“Daddy, pretend you’re a witch,” Sofia says. “Pretend I’m a dinosaur that just cracked out of the shell. Pretend when you see me you’re surprised. Pretend Shakira is here too and she can’t believe it I’m a dinosaur. Pretend you’re Shakira. Pretend now I’m singing on The Voice and you’re Shakira and you turn your chair around because you love it. Pretend you’re talking about me to the other judges. Now pretend you’re the other judges talking about me too.”
I can barely pretend I’m not losing my fucking mind.
But I’m impressed with her 6-year-old plasticity—she shape-shifts, she morphs. I’m a lumbering adult, playing along because I should and because I love her like long grass loves wind, but I’m not actually pretending to be these things. This kind of pretending, now that I’m an adult, often requires more energy than I can muster for some reason. That seems sad, like I’ve abandoned the magic of childhood, but I’ve finally sort of become something. Not really what I expected, but it takes a lot of energy, anyway.
If getting older often means less skill at make-believe, I think age, at least, does come with some authenticity. There has been a fairly long-standing sensibility in our culture—since the sixties, at least—that people over thirty (or forty) years old are likely to be phonies. I can’t agree. Dick heads, yes. More obviously weird and burned out sometimes, yes. Fakes? Generally less often than the young. Just think back to high school.
Maybe some of the necessary juice for play-acting gets used up by putting on a brave face, by pretending we grow entirely out of jealousy and confusion and fear. Or maybe we graduate to the awareness that we’d better make good with what we’ve got for real and stop pretending to be a writer or a musician or a dependable friend and fucking be one, however imperfect and despite our personal obstacles. Maybe we become ourselves.
We do, though, lose some flexibility, some softness on the way. I sense that loss when I look at this expectant and wholly concentrated face before me, one second a roaring lion, then a beautiful young singer, a dinosaur, Snow White. I know make-believe plays an important developmental role for the young child, probing the edges of what’s real, finding the core elements of truth, and holding off the troll of boredom. If I can pretend for Sofia that I believe in heaven, you’d think I could be a witch for five minutes.
I pull down the brim of my black, peaked hat. Clouds gather and swirl darkly over the yard. I raise my bony hands and cackle.
The speaker in Matthew Falk’s poem, “Autoreply,” remembers pretending as a boy to hear the voices of the ancients in mollusk shells. Falk couches this image as one of four tightly constructed declarative sentences, the muscular syntax seeming to belie insinuations of distance and disconnection. Along with its wonderfully disparate imagery, “Autoreply” displays strong skill with the sentence and the line.
“Bread,” a flash piece by Micah Chatterton, glows with beautiful figurative language. A short playground exchange—framed by images of a boy on a swing set—suggests the inscrutability of childhood, its strange codes and taunts and desires. Present, too, in this resonant story, is a grown person’s understanding of childhood’s meaningful brevity.
Tucker, the harried protagonist of Brent Lucia’s story, “Finding Zion,” pretends interest in the message of an evangelist. He drinks beer and wrestles with his perspective and shows the effects of loneliness and repression. The tension of “Finding Zion” develops skillfully, earns the intense denouement.
Photo by Chuck Pettis