Even in January, Zoe runs shirtless through the house, jabbing a paper towel roll sword into the air. "I'm Peter Pan the avenger!" Her pink bedroom walls are adorned with her own Crayola-marker illustrations of Peter flying, Peter fighting Hook, and Peter holding hands with Wendy. Each night before bed, Zoe turns on her CD of the Broadway musical, hoping to hear Peter's crow in her sleep. She lives in Peter's world.
The intensity of her relationship with Peter, heightened with each new version of the story she discovers, has fostered a deep loyalty to Peter's rules. Peter does not care much for mothers, and consequently, Zoe sometimes pushes me away, a gesture I never expected as early as age five. Last night as I leaned down to kiss her flushed cheek, she extended her arm. "I am not to be touched," she said, her words spiked with Peter's self-righteousness. "If you're around, he won't come to get me."
We'd just finished J.M. Barrie's story, whose closing paragraph promises that daughter after daughter—Wendy's and then Jane's and then Margaret's—will fly with Peter to Neverland. When Wendy allows her daughter, Jane, to float out the nursery window with Peter, it is with a hint of remorse. "If only I could go with you," she says. As I read this line, I tried to hide my glossy eyes from Zoe, who sees everything. "Why are you crying?" she asked. "Because Wendy can't go with Jane," I said. "But Wendy can't fly anymore, Mommy," Zoe explained.
It isn't easy to bid Neverland goodbye, but it's even more difficult to let your child go without you. How, I wondered, did all those mothers trust Peter with their daughters? And yet the grown-up in me knows that the perils of Neverland, where good always wins, pale in comparison to the ambiguous mess of the real world.
Just a few days ago, Zoe had a taste of the world that is not Neverland. She reported during our drive home from school that her friend Natalie snapped, "You are not my friend. Go away." Like me, Zoe has to battle tears at even the slightest offense. I gripped the steering wheel of my mini-van and reminded myself to breathe. "What could you say to Natalie when she says things like that?" I asked her, hoping she'd come up with a better answer than I could.
Zoe's pause lasted too long, and I glanced in the rear view mirror to see if she was suppressing tears. I dread that expression: pursed lips and widened eyes, as if she's expanding the well so the overflow doesn't betray her. But she was only thinking. "I don't know," she said. "I guess I could say it's not appropriate." Words she's heard from me, coming out of her mouth—terrifying and gratifying.
"That's a good choice," I responded. I wished I could have said that at work hours ago, as I watched an intelligent grown-up throw a tantrum during a meeting and get her way. I was as confused as I was appalled. These are the rules of adulthood? I wished someone would take her out on the pirate deck for a fair fight.
One of Zoe's favorite Peter Pan scenes to reenact is Peter's victory over Hook, when he issues the ultimate punishment: "Say you're a codfish!" She directs her dad as Hook, who never seems to get the intonation of the blubbering fool quite right. "I'm a c-c-codfish." It's important that he does, because it's such a tasty line. The good guy wins, and the bad guy has to admit not only that he's done wrong but also that he's nothing more than a cowardly bully. We don't get this kind of satisfaction very often in real life—though I haven't yet broken this news to Zoe.
Since I'm no Peter, I go to books for answers about raising my daughters—and, let's be honest, myself—in this ambiguous world. Recently, I gained some insight from Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters. The author, JoAnn Deak, suggests that due to both nature—patterns of neurological development—and nurture, girls tend to be less open to ambiguity than boys. "Boys often see ambiguity as a game, a challenge, fun," she writes. "To girls, more often it feels uncomfortable, unsure, unsafe." And yet, it is impossible to avoid life's murkiness, so Deak suggests that the best we can do is to help our girls negotiate uncertainty, which sometimes means letting them "live with some chaos and ambiguity and struggle on [their] own" (28). I hate that.
As a child, tiptoeing through my own shadowy territory, I, too, latched onto a Peter—mine was Huck Finn. I discovered the tales of Tom Sawyer and Huck because my mother, a seventh grade English teacher, read the book to her students. I delighted in the way Tom enticed his friends to whitewash the fence for him, teetering on the edge of trouble with no discernable fear. I, on the other hand, harbored deep worry about stepping into trouble, partly because I wasn't altogether clear on what might submerge me into my parents' anger.
One summer afternoon when I was five, my neighbor, Susie, several years my senior, and I took our play to the bathroom, where we decided to dip our index fingers into the toilet. We giggled as the cool off-limits water soaked our skin. It was an experience that needed language, and so I conjured up an appropriate word to name it: "fuck." I coupled each finger dive into the water with this gratifying combination of sounds: "Fuck. Fuck. Fuck." It still sounds like an apt label for toilet-dipping.
But Susie, with her eight-year-old wisdom, knew I hadn't invented this word. Just as I established a good dipping rhythm, Susie darted out of the room, upstairs, and out the door to find my mom. By the time I located them outside, my mom had already silenced the lawn mower to hear Susie's tattle. I was greeted with a whack on the behind from my mother. "But I didn't know," I protested, humiliation flooding my body. "I thought I made it up." I'm not sure either of them ever believed me. Worse than not being believed, though, was learning that joyful expression could result in punishment.
Tom Sawyer would have found a way out of it. And if he couldn't, then his friend Huck, who was no Susie, would have. But I didn't just want Huck for my friend. I wanted to be him, the boy who "came and went, at his own free will," the first to go barefoot in the spring, the last to don shoes in the fall, and who, best of all, could "swear wonderfully" (40).
I was Huckleberry in my childhood games and coerced the girl down the street to be Tom, a character she'd never heard of. All we needed to do, I explained, was pretend we wore cuffed overalls and straw hats, and then we could raft down the sidewalk in search of adventure. When I was Huck, I was audacious and bold, relaxed and free. I was a boy.
Folk musician Dar Williams begins her song "When I was a Boy" with these lines: "I won't forget when Peter Pan came to my house, took my hand, I said I was a boy, I'm glad he didn't check. I learned to fly, I learned to fight, I lived a whole life in one night. We saved each other's lives out on the pirate deck." She narrates the tale of her conversion from a free-spirited "boy" to a girl who learns that she needs protection from the world. I wonder: When did I lose the desire to be Huck, and begin to long, instead, for someone to guide and protect me?
I search for answers in my childhood, knowing we pass along to our children, implicitly or explicitly, the survival strategies we learned as kids. For my mother, the child of an alcoholic, those tactics had much to do with pleasing and rule-following, so as to keep her thumb in the dam of chaos and conflict. She has exiled most of the stories of her father's drinking from her childhood narratives, but occasionally a few scraps of sadness or shame find their way home. Then I learn that she couldn't bring friends to her house, for fear that the man who returned from work wouldn't be the same man who left that morning. Or that her mother struggled to make ends meet with the little money left after her husband drank his earnings away. The truth is that while the stories themselves may have been banished, their fumes seeped into the walls, the carpet, the furniture of our home, like stale cigarette smoke.
My childhood memories have my mom with a Tab in hand and a watchful eye on our dinner plates. I still hear the words of Susie, the tattletale, offering her own evaluation of the situation. "Your mom is really skinny. I bet she takes diet pills." I knew she was being convicted of something.
"No she doesn't," I retorted, responding to the tone of accusation more than its content. But I began to put the pieces together.
I understood that food was to be feared; it had a power to seduce and attack. That's why the rare bag of candy that entered the house had to be hidden. My mom bristled at my paternal grandmother's pushing of food on us. The cookies and candy in abundance at her apartment were a sign of over-indulgence, weakness. My grandma's phrase, "Clean your plate or the sun won't shine tomorrow!" was regarded as an affront to something she held sacred.
I learned that it was better to deny yourself than to clean your plate. If you must eat the pie, leave the crust. On one splendid occasion when my mom allowed me to select a treat in the check-out aisle at the grocery store, I was scolded for choosing a peanut butter cup. Didn't I know how fattening they were? I chastised myself for not having known, for not being good.
While Zoe thinks Wendy is beautiful and good, it is not Wendy she portrays in her imaginary play. Wendy, after all, is taken to Neverland to be a mother to the Lost Boys and Peter, to do spring cleaning of the house and to tell the boys bedtime stories. Wendy has to be a grown up in Neverland. Nor does Zoe choose to be Tinkerbell. The trouble with Tink is her jealousy of Wendy. Silence and female jealousy—already tired roles for girls, something even Zoe has realized. No, Zoe chooses to be Peter. Peter is the actor, the agent. While Wendy, Tinkerbell, and Tiger Lilly, the other female character, all find themselves needing rescuing, Peter is the clever boy who simultaneously protects them and defeats evil in a world whose rules he creates. Zoe swaggers through the house, her back straight and belly extended, her chin lifted in the air. "Say your prayers, Hook!" she bellows at her dad. She offers me the role of Wendy, and I decide to decline. I'm tired of being Wendy.
As difficult as it was to remain within the boundaries of rules in my childhood home, I found them even more difficult to navigate in the massive red brick building called junior high. Suddenly friendships were dictated by labels inside clothing and boyfriends had or not. Girls became easily angered and turned nasty quickly, unexpectedly. From ages twelve to fourteen, I spent my evenings perched on my bed with a phone pressed to my ear. I talked with one friend, who back-bit another; I joined in to assure my friend's approval. Then I'd call the victim of the back-biting to make sure she hadn't telepathically sensed our conversation and become angry. Above all, I feared anger—my own and others.'
I longed for escape from the tangle of adolescent relationships, but the imaginary trips down the river were no longer enough. Or, really, they were no longer an option. The door of freedom through imagination somehow closed and locked, without my even noticing. What I did know was that in the world I inhabited, something was wrong. With me.
This wasn't entirely a surprise: there had been hints for some time. When I was eleven, I approached my mom to ask permission to bike to a friend's house. As I spoke, her eyes refused to meet mine, instead scanning my body, up and down. As I waited for her answer, her hand darted to touch my belly. "Oh," she said, relieved. "That's your shirt bunched up. I thought it was your tummy!" A narrow escape.
While my friends had coltish legs that fit perfectly in the Guess jeans I coveted, I was stuck with a muscular, solid body. I wasn't fat, but I wasn't waifish, delicate. Worse, I was bigger than many of the boys—taller, more muscular. A stump surrounded by reeds. My mom watched my changing body with scrutinizing eyes in which I saw disappointment.
Peter Pan ignores scornful looks from grown-ups. Perhaps this is why I have, as an adult, greater respect for Peter than I did as a child. While I hide from my own shadow, Peter is deeply troubled by the loss of his. In the musical version, when he finds his shadow in Wendy's nursery and convinces Wendy to sew it back on, he is thrilled. "Wendy, look. My shadow! My very own shadow!"
"It's only a shadow," Wendy scoffs.
"Yes, but it's all mine. Oh, I'm clever. Oh, the cleverness of me!"
He launches into "I've Gotta Crow." "I'm just the cleverest fellow 'twas ever my fortune to know," he belts. Zoe loves this song, and she can't help but dance with Peter as he peacocks around Wendy's nursery, lifts his extended leg to meet his fingers (because he can), and parades tickled self-satisfaction.
Peter wears his confidence like a hand-tailored suit, flattering from every angle. It isn't surprising that Zoe wants to try it on for size every chance she gets.
I wish I could wear it, too.
During early adolescence I could not interact with my peers without measuring my body against theirs. We were our appearances, and if only I had the lithe limbs of my friends, I just knew everything would be easier. They seemed to eat effortlessly, enjoying endless treats and a carefree relationship to food. It didn't touch their bodies or their minds.
I feared food, but even more, I feared the consequences of being found in its clutches. I ate when my parents left the house, once hastily stashing an emptied dish of ice cream under the bed. I was caught, of course. It was humiliating to be discovered succumbing to desire, and worse, to having hid the evidence. I understood that this wasn't normal, that I wasn't normal.
I'd make it up to them, I thought. I'd show them.
My revenge, my protection, came from dieting. When I was twelve, my mom and I began our diet together, writing down the food we ate and tallying the calories. I took secret pleasure in the fact that I could do it better than she. I could eat fewer calories and display greater self-control.
The diet separated me from the mess of adolescence. It allowed me to withdraw into a world where rules and rewards were clear. I began to decline social invitations and escaped both the poison of the calories and of the social culture. Loyalty to the scale brought declining numbers and a shrinking body that slid easily into now-loose jeans. Betrayal meant surrendering to the overwhelming hunger I felt, filling my belly as quickly as I could while my family was out of the house. And then, ridden with shame, hanging my head over the toilet to force it back out. My reward, my punishment: isolation and deeper withdrawal into myself.
Eventually, though, even the dieting betrayed me. My attempt to become invisible made me more visible. My once sturdy one hundred twenty pound frame now withered below ninety. "Your gym teacher asked me today about your weight loss," my mom accused. I felt scrutinized again by people's concern, which I regarded as judgment, another source of my mother's shame.
I sought help when the dieting began to consume me: I looked in the mirror and could no longer recognize the skeletal creature staring back, no longer in control, no longer powerful. My hair fell out in clumps as I brushed it, and worse, my thoughts refused to deviate from a narrow, suffocating path of food and dieting. My parents were relieved that I'd asked for help. After the first visit to a therapist's office, my mom dropped me off at the door, for fear, I imagine, of being spotted in the waiting room. She worried aloud that a classmate of mine, who worked at the public pool across the street, might see me enter or exit the therapist's office. I snuck in and out, small and desperate—a five-year-old in a fourteen-year-old's body.
While the therapy helped me climb back, after about nine months, to a healthy weight and provided strategies that enabled me to challenge the anxiety and self-loathing that accompanied eating, it didn't do quite enough to quell the issues that sparked the dieting in the first place. And so I sought safety another way. I linked myself to someone who seemed stronger.
Her name was Alexandra, every syllable clearly uttered, no nicknames allowed. She was tiny, with a trim boyish frame, save for her full breasts. Her hair was the color of apricots.
Like Peter, Alexandra was always certain. She was clever and insightful, and when I was with her, I felt powerful. When my first boyfriend broke my heart, she served him nasty glares from across the room. My code of niceness kept me from offering my own scathing glances, but I knew she had me covered. I took pleasure when friends, usually boys, said, "I wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of you and Alexandra." Even so, I knew that her hand could turn on me in an instant—banish me from Neverland—and so I didn't challenge her when she treated me less than fairly. She selected those who surrounded her carefully, and when a better option came along—someone with more popularity, more power, more appeal—she quickly traded up. I wondered, as I heard her shred others, what words sliced me when I was out of earshot. I constructed the narrative as it might be, instead of as it was. But I was still afraid; I was still voiceless.
One evening, Alexandra called her mother from my family's kitchen to ask for an extended curfew. She planned to leave my house early to make a secret stop at her boyfriend's house. As the cord she wrapped around her fingers began to tint them purple, her voice climbed. "You never let me do anything! You don't trust me!" I watched my mom pretend not to listen as she read the paper nearby. A small part of me was glad that I had a witness to this side of Alexandra. Watching together, it seemed more absurd and less intimidating. "I'll come home when I want. I hate you!" She hung up. While these displays usually served as fair warning—stay out of her wrath—the light had shifted, and instead of audacity, I saw meanness.
As much as I loved the idea of boldness in the face of trouble, she didn't look like Huck Finn or Peter Pan in that moment. Grow up, I muttered to myself, under my breath. But I didn't dare say it out loud.
For Christmas this year, Zoe's friend gave her the 2003 film version of Peter Pan, which she refers to simply as "The Version." While Peter's avoidance of responsibility and adulthood is delightful in the Broadway musical, it is darker here, more psychologically complex. The exchanges with Wendy are less playful and more intense, Peter's resistance less defiant and more defensive.
In one magical scene, Peter and Wendy waltz in flight, encircled by orbs of fairy dust. They hold each other's eyes for a moment, Wendy's face tranquil with pleasure. Then Peter breaks away. "Wendy, it's only make believe isn't it? You and I are." She reassures him that it is. He is not really the Lost Boys' father. He is not really her husband. But she begins to descend.
"Peter," Wendy asks. "What are your real feelings?" Peter is confused by the question. He takes a step back.
But the issue is urgent to Wendy. "What do you feel?" she presses. "Happiness? Sadness? Jealousy?" She pauses. "Love?" She's looking for a particular answer. She wants to know if he loves her. She wants to know if he is capable of love.
"Love?" Peter faces Wendy, his brow rumpled.
"Love," Wendy responds. Peter is not escaping this line of inquiry.
Peter thrusts his knife into its holster. "I have never heard of it."
"I think you have, Peter," Wendy cajoles. "I dare say you've felt it yourself, for something, or someone..." But this brings Peter to a place he is not willing to travel. There will be no more waltzing in the sky. Wendy's grief is almost palpable.
Peter leans over as if to kiss her cheek. Instead, he whispers. "Never. Even the sound of it offends me." For the first time, Peter is dressed not in possibilities but limitations. This suit is not nearly so flattering.
It took me until college to disentangle myself from Alexandra. I knew that I was stepping out of our rhythm when my first response to her stings was not hurt but anger. When I tried confronting her about her habit of speaking for me—carefully, using "I" statements like I'd learned in a college communications course—she berated me. I had upset her on the evening before an important exam. How insensitive. It was the first time I faced her anger directly, so well-honed was my skill at dodging it. I listened, half child, feeling the heat of shame trying to overtake me, half adult, rolling my eyes at the sloppy strategy, the childish game. Eventually, I chose silence instead of engagement. What was the point? I got the rules now. There would be no fair fights, and unlike Hook and Pan's battles, there would be no promises of good form. I hung up the phone.
"Why do you spoil everything?" Peter accuses Wendy after the interrogation about love. "We have fun, don't we? I taught you to fight and to fly. What more could there be?"
Wendy reaches to put a soothing hand on Peter's cheek, but he dodges it. "There is so much more. I think it becomes clearer when you grow up." She seems to have surpassed Peter.
"I will not grow up. You cannot make me." Peter is desperate. His very boyhood depends on his declaration. "I will banish you like Tinker Bell," he threatens.
"I will not be banished," Wendy is defiant. She rallies to her own cause.
"Go home! Go home and grow up," Peter retorts. "And take your feelings with you." He spins on his heel and ascends into flight, away from Wendy.
"Peter! Peter! Come back!" Wendy calls. She runs in her white nightgown to the Wendy house the Lost Boys have built. She curls on her side and sobs, folded hands held to her cheek. There is no pain like being banished for one's feelings.
It appears she has lost—lost Peter, lost her place in Neverland. In the past, I have read this moment as one more tired example of a girl insisting on romance as the ultimate adventure. But I think I have sold Wendy short. It takes bravery to step out of a game whose rules confine her. Peter cannot, will not, join her in this adventure. Peter will swoop in to save her from Hook, but he is not brave enough to listen to her feelings. He is not brave enough to change. This time, she steps to the edge of the plank alone.
A few nights ago, when I walked upstairs to check on Zoe in her room, I found her sitting on the floor at the foot of her bed, hands crossed, hardbound Disney Peter Pan book in her lap. "Please let Peter Pan be alive," she whispered. "Please let Peter Pan be alive."
Grief inched its way up my chest. I want Zoe to know that she will be just fine without Peter, and yet, I want Peter to be alive, too. Or, more accurately, I want him—or at least parts of him—to remain alive in her, in me. Peter the audacious. Peter the bold. I don't want her desire to be Peter to devolve into a desire for Peter's protection. The cost, the risk, is too great.
I know, because I have spent too much time teetering on the brink of my own plank, waiting for Peter to swoop in, wondering if I am strong enough to swim. I still collapse into a fetal position, at least emotionally, when I, like Wendy, dare to push on the boundaries, to use my voice, only to be met with a threat of banishment. But I get up a little quicker. I don't long, at least all of the time, for a forceful protector.
Somewhere I know that despite our best efforts to protect our children, no child will dodge life's pain. The best we can do for our daughters is to let them watch us negotiate the ambiguities in our lives, to show that we can face them and survive.
Several days ago as I drove Zoe to school, I looked in the rear view mirror to see tears rising in Zoe's eyes. We'd been having a good time, singing along to old Buddy Holly tunes. "Zoe, are you crying?" She first denied it, and then assured me that they were happy tears.
A few pauses later she said, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" I told her I needed to know what she was thinking before I could answer. "Do you think I look like Peter?"
"Oh, yes, I do," I told her.
"Right around the eyebrows," she said. "That's why I was crying happy tears. I think I'm half Peter." I told her I thought being half Peter and half Zoe was a good combination, because there's a lot Peter could learn from Zoe: about feelings, about kindness, about compassion. But it's good, too, to keep Peter alive in us. "I am joy! I am youth! I am freedom!" we recite together.
In the final scenes of Barrie's version, Peter returns to Wendy's nursery after years of forgotten promises to retrieve her. He is taken aback to see her grown up. For almost the only time in his life, writes Barrie, Peter is afraid. But Wendy is not. "She let her hands play in the hair of the tragic boy. She was not a little girl heartbroken about him; she was a grown woman smiling at it all, but they were wet smiles." Happy tears.
While she may no longer need Peter, Wendy knows that there is a place for him in the world of a little girl; she knows that there is something in it for her daughter Jane to fly with Peter, to learn to crow. And so she lets them float out the nursery window together.
Title graphic: "Inside the Window" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2009.