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GETTING BACK TO BLANKET FORTS

November 8, 2015

 

We weren’t supposed to be watching The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, but technically the show was no longer starring the late-night Queen of Comedy: hosting duties had been taken over by Arsenio Hall. Plus, our activities were nestled safely away from the outside world (i.e., Mom and Dad), so the problem of censorship ceased to exist. In fact, when my brothers and I were tucked into the fantastical bubble of a blanket fort in the basement playroom, it seemed as if all problems ceased to exist.

 

On the nights we were allowed to stay overnight in our fort, we felt as if it we were the masters of our own bachelor hangout, custodians of a crash pad we chipped in to maintain in some city away from home. We watched The Late Show and other illicit programming on a tiny, portable black-and-white television/radio combination that’s screen probably measured no more than three inches across, but in our eyes at the time, a movie screen lowered into the basement by crane could hardly have looked more glorious. We ate bowls of snacks that made no culinary sense and had no nutritional value (I think oyster crackers with Open Pit barbecue sauce for dipping was popular with us back then), and we stayed up reveling by the flashlight glow long after we were supposed to be asleep.

 

We were the kings of our domain, and our domain had been constructed from aging sheets, worn quilts, and thinning sleeping bags. The adults couldn’t touch us. The problems of the world couldn’t touch us. We had jumped into a wonderland of our own creation, and we would only come out if and when we felt like it.

 

Do you remember blanket forts? Do you remember getting lost for hours or even days at a time in those shrouded fairy worlds that never ceased to provide tranquility and escapade at the same time?

 

In my youth, we had several versions of the blanket fort. At times the shelters could be as simple as a single quilt slung over dining-room chairs to mimic a pop-up tent with side walls, but at other times the hideaways were much more elaborate operations: “multi-roomed” dwellings that connected all of Mom’s spare bedding together with seven dozen clothes pins.

 

The end results of our more elaborate blanket-fort efforts often ended up covering almost every square inch of the basement rec room. We utilized most every recliner, sofa, and end table as trusses and wall supports, and when construction was done, those efforts ended up resembling something like a Saudi sheikh’s luxury abode without the harem.

 

Our forts were regal, carefully divided into entranceways, sleeping quarters, and parlor areas. The various rooms were romantically lit with lamps and various strengths of flashlight to give the atmosphere a sort of torch-lit glimmer that spoke of things covert and mysterious.

 

Once exterior construction was finished on a fort of ours, my brothers and I would bring in additional blankets and pillows to furnish our “bedrooms.” We would also bring in princely quantities of entertainment—enough books, games, and records to satisfy the diversionary wants of ourselves and our guests (okay, ourselves).

 

When all overhead lights were shut down in the basement playroom and the door flap was closed on a blanket fort’s entrance, we could have been in the middle of the Sahara desert or camped out behind the Hollywood sign. All confines of reality—especially practical problems like chores and schoolwork—faded into the ether of a play world that felt anything but fictional. Time ceased to exist. Mystery and contentment covered the atmosphere like an opiate dew. During stretches of childhood bliss like that, my heart felt warm and large in my chest. I was completely comfortable and safe. Happiness existed without irony, and moments stretched by without the need to dissect or define them. I didn’t have to strive to be anything: I just was.

 

As life went on, I often found myself searching rocky teenage and then adult existence for a return path to that smooth blanket-fort atmosphere (although I seldom recognized the searches for what they were at the times they took place).

 

I think we all spend a good portion of our adult lives trying to get back to younger times, when things like contentment and fascination were the rule and not exceptions. Romantic relationships, higher education, drug-induced bliss, career security, money accruement, professional identity, the powerful endorphin-wash that comes after a good workout: maybe these are all just attempts to get back to the sorts of feelings we once captured so effortlessly in childhood asylums like blanket forts.

 

Unfortunately, “adult life” often tries to rip the roof off of our blanket forts. Certain things happen that prod at a dreamer’s cushy sense of wonder. Sicknesses happen, heartaches happen, betrayals happen, personal screw-ups happen, financial problems happen, and eventually emotional blunting can happen. The world can stop being about sailing in the sunshine, and it can quickly become a game of just treading the confusing and billowy waters of grown-up responsibility. It can get to be about money, health insurance, life insurance, and trying to dig out of holes we’ve created for ourselves. It can get to be about finding enough caffeine or other drugs to stay interested. Life can get to be about pretending, but not in a good way (more in the pretending-to-care-enough-so-that-we-don’t-get-fired sort of way.

 

But through it all, we hopefully keep searching for the blanket-fort days of our childhoods.

 

Sometimes, while lost in the timeless ecstasy of a good writing session, I’m pretty sure I’ve found my blanket-fort sense of wonder again. The writing experience is simultaneously spiritual and physical. The experience is mine, and I don’t have to worry about the world invading it. When the critical voices are sufficiently hushed—when the sweet spot has been hit—the world makes sense, and the threat of death disappears. A good writing session tugs at the heart, but not in a dangerous way that’s going to leave any problematic scars. A good writing session leaves a person addicted and wanting more, but not in a treacherous way that’s going to leave him or her broke and sick—emaciated and shaking—emptying out bank accounts and sleeping in alleys (although historically, some writers have had problems avoiding such fates).

 

When the writing is going good, I’m once again tucked safely into a magical corner of existence—surrounded by nothing but love that needs no explanation—and I can’t hear any taunting or angry voices: I can’t hear the adult world calling. The walls of my ecstasy are too thick, and I think they’re being guarded by angels.

 

So, if writing is like a blanket fort, what is the opposite of such an existence?

 

Maybe the blanket fort’s antithesis is the harsh glare of academic or athletic competition that starts being pushed into the lives of kids the minute they’re old enough to step out of their blanket forts. Or maybe it’s the first windowless interview room that we are forced to tap dance around after picking up our college diplomas. Or maybe it’s the first time that we start to suspect that the world is about nothing more than the mortgage payments, medical bills, and credit card statements that are circling us every month.

 

Maybe the opposite of blanket-fort existence is the first time that someone in a white coat talks to us about a tumor or about an emotional anomaly that we can’t seem to shake through our own strength. 

 

Or maybe the opposite of a blanket fort’s tender mood lighting is the soulless and pallid glow of the overhead fluorescents in a workplace office. Maybe it’s the confined, constricted, dull feeling we often get in the professional worlds we’re forced to inhabit Mondays through Fridays as adults.

 

I worked at a large technical college for just over a dozen years. I held different positons over the course of my time at that college, but all of my positions were more administrative than they were instructional, so I know the feeling of being tethered to a cubicle and its surrounding milieu. I know what it’s like to feel swallowed up by “THE OFFICE” each day.

 

Several years ago at the college, I found myself temporarily displaced while a new office space was being constructed for my department. While this advanced monument to computers and cubicles was being erected, my coworkers, my manager, and I were all forced to squat in a tiny classroom space that served as our makeshift department headquarters.

 

There were no ornately plastered walls dividing personal spaces in that refugee village—there weren’t even any thin cubicle walls to give solace. For several months, four adults basically sat on each other’s laps as we tried to concentrate on e-mails, phone calls, and spreadsheets.

 

I would have given anything to be able to duck inside of a blanket fort for just an hour each day during that summer of office relocation. It would have seemed like nothing short of heaven on earth to drape several sheets over my computer monitor and around the back of my ergonomic chair . . . but alas, I never worked up the courage to build an executive blanket fort that year. Instead, I took special care to stare straight into my computer monitor in order to imagine I was alone for long stretches of time.

 

But then I noticed another option: there were boxes that could be stacked.

 

The facilities department had provided me and my coworkers with cardboard boxes the size of small storage bins, and we'd been instructed to use these boxes for hauling our professional possessions from the old office to the new one. Some boxes waited for us in storage, but we’d brought others containing “daily-use” items with us to the temporary space. I had four or so of my own boxes containing things like pens, files, highlighters, business cards, and notepads. I got an idea: the boxes could be used to build a wall. I would construct my own cubicle, or at least a single side of one.

 

Feeling invigorated, I started stacking my boxes strategically alongside my desk area. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was some small semblance of privacy, and it gave me needed relief from the pigs-in-a-pen feeling that existed in that room. When my box wall was finished, I felt better. My box wall didn't reach to the ceiling or exude luxury, but it gave me hope: hope that an innovative man could still construct his own world and build a little magic if he just refused to admit defeat.

 

Then someone took my boxes down.

 

Only a day or two after constructing my wall, I arrived at work in the morning to find it tumbled. Whether the deed had been committed by the nightly cleaning staff or by a neighboring coworker who had interpreted my wall-building as isolationist, I didn’t know, but I took a deep breath and tried to focus on a solution. I decided to restack my boxes.

 

By the following morning, my wall had been dismantled again.

 

Either the janitorial workers who cleaned at night were extremely obsessive-compulsive about box organization, or my attempts at creative subversion and sly humor had annoyed the “grown-up” sensibilities of some coworker who had forgotten about the magic of things like blanket forts. Either way, I realized that someone was aggressively roaming the landscape of the office after I left for the day, toppling any evidence of fantasy or individuality they encountered in order to appear “businesslike.” This was the adult world, and the adult world depressed me.

 

Sometimes, it seems like the adult world is determined to take down our boxes as we sleep each night. Sometimes, it seems as if the adult world doesn’t want us to have any peace. It comes calling, pursuing, and threatening. It screams into our ears, GROW UP! It tells us to stop smiling and joking. It demands we pay attention. It tells us that we should be worrying more fervently and planning more compulsively. It tells us that we should be suspicious of things that are too enjoyable.

 

The adult world can be persistent. That’s why we have to be especially persistent in our resolve to discover and rediscover the best things in life. We have to keep searching for a way back into the atmospheres that surrounded our most profound childhood pleasures.

 

We have to develop ourselves spiritually, and we have to continue to fortify the invisible barriers surrounding our creativity and romanticism. We have to keep pursuing the sorts of relationships and activities that make us feel as if we are once again blissfully unaware beneath forts constructed of sleeping bags and Dumbo sheets. We have to find ways to get back to being in the moment without trying to catalog it. We have to remember that the world isn’t all about money, or competition, or accomplishment.

 

We have to find ways to again get lost in magical worlds that don’t kill our souls or harm others. We have to find ways to get back to our blanket forts. I do it by writing.

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