My Imaginary Friends

It is not uncommon for a child to have an imaginary friend or playmate during those formative years when creativity is at the forefront of our brains. We instinctively seek understanding and companionship from our real-life circle of friends and family, and sometimes what we get back - is just not enough. It's nobody's fault - after all, who can compete with an imaginary, practically-perfect friend? They don't argue. They don't betray you. They don't compete with you, they don't even annoy you! Imaginary friends make the wittiest conversation, or if you prefer, they are perfectly quiet and agreeable. Of course they can't actually skip rope with you, throw you a ball, or give you a high-five or anything like that - and you can't actually talk to them - at least not out loud around other do have their limitations. But in a pinch, or in a particularly creative phase, they can be very satisfying friends indeed.

I had my own imaginary friends, who were loyal and true, and helped me through an extremely challenging time in my young life. And, just like my character Chloe Ashton in Bridge of the Gods I found friendship when I was suddenly swept away from my own idyllic childhood home, and needed it most.

Like Chloe, I was an only child. My earliest memories are of a sun-splashed 1970's Santa Monica, California, in a little bungalow my great-great grandfather built on 2nd street. I woke up every morning to soft ocean breezes, and I remember the most beautiful light - so soft and white - after the morning haze burned off.  I was always in shorts, having fun with my mom and her friends who, being so young were - in my mind - the coolest people in the world. It was a groovy time on 2nd street in 70's Santa Monica - free love was in the air, and the great music of that time played loudly from our stereo, mixing in my head with the intoxicating scent of the honeysuckle, and eucalyptus, and soft ocean breezes - and made me want to live there forever.

However, as in Chloe's own story, that life was not to last.

In Bridge of the Gods Chloe is taken from her happy childhood home by her evil Uncle Blake, and sold to the vagabonds. In my case my mother (sorry mom) is the one who bundled me into the VW van, and hit the road, looking for other friendly vagabonds, ie: hippies. We found them, decided to travel with them, and before long
mom met my step dad who had built a beautiful house truck complete with two lofts, stained glass window and a pot-bellied stove. We moved in.

For the next three years we traveled the United States in the house truck, and like Chloe I did not go to a regular school. Poor Chloe has tight-lipped old Mr. Codnash as her tutor, but lucky me - my mom was my teacher, using lessons sent from a correspondence school in Boston. They would send the work ahead to whatever town we visited next, and we would send the completed assignments and tests back the same way. I took the entire third grade and most of the fourth this way, and though the lessons only took a few hours a day, I found I was far ahead of my class when I finally returned to regular school. I loved having my mother as my teacher, and my classroom the forest.

Because I was alone most of the time, I spent hours and hours exploring the woods and rivers around wherever we camped - just like Chloe does. And like her, I loved the woods. As a child I loved their fresh, clean smells and interesting sounds, their wet, dripping pines, burbling creeks and slippery green moss-covered rocks - and all of the animals that constantly delighted me. As Chloe does, I enjoyed being alone in the woods and didn't miss the company of other children. Once in a while we would caravan with other house trucks and house buses  - and for a little while I had human friends to play with, before we inevitably turned off towards the next city or fair destination.

While I lived in the house truck I read everything I could get my hands on. This was before computers, of course, before cordless phones of any kind, and we were mostly out of touch with the "real world". When I wasn't exploring, or when we were travelling, I spent my time reading. And reading. I could not read enough!

A true awakening for me occurred when I discovered my step-father's collection of Oz books. I had no idea there were any other Oz books other than the "Wizard of Oz". But there are many!!! And each more wonderful than the last. L. Frank Baum wrote 14 books in all, and after his death author Ruth Plumly Thompson took up the mantle and wrote many more. The entire Oz canon is a treasure trove of imagination and art.

Even better - my step-father's collection was of very old editions - mostly second and third editions, from around 1920 - 1940, so their covers were really special, the old bindings and soft old papers inside added a whole other level of magic to the stories. I was only eight years old, but I read those books, and re-read them. I must have read them each five times by the time we moved out of the house truck and into a "real" house. I loved them dearly - they were filled with many gallant characters and loyal friends that I wished were real.

 Dorothy Gale of Oz was certainly my hero, and imaginary friend. After all, she and I had a lot in common - she was always finding herself in new, unknown places that were sometimes nice and sometimes not nice at all. But she never lost her cool! She was completely unflappable, no matter how insane the situation. Dorothy's sheer pluck in the face of the crazy Nome King, or frightening Hottentots, the hammer-swinging giant, or Momsi the witch - helped me face my own challenges as a nomadic hippy kid in 1970's America, with more grace. She really did! And - the illustrations in the Oz books by J.R. Niel were a whole different kind of friend - almost like an art therapy - they are that beautiful. His drawings took me far, FAR away to a land I wanted so badly to live in. A land of art-nouveau-inspired design, of girl rulers with roses in their coronets, lions walking by their sides, and powerful sorceresses like Glinda who wore long velvet gowns and diamond-incrusted snoods!!!

My other imaginary friend was Laura Ingalls Wilder. And she felt even more real than Dorothy because she WAS real. Her stories were true - just like mine were - and her stories were a lot like mine!!! She traveled in a covered wagon, I in a house truck. She drew water from the creek and so did I. She froze in the winter and burned in the summer, and so did I. Her parents made things by hand, as mine did. I felt like I was Laura sometimes - driving across the United States in a covered wagon or a hippie house truck, both of us on an adventure not of our own making. I remember really wishing my step dad played the fiddle!!!

Chloe's story is for the most part,  my own story. She is a little older than I was when I went on my journey into the unknown and away from everything I held dear. But hers is the spirit I felt within me even then, and it is a spirit I still feel now. I want so much to share this concept with other children facing uncertain and sometimes frightening circumstances. I want them to know that it is possible to be brave, even when you're the most scared you've ever been, and that you can find friends anywhere, you just have to look for them.

I never lost my imaginary friends Dorothy and Laura. Even though I eventually settled in a regular town and lived in a regular house and went to a regular school, I still looked to them for inspiration and encouragement when times were tough. And of course I still have the books, carefully preserved and displayed on my book shelves, and I still read and re-read both series every few years - the stories resonate on many levels, at every stage of life, so it never feels like the same book twice.

Turns out in some cases imaginary friends can be life-long teachers. I will forever be grateful for the support I found in Dorothy Gale and Laura Ingalls. And if Chloe can inspire any person, young or old, to persevere in the face of hardship, to celebrate friendship both human, animal, and of the natural world - then I am completely gratified.