by Shannon Stockdale-Elftman

What is whimsy, really? The problem is whimsy is hard to pin down. It’s much like that oft-misunderstood quote concerning pornography. “I’ll know it when I see it.” Ironically, when we think about whimsy in storytelling we tend to favor children’s stories. James and the Giant Peach, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, and other classics, as well as more modern fare. Children have, supposedly, cornered the market on whimsy. Is this because we associate whimsy with childish wonders, frivolity, light-hearted adventures, and humor? Not the realm of adulthood, where our fears and anxieties rule the day. 

Another quote—I collect them. Yes, I know how that sounds. “Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. gets to the crux of my point. We should all be embracing whimsy, in whatever way we might define it. 

Let me take a side quest here and ask, how much media have you consumed in the last year aimed at self-improvement? Or at increasing your creativity? At deepening your connections, your empathy, your sense of well-being? The deluge of contentment content becomes overwhelming at times, doesn’t it? There are planners and journals to buy. Apps to quiet our mind, guided meditation gurus that take American Express, podcasts and sycophants and social media influencers. The very pursuit of joy has been bogged down in toxic positivity and tied with the gaudy bow of capitalism. 

Sometimes these advice givers remind us to play. Julia Cameron, for example, stressed the importance of play to the creative process. And I don’t know about you, but there are times I’ve looked at that advice and rolled my eyes. Play is all well and good, in theory, but what am I supposed to do, go climb those dome shaped metal contraptions from my childhood? Out of luck there. Turns out kids are discouraged from breaking bones and requiring tetanus shots almost as much as adults. Well, at least kids these days.

Sometimes these joy gurus will try to give you some pointers. See, what you need is to visit a strange city and just explore, to pick up a hobby that speaks to your inner child, to take risks. This advice only applies to the people who have the money and time to do this. Sure, if you can afford some play-centered adult retreat (that sounds dangerously close to obscene, doesn’t it?) then I’m happy for you. In fact, I honor your creative free spirit. But, the truth is, many of us aren’t in that position (no pun intended). So, what are us plebs to do?

Well, embrace whimsy for a start. And it’s out there, even for people who think themselves too serious for such flippant entertainment. Especially if you think yourself too serious. Whimsy is out there waiting to be found, and, unlike the skittish colt of joy or the sloth of contentment, whimsy is obtainable on a daily basis. And you don’t need to spend more than the price of a book (or visit your local public library—the true collectors of joy and whimsy).

Books, even those not geared at children, are positively stuffed with whimsy. Terry Pratchett springs to mind, early T. Kingfisher, occasionally Gaiman, Erin Morgenstern, India Holton. But, I would be remiss if I didn’t also encourage you to pick up some books geared at younger audiences from time to time, even a few of those classics. And I don’t mean YA or New Adult, while some of these are certainly whimsical. I mean try some Middle Grade fiction, some Kelly Barnhill, Anne Ursu—hell, Judy Blume, even. We know (science says so) that reading increases empathy, and who could use more empathy than that side of yourselves that still wants to pick dandelions to make them into crowns. In short, if you feel disconnected from your youthful sense of wonder, try reading something you know you would have loved at age ten. Self-empathy, for all the parts of yourself.

Whimsy is, on the whole, something that can be easily folded into our everyday lives. It can be as fast or as costly as you want to make it. And because it doesn’t have all that toxic positivity associated with it—you must do X to experience Y—you can move more freely in the realm of whimsy.

Do you feel whimsical when you make up a song about loading the dishwasher? Then there’s your daily dose, and don’t forget the air guitar. Do you feel like a character from a fairy tale when you wear a particular outfit? Do it, even if you only feel comfortable wearing it around the house—preferably while loading the dishwasher and playing air guitar. 

Whimsy is a small candle in a hurricane, but it’s a candle you can light against the darkness easily; it’s a candle all of us can access anytime we wish. If we are too tired, too jaded, to chase after happiness, just try finding a touch of whimsy whether in a book—or other form of media—or in your everyday lives.
What’s your favorite form of whimsy? You can email me at s_stockdaleelftman@emerson.edu  and share.