What if?

There is something living in my walls. I know this because, as I lay awake worrying at 2 a.m., I hear it moving. “It” is the wrong word though. I should say “them” because there are lots of creatures in there. I hear them throughout the house in the walls of my bedroom, dining room and my son’s room. My daytime brain assumes that I’m dealing with a mice infestation or maybe squirrels. But logic seems to leave me in the wee hours. Fueled by the subtle pitter-patter and scratching, my worries about my children, my organization’s budget, my friends’ cancer, the political climate and even that weird noise in my car become more daunting in the middle of the night.

And what if those aren’t mice? I read Neil Gaiman’s provocative “Coraline” and became aware of the prospect that perhaps my shadow family is living behind those walls. Maybe, if I’m not careful, I’ll be pulled into a skewed version of my own life — those nocturnal creatures will suck me into their world with promises of no hard choices. Like Gaiman’s main character, my nighttime brain likes this option — it is lured by the temptation until I realize that no hard choices leads one on the same path as no choices.  

It is 2:30 a.m. and the gnawing sound persists. I force myself to move from the “What if” question of Neil Gaiman to the “What if” response of author Kate DiCamillo. Because of her Newbery-Award-winning “The Tale of Despereaux” I know that perhaps that sound in my wall is just a brave mouse who is in love with me. I try to refocus my brain and ponder all the good outcomes that could come out of my worries. My son’s recent concussion will teach him to be more careful in the future — perhaps it has saved him from a worse accident, my budget woes will lead my board and staff to creative sustainable solutions, my friends’ cancer will be beaten back and make her stronger, our politicians will realize that we should embrace loving relationships in whatever form they emerge.   

What if? There are so many ways this supposed mice infestation could go. At 3 a.m., I start thinking of every book I’ve read about a mouse: “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse” fable — but that gets me thinking about our state budget and the conflicts between the needs of outstate and urban citizens; “The Mouse and the Motorcycle,” by Beverly Clearly — nothing scary about that scenarios especially if the mouse has a helmet (unlike my son when he got his concussion); or maybe Mickey Mouse which encourages my brain to wander back to Minnesota’s budget and some of our state legislators’ priorities.  

The power of literature is that the authors open up the doors in our brains to creativity and empathy. Throughout the dark night writers show me different explanations to the unexplained noises. They help me create scenarios — frightening and soothing alike. What if we valued our artists and writers — our creative capital in the same way we value other popular culture stars? Sure, $45,000 was a lot to pay Neil Gaiman for a speech but Joe Maurer makes $175,000 per baseball game (whether he plays or not).

These days, even during the bright hours of sunshine our world is a little scary — those worries and that gnawing persist. We need to be led onto the path of creative problem framing, to help us ask “What if…” again and again until we find the solutions that makes the most sense and let us all sleep through the night.   

Jocelyn Hale is Executive Director of The Loft Literary Center.