Dad would have a five o’clock shadow by eleven a.m. so he spent most of his morning routine shaving. I would stand next to him, mesmerised by the movement and sound, his face like one of those round, prickly cacti being groomed. Standing there, warm with shower mist, the bathroom felt like a protective cocoon, if the insides of cocoons were made of men’s discount fragrances from Priceline and a basin brew of shaving cream and hair dregs.
I don’t remember what age I was exactly but I was small. Not so small that I can’t recall the memory, but only big enough to just reach the sink. From down there I could see dad’s lathered face in the mirror, but I couldn’t even see the top of my head let alone my own reflection.
By tilting on a certain angle though, I could see past dad, past the vase full of dried flowers on the window-sill and peer through the lace curtains covering the mottled class. It was there that I first saw him, the rabbit, his ears framed by the window pane, his face unseen but instantly recognisable.
“DADDDDDD! It’s the Easter Bunny,” I wailed. I couldn’t believe it. Here I was, in my threadbare nightie, the cat-pattern complimented by the slogan ‘I sleep purr-fectly’, witnessing one of life’s great miracles. The Rabbit of all Rabbits! The one who lay chocolate eggs (or so I thought at the time) was just outside my bathroom window. He was much larger than I had previously imagined, almost comically so, but this was the real deal so who was I to judge, especially on only a pair of ears.
In a strange moment of pre-coffee and pre-divorce enthusiasm, Dad dropped his razor and, mouth agape, asked in earnest:
“Out the window, outside, in the backyard. Didn’t you see his ears? Up there!” I pointed at the window, jumping up and down.
“Well we better go chase him!” dad chimed.
So, wrapped in a towel, face half-coated in shaving cream, uncharacteristically full and animated, dad lead me out the back door.
Encouraged by dad, I followed the cotton tail as it ducked around each corner, just out of reach, before the rabbit disappeared completely.
I was puffed, slightly disappointed, but on the whole elated.
“You almost had him, Stephanie! I saw the whole thing.” Dad exclaimed.
With his corroboration, I could take this story to anyone. I had chased the Easter Bunny and it wasn’t even Easter. I had seen his ears in the bathroom window and to this day, I can still recall exactly how they looked. I can feel the dewy grass underfoot and channel how alive I felt in the realm of the imagined.
Like most, I lived in my imagination a lot as a child. Lonely and bullied at school, I’d speak to birds and, quasi-delusional, challenge my peers when they claimed birds couldn’t actually talk back. I would have lengthy tea parties with my dolls on the front law, sipping from innumerable empty teacups and consuming large amounts of make-believe rainbow cake. I also had an invisible friend called Sarah. Sarah was blonde and cheerful; my confidant in times of need and all round best pal. Sarah and I were so close she would join the family at the dinner table every night. There we were: five place settings, five sets of cutlery, five glasses of water and five chairs – one for me, one for my brother, my mum and my dad, and of course the fifth for Sarah. After dad accidentally sat on her one night, leaving me so traumatised I wouldn’t eat dinner at the table for a week, Sarah’s dinner privileges were revoked. I seethed.
Essentially you could argue I was ‘away with the fairies’ a lot – but I wasn’t spacy, I was just attached to literal fairies. Because I was deeply attached to fiction, to alternate realities, to the narrative-driven things in life, to connections and fables and the hope that at any moment I could fall down a rabbit hole.
My parents weren’t big readers though, so I spent a lot of time coveting my cousin’s Babysitters Club collection and watching television. I loved so many shows, particularly the animated spin off of ‘Punky Brewster’ about an abandoned girl and her foster family. Punky Brewster was smart and funny and always up for adventure. I loved Punky so much that when I won a raffle on stage at Waverley Gardens Shopping centre as a six-year-old and had to choose between a month’s supply of bread for my family or a Punky Brewster showbag, in the cheeky spirit of Punky her I, of course, chose the showbag. Because even though I loved my mum, and saw her pleading, sweating, red face in the front row mouthing “chooooose theeee breeadddd” I knew I’d love wearing a Punky Brewster hat for the next two years more.
Cynics might consider this kind of attachment to material, marketing goods as capitalist conditioning. To that I say, that’s not how you make porridge.
Because it was Roald Dahl’s Matilda who confirmed my suspicions that it was cool to read. It was the Babysitters Club who taught me it was okay to have messy friendships and be entrepreneurial. I learnt so much for the kids of Degrassi — Junior and Senior, but not Next Generation — that I wanted to be them. I’d have meetings behind the bikeshed about it and even take a change of clothes in my schoolbag ala Stephanie Kaye.
And it was Linda Day of Press Gang who encouraged me to seek a career in publishing (after making endless magazines on a typewriter).
I’d cling to the Alice’s, the Dorothy’s, the Matilda’s, because they’d make me feel like I wasn’t alone. These characters seemed familiar to me: I also felt small at times and confident at others, I definitely felt lost and regularly displaced. The likes of these girls, these fictional characters, helped me to validate my own growing character. I revelled in their smarts and bright, excitable attitudes and long for a wonderful land where I could have adventures.
As time has progressed, my dependency on stories, on characters, hasn’t waned. In fact, now I channel it for work and writing. I think it’s healthy – taking influence from art whether literature, TV or film; I identify with characters and access real agency through a life imagined.
It may seem utopian or glib or even schizophrenic to say, but as I still entertain my own Mad Hatter style fantasies, I love getting lost in worlds that mirror and heighten the allure of my own. I am a rabid fan of pop culture; as Netflix will testify, I love content with a “strong female lead” and relish identifying shared traits and shortcomings with them. From Elena Ferrante’s best friends in the neopolitan series to Orphan Black, from Abbi and Ilana’s dedication to filth and friendship in Broad City (who should totally be cast as the hooka-smoking caterpillar in a live action Alice in Wonderland, btw) to Liz Lemon’s faux pas.
The main character of Murakami’s The Sputnik Sweetheart, a woman, states “On a day-to-day basis I use writing to figure out who I am.” I also do this, but on most days, due to anxiety around my own writing skills, it’s the writing of others like Lewis Carroll or Abbi and Ilana, that help me figure out who I am. Something I’m still working on, guided by an insatiable desire for fiction through the world of my imagination.
In Heidi Julavits’ recent book The Folded Clock, she quoted Julian Barnes on the painter Lucian Freud. The following theory is posed thus:
In one version of the philosophy of the self, we all operate at some point on a line between twin poles of episodicism and narrativism. The distinction is existential not moral. Episodicists see and feel little connection between different parts of their life, have a more fragmentary sense of life, and tend not to believe in the concept of free will. Narrativists feel and see constant connectivity, an enduring self, and acknowledge free will as the instrument which forges their self and their connectedness.
I am a narrativist. For sure. I see connections, I even seek them out. I am drawn to stories and characters, and tune how they help to construct me, my self, but am also very aware that my personal taste both shapes which characters and stories I choose, as well as how I choose to take them on.
Still now, as someone who considers carbs — particularly bread — as my soul mate, I would choose the Punky Brewster show bag and, as a thirty year old woman, I’d still wear the hat. I’d also chase an imaginary rabbit through my yard. Just watch me grow.
Reading from EWF: Alice in Downunderland event.