Magical Thinking

Is there an expiration date on wonder?

By Summer Block

For Christmas this year, my daughter wants Santa to bring her a magic wand that allows her to enter books and movies, interact with the characters, and change their outcomes. This is the only thing she wants for Christmas, and she’s wanted it for months. She also wants the wand to resurrect the dead, though she adds this bonus feature as something of an afterthought, like a stand mixer that also makes sausage.

It’s not an unreasonable thing to ask. Given that I’ve told her that an immortal, godlike man lives at the North Pole amid ageless elves and flying reindeer, and that once a year he flies around the entire planet delivering custom-made presents to 1.2 billion children in a single evening, it’s not such a leap to assume he could also design and deliver a magic wand that’s basically just a tricked-out Tivo.

I want to give Beatrice an American Girl doll for Christmas. They are nice dolls, well-made, handsome, and with a lot of historical fiction novellas and girl-power accessories to justify their absurd pricetag. And yes, I always wanted one when I was a little girl. Beatrice wants one, too, at least as much as she ever wants anything.

“When I get my magic wand,” she says, “I’ll get a little one for my doll, too!”

I keep leaving the catalogs around the house and saying unsubtle things like, “If you were to get an American Girl doll, what color would you like her hair to be?”

I must be the only parent on earth who is trying to convince her daughter to ask for a $120 doll for Christmas.

Last week my family and I took the kids to Disneyland for the first time. Beatrice, Arthur, and I went on the submarine ride. We appeared to sink to the bottom of the ocean. The children were absolutely transported. Their eyes edged with tears as the shifting liquid light played across their enraptured faces. Yes, these are the moments that make Disneyland worth it. For long minutes they gaped at the realistic-looking sea life made out of plaster and stone, but then suddenly animated characters from the movie Finding Nemo were projected into the water. When Beatrice saw this she started sobbing and shrieking, “Am I in a movie? Are we in a movie right now? Are people watching us? Oh god, what is reality?!”

My options at this point were: 1) explain to her that we are indeed in a movie, because reality is a social construct and Disneyland is magic; or 2) explain that we were neither in a movie nor under the sea, but sitting in a metal tube in a man-made pond about six feet deep. I settled for a wishy-washy middle ground, something about how we were in a movie that was fun and not scary.

I always thought I’d be the parent who cultivated their child’s innocent élan, but more and more I find myself being the realist instead, if for no other reason than to get Beatrice to climb down off the young woman next to her on the submarine ride, onto whose lap Beatrice had retreated during her ontological freakout.

Parenting blogs, misattributed Einstein quotes, and expensive toy catalogs are always encouraging parents to preserve the magic of childhood. But the magic they’re selling is always light and lovely — a beautiful, back-lit toddler with auburn curls skipping through a field of daisies wearing $45 butterfly wings. Purveyors of tiny wicker furniture for backyard fairy gardens want you to think it’s all tiaras and tea parties, but young children inhabit an animist dreamscape made up of equal parts euphoric delight and unrelieved horror.

For every time Beatrice says something sweetly offbeat, like, “I’d like to live in the number 3,” there’s the time she told me quietly, numbly, “In Candyland there is nothing to eat but candy and to eat it you have to destroy the entire world.”

Beatrice really believes. It’s overwhelming. Fairies are cute because you don’t believe in them. If you actually believed that tiny, powerful beings with unknown intentions were living in your backyard you would be terrified. If you actually believed in Santa, you’d dream a lot bigger than a doll.

(Arthur believes, too, but he’s pretty low-key and undogmatic about it. He’s like a Unitarian for magic. When I asked him what he wanted for Christmas, he first answered, “A beaver pond,” but after Beatrice haughtily explained to him that only God can make nature, not Santa, he happily asked for another Princess Anna dress instead.)

I remember walking out on my front lawn in the late evening, at the end of the summer, and seeing a fairy there among the bushes. I was seven. I saw the fairy with my eyes, as clearly as I’d ever seen anything. And I was pleased but not surprised, because my understanding of the world was still expansive enough to take this new thing in: the sidewalk, the grass, the streetlights, now the fairy. I don’t remember if I told my parents, or what they said, but I know they weren’t the type to tell me I was wrong.

I also remember the moment I stopped believing in Santa, when the little boy next door in our apartment complex told me the truth and I ran home crying and my parents had no choice but to confirm what he had said. I would say that all the magic drained out of my life that day, but that would be too dramatic. The color didn’t drain away, it just slowly faded under the unrelenting sunlight of reality.

If Beatrice can hold on to her ferocity and wonder, what can’t she do? She could channel her numinous visions into a fulfilling career as a graphic novelist, or a Jungian psychiatrist, or an artist who hand-carves Hansel and Gretel marionettes to sell to parents as gullible as her own.

As part of my Christmas campaign, I did a little online searching to see whether American Girl dolls ever go on sale (they don’t). One thing led to another, and I found myself immersed in the adult American Girl community. Or communities, because there are two.

Mainstream American Girl fans are adults, mostly middle-aged women, who collect American Girl dolls and accessories. They hunt down discontinued dolls, review new releases, and make handmade clothes and accessories. They are benign.

Outsider American Girl fans are also mostly adult women, but ones whose extremist views and unrepentant vulgarity have caused them to be exiled from the main AG fan boards. They despise children, whom they feel do not care for their dolls carefully enough, and some have called on the American Girls company to refuse to sell the dolls to the young and undeserving. One adult woman boasts she called a seven-year-old girl a “cunt” when she saw her mistreating an AG doll at a Chuck E. Cheese.

These women are believers. They treat their dolls as if they were real little girls. Look through their eyes and their towering rage makes sense: these bloggers see a world where monstrous little brats are adopting beautiful, helpless children and then cutting off all their hair, or scribbling on their faces, or dropping them down a flight of stairs at a Chuck E. Cheese.

To the Frequently Asked Question, “Are you interested in selling or trading dolls?’ one blogger begins, “Fuck you.”

I might say the same if someone offered to buy one of my children.

Is this what happens when you never grow up? Is there an expiration date on wonder?

So what do we do about this wand thing? A quick online search uncovered dozens of very expensive collectible wands and one cheaper one called, “Harry Potter Illuminating Wand [Toy],” which seems like a distinction that shouldn’t have to be made. Dev suggests we just give her a twig and tell her it’s magic, which honestly might work, though I suspect it’s less a bit of inspired parenting than a way to justiy giving his daughter a stick for Christmas. For now I plan to get her an American Girls doll, and a stick and a littler stick for her doll, and to get myself something nice, too, from Santa.

Summer Block occasionally writes essays, short fiction, and poetry for McSweeneys Internet Tendency, The Toast, The Rumpus, PANK, The Nervous Breakdown, and many other publications. Some people follow her on Twitter @teamblock.

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