Magical childhood moments
April 9, 2013 6:55 PM   Subscribe

For a short story I'm writing, my narrator/main character has an interaction with a sorceress that feels quite magical to her. I'm struggling to find the right child-sized (she's probably 5 or 6) language with which to describe the moment, so I thought I'd crowd-source this one. What are some magical things you remember happening to you as a child, and how did you describe them? How would you describe them now? (Alternately, if you can think of another writer who does this well, feel free to point me in that direction.) My story is present-day. I can say more about the magical incident, but I'd rather keep it vague and open at first unless you guys need more detail to be helpful. Thank you!
posted by mermaidcafe to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I think around that age you start to have more memory for the emotions washing through you, and the most magical things are those that seem to appear in response to that internal dialogue/conflict, if that makes sense.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 7:00 PM on April 9, 2013

When I was 4 (a very annoyingly precocious 4), my mom was driving me home from preschool. We were on a suburban street and I was sitting quietly and suddenly the windshield was covered in a giant spiderweb and my mom was stuck in it.

Mom had fallen asleep at the wheel, crashed into a truck that was parked illegally in the middle of the road, and had smashed her face through the windshield - she broke her nose, her face was bleeding, and the spider web was the cracked windshield. When Mom pushed herself back into her seat, I was very confused about the red all over her face. I didn't figure out it was blood until much much later, at the time I thought the markers I'd been using to color with earlier that day had somehow gotten on her face.

An older woman in the house right where the accident happened came outside and called 911. She helped my mom and we went into her house to wait. I remember everything was lavender and brass, and she tried to give me a popsicle, which I was having none of. I remember thinking that this woman must be an aunt or something I'd never met before, because otherwise I wouldn't have been allowed in her house and my mom wouldn't be talking to her. When I realized she was just a helpful stranger I became terrified of her and wouldn't move from the curb along her front yard.

I'm not sure that you would qualify this as a "magical" moment. But it has affected me deeply for my entire life. There's this disconnect of time between seeing things as one thing and later figuring out its truth. The spiderweb, in particular - I literally saw it as a spiderweb, as though it were overlaid on the glass. I remember thinking the wipers needed to be turned on to wash it away. Even though I know intellectually what it was, my memory is persistent. My brain only allowed me to process the truth of the situation much later, when I felt safe. Before that, it filled in blanks with possibilities. Possibilities that were available in my 4 year old world.
posted by Mizu at 7:15 PM on April 9, 2013 [12 favorites]

Feeling lost in a mystery but still very very safe

Noticing something for the first time, like dust notes dancing or the moon in the day

An adult believing in you. And taking you seriously, as if you are an adult yourself

Knowing a secret

Finding a quiet place that breathes in just the right way

Feeling hugged by a tree in the sun

An old book snagging your fingertips while running them idly down library shelves

Being powerful in your own little body

A room only you can find.
posted by blue_and_bronze at 7:18 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I especially like Mizu's story because it gets at the fearful quality of magic in childhood. The world is so open to possibility because you don't yet know the limits of how things work.
How at age 5 everything was still potentially alive: shadows, headlights of cars, rocks that seem to have faces. You pretend to be dogs with your friend and so you actually drink a puddle, because you are a dog. Then you come out of that magical zone and know the quotidian side of things again. Things in that zone are compelling but sometimes menacing too. And nothing is really that strange because everything is still a bit strange to you. You haven't been here on the earth long enough for the physical limits of things to seem like rules. The possibility that your doll's hair can grow back when you cut it is no stranger than the fact that one day they tell you a baby is growing in your mom's tummy.
posted by third rail at 7:33 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

About that age or a little older I regularly dreamed of flying. I thought one day my brother would be younger and I would be older. At night, walking past the bathroom, I could swear I heard something was an echo or the plumbing maybe, but I was only a little afraid. I assumed it was a sleeping creature. There was so much suspense about everything...what happens when you find an old key and put it into a crack in a tree? I was so sure something would that I imagined that it did.
posted by emjaybee at 7:52 PM on April 9, 2013

I agree with emjaybee and third rail - as a child nothing is "impossible." My grandmother, whose name was Wini, loved Winnie the Pooh. I for some reason thought she was going to turn into Pooh. I don't know exactly what I thought that meant but I have a very distinct memory of being convinced of that!

Along the lines of third rail's mention of doll's hair, I knew a little girl who didn't like her bangs so she did the most logical thing to her, she cut them off.

Definitely everything is "real," especially your stuffed animals and dolls. You can't comprehend that your pets don't think the way people do.
posted by radioamy at 8:29 PM on April 9, 2013

I remember watching my arm one day (while walking through the dining room into the kitchen) and realizing that I could move it just by thinking about it. The magic of this seemed beyond comprehension.

Ditto for the moment I looked around my elementary school classroom and realized that every other kid saw out of their OWN eyes, and they were all the centers of their own world, just as I was. And I was never going to be able to experience life otherwise.
posted by duvatney at 8:46 PM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was using the restroom at Disneyland at the time when motion activated faucets were just starting to be used--I stuck my hands under the faucet and water came out--a little girl was next to me (she was perhaps 4). I heard her suck in a huge breath and I turned to her...her eyes were wide open and staring at the stream of water and she breathed out, "Maaaagic!"

Of course I said, "Yes."
posted by agatha_magatha at 9:23 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

For a short story I'm writing, my narrator/main character has an interaction with a sorceress that feels quite magical to her. I'm struggling to find the right child-sized (she's probably 5 or 6) language with which to describe the moment, so I thought I'd crowd-source this one.

Can I suggest that a 5 year old wouldn't necessarily actually recognize it as being any more magical than nearly everything else in her or life is? Small children are surrounded by wondrous, inexplicable things like automobiles, talking teddy bears, trees and magnets. I'm not sure that a 5 year old would have any basis for knowing that conjuring up rainbows or whatever would be any more special than anything else she sees.

When people talk about the losing the innocence of youth, part of that is recognizing that certain things can't happen, and the consequent loss of a certain kind of magic from every day life.
posted by empath at 9:28 PM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

When my very imaginative daughter was 3, 4, 5, and 6 she experienced a grander life than we, her parents. In the front yard she had a complete roller coaster setup. It took her on wild rides all over the yard. She excitedly invited friends over to ride the roller coaster, but they insisted it was an old rotting tree trunk that lay alongside the driveway. She continued to enjoy the exciting experience of the rollercoaster, and often persuaded her little sister to ride with her. Every night the downtown part of the city (Seattle) buildings, stores, lights, skyscrapers, ferryboats, freeways, folded up. Then it all unfolded for use the next morning. One day she saw a bright flying saucer with moving lights slowly land in the backyard of her friend's home across the street. In broad daylight. She never forgot it and told the story, always in detail, many times. She had friends that I couldn't see who often accompanied us shopping. If she forgot to bring a friend to the car, she screamed, tore out of the car seat and rushed into the house to get her friend. There was a very scary guy named The Noap who hung around our place. He had a long skinny nose and appeared randomly and unexpectedly, scaring the daylights out of her. He always wore the same outfit, from hat to shoes. All of this was very detailed, as to color, gender, shapes, height, clothing, etc. She could talk without hesitation and at length about any of these experiences and things she'd seen happen and tell myriad detailed stories about The Noap, her 'friends' (who all had names) and their experiences together. This wasn't imaginary, it was as real to her as the visible life 'real' life we experienced.
posted by mumstheword at 10:33 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

From being around children, magical and imaginary things are described very straightforwardly, as if they were perfectly ordinary events rather than being something spectacular. So I'd let the simplicity of the language speak for you rather than going grandiose and trying to impress.

I mean, let's say your sorceress might shoot fire out of her hands. The kid might be impressed because hey, fire is awesome, but they wouldn't be doubting or disbelieving, because of course people can shoot fire out of their hands.

Think of Calvin and Hobbes where something like aliens abducting him may lead to an epic adventure, but seems like just another hassle in the life of Calvin, you know?
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:38 PM on April 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

As everyone else is describing, at that age every little thing is amazing and magical, and as adults we forget that we once didn't know that everyday things were possible, and conversely, that certain things are not possible, and thus if they do happen it would have to be because of magic.

Along these lines, one of my favorite moments was when my 5 year old asked me with utter seriousness if I could help her take her arm off.
posted by gubenuj at 10:43 PM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

There are many writers who write children and magic beautifully, but the first two who come to mind are Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Mahy. DWJ books range from picture books to adult novels; the picture books are obviously a bit younger but many of the others do feature things from a child's perspective. Regardless, she has a wonderful way of writing about magic in a straightforward and uncomplicated manner.

Margaret Mahy again writes a wide range, though mostly picture books up to young adults. I like this list, because it includes a lot of her range. She has an almost poetical way of describing even prosaic things, and yet when she writes about magic it is numinous and meaningful and somehow completely real. It's hard to describe. Go read her! Read both of them! Not that I'm trying to convert you to two of my favourite authors or anything...
posted by Athanassiel at 3:23 AM on April 10, 2013

I have always had very vivid dreams, and when I was young I couldn't tell the difference between memories of dreams and memories of things that happened when I was awake. Because of this, there was a period when I fully, really, actually believed that I could fly sometimes. Also that a plane had landed beside us on the road and poked a wing through the window of our car, nearly decapitating me. I didn't understand why the rest of our family didn't remember these things. Though they were unusual, they weren't impossible (clearly, since they had happened). I could not be convinced that these things didn't happen. It was frustrating that no one else remembered, but that was their problem. In fact, I still remember these things as real, I just understand that I am mistaken. I don't really trust a lot of my memories from early childhood unless someone else has confirmed them. The memories of dreams and reality are indistinguishable. The memories seem "magical" only in retrospect. When I was five, it was just like "I ate lunch yesterday, then a plane landed on the GW parkway next to our car, then I ate dinner."
Like mumstheword's daughter, I also had imaginary friends who were extremely real to me. I got very upset when grownups would pretend to interact with them because a) I could tell they were pretending, it was patronizing, and also b) they couldn't keep track of where my friends were. I wouldn't lose track of them anymore than I would lose a real person in a room. Not only were the grownups obviously humoring me, they looked stupid doing it. I think now that part of me understood that they weren't "real", but they were just as real as the furniture to me at the time.
posted by Adridne at 7:11 AM on April 10, 2013

I loved to go walking alone outside at nighttime, when there was a bunch of undisturbed snow on the ground, the streetlights made the snow look like it was made of diamonds, endless glittering and shimmering as far as I could see. I'm not sure if I was as young as 5, but I was certainly under the age of 10, and it always felt like a very magical, peaceful and quiet fantasy that I loved getting lost in. For as long as I live, I'll never forget the feeling.
posted by foxhat10 at 7:14 AM on April 10, 2013

When I was little I jumped off a diving board (something I did a lot) and for some reason this one time I was totally convinced that I was able to fly.

What went through my mind as I hovered in the air was:
(1) Oh, looks like I can fly now. Everyone's going to look at me!
(2) Where should I go? I'll go to the nearby big city! Whee!
(3) Wait: I'll be all alone and miss my mom!
(4) Can I even go down? Maybe I'm stuck up here? I'll just make sure I can land. Good, I'm safe in the pool!
(5) Rats, it doesn't work any more, even when I jump off in exactly the same way.
(6) What's this? Nobody believes me? I guess I should have done a circle around the pool or something before landing.
(7) Hey, I want to get in on that game of Marco Polo!

For years I remembered this as a real thing and I regretted wasting a magical opportunity.
posted by steinwald at 8:35 AM on April 10, 2013

Thank you all for your answers, and feel free to give more.

Yes, I did think about my character not being old enough to discern "real" magic from "fake" magic. I should have phrased that bit differently. But you guys are right; kids are very matter-of-fact about things. I remember the first time I met my grandfather's second wife, I asked her where she got her pretty necklace. She told me she robbed a jewelry store and I just said, "Oh? Which one?"
posted by mermaidcafe at 4:49 PM on April 10, 2013

Yes, I did think about my character not being old enough to discern "real" magic from "fake" magic.

It's really not even about being able to separate real from fake magic, but the inability to recognize the difference between 'mundane' and 'magical' at all. The moon is magical. Fireflies are magical. Juggling is magical. Music is magical.

Somebody casting an honest to god magic spell has to do something pretty spectacular to compete with a glowing bug you can catch in your hands.
posted by empath at 11:35 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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