I Just Want to Hang Out in the Wardrobe
The older I get, the more I want to linger in the in-between place before the magic starts
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There are—to begin, unforgivably, with a cliche—two kinds of readers: those who forget all about secret bookcases and gardens and wardrobes once they’ve reached adulthood, and those who, when they move into a new home, still immediately check every loose floorboard and knock on every wall in the hopes they’ll encounter a treasure map, a hidden room, a keyhole under the layers of paint. Of course I belong entirely to that second group, and I have spent admittedly far too much of my adult life still looking for these passageways. I have long wanted to walk through one of these secret doors, the place where the mundane—the bookstore, the country house, the nursery in Kensington—transforms into the wondrous: Fantasia, Narnia, Neverland. But lately, as the pandemic drags on into nearly a year of relative confinement, I’ve been wishing instead to stop at the threshold, to open the door of the spare room and crawl into that wardrobe and not come out again.
When I was young, I wanted the wondrous more than anything. It’s not a new story, or even a very interesting one: the child, lonely, bullied, unhappy, finds a book. And in that book, a child, lonely, unhappy, finds a place where a kind of low, slow magic still exists, where gym class doesn’t, where underdogs are issued powerful weapons and magical powers. I wanted desperately then to have adventures, to fall in love, to be a hero. And crossing over into a fantasy world was the only way I thought it could happen.
But like children eventually do, I grew up. And I had plenty of adventures, and plenty of love affairs, and got to be a hero and a villain sometimes, too. I still looked for secret doors, but mostly out of the habit of hope. And I had a daughter of my own, and I started reading aloud to her the same children’s adventures I grew up on. As I related how cold and miserable Edmund was in the White Witch’s dungeon, or how Wendy was shot down by the Lost Boys, I realized: I’m too tired and too old for a real adventure. Now, it’s not the wonderland that intrigues me; it’s the in-between, the space between the worlds. At 42, let’s be real, I can’t imagine a talking animal giving me a magic talisman without snickering a little. The first time I thought about how the Pevensie children’s mother must have broken her heart with worry when she sent them to the country, I think I wept a little to be so grown up at last.
This is always the way of fantasy. The true wonderland is only for children, a place to escape the world of grown-ups like me. Even the most fervent believers in fairies among us will eventually take on the role of tooth fairy ourselves, slipping money under the pillow of our children or nieces or nephews. It feels sad, but it’s part of the magic; those other worlds belong to the young, a place to work out your fears and your bravery far away from the bland good intentions of the adults who make you wear bicycle helmets and eat your vegetables. The wonderland is sacred, and sealed off from adults, which makes it all the more bittersweet for those of us who continue to search for its entrance. (Of course, as the Narnia books make clear, you can still get back to Narnia as an adult: but that is a one-way passage only, at the very end of this life.)
But the wardrobe, the nursery? They are the most liminal of spaces; the place you go before and after you put away those childish things. They are the place you go before and after you grow up, like Wendy, like Susan and Peter, before and after the magic slips through your fingers. And they are still left to us; in fact, I feel they can only be truly appreciated when we are grown. They are many, and varied, and everywhere: parking lots and lobbies and stairwells, anywhere you go on your way to somewhere else. But while these mundane spaces can be uncanny or unsetting—especially during a pandemic—I am looking still for the very particular kind of secret door or false wall or grandfather clock that you step into and watch the old world fall away. The liminal space, as it relates to children’s literature, is a truly transitional place into magic, a hushed, dusty hallway between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Perhaps the most tragic thing about them is that you can’t stay there, no matter how much you may want to. They are not like Oz, or Narnia, where you can stay for a hundred years, becoming kings and queens and heroes before you finally decide to go home. They are not stopping places at all.
Lately, my whole life feels like a liminal state. Maybe that’s why these spaces feel so seductive—maybe I’m still having trouble finding somewhere to belong. I am not old, but not young; I’m a mother, but not for so long that I can’t remember childless days; I’m supposedly past my artistic peak, but I long to create a masterpiece. And like everyone else, I am living in the waiting room of the pandemic, itself an increasingly unbearable space with both too much dream and too much reality to bear. The pandemic has forced upon us the most static and dull of all liminal spaces; who would not long for the more fertile secret highways of children’s literature, where you can hunker down while somewhere nearby, an adventure is being born?
Even at my most practical, I’ve always felt only a tenuous hold on this world. In his The Divided Self, R.D. Laing writes about the “ontologically insecure,” who at some level, have never quite accepted or felt comfortable in reality. And so lately, with reality pressing heavy on me, I feel a deep need for a physical manifestation of the Wardrobe in Spare Oom. I want to sit surrounded by soft coats and the smell of mothballs, but also holly and fir, and fresh powder over clean untroubled earth. I want to be warm and safe but perched at the precarious edge of possibility, ready to leap into adventure though I never actually will. Though I blame this new desperation on the dull duality of liminal spaces in the pandemic, I also understand it comes, too, from my role as a parent, where I create miracles daily for my child but suffer the lack of miracles for me.
In children’s literature, the passageways always pop up at the children’s most desperate hour of need. James is being horribly abused by his aunts when he finds his way into the giant peach. Bastian is being hunted by bullies after the death of his mother when he finds the Fantasia book in the antiquarian’s shop. Wendy has been told she must grow up and leave the nursery. The Pevensie children have been sent to the country to avoid the horrors of the Blitz in London during World War II. The passageways here are liminal spaces functioning as escape hatches from trauma and pain—too much reality. And so it’s not when our heroes and heroines get to Narnia or Neverland that the world falls away; it’s immediately on opening the wardrobe door or nursery window. Mary’s life doesn’t change on entering the garden, but rather on finding the locked door that leads to it. The children in Peter Pan learn to fly in the safety of the nursery, charged suddenly with the energy of adventure. It’s not transformation, but rather the possibility of it, that creates the space for healing for so many damaged children in literature.
This, to me, suggests that liminal spaces have a regenerative power of their own. They are often seen as uncanny, as creepy, because they are neither fish nor fowl, and because waiting is uncomfortable, unsettling. Waiting is, in fact, a repellent concept for most children, eager to be in action, eager for answers. But the older I get, the more restful I find the idea of waiting, of the dark cool wardrobe and the nursery at night, just before Peter comes. I think about the part in the story where the protagonists begin their journey, when they open a door and step into a darkness and the voices of the outside world fall away. I think of Dorothy, one hand on the doorknob, still and hushed in black and white, no farmhouse noises, no technicolor chaos and dead witch quite yet. I think how perfect it would be to live in that pocket in-between, when magic is possible but not yet here, when the strain and stress of heroism isn’t yet required. But as Sondheim writes in Into the Woods—an entire musical about liminal spaces and the consequences of fairy tales—“who can live in the woods?” The Baker’s Wife goes on to sing, “Must it all be either less or more / Either plain or grand? / Is it always ‘or’? / Is it never ‘and’? / That’s what woods are for.” That’s exactly why children, uninterested in complexities, hurry to leave the liminal spaces, while adults want so much to linger in them. The truth is, no one can live in those woods.
These days, though, I console myself—foolishly perhaps—with the thought that writing is a kind of liminal space, with all the possibilities of wonder and none of the risk. We can’t get back to Neverland once we are grown, but we can write a path through the midnight sky. We can spend the afternoon immersed in creating new secret gardens and fake walls and hidden passages. Perhaps we can live in the uncanny comfort of the liminal space after all, through writing the hallways and highways and phantom toll booths that will lead new readers there. Perhaps we liminal adults can feel we, too, belong, that the world is almost a good place for us, too, if we can remake it in these spaces. It’s pretty to think so, anyway.