Yesterday morning, Duncan and I watched in amazement as Owen engaged in his very first game of make-believe. He took the closed bubble bath bottle over to the empty bathtub, and tipped it over, making a “psssshhh” sound. As we watched, he put it back in the cupboard and then went back to the bath to “pour” it in several more times (evidently enjoying our enjoyment and cheers).
I had no idea that a child Owen’s age could pretend to do something. He pretends to sweep the floor, but it’s more because he’s not a very good sweeper that it’s not real. He plays with toy trains, but since he has had hardly any exposure to real trains, there’s no reality he can compare it to. He’s more interested in the magnets that hold the trains together than in making them go around the track.
Owen’s foray into the world of the imaginary made me think about Daniel Keyes’s short story (and later novel and play) “Flowers for Algernon.” The short work of speculative fiction is told through a series of progress reports through the voice of an initially mentally challenged man, Charlie Gordon, who has an operation that triples his IQ. After the operation, what is more remarkable than Charlie’s improved spelling and vocabulary is his ability to understand figurative, rather than literal language, and his ability to imagine. I hadn’t really considered (before reading that story) how important the imaginary is to intelligence.
Don’t worry – I’m not getting all carried away thinking my son’s a genius. (Brief digression: At the Children’s Museum in London in the “doctor’s office” exhibit, there were posters up about how if your child hadn’t spoken 20 words by 18 months, you should consult your doctor. That kind of incendiary provocation infuriates me – so much like all those baby books that tell you that everything you are doing is wrong. Of course, it also worried me. Owen will be 18 months old on December 21 and has MAYBE 5 words. If you count “uh oh.” He communicated with language for the first time yesterday, asking his dad for his “sus” (pacifier). So he’s not a genius but he’s also not cause for alarm, you irritating poster people).
Imagination, though, is to my mind a more impressive development that language (which will come in its own time, I’m sure). One of my favourite books as a child was Josephine’s ‘Magination, in which a very resourceful child makes dolls out of her mother’s broom scraps (her mother makes brooms for a living). Her imagination allows her to transcend and transform her everyday life. As he develops his imagination, Owen will gain another entire world, layers of worlds, and the capacity to transform his surroundings. He will also develop his own inner life, one that I cannot access, taking another small step away from me (as I cheer him on).