Is Imagination Simple?

Photo by Sunny studio.


When I worked one summer as a camp counselor, the camp director was prone to intoning, “98 percent of all homesickness is constipation.” It was more or less a camp rule that we were to spend about ten minutes twice a day sitting on a bench by the outhouses doing nothing except waiting for our kids to go to the bathroom. If we didn’t do this, we were told, they would be too afraid of missing something and they’d never go, and in a couple of days, they’d come down with an urgent case of “homesickness.” We were told sternly to make our time on the bench as boring as possible so there was absolutely nothing to miss—only thus would our young charges heed the call of nature.

The “make it boring” part turned out to be surprisingly hard. It was a reflex for me to start an interesting conversation, so I started leaving the kids and hovering around the outhouse myself to avoid this temptation. But I found that the kids started filling the empty space in our day in their own ways. Once I returned to hear them in the midst of a wildly enthusiastic improvisational story involving a magic carpet ride. Another time it was a spaceship. I’d return to find them shooting at aliens and communing with fairies. “Making it boring” meant I was up against the most prolific source of interesting entertainment in the universe: imagination!

And it strikes me: in the simplicity of a moment in which the intent is boredom—with no activities, no toys, no delightful distractions or compelling activities—a moment in which a bowel movement is the highest expectation for which we aim—in strolls Imagination, and the moment is transformed into a wonderland of delight!

I ask myself, is the last laugh here God’s? As we strive for simplicity, stripping away the bells and whistles of our day and paring down our lives and minds to the most elemental tasks, Imagination shows up and starts playfully lighting little tapers in our minds, and pretty soon we’ve got a conflagration! Can we even stop it? To be sure, we seem to manage to some degree in high school. (I know, that’s where I teach, and it seems our halls are prowled more by a team of Snuffers than by the Divine Igniter.) But still, is there anything less simple than the baroque effusions of our minds? Is there anything more extravagant, more fecund, more elaborately ridiculous, profound, untamable, or complex than what our God-given imagination produces?

And it seems to me that the more outward simplicity we achieve, the more untrammeled the flowering of imagination—the more abundant the harvest.

And it seems to me that the more outward simplicity we achieve, the more untrammeled the flowering of imagination—the more abundant the harvest. Nine of the happiest years of my life were spent homeschooling my children in a close-knit community of similarly inclined families. Many of us were TV- and screen-free or nearly so, and many of us eschewed elaborate toys in favor of unstructured outdoor time. Most of us avoided the frantically overscheduled lives of conventionally schooled kids who seemed to rush six days a week from sports to band to lessons to jobs.

What did our lives look like? I’m here to tell you that our kids were enacting elaborate skits and ballets—complete with dress-ups and props and background music—well into their teen years. They churned out art and woodworking and sewing and cooking and 4-H projects. They spent hours trying to coax the backyard rabbits into their variously provisioned boxes. They journaled and wrote poetry and dreamed up stories. They dug holes that can probably be seen in satellite photos. They made silver duct tape armor for their teddy bears. A group of boys once played for two hours with the red tissue paper from a birthday present. I no longer have any recollection of what the present was, but the paper became blood, licked and stuck all over their bodies in some sort of gory armageddon. Then it was flames, and eventually ketchup.

And so our earnest efforts at simplicity in the raising of our children produced childhoods gilded extravagantly with God’s own anti-simplicity: the fruits of imagination. A rich and paradoxical gift—free and abundant, sowed lavishly by the Spirit in any soil that is not choked with the weeds of busyness, that is not overrun by a tsunami of digital input, that is not straitjacketed by demands to produce or succeed or achieve at every moment. A gift that renders resplendent the simplest of lives.

Kat Griffith

Kat Griffith is clerk of the Winnebago Worship Group in east central Wisconsin, co-clerk of Northern Yearly Meeting, a former high school teacher and homeschooler, and an occasional writer. Her last Friends Journal article was “Surprised by Joy” (Feb. 2019) about the gift of obedience following her sister’s death.

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