February 27, 2017
When I was three, my parents took my brother to visit Chicago museums. I stayed behind in the Twin Cities with my Aunt Betty, who bristled at the sound of my voice. She told me–quite seriously–that she was a witch and threatened to turn me into a frog.
Welcome to my family culture. Beautiful, if quirky.
Betty promptly sent me down to the basement with her son. My preteen cousin sat on the floor, drawing animals on a notepad with a bright pink marker. His hand moved lightning fast.
“What’s this?” he asked, voice lifting along with the pen from the page.
“It’s a horse,” I said without hesitation.
“No!” He added forked antlers to the animal’s head. “It’s a deer.” He ignored my protests and sketched another figure. “Now what’s this?”
“It’s a fish.” Silly me. With a few more pink lines, a swimming bird came into focus.
“No!” he proclaimed. “It’s a duck. And what’s this?”
Indignation rising, I murmured, ”A sheep?”
“No! It’s a goat.”
I let out an exasperated cry and went off, whining, in search of my aunt. She packed me off to the store and bought a book of paper dolls, on the condition that I stay quiet.
And reminded me: if I broke our agreement, she’d still turn me into a frog.
That’s the full truth, according to my three-year-old self. And for a long time, that’s all I saw.
At a distance of decades, I recognize my cousin’s juvenile lesson as a priceless gift. He pulled back the curtain on an ancient game: there are multiple ways to frame any truth. Words and images shift, and with them so does their meaning. Therein lies the potential for magic. Honestly? I loved paper dolls.
There’s freedom in knowing how that game works. I made sense of it by learning German. Look at the words, and see how they shift.
For a while in the nineties, we had Fahrvergnügen, a word invented by Volkswagen marketers. Driving pleasure, it meant. It didn’t take long until that word devolved into tie-dyed t-shirts for tourists. Fukengrüven, they read. Juvenile? Sure. Language devolves into foolishness. Funny? If you see it that way, absolutely.
It also evolves us, beyond where we started. Even if we can’t see how yet. There’s always a new way to reframe the truth.
And with that knowledge comes power. And play.