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Curbing my recent imaginative longing

How reading for pleasure has revived the imaginative thought characteristic to youth

When I return to the same “big beach” today, I look upon the waves with a similar wonder fueled by my own bewilderment as I realize that I lack a fraction of the boldness that my smaller self freely embodied.
When I return to the same “big beach” today, I look upon the waves with a similar wonder fueled by my own bewilderment as I realize that I lack a fraction of the boldness that my smaller self freely embodied.

I grew up spending the majority of my summers on Balboa Island, a man-made island spanning only 1.7 miles in Newport Beach, Calif. This small, family-friendly spot is a sanctuary for kids constantly yearning for freedoms not typically associated with their youth — biking with a group of friends to grab donuts in the morning and frozen bananas just before dark created the illusion of being “older,” of being a version of myself who was usually only a character in my imagined vision of the future. When I return to Balboa today, I don’t feel the same invincibility that I did in my youth — instead, I find myself nostalgic for the spectacularly innocent eyes through which I once viewed it.

In the same naivety that experienced the donuts and frozen bananas, my family and our close friends would take the ferry to what we called “the big beach” — the beach with waves that seemed giant when positioned next to our tiny, bouncing bodies. Without hesitation, I would grab my boogie board and bolt into the crashing waves, carefully assessing which were capable of taking me on the smoothest ride. 

Despite my diligence, I was often pummeled beneath underwater tornadoes of cutting sand and whitewash, gasping as I rediscovered the blue sky above me. I would carefully return to the warmth of the dry beach, standing breathless with stinging skin as I turned back to look with wonder at the placid exterior of the rough water that lay beneath. After a brief breath of recovery, I would run back into the ocean with the same exhilaration that preceded the wipe-out — I credit this resilience to my youthful imagination. I imagined that I could succeed despite my previous failure, and that imagination is what drew me to the water and later carried me out of its current. 

When I return to the same “big beach” today, I look upon the waves with a similar wonder, yet this present wonder is fueled by my own bewilderment as I realize that, as a 21 year old, I lack a fraction of the boldness that my smaller self freely embodied. I am aimlessly frustrated by a waning imaginative expertise that was innate to my youth. 

The hours spent spinning around my front yard and collecting the sticky sap of leaves to concoct magic potions, and the long days I enjoyed curating imagined underwater worlds in my pool feel dishearteningly out of reach. I long for the blissful exhaustion only invited by a day of play. This past week, however, I was reunited with comparable glimpses of my imaginative powers — I sped through Sally Rooney’s latest novel  “Beautiful World, Where Are You” with the same swiftness that compelled me to the waves.

In both high school and college, I have designated my weekly hours of leisure to television and films — while these viewing experiences are not entirely passive and probe reflections of their own unique merit, they do not ask of me the same imaginative deliberation that reading a fictional novel demands. In my fourth year at the University, I am faced with the reality of my oftentimes dormant imaginary mind, and, while writing allows for a small revival of this distinct thought form, the recent time I have spent reading for pleasure has proven especially reinvigorating. 

When I peek at the lock screen of my phone only to discover that what was supposed to be an hour of reading has covertly become two, I am giddily transported to the disappointed feeling of being separated from a friend after the “funnest” Saturday playdate. Without thinking, I realize that the novel’s detailed visuals which have abducted the totality of my thoughts are merely my imagined conceptions of the stagnant words on a flat paper surface. The people and places that I see, and the emotions that they unearth belong exclusively to my own imagination. 

The older I get, a gradual apprehension surreptitiously masks the venturesome pillars of my daily thought. In recent years, when comfortably standing to watch the ocean, I actively will myself to enter — the uninhibited eagerness of my youth has become an eagerness to rediscover that uninhibited perspective. Reading for pleasure and, specifically, for a pleasure that is mine and no one else's, is entirely freeing. To read out of desire is to let my thoughts run fearlessly into my easily neglected imagination — I am gifted the opportunity to visually, sensorially and emotionally encounter something that is not tangible. Reading for fun exercises imaginative thinking and, through this thinking, I grow closer to the miracles of my youth than I ever thought possible. 

Willa Hancock is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com. 

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