Category - Let's Pretend
Essay by Francine Prose

Pretending is how we find out what it is like to be ... to become. To be grown up, older, wiser, braver, independent. Different. By putting on a costume - our mothers' dresses and high heels, our fathers' roomy jackets, angel wings and glitter wands - we step into another sin, and we hope that skin will change us. Or at least that the game will let us experiment, try on how it might feel to be changed. The adult world loses some of its scary mystery when children pretend to be adults, and the secret sources of their parents' power are rendered less intimidating, more approachable, harmless - comical, in a way. Children pretend to be their parents, at home or at work, long before they have any idea what exactly their parents do.

As children, we pretend to be what we want to be, or what we fear becoming, or to possess what we know we can never have and still cannot stop wanting. Meanwhile, we enjoy the intoxicating freedom to is our imagination, to exercise it the way we exercise our fingers with piano scales, to reinvent the world and ourselves. Playacting lets children step out of their families lives and enter into another realm limited only by how much and how far they can imagine. By pretending, they can escape from the most basic laws of science and nature - they can travel in time and space, defy gravity, change shapes, grow younger and older.

In Katherine Mansfiled's exquisite story "Prelude," a group of girls (exiled to the margins of the world of grown-ups too distracted by their own worries to pay much attention to their small daughters) have a classic tea party. At each place, one of the children sets out "two geranium leaf plates, a pine needle fork and a twig knife. There were three daisy heads on a laurel leaf for poached eggs, some slices of fuchsia petal cold beef, some lovely little rissoles made of earth and water and dandelion seeds, and the chocolate custard which she decided to serve in the paw shell she had cooked it in."

What is it about tea party that so entrances little girls, with its elaborate formal rituals of a bygone era? Even girls who spend most of their leisure time scrambling on jungles gyms, plummeting headfirst down slides, beating boys at races and games - even they can nearly always be tempted by the chance to dress up, set out little plates, and daintily decant homemade concoctions from one container to another. It's a dream version of womanhood, all elegance, friends, and bright chatter, a fantasy of our mothers glamorized, elevated, and freed from the sobering, unromantic encumbrances of dirty dishes and diapers.

With this magnificent miniature repast before them, the girls in the Katherine Mansfield story act our their drama of adults politely neglecting their children:

"Oh, good morning, Mrs. Smith. I'm so glad to see you. Have you brought the children?"

"Yes, I've brought both my twins. I have had another baby since I saw you last but she came so suddenly that I haven't had time to make her any clothes yet. So I left her ... You needn't trouble about my children," said Mrs. Smith graciously. "If you'll just take this bottle and fill it at the tap - I mean at the dairy."

Much of the pretending is about self-determination - and about understanding. If we can only look like our mothers, speak like our mothers, perhaps we can figure out where their authority comes from and why they are the way they are.

Meanwhile, little boys seem to have their own visions of power, not a few of which involve the ability - and the freedom and permission - to chase down bad guys and shoot them dead. (Many parents, including myself, who discouraged or even forbade their sons to play with guns, have been chastened in realizing that a thumb and forefinger, held at right angles, packs plenty of firepower.) Games of pretend are also about magic and about the wish for transformation - an expression of our instinctive sense that one like will not be nearly enough for us - and of our desire to be as many different people as we can, to lead as many different lives as we can. Pretend is also about looking for whatever qualities we know or intuit, that we ourselves are lacking. Solitary children are most often the ones who have imaginary friends. The timid pretend to be warriors, lion tamers, and explorers.

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite games of pretend involved the fantasy that I was a tightrope walker in the circus. My high wire was a strip of cement, something like a curb, perhaps three or four inches high, that marked the edge of our property and divided our driveway from that of our neighbors. With my arms outstretched, balancing precariously and theatrically, I'd walk the length of the curb, carefully placing one foot in front of the other. I could almost hear the cheers of the crowd below and their gasps of horror when my foot slipped off the cement and, howling as if I were falling, I plummeted down toward the imaginary net. In retrospect, I can see precisely why this game delighted me so, I was a reticent, shy child, a little more bit awkward, and troubled by many irrational fears that miraculously disappeared as I confidently and gracefully walked that wire suspended way up in the big top.

Some of the games that give children the most pleasure involve pretending to be creature or things that no sensible human would ever want to be, or pretending to suffer terrible fates that no one would choose to endure. Let's pretend we're earthworms. Let's pretend we're bugs. Let's pretend we're big nasty dogs and bite your little sister. Let's pretend we're martyrs being burned at the stake. Let's pretend we're spies and we're being tortured so that we'll give up secrets. And of course there's that perennial children's favorite that we loved to play and that I would have been very upset to catch my own children playing. Let's pretend it's a funeral and we're dead - and see how sorry everyone is.

When my brother and I were small, one of the games that held the most enduring claim on our attention was the decidedly undramatic and unromantic game of "grocer." What was it that fascinated us? I assume it was partly the attraction of playing any kind of adult - butcher, baker, candlestick maker. But beyond that it must have been the sheer pleasure of buying everything - and only what we wanted. All the candy, the cookies, the ice cream. We were in charge.

My all-time favorite game was "invisible," the point of which was exactly what it sounds like. This game took some complicity from whoever was around - the others had to agree to pretend not to see me. Other kids didn't have patience for this - they wanted to be the invisible one - but adults seemed fairly good at it and were quite happy to do whatever they were doing (cooking, reading, mowing the lawn) without having to notice that I was there. I remember a few times becoming a little worried that I'd really done it, that no one could see me. And I hadn't the fainted idea how to reverse what I'd done.

The hardest thing to remember about childhood games of pretend is how real they can seem, how fine the line between inside and outside game. I remember pretending that I had stepped inside my favorite illustrations in my favorite fairy-tale books. I can remember the fact that I felt as if I had left my house, my room, and walked into the enticing, thrilling, faintly terrifying landscapes in which Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm stories were being enacted - East of the Sun and West of the Moon. But of course I cannot recall the feeling of melting through the surface of the picture, blending into that other place, that castle or meadow or forest form which I would have to find my way back to the actual world.

Perhaps this is a talent that actors hold onto - and go on to spend their adult professional lives pretending. Writers, con artists, compulsive liars all must retain some of that ability to be convinced, entirely convinced, by whatever story they happen to be about children playing pretend, children who don't realize that never again in their lives will they be able to slip so fluidly, so seamlessly from one skin into another. Never again will it be quite so easy, so effortless to cross that mysterious, radiant zone, to make that magical transition between pretending and becoming.


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