By Michelle Railey
When I was a kid, when we lived at 2227 Joyce Drive, I did many stupid, childlike things. For one, I used to dig in the dirt (carefully; I was dirt-averse and had a glittery t-shirt shouting “Cleanliness is Next to Godliness” to prove it. My mother knew this shirt was, for me, truth and mantra and not ironic kid stuff pawned on normal kids by J.C. Penney). I was dead certain, as I dug with a kitchen spoon, that I would soon hit (1) dinosaur bones, (2) pirate treasure, or (3) in dead-last place of desired outcomes, China. Needless to say, none of these things ever resulted, although on occasion and on a day blessed by the gods, I would sometimes hit a piece of broken crayon strongly resembling copper, which even more strongly resembled jewels. Most days, I’d hit (1) gravel, (2) more damn dirt, and (3) cigarette butts.
Those days were days which left me wishing I’d just been playing “kitchen” with the dirt (place dirt on kid-sized plate. Mound dirt into shape of TV dinner Salisbury Steak. Cut dirt oval into diamond shapes, as though it had been grilled. Serve to non-plussed doll. “Kitchen” was a far less satisfying game than one would think.)
Other days, I spent an entire summer in the backyard on a project I will call “fairy cottage.” Now, this had to be fit in around the times I was running around with Richie, Eric, Big Michelle (who was older and taller than me, “Little Michelle”), and my sister, Heather. In these times, we were running around the dumpster (kids are weird) and the electric generator-box, playing either Super-Friends or Star Wars. Aside from the fact of the dumpster (remember: kid-clean-freak), I was both the happiest girl ever to have walked the face of the planet (I am Wonder Woman! I am Princess Leia!) and also what can only be termed The World’s Worst Sister (I am Wonder Woman! I am Princess Leia! Oh, you can be whatever it was Debra Winger played or a Jawa. I don’t care because I am…).
Summers were great. I loved them. And luckily both of the following are true: (1) my sister never killed me for being a selfish, evil, good-role-hogging twit and (2) my parents also never killed me for always (and I mean always) taking the “good parts.” (I’d like to think things were more equitable when my sister and I played Charlie’s Angels. No haggling there: Heather liked to be “Chris” and I liked to be whatever Jacqueline Smith called her part before she began hawking cheap career clothes for K-Mart. In retrospect, I regret not being Shelly-Freaking-Hack. But whatever. I’ve clearly thought way too much about this.)
But around the edges of being Princess Leia and Wonder Woman (what do you mean I can’t be both simultaneously? You people are clearly fools), I worked in the backyard, right next to our fence, on the fairy cottage. I had, at my disposal, two square feet of space and approximately three twigs. I had no moss. And moss was key. I had Big Dreams. I was building a fairy cottage! And if real fairies never checked it out (it was, after all, Lincoln Woods, an optimistic name for income-sensitive housing with bare linoleum floors and a lot of love – my parents were and are the most incredible people I have ever or could ever know), that was okay by me because everyone else in the known universe was going to stand in line and buy tickets for it. It was going to be incredible.
Moss, and twigs, and magic lights glowing green and gold. A cottage, with tiny tea cups and tiny plates and tiny cakes. You’d walk your way through this twig-built structure, ooh-ing and aah-ing all the way. It would be beautiful, amazing, unique. All in Lincoln Woods. A fairy-freaking-cottage, with moss and twigs and magic and ticket-buying, queuing customers from all over the world eager for the chance to walk their way through two square feet of popsicle-stick-construction to gape at the wonder of my fairy cottage. And I was building it.
I let no one in on my big plans. No one.
And they never panned out. I got distracted by not-really-poisonous berries (you two wait in your room ’til your father comes home and I know if you’re dying or not) and then my family moved to Colorado Springs where we had pet cats, pet rabbits, and I drew pictures of cheerleaders for the imaginary Indiana Heartbreakers until we moved back to Indiana and I wrote “I miss Colorado Springs” on my hated, detestable, foul-smelling Yamaha flutophone case in Indiana. (That’s me: missing Indiana in Colorado and missing Colorado in Indiana and basically, otherwise, always not knowing how fantastic I have anything until it’s in the past.)
At any rate, the fairy cottage got replaced. We moved. It was outgrown. It was never finished. It never would have been (three twigs, a popsicle stick, and no moss). It was my first bad, great, but mostly just ridiculously, ludicrously, bad idea. It wouldn’t be the last.
I have faith in bad ideas. I think, for many people, the bad ideas pave the way for the good ones. I think, for many, the mistakes must precede the successes and you don’t get the latter without the former.
I think, for me, I would love here to insert a little personal homily about how my bad idea led to something great, or something decent. It did not. The fairy cottage was never built. The bad idea was abandoned for other, mainly, bad ideas (memorably, drawing cigarette ads — I invented the word “incognito” by the way, in a cigarette ad with a black-bobbed beauty in asymmetrical, black sequined evening gown. Just ask my dad, he’ll tell you. Oh…wait for it…nope, he informed me the word already existed but it was amazing I’d gotten it kinda right there. I was crestfallen, for so many reasons.). And there hasn’t been a good, let alone a great, idea ever since.
I long for the days when bad ideas led the way to, or at least preceded, a future full of time and education, of future bad mistakes or future good outcomes. I long for the days when inventing a word is precocious and not a symbol of personal limitations. I long for the time when, armed with a popsicle stick, three twigs, and no moss, one could discover dinosaur bones or build a fairy cottage or both. But those times are past. And one has to wonder: at what point do bad ideas cease to become ideas and begin to be delusions? At what point does wonder become disorientation?
And, when one has reached that point, in adulthood, still remembering too clearly for one’s own good, how does one shut off the valve of memory, bar the door of failure to look ahead and see where it is that one could be useful?
I cannot be Wonder Woman. I cannot be Leia (and let’s face it, Leia was cute but not really all that handy, though “half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf-herder” can’t be discounted). I cannot be Little Michelle, inventor-queen of the world-famous Lincoln Wood fairy cottage and dinosaur-bone collector. Bad ideas are invariably a good, leading indicator; a virtuous precursor. Until they fail to flower into a good idea.
And then? What then? I guess you just wait for another bad idea. Or three more twigs and some moss. And a genuinely good idea.
Or your mom can just bring you a lemonade with maraschino cherries and a box of little gingerbread men cookies. Because when you’re kind of stuck on the dream, a snack from a loving mommy will surely always help.