When I was quite young—about seven or eight, say—my mother would take me to church, or as I knew it, The Most Boring Two Hours That Anyone Has Ever Experienced Ever In The History Of The Universe With Extra Boring Sauce.
Needless to say, I was not a fan.
It’d be church for an hour and then Sunday school. Mostly what I gleaned from all this was that A) one should begin faking illness Saturday afternoon at the latest if one had a hope of evading church Sunday morning, B) curling irons suck and C) Sunday school teachers who think they like children had not met eight-year-old me. And also D) attempts to write relevant Christian fiction for children was uniformly awful.
Anyway. That’s all more or less to one side. What I remember is sitting in the sanctuary of the church, usually on the upper level, and staring out across the balcony at the light fixtures and the stained glass. I was allowed to read the Bible to keep from sighing and fidgeting, which meant that I had a better than average grasp of Old Testament prophets for an eight-year-old. (I did not actually like the New Testament. It was dull. Except for Revelations, which was fantastic. Still, the Old Testament was where the action was.)
When I had exhausted the entertainment value of Hezekiah, I would stare at the light fixtures and I would daydream about wild animals overrunning the church.
I remember this very vividly. This was a favorite fantasy of eight-year-old me, as I recall. The doors would burst open—there were two on either side of the altar, where the priest and choir and sundry functionaries would file in*—and I would picture in great detail the doors slamming open and a wave of wild animals pouring in and stampeding through the pews. There’d be cattle and badgers and wild boars and foxes and pretty much every species depicted in the book The Living Forest by Rien Poortvliet, which I loved with a deep and undying passion. Chipmunks with scurry up and down the backs of pews, hares would scramble under people’s feet, and the boars would go stomping and snorting and overturning the various tables and small bits of furniture that had accumulated around the altar.
Because I had a large imagination coupled with very little understanding of human nature, I rarely pictured people screaming or running away. I suppose I thought everyone would sit there, white-faced and silent, while animals tore up the nave and crashed into the ushers—or more likely, the humans were the least important part of this daydream and so were just mentally whisked out of the way. (I suspect I occasionally thought that some of them were being trampled. Meh. Collateral damage. Not important to eight-year-old me..)
At the pinnacle of this particular daydream, a black panther would jump into the light fixtures and leap from one to another until it reached the railing at the edge of the balcony. And then it would speak to me. (Yes, of course it could talk. I was an eight-year-old girl. It was a freakin’ black panther. C’mon, what other option was there?)
I can remember this fantasy quite clearly—it was lovingly drawn on and embellished as the Sundays piled up—and yet I can’t remember what the panther said. I can extrapolate that probably I was supposed to ride off on it to a distant land compiled of equal parts Narnia, Earthsea, Pern, Krynn and the United Federation of Planets*** but I don’t remember any of those bits. Possibly I never got that far. Maybe there would be singing. It was hard to daydream during hymns. Hymns tended to whomp that sort of thing, and you had to at least pretend to look at the book that your mother was holding open, even if the kindest thing you could do for any god is NOT sing.
There was no meaning to any of it—I never worried about where the animals came from, or where they went to, or why they decided to stampede through this particular church. Backstory was nonexistant. The parts I polished in my head were the visceral bits, the way the chandelier would sway when the panther’s paws hit it and the way its fur would change color in the light through the stained glass. Why it existed or where it came from was immaterial. It did not exist until it appeared, it would cease to exist when it left.
This is the problem with writing for children, I think. The things that children actually think about—or at least that I thought about as a kid!—is largely devoid of cause and effect. Things happen because they happen. The world is the way it is because that is the way the world is, unless it’s something else. Everything is taken on faith because there is no way to prove any of it true or false until much later. The narrator has total authority as long as they stay out of the way (and then, like a Sunday school teacher, they may be subjected to the gimlet eye of a small child who suspects that you have no idea what you’re talking about.)
Childhood fantasies are about scenes. They’re like kung fu movies. The point is not what gets you from A to B, it’s that at A is a knife fight on stilts and B is a fight in the marketplace with maximum smashing of vegetables. I remember lovingly polishing scenes in my daydreams, but what happened before or after wasn’t really important, except that it led to the next scene.
I don’t know that there’s any moral to this story. It’s just something I remembered at random the other night while I was trying to fall asleep.
Except perhaps that the good child sitting quietly and politely with an expression of vague interest on their face is quite possibly imagining a herd of animals breaking into the building and trampling innocent bystanders to death. Which is probably an important thing to keep in mind.
KEVIN: Long blog post, I see. I’ll have to read it later.
ME: Oh, don’t worry. It’s just about how I used to fantasize about wild animals overrunning the church when I was bored.
ME: Like you never did that!
KEVIN: …ah…um….*pained expression* I…no comment.
ME: No comment like “Yes, of course I did!” or No comment like “No, you freak, nobody else did that”?
KEVIN: No comment like “If I say yes, it’s a lie and it might lead to yet another revelation about your bizarre childhood, and if I say no, you might feel bad.” So no comment.
*and which I myself would use as part of the eventual Christmas pageant, which was always called “Angels Aware”** and was basically a narrative about angels watching Christmas. I was a singer, because if you were in Sunday school, you didn’t really get other options. We had to stand in the bottom rows of the giant green “Living Christmas Tree” that they built to hold the choir at Christmas. Basically a pair of round green bleachers with lights strung on it.
**I have yet to meet anyone who has GOOD memories of Christmas pageants, although the Mormon tabernacle near us had an elephant at theirs. And camels. We unbent our theological restraint long enough to go see the elephant. It was only on stage for a few seconds and dressed as a member of the Nutcracker Suite ensemble. Yes, that is just as messed up as it sounds.
***I had eclectic tastes in reading material.