Creating an Empire

by - May 13, 2015

One of my earliest, most vivid memories is of a field trip I took to Mrs. Hampton's house, my first and second grade teacher. Her father had constructed an elaborate network of concrete and cobble ditches through the woods for her when she was a child, and there was a beautiful greenhouse. I don't remember many details except for the magic I felt in that place and wishing I could play there forever.

We've lived in this house in downtown Raleigh since 2007. Yesterday afternoon I was watching our boys playing in the backyard with two friends, listening to the giggles and screams and remembering back to when my oldest was a baby and I dreamed about building a tree house. When we moved in I was pregnant but didn't find out for another week. The back yard was desolate. There were fifteen or so pine trees, and barely a patch of grass. The hardwoods were skinny and sad. My first garden was the potted plants I had brought with me from our previous house, potted tomato plants, lopsided trellises that I couldn't sink deep enough into the hard clay soil, and chocolate mint that dried up and died a couple months later.

But every time I looked out at this backyard, I saw the potential. Back then, I picked out a strong magnolia that would one day be the perfect spot for kids to build their empire. When the pines went flying through the air dangling from a crane, our backyard world seemed to open up. A few years later, I had two little boys helping their dad hammer away at wooden pallets and scrap wood, and then Joe's sister and new husband (or was he still the fiance?) came over to help us lift a platform onto posts under that magnolia. For the past few years we've added to the platform - a slide we found on craigslist, a busted garden hose swing, the old stairs and railing from the deck, a downspout for sending messages - and the boys now have this ridiculous tree house that I refer to as "our lawsuit waiting to happen", and it's just pure magic. It's magic if you still have a shred of your childhood imagination.

There is still work to be done, but that childhood magic colors my view. I look out now at the perimeter and instead of seeing the unruly vines and thorns, I see secret paths to be cleared and planted. There's a canvas being layered upon with frequent winged visitors, stick-wielding boys, and an occasional stray cat. And we are terrible at growing grass - so very bad at it - but no one seems to mind.

I wonder if in adulthood part of what drives us is whatever magic took hold of our minds and hearts when we were little, whether we are conscious of it or not. If it doesn't drive us, perhaps it should. We should play! Our hearts and minds come alive when we explore and create, whether that is in nature or in other pursuits. It's so fun to try and trigger this in my boys' minds simply by dropping a suggestion, daring them to attempt some physical challenge, or giving them a story line to draw from. I know I'll pay next year for not enforcing homework in the afternoons, but for right now, I think the magic, creating stories, and being kings of their empire is more important.

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