The other day, my 8 year old was having anxiety about who she would be if she’d never been born. She’s never been one to present me with easy “worries before bed” topics. One summer when she was around four, every night she worried about dynamite blowing up the house. I could only calm her down with the white lie that dynamite ONLY works on boulders, such as in train track construction. As she’s gotten older, things have become a bit more nuanced, but still quite challenging. So I wasn’t exactly surprised by the nature of this most recent concern. And strangely, I knew just how to relate–because as a kid, I had the exact same preoccupation: if I wasn’t me, then who would I be?
I wonder if there’s a name for this particular obsession? It gets to the heart of what it means to be human, what makes one unique in the cosmos, and the fleeting and illusory nature of consciousness. Big thoughts to be having as an 8 year old. While I remember having them at that age as well, for me the question didn’t exactly come out of the blue. Rather it came from a book by Dr. Seuss that my Grandma Bier had, a big, hard covered picture book about a magical land that you go to on your birthday.
The book is probably intended to make kids giddy with with wild fantastical nature of a land all for you, but it mostly stressed me out. I didn’t ever want to be whisked away from my bed by an odd, slightly bird looking yellow man only to go to a land of very circuitously constructed aqueducts. There was a line in the book something like “if you hadn’t been you, what would you be?…..You might be a bag of old dusty potatoes.” Now that shook me up. First, if I could be a bag of potatoes, that indicated that potatoes might be sentient, and I couldn’t even beginning to wrap my head around that. Also, the idea that me-ness might be transmutable? No thank you, Dr. Seuss.
When I was little, the potatoes were hung in one of those wire baskets in the laundry room, an unheated lean-to attached to the north side of the kitchen. The basket also served as an improvised hanging area for dad’s umpiring uniform shirts. Those potatoes led a fairly forlorn existence, and every time I caught sight of them, I thought of that stupid book. What if I were the potatoes?
So I knew we were in trouble when my daughter came to me with a particularly disturbing book to read last night: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.
In this shockingly award winning book, a donkey named Sylvester discovers a pebble that grants his wishes, and he accidentally wishes to become a rock. Then he’s a sentient rock for OVER a YEAR until he luckily is turned back by a series of deus ex machina style plot twists. He’s a rock out being snowed on day in day out while his parents cry at home. GOOD LORD HOW WAS I READING THIS TO HER? I tried to focus a lot on the more ridiculous aspects of the book, so that she wouldn’t realize just how disturbing the notion that you (or in this case, a donkey) could just turn into a rock version of themselves. It just makes the whole potato proposition all the more probable.
There’s a couple of lessons to be learned here. One, children’s books can really freak people out, so let’s treat lightly, OK. Two, treat your potatoes well. And three, welcome to the world of lifelong existential angst, oh daughter of mine!