I’ve been away. I know this.
I’ve been away, writing an all-new secret book, full of all-new secret words and kisses and the kind of deep relational dysfunction that was all I ever, ever wanted to hear about at sixteen.
Now, that book is safely in the capable hands of Agent Sarah, and even though many esteemed writers of my acquaintance are often driven to anxious rocking and madness by this part of the publishing process … I kind of love it.
Not because I’m willfully contrary or a masochist, but because in that brief window of Circumstances Yet Unknown—for that one finite spoonful of time—this whole physical world/gainful employment/concrete consideration/behaving sensibly business is distinctly Not My Problem. I LOVE when things are not my problem!
However. I realize there’s a flip-side. That flip-side is: uncertainty.
I have a long, storied, and overly-complicated relationship with uncertainty.
(This is not a post about Fiendish.)
Let me tell that relationship to you.
(Later, I will make a post about Fiendish. MANY, even. Right now, though, this is a post about personal growth, the power of literature, and the confusing phobias of my youth.)
Oh, childhood—a simpler time. A time of knock-off-Disney pop-up books, velcro sneakers, and hugely, gloriously irrational fears.
The thing I am about to tell you is ridiculous. You don’t believe me yet, but you will. No, seriously, it’s nonsensical. It is—to be quite honest—virtually incoherent.
The year that I was five, I became terrified of infinity. I was obsessed with it. Paralyzed by it. It was simultaneously the most mind-blowing concept I had ever encountered, and the worst thing I could think of.
This was not a fear that I could adequately express to anyone. Even within the vast and baffling pantheon of childhood fears (dogs, bees, quicksand, the shower drain, the garbage disposal, butterflies), my fear was weird. It was intangible. Abstract. It couldn’t bite you or kidnap you or live under your bed. It could not inhabit physical space (or else, it was everywhere all the time) and so, it could never effectively be banished.
While my various friends plucked their stuffed toys bald at the possibility of pit vipers and werewolves, and then exhausted themselves, I lay blank-faced—long after everyone else in the house (possibly the neighborhood) (possibly the entire world) had gone to sleep—thinking about the startling revelation that the universe didn’t end and didn’t begin and time was a horrible, circular creature, and also something I didn’t really understand because I was five and clocks were still kind of hard.
The thing about infinity was, you didn’t have to understand it in order to grasp how scary it was. You could walk pensive circles around it, kick the tires, and possessing only the haziest inkling of it, still come out of the whole existential fiasco with a sense of impending doom.
I became deeply afraid that I would never amass enough information to understand the universe. I became afraid that my brain would break. The gears would jam, I would become irrevocably locked in place. I’d be perpetually trapped in one never-ending moment, stretching on and on until forever.
This fear was stark, icy, and all-consuming. It occupied my nighttime thoughts for roughly one calendar year.
The thing that saved my neurotic little self was a book by Russell Hoban, called The Mouse and His Child. It was a dark, convoluted, and oddly philosophical story. (Also, the page I’m sending you to with that link is super, super yellow.) I loved the book with the kind of fanatical devotion that prompts a short, fanatical person to draw nineteen pictures of odious slave-trader/main villain Manny Rat. I loved it like it was the charming-yet-esoteric story of my own tiny life. This is not a post about the book though, because the book was only the instigating factor.
There was an old animated version of the story that played on TV sometimes at weird hours, usually late, late at night, and this animated version is where I came to fully and therapeutically understand the concept of the last visible dog, and so, to make peace with my strange child-version of infinity.
For the sentimental and brightly-colored Youtube clip that you are about to see, I’m heartily sorry. (Read the book. It’s way, way better) For the slew of ominously recursive dogs, I am also heartily sorry, but in a different, more vindicated way, because if you watch them and find yourself in any way unsettled, know this: now you can totally appreciate the kind of bizarre horror that gripped child-me as I watched the dogs reduce,* following them down the long hallway of the Bonzo can label into the center of the universe.
I counted with the Mouse Child, trying to calculate this awful depth, panicking when the dogs began to flash by faster and faster. The interlude seemed to last much too long, suddenly. I’ve never been very good at telling how much time is passing, and I became convinced that the moment would never end, and I would be permanently stuck there in front of the TV, as the visible dogs marched on and on and on.
And then suddenly, they stopped. There was white space beyond the endless parade. The Mouse Child had found infinity, and it was not the bottomlessness of the universe. It was made of himself—of thoughts and ideas and memories—and if the dogs were to be believed, eventual white space. It stared in, not out.
Now, this whole philosophical conundrum was something Russell Hoban had basically already covered in the book, but it took actually seeing it in front of me to truly believe that the Mouse Child could be infinity. I could be infinity. We travel in instead of out.
Every writer I know is weird. This is the lesson, I guess. I’m sorry this still doesn’t really explain my relationship with uncertainty, but I guess it explains why I love The Mouse and His Child.
Every writer has a weird, infinite, ungovernable universe inside them. Every person has a universe inside them. As Whitman famously said: I contain multitudes.
Infinity is us. Uncertainty is us. In its own conceptual, higher-functioning way, eternity is us. And even though that was once the stuff of childhood nightmare?
These days, I kind of enjoy it.
*You totally can’t, can you? Because this is a child’s cartoon from the 1970s and no one is traumatized by it but me. It’s cool. I totally get it.
Can’t wait to read it! Yay!!!!!!
Oh, thank you—I’m glad you’re excited!
Haha. “My mascara’s running.” That clip was strange and odd and intriguing and heartwarming. I like the optimistic meaning behind all of it, even though the concept IS very abstract. When I was a child, the only time I ever thought about infinity was when I thought to myself, “I can start with 1 on the first page of a notebook and add a 0 afterwards and fill up the whole notebook with 0s, and that STILL wouldn’t be enough room.” There was something striking about that realization, but I didn’t dwell on it.
(On a related, but not note: My favorite Korean pop boy group is called INFINITE.)
I think the reason I was so in love with the story when I was little is because it WAS a kind, charming, optimistic way to think about ideas that people usually treat as very abstract and adult and “not for children.” I also really liked The Little Prince for the same reasons. And oh, I am all about anything with Infinite in the name—that is like my watchword!
This is so strange. At about the same age I had an obsession with infinity. I wouldn’t call it a phobia, but I spent of time streched out on the cool wood floor staring at the dust under my bed, and imagining an endless number to TVs each showing another tv showing another tv. This bothered me. I also was bothered by the fact that I couldn’t imagine a color that wasn’t related to any other colors. Kids are way smarter that people give them credit for.
Kids are way smarter that people give them credit for.
This, times a thousand-million! (Also, I loved picturing endless numbers of things AND trying to conceive of colors I’d never seen AND trying to imagine what blind-from-birth people might think in their heads that colors looked like)
That was the weirdest mash-up of haunting fright and the sense of a benevolent reality that I may have ever had. I had to stop reading after the video. I don’t want to get stuck in that again tonight.
In case that didn’t make sense let me rephrase it, “That was the weirdest mash-up of haunting phenomenon, combined with the sense of a benevolent reality, that I may have ever witnessed.”
the weirdest mash-up of haunting phenomenon, combined with the sense of a benevolent reality
You have basically just described my entire experience of reading that book as a little kid.
“the weirdest mash-up of haunting phenomenon, combined with the sense of a benevolent reality”
this pretty much describes how I felt reading The Replacement. Which was AWESOME btw.
Awwww, thank you! I’m really glad you liked it :)
Other than myself (and now my sons) you are the first person I have encountered to love ‘The Mouse And His Child’, to be fascinated and obsessed with the Last Visible Dog. I really enjoyed reading this post.
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Hi Brenna. Just stumbled on your post. I loved what you have to say about The Mouse and His Child. I read it to my kids and I loved the book so much I have had a blog entitled ‘The Last Visible Dog’ since 2007. I’d be honoured if you wanted to pop over and have a look. I’m currently recounting my recent trip to the Northern Hemisphere (I’m a New Zealander) but there are a lot of more philosophical posts there too over the years.