Imagine yourself in “The Wizard of Oz” having been asked to sing right after the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion. They belt out songs about how they want a brain, a heart and some courage, respectively. With wit, courage and heart, you’re suddenly under the spotlight, ready to launch into your own song. Naturally it begins with the signature phrase, “If I only had a …”
Before you think about it too much, decide what word comes next. What is the “it” you believe will make you complete? What is your ineffable “it”?
What object, connection, accomplishment, physical attribute, personality trait or guarantee would make you feel as though the Wizard had heard your request? If you clicked your ruby slippers together, what’s the one thing that you’d make sure happened to you?
No “world peace,” by the way. This one has to be entirely personal even if it might have global implications. It can be a wish to be a mathematical genius allowing you to work on projects leading to treatments for disease or disaster, but you have to want something personally.
Writer Bonnie Jean Feldkamp wants an agent; Dartmouth friend Philip Odence wants an answer; my friend from the Erma Bombeck Writers Conference, Amy Hartl Sherman, wants a calmer mind. Desires range from the practical to the fanciful: My Facebook friend Martha Hardcastle Guthrie needs “a break in Obamacare, which went to more than $700 a month,” and pal Hope from Connecticut wants a pony but is steeling herself for yet “another year of disappointment.”
I never wanted a pony. But there was one lonely moment in my childhood when I was desperate for an unsuitable plastic parrot.
When we moved from Brooklyn to Long Island, I left all my friends behind, as if they’d been packed in box we forgot to bring with us. When I was about 7, during a long silent walk with my equally solitary mother, I became fixated on a plastic parrot sitting askew on a branch in the window arrangement of a florist’s shop.
This was no toy. Blood red and army green, fitted with marbles for eyes, it stood about three feet tall and was made of some tough, scratched and unforgiving material. No doubt it had been passed from flower shop to flower shop for years. But in a flash, I was absolutely certain that if I owned that thing, I’d never be lonesome again. If I could only have that huge, awful and ugly object in my room, my life would suddenly be rich and wonderful. It would be as if I had a friend to whom I could always tell my secrets.
For two weeks, I did extra household chores. I counted all the change in my bank. I walked the neighbor’s dachshund — even when it wanted to stay inside.
I don’t know how I finally convinced my shy mother to talk to the man behind the counter but do I remember his reply. After a long pause, he said, “Ma’am, that bird is for display only.” And I remember that he looked at both of us as if we were nuts.
I started to cry. “Please, I have five dollars.” That was a lot of cash and the guy was no fool. Mom and I went home with the plastic parrot.
And my life did not change. Eventually my circumstances did, but it wasn’t because of what I imagined.
You always remain you — and the plastic parrot of success often turns out to be a prop, and a pretty shabby one at that, as you realize once you get it home. You probably overpaid and you might have talked yourself into believing it would magically transform your universe when all you needed was to look more carefully at the real world.
Like Dorothy, many of us already possess what we need to be content. But for those who are financially insecure, who worry about their health and who never found true friends, the need for security, safety and community are real.
Perhaps the mathematical genius can help. And maybe the rest of us can not only click our heels together but also put our heads together and make compassion, not magic, part of our “If I only … .”
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com