Until recently my seventeen-year-old son thought I had eyes in the back of my head. All right, maybe not that recently, but well into his childhood. He believed it because one day as a warning I told him I did, and seeing he took me seriously I did not disabuse him. More than once when I was driving I felt his fingertips in my hair, searching.
As a child I, too, clung to my belief in all things unearthly or absurd. After all, what could beat waking up to a little corner of your world transformed in the night—a tooth replaced with a quarter, foil-covered eggs left among the crocuses, a giant pumpkin floating over the pumpkin patch? My letters to the Tooth Fairy were nothing if not earnest.
I have friends who don’t agree. They view Santa Claus, for example, as a form of parental deception, one of childhood’s original disappointments. I on the other hand see him as a gift, the gift of believing—in magic, in the implausible, in the more-exciting-than-reality. I still remember the first time my son met him. We were traveling from Paris, where we lived, to spend Christmas in Pittsburgh with my parents. On a layover in Philadelphia, I scanned the crowd and there he was, like a fat candy cane. “Santa’s in the airport!” I whispered. My son gasped. My own heart raced—not from believing, perhaps, but from the memory of believing. I still have a Polaroid of that moment. As Santa grips his shoulders, the expression in my son’s wide-open eyes—ecstatic happiness tinged with fright—could be my own.
Not that the beings I believed in were all benevolent. The notes I received, scribbled on birch bark and signed “Injun Joe,” always gave me a frisson, even if the writing vaguely resembled my father’s. The little bridge in the local woods was, I knew, the one the Billy Goats Gruff crossed, and to this day I hurry over little wooden bridges for fear of feeling the troll’s hand close around my ankle. Even the Thing Under the Bed lives on for me. Although I know (I think) it’s not there, I always jump clear for good measure. But even if a capacity for enchantment opens one up to some degree of fear, the fear, like salt, only makes it more savory.
Sure, there’s plenty of wonder to be found in the world—redwood trees, eclipses, Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. But all of it has an explanation. It’s much more gratifying to suspend disbelief and favor the hard-to-believe. What else is there to keep life from being dead leaves in the gutter and expressionless people pushing past you in the street?
Take love. When two people are intensely, feverishly in love, they know they were meant for each other and see the signs everywhere: not only do they think the same thoughts at the same moment, they both collected striped rocks when they were kids, attended the same Leo Kottke concert in Dayton in 1981, know people from the same remote village in Brittany. Each uncanny crossing of the lines of their lives convinces them more. Why not? Isn’t it more affecting and sublime to believe that they’ve found each other against all odds, in spite of the quotidian minutiae of life that have conspired to keep them apart? More importantly, who’s to say they’re wrong?
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