They never leave me. The people and the words that tell their story are always there. They’re a permanent fixture now, like my freckles or blue-green eyes. The books I read as a child are a part of who I am.
I read a book called The Borrowers when I was ten. It is about a teeny-tiny family who lives beneath an old English manor. All their made-to-size belonging, like chairs made from wine corks, were are taken or “borrowed” from the humans upstairs, who they could hear stomping above them. The humans didn’t know that the Borrowers existed, and so they always had to borrow stealthily at night.
This summer, I worked the graveyard shift and the only feasible way to get any sleep in the daytime was to go to the basement and fall exhausted on the air mattress in-between boxes of Christmas decorations and an air compressor.
I remember laying there quietly in a corner on the air mattress in the cool darkness, listening to the scurrying of everyone upstairs. Someone was humming in the kitchen. I could hear the water singing in the pipes as someone filled up the bathtub.
“Is this how it felt to be a Borrower?” I wondered to myself as I drifted off to sleep.
I wish I could remember more about the books that I read. I wish I could remember who and where I was when I read them. Years have passed since I’ve opened up those stories. During those years, I have forgotten many things but I somehow held onto the feeling of smallness that I felt reading the book about The Borrowers.
I used to wonder if there were tiny people living underneath my own kitchen, and then suddenly that’s what *I* was doing as an adult. What’s the use of thinking like this? What’s the use of thinking like a child at twenty-three? Well, if you’re brave enough to try it, the world stays big, mobile, fascinating.
Last week, I had dinner with a man who was in town for a conference. He bought me dinner and asked me what my ambitions were. I told him I wanted to travel and write children’s literature and then I asked him the same question. He told me he had just accepted an offer to work in the White House.
I smiled and congratulated him.
“Why?” I asked. To be honest, I don’t think he expected this question. I suppose I should have been more impressed and more congratulatory, but I wanted the truth first.
He said something – I don’t remember – but I read between the lines. He is not a happy person. There was not that spring in his step or an easy smile. There was pride in his accomplishments, but there was no joy. He had lost the magic of feeling small.
My little world is about to change again. I’m moving to a different state. You see, I live in Nashville right now, where everything is growing so fast that it makes me dizzy to watch the commotion. It’s shooting upwards and across and pushing me out. Yet the Tennessee hills shut me in and block the sunsets.
I’m moving to a little town in northern Oklahoma. It’s quiet there and I can see across the flat sameness of wheatfield after wheatfield. Nothing to see, but I can see it all. Every day, that flat sameness paves the way to the grand finale of the day: one glorious sunset. I’d rather be small there. Small, insignificant, and free.
I don’t think that man would understand if I tried to explain it. He only understands words like “freedom” in political terms. He doesn’t even know he’s unhappy. My guess is that he thinks he won’t be unhappy when he finds a girlfriend or wife. I wonder if she’ll know how to be small, because, if not, neither of them will be happy. People like him are unhappy for reasons other than loneliness.
Small people are the happiest people. They approach the world with the same sense of fascination and self-awareness as the Borrowers. They hold themselves lightly; their mental focus is on others, those “human beings upstairs.” They are quite content with their own cozy homes with postage-stamp portraits and buttons made of beads.
I’m not always like this. I fancy myself as one of those human beings upstairs that make all the noise and actually own the house, and others around me are The Borrowers. I become demanding. I should include more detail in my writing. I should tell you exactly how I become demanding of others around me, but my pride prevents it.
“Let us skip over this part and go back to children’s literature,” I want to say. I need to go back to my original small size. It is quite impossible to be both proud and humble, arrogant and curious. I’ve slipped and need to retreat back to my smallness.
But I don’t know how exactly. It is so hard to change such drastic sizes. It’s one thing to become that BIG, but it is a much harder thing to become so small. It’s something you must ask for: “Please God, let me be small.”