Reluctantly back home with my parents two months after deciding to take time off from Princeton, I wasn’t exactly in prime form. My uncontrollably racing mind had left me sleepless for weeks. The process of peeling away the suffocating layers of anxiety accumulated at prep schools and college was proving to be agonizingly slow. My brain replayed the same obsessive worries about GPAs, jobs, and future plans that had caused me to come home in the first place. I was deeply exhausted and emotionally numb.

The days between sessions with my therapist felt like years, and nothing I used to enjoy piqued my interest. I would pick up a pencil to try drawing–I once spent hours fervently illustrating my own fantasy stories as a kid–but gave up after ten minutes. I would flick through channels on the TV but had become so trained by hoop-jumping environments that I could only seem to justify activities that contributed to my resume. Doing things just for the sake of enjoyment was a foreign concept.

I agreed on a whim to babysit for a friend of my dad’s. I didn’t think much of it, except as an excuse to kill some time with mentally unstrenuous activity, earn a bit of spare cash, and escape my room for a few hours. When the agreed-upon evening arrived, I got out of my car and stiffly walked up the front path. Kids had always made me feel slightly awkward, especially the quiet ones, so I felt a little nervous. I climbed the steps to the front door and rang the doorbell. The father leaned out and smiled sheepishly, while two gap-toothed, four-foot whirlwinds pressed up behind him.

Jess, 11, sporting a mismatched combination of floral print shorts and pink turtleneck, greeted me gracefully and immediately asked if I wanted anything to eat. “We have lots of Oreos,” she informed me, “and these DELICIOUS juice packs–you just HAVE to try one!” Meanwhile Dylan, 8, followed behind jabbering nonstop, telling me all the things he had planned for our evening. Swimming, ping-pong, Halo, cartoons, gun fights and karate matches were, apparently, all on the itinerary. Their father scribbled his phone number on a post-it note and told that Dylan’s bedtime was nine o’clock, and Jess could stay up until he returned. I nodded, and closed the door behind him and his wife as the kids bounced around the living room, gesturing for me to join them.

I put my bag down on the couch and narrowly avoided a yellow foam dart, which zoomed past my left ear. I had unwittingly entered a war zone. At one end of the battlefield, Batman was plotting from his Bat Cave while at the other, several dinosaurs operated a piece of construction machinery. Dylan ricocheted between the two scenes, mumbling enthusiastic commentary to an invisible audience. Jess sat on the couch playing a game on her iPod as Dylan did a somersault over the back of the couch and collided with a metal statuette of a ballerina right behind my head. With a jolt of adrenaline, I reflexively grabbed it before it hit the ground. There would be no time for my usual sullen brooding that night, it seemed.

“Do you watch South Park? I bet you watch South Park. You’re a grown up. We watch it ALL the time. And R-rated movies. We watch those too. I bet you know all the bad words. We do.” A prolific talker, Dylan’s topics of conversation travelled back and forward in time with the greatest ease: The sleepover last weekend, what kind of car he’ll have when he’s old, what he ate for breakfast this morning. The limits of time and space could not confine his whizzing mind. Ignoring the movie we were supposedly watching, he sat next to me on the couch, brown eyes twinkling mischievously.

He began to interrogate me about how my day had been. I confessed that I had suffered a slight stomachache earlier that morning, and Dylan nodded sagely. “Had a few too many last night?” he asked, completely earnestly. I blinked, and let out a stunned laugh. There was something disconcerting about hearing these words from someone wearing Spiderman shorts. He grinned at me, looking pleased with himself. He’d learned to repeat with incredible accuracy lines overheard on hung-over Sunday mornings. I paused, unable to think of what to say in response, and Dylan continued, “It’s ok–once I had EXPLOSIVE diarrhea. I’m serious. It went everywhere. I had to miss three days of school.” He threw his arms out wide to emphasize the dimensions of his ailment, and then shook his head somberly.  His total lack of self-awareness reminded me how trapped I’d become in webs of self-imposed rules and judgments. Sometimes we just need to express ourselves without fear whether or not we’re being appropriate.

Jess eyed us jealously from her spot on the couch, and scurried off to rustle around a drawer in the kitchen. She returned with a huge stack of papers in her lap. A little shyly, she asked, “Do you want to see my art?” I said of course, and she proudly showed me fifty or so pencil renditions of various Family Guy characters, and the book she was writing about a boy and his pet dog. Listening to her chatter excitedly about the stories she had invented, I felt an unexpected longing to show her my old drawings, and all the characters I’d created when I was her age. For the first time in months, I felt abuzz with excitement at the prospect of losing myself in imagined worlds. My weariness faded as I listened to her unfiltered stream of consciousness.

Dylan looked at Jess’s drawings for a few minutes but, since he had the attention span of an amnesic gnat, was already bored. He leaped up and proclaimed, “Let’s play a game!” This particular game entailed the three of us placing slightly misshapen plastic Mickey Mouse ears on our heads. Sitting at the kitchen table, we took turns sticking a card with a Disney character on it into a slot on our foreheads without peeking. We were then allowed to ask questions like: Am I an animal? Am I a boy? Do I have four legs?

During the fourth round, I made the cardinal error of asking if I was a princess when, in fact, I was Mike the one eyed green monster. Jess banged her fist on the table, red faced and completely overcome with giggles The two of them sniggered nonstop for about half an hour. I felt all traces of cynicism and inhibition melt away at the sight of these two kids, playing cards plastered between their eyes, and eyebrows furrowed in grave concentration as they tried to figure out whether they were Snow White or the Little Mermaid. The ears kept slipping down over Dylan’s eyes as he sat in deep contemplation, occasionally raising his pointer finger to the sky and jumping to his feet with a yell of “I got it!” The two of them let off a completely unbounded explosion of emotions. It was liberating, making me feel like I no longer had to adhere to any rules, or operate under any specific agenda; including the repressive one inside my own mind. It was fun simply for the sake of having fun.

Finally, Dylan’s bedtime arrived. After a fair amount of bargaining—Dylan was a master of negotiation—I managed to corral the two of them upstairs. Dylan pulled on spaceship printed pajamas and plopped into bed. He peeked out from behind the covers before starting on another of his avoidance schemes. “What if someone tries to break in through my window? I’m totally serious. What if a murderer gets a ladder and then comes in while I’m sleeping and BOOM! has a knife and I have to fight him! What would you do?” He leaped out of bed with fists held like a tiny boxing champion, punching and kicking the window. But as he turned back to look at me with uncertain eyes, part of him was genuinely afraid. I reassured him that I had a lot of experience dealing with burglars. After all, I’d grown up in London where a lot of scary people lived. Satisfied, he reluctantly crawled back into bed.

Jess sat on Dylan’s other side and helped to read the bedtime story. I felt like a UN diplomat as I tactfully managed the inter-sibling conflict during heated debates–whether Robin was actually a better fighter than Batman, and whether the Joker was really dead. I tucked Dylan in under his duvet and Jess and I tiptoed back downstairs, leaving Dylan’s door open just a little to scare away all the things that lived in the dark corners of his imagination.

I suggested to Jess that we draw together until her parents got home–a quiet activity that wouldn’t wake Dylan. I waited at the kitchen table while she fetched two perfectly sharpened pencils, two pieces of paper and the third Harry Potter book. Leaning over with the utmost care, she stood the book upright so that we could both see the cover: an image of Harry on the back of a large winged creature.

This was exactly how I used to entertain myself every night during elementary and middle school–scouring the house for books, magazines and objects to copy—and I immediately became absorbed in my sketching. We worked in silence for half an hour, and as I carefully shaded the pointed beak and long strands of the creature’s tail hair, time seemed to slow to a leisurely pace. I noticed, with a start, that my mind had become blessedly blank. There was nowhere else to be, nothing else to do. No need to check my email or add to my to-do list. Just the eleven year old and I, silently scribbling.

Jess’s lids began to droop, and I suggested that we call it a night. I checked the clock on the kitchen wall, and glanced back to see her leaning over to peer at my page. She suddenly sat bolt upright in her seat. “WHOAH!” she exclaimed, so loudly that she abruptly covered her mouth with her hands so as not to wake her brother. I have never seen eyes widen so literally to twice their size, or a jaw dropping in un-ironic awe. I looked down at my picture, which was, I realized, pretty good. I had forgotten how many hours I’d spent working on my technique, copying images from horse books and drawing cartoon strips, until schoolwork slowly squeezed every drop of free time from my schedule. Jess was dumfounded, and wanted to know my secret. Smiling, I handed the drawing to her and she acted as though I was giving her some priceless relic. “No way, no way, I can’t take this! You need to sell it!”

Perhaps it was just the flattery that filled me with a feeling of warmth. As someone constantly seeking praise for things I do, there’s no doubt Jess’s wide-eyed appreciation fed into a familiar cycle of seeking external validation. But this wasn’t the same as the praise I desperately sought in getting As on papers, or securing impressive internships. Her raw admiration for my quick sketch cut deeper than that, and made me realize how crucial art and imagination are to who I am. In their blunt optimism and unapologetic ardor, those two kids helped me to put into perspective the anxieties in my mind—the fear-filled forces driving me to strive for success and approval—and get in touch with curiosity and joy again. They reignited that spark of endless wonder that lies in various stages of dormancy within all of us.

Eventually, Jess’s parents arrived. I got back into my car and waved up to the front doorway, where Jess stood with my drawing clutched in her hand. I turned the key in the ignition and it struck me that I had only learned to drive four years ago. We spend so much time focusing on growing up. But sometimes we just need to grow back down again.

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