and bright light streaming through the window with a dream still with me, a bright, vibrant image and two words that I’d never heard before. My mind started to turn them over – the words, the image melding, morphing, becoming alive – and suddenly, as if no time had passed, the writers mind of my childhood and teens emerged and a story started to form. As we drove East for our camping trip the characters took to life and a host of others joined them, familiar locations grew into their homes and their life challenges became clear. That part of myself reemerging was a delight – like uncovering a lost treasure or biting into the sweetest piece of fruit you’ve ever tasted – my senses were heightened and I tingled with new life. It was like falling in love.
The afternoon after my Dad passed away I sat in my parents’ garden. The sun didn’t warm me, the flowers didn’t glow. A great echoing space enveloped me – and yet, yet – the story was there inside me, those characters, real people needed to come out, their story had to be told. In that grey gap-space of grief I was able to kindle colour and light in the story of Ilse and Ziltan. They soothed my pain with the creation of their life together, their love for each other echoing mine for writing; my grief informed theirs.
A dear and insightful friend suggested the dream was a gift from my Dad – a light for the dark path ahead. And I wonder of course, if I hadn’t leaped right when I did, would I have had a free hand to take that lamp, to walk this new path with the grace of such a gift? I think not.
Now I do my best to leap when the feeling comes (though it scares me every time) for you never know what blessings will appear to guide and soften your path.