I used to think I was the only one. The only kid to spend their car rides tearing through books, replacing themselves with the protagonist, stretching and pinching the character until I recognized myself in the reflection. I was always sorely disappointed when the movie adaptations of my favorite novels came out, not only because the characters rarely looked the way I expected but because they didn’t carry the same experiences and histories I had molded for them in my mind. The specificity of a movie never afforded itself the kind of shapelessness I’d grown to love in novels.
I kept these behaviors hidden from most until I came to the realization I wasn’t alone during conversations with friends in my sophomore year of college. Someone mentioned they spent the larger part of their seventh grade staring out of the window of their bedroom at a grey brick wall as if there was a window with a “boy next door” to fall in love with, prompted by the music video for Taylor Swift’s ballad “You Belong With Me.” Assurances followed, and parallel stories flowed of instances where all of us had made insertions of ourselves in the gaps of stories. Each of us had cherry-picked the experiences of the characters which we identified with and skimmed past the ones we felt were foreign. They took their form in songs, TV or movie characters and many books — each as imaginative and ignorant of details as the next.
Lately, I’ve felt the impulse to focus my time and energy more on forward-facing pursuits. I’ve switched out my fiction reading for academic journals and news publications. When I have free time during my walks to class, I gravitate towards podcasts instead of albums — avoiding the latent guilt I feel if I listen to music and daydream when I could be learning something new. I’m driven to pursue this constant search for information out of a romanticism I’ve tied to my incessant curiosity. I continue to hope that perhaps the next topic I’m exposed to will be “the one.” I’ll discover the statistic that changes my mind on what I want to do with my life, or maybe I’ll read the article that opens up a world I could see myself dedicating my future to.
But maybe, in these habits, I’ve lost sight of the things imagination affords to our lives. There’s an implicit hierarchy in my mind of the importance of consuming things that inform me about the world around me and those that fuel my daydreams. I forgot what imagination and mysticism taught me about myself, how I see myself and who I want to see in the mirror in my own future. All of that time I spent molding the characters in stories — highlighting the characteristics I appreciated — can serve as a sort of “word bank” when toying with the puzzle of who I want myself to be.
College is a time when we’re told to hunker down, ground ourselves and prepare for our futures. We’re given a vision of the “real world” that we’re on the cusp of experiencing —harder and harsher than the one we’re accustomed to. The pursuit of imagination and daydreaming in the view of a cold and “real” future seems foolish. But something beautiful happens when you experience something as if it was created for and about you. You are transformed into a distorted version of yourself, too far to see but close enough to feel.
At the beginning of this month, I was sitting on a flight back to Ann Arbor from my hometown, and, as I typically am on all modes of transportation, I was hit with a wave of introspection. It’s my last semester at the University of Michigan, and I ran myself through all of the things I needed to get done over the next few months. I made a mental to-do list with boxes for my job search, mapping out my future, saying goodbye to friends, making the most of a barrage of “lasts.” It felt as though I was drafting a will for my childhood, planning how I was going to change and what parts of myself I was going to leave or take with me. I considered letting go of these behaviors that felt like testaments to my youth: my spontaneity, juvenile curiosity and resilient imagination. I felt it was time to ground myself in reality and find a more logical structure for my impending future.
At that moment, I looked out the window of the plane and, in a scene that would prompt groans of cliché from readers, I saw a fierce and fiery sunset. Instinctively, my mind dropped all the preoccupied planning and I was overwhelmed with the sense that this was a sign. I realized I would never lose my imagination. I’d never stop playing the protagonist in my life, thinking of my world as if it was a story created for and about me. Every sunset is a sign, every character can teach me about myself, every song stuck in my head can be part of my soundtrack. Your imagination may not teach you about the realities of the world, but it can teach you about the role you’d like to play in it. So maybe it’s time to “unground” ourselves. And in your own lives, next time the sky is on fire, imagine it’s burning for you.
Tara Jayaram is a senior in LSA.