It’s bothered Bird and me for years. Every Christmas Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer comes on and every Christmas we wonder what on earth is wrong with the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys.
Turns out, according to producer Arthur Rankin, it’s psychological. In a 2007 NPR interview, he said that Dolly’s problem was low self-esteem and doubting herself. Depending on the backstory, it sounds like a similar situation to Jessie from Toy Story 2: after being rejected by her human owner, Dolly doesn’t trust her ability to be a good companion to another person. She’s hurt and depressed.
Some people dismiss this as inserting modern psychobabble into a cartoon from 50 years ago. This post claims that the alternative explanation is “as plain on the nose on your face” because the thing that actually makes Dolly a misfit is her lack of a nose.
I disagree. For one thing, plenty of cloth dolls in that style and time period didn’t have noses, or eyebrows, for that matter. And for another, the majority of the misfit toys are not simply missing something. Some fundamental part of them has been replaced with something different that interferes with their traditional function. The train has square wheels. The cowboy rides an ostrich. The bird swims but cannot fly. (OK, the elephant has the addition of polka dots, but he’s also a white elephant, which suggests being historically unwanted in the first place.) These toys are misfits because something in them has changed to the point that they no longer fit the mold, and something would have to change again for them to be considered “normal.” It’s not a one-step fix.
That’s why Dolly’s psychological misfit-ness rings true (for me, at least). She needs more than a few stitches or a new dress. There is something about her, as with the rest of the toys on the Island, that fits badly, that is not suited to her situation. The visibility or invisibility of her struggles does not alter their validity.
And even if the explanation was inserted later to cover up some forgetfulness on the writers’ part, I’ll take any opportunity to point to well-known characters in popular culture who can help me normalize mental health.
“So L. told me you do creative writing?” my coworker said/asked. I looked up from my lunch in the workplace kitchen, slightly startled. This coworker had always scared me a little. But I’m always happy to nerd out a little about creative writing.
“Yeah, I want to be an author of long-form fantasy novels. And maybe some historical fiction.”
She nodded, “That’s awesome,” and suddenly I found myself answering a lot of questions. What was my writing schedule? What podcasts did I listen to? Who were my workshoppers? What was my plan for getting an agent? What was my timeline for finishing my novel? What conferences had I been to?
“Actually, I’m going to a conference next weekend,” I said, and described it. She waved a hand dismissively.
“Too many academics there. You want to network at WorldCon or something like that instead,” she said. “That’s where L. and I met Professor T. and A. B. – you know who that is, right?” I could only shake my head as she barreled onward, completely overwhelming me with instructions as to how to make writing my career. By the time she was done, I felt utterly hopeless. How on earth was I going to educate myself on all these aspects of the publishing world? And how had I ever thought I could be a writer when I was so ignorant? I needed to catch up!
Then last weekend I went to that conference I told my coworker about. My coworker probably wouldn’t have thought much of it. I didn’t get any business cards, and I didn’t pitch a book idea to any agents or editors. I had lunch and sat through panels with friends I had made the year before. I chose seminars based on where I am in the writing process (very, very early stages). I asked questions about things that interested me. I nerded out about Anne Boleyn with a historical fiction writer. Perhaps it didn’t do anything to greatly benefit my fledgling career, but the conference definitely benefited me.
Since announcing my intention to stay in our Small College Town and work on my writing while the Engineer finishes his degree, I’ve received a lot of advice about how to network (a terrifyingly vague term that still makes me cringe) and “start a career” despite my remote location. But that’s never been what writing is about for me. Yes, I’d love to write a bestselling novel, because it would mean other people wanted to read the same kinds of stories I’m interested in writing. Taking time to write every day is more about seeing what I can do than about building any type of career. I want a network of fellow writers and readers more than I want to memorize a roster of Who’s Who in Writing.
I do understand and appreciate the intentions of the people who ask me about my networking plans. In many industries, connections are vital, and the earlier you make them, the better. I realize it must seem like I’m approaching things a bit sideways. This isn’t how convention says progress is made. But I’m starting to value progress in my own head over progress on a society-based timeline. At that conference, for example, one panelist said that his own shift in perspective came when he started calling himself a writer, even though he still had another full time job. “Writer” was who he was, not just what he did. That makes sense to me. That is a step that feels concrete and real to me, even if my coworker might give me a pitying smile and say that until I can put it on my resume, I’m not really a writer.
I know that I am. And that knowledge will give me the energy to keep working so the world can know it too.
So today I bought my ticket for NerdCon: Stories in October. I’m going to meet up with the Commodore and talk about stories – written, filmed, recorded, sung, pantomimed, or any other kind of story – for a weekend. And I’m extremely excited. Maybe I’ll meet a future employer. Maybe I’ll just have a really good time. But I’m okay with either outcome as long as I can come home and write about it.
I have trouble slowing down sometimes. I am an avid multitasker, despite numerous studies that tell me it’s a lie and I would be better off focusing on just one thing at a time. It makes me feel busier, which is something society approves of. I reach for words like ambitious, hardworking, driven – they look good on resumes. I’ve never been one to enjoy drifting aimlessly for more than a week or two. I start getting restless during summer vacations. And I always thought this was a good thing.
The Engineer and I went north the past two weekends to visit his family. It’s only an hour and a half journey, nothing too taxing, through rolling hills and around gentle curves. We passed windmills, which some people say ruin the view but which remind me of three-armed swimmers practicing their strokes. I used to be able to read in the car when I was younger, but now it makes me carsick to read more than a quick text, so we talk and sing along to the radio or just sit in comfortable silence, remarking occasionally on a pretty farmhouse or a couple of deer in a field.
I never used to see a point in leisurely drives (nor did I enjoy driving in general – my learner’s permit expired twice and I put off getting my actual license until I was 17), but the Engineer takes us on a back road that winds through picturesque, tiny towns and the fields between them. I want to stop and explore them, tease out the stories hidden here out of sight of the main highway.
This drive is so different from the definition I usually value. My drive requires action and decisiveness. A journey, however, requires only that you eventually reach a destination. It doesn’t matter whether we take the usual route or explore a new one and get hopelessly lost. Even the past participles take on different meanings: to be driven as seen on a resume is to be catapulted forward through life by one’s own energy. It’s grammatically passive, but since the push comes from oneself, driven-ness retains agency.
To be driven in a car, however, is truly passive. It means trusting the driver and relinquishing a certain amount of control over the journey.
Sitting in the passenger seat, good music on the radio, the sun setting outside, and the Engineer next to me, it occurs to me that perhaps I could stand to make a little more room for that second definition of drive in my life.
We use this word a lot to describe horrific things. “A senseless tragedy.” “Senseless violence.” And usually we take it to mean that there is no sense to this, that is it nonsense, this thing that has happened, we cannot make sense out of it because to any sensical person it is impossible to think this way. Justifying it is meaningless. You might as well try to argue that the world is flat. We cannot make heads or tails of it. Senseless.
But I think in the immediate aftermath of tragedies, we also mean that we are numb, that we are “destitute or deprived of sensation,” because sometimes the best way to handle such news is to shut down, at least for a moment. Even worse, the hits just keep on coming. Syria. Beirut. Paris. After a while, the pain deadens the nerve endings rather than awakening them. The sensation, the hopeless, helpless sensation, is there, but it is lessened with time and repetition.
Do we mean, perhaps, that our sense of outrage is limited? That it is senseless to maintain a sense of anger because these things happen so often and the world is so dark?
I hope not.
I hope, instead, that we mean that we need to take a breath to ready ourselves for the feelings that accompany the confusion.
I hope we mean that we cannot make sense of these things because there is no sense behind them. I hope we mean that it does not make sense to warp faith into violence, and that it does not make sense to blame the whole for the sins of one part.
And because we can recognize that, because we can say that we do not think that way and we will not think that way, we can do something. We can change something.
It will be slow, and it will be hard, but we can make the world make sense again.
“Tell me, right now, what you want.”
I sat in a springy armchair in a slightly musty room in a retreat center, twisted sideways to face my friend in the tweed armchair on the other side of the end table. I had asked her advice, or her listening, I suppose, because she is my peer, in a similar place in life, and because it was a retreat. You do things like this on retreats, I thought, even if you’re leading them. You have these conversations with yourself. It’s inherent. Walking away for a weekend, leaving behind homework, shedding those surface attachments, it all leaves room. Quiet, quiet room in my mind for those wonderings.
What I want?
There have been too many voices contributing to that conversation; my own was drowned out long ago. I don’t remember anymore, without any outside influences, what I want.
I want my colorful planner to be already laid out for the next five years, the way it has been all my life, but it isn’t.
What I want?
I want to work on my writing, to be near those I love, to simply go to work and come home and have time to do what I love and maybe enjoy my job as well, small things, really, when I list them like this, but I cannot want them, because they are not what I have said I wanted, what I claimed for myself, what others want for me.
I want not to be found wanting. I desire things of my own, but worry that by fulfilling my own wishes I will become deficient in outsiders’ eyes.
What I want?
I’d like to know that too. Or be able to admit that I know it, and that I want it at all. That I think it’s what God wants for me, too, because I wouldn’t still feel this way otherwise.
I sat in a springy armchair in a slightly musty room in a retreat center, twisted sideways to face my friend. She wanted to know what I wanted.
And somehow, I told her.
to experience with joy; to take pleasure in
For someone whose brain rarely shuts up, I have a tough time with mindfulness. The concept of being present, of taking in each thing as it comes instead of constantly planning and worrying, makes plenty of sense when I look at it objectively. Executing the practice, on the other hand…
Sometimes it seems as though there’s too much space in my mind devoted to doubts, worries, rants, complaints, and failures. My memories love to dredge up classic reruns of my most embarrassing moments, so much so that I’ll be squirming in my seat at the thought of something that happened years ago. I may not be the best at this “adult” thing, but I feel like blurting out something awkward in 5th grade shouldn’t still bother me so much. (Then again, if any of you have found a way to truly get over your middle school embarrassments, for the love of all that is good in this world, TELL ME YOUR WAYS.)
Some people call this “negative self-talk.” These same people tell me of something called “self-compassion,” which is, again, a concept that sounds grand but is tricky to implement. My thoughts have worn ruts of worry in my synapses. I don’t have the time, it seems, to stop and breathe.
That’s why I’ve been thinking about the word “enjoy” lately. It caught me while I was rereading Madeleine L’Engle’s excellent memoir A Circle of Quiet, where she spends several early chapters discussing the concept of joy. She talks about existing, about resting, in that joy she feels in a simple moment – and she talks, too, about how rare it is for her to quiet herself enough to do that. It comforts me that I am not the only one who has difficulty simply being.
The word “enjoy” originally came from Middle English for “to make joyful,” or Old French for “to give joy to.” Joy, it seems to me, is a much more serious business than mere contentment or happiness. “Happy” has something of a giddiness to it. “Joy” has weight. It leaves an imprint. But that mark, that gentle, comforting weight like a hand on our shoulder, only comes when we let ourselves “enjoy,” when we let ourselves exist in the moment. In joy.
So I’ve been trying to pay attention to the joyful moments, to the little things that allow me to exist “in joy” for a second or two, and to rest, rather than squirm, in the unusual quiet of my brain.
I started off easy – it’s all too natural for me to enjoy the first sip of coffee in the morning, or a well-written sentence that makes me close the book and stare off into space for a moment to absorb the craft of the words, or a monarch butterfly flashing across my path, or a fuzzy puppy rolling over and begging to be petted.
But it’s other things too. It’s realizing that it doesn’t bother me to eat lunch alone in a strange town because I know I’m here for an internship that provides me with work I truly love doing. It’s one-word texts from the Engineer. It’s establishing witty rapport almost immediately with my new coworkers. And it’s stepping outside the trailer in the evening and letting comfort seep down from a starry dome, even though it’s cold, even though I should go to sleep, because it feels good just to be – just to exist in joy.
Now I’m curious – what do you enjoy?