I grew up playing with cubic geometry.  My parents had been raised during the Great Depression and this experience gave them a different perspective on what toys children ought to have.  They had played with paper, scissors, cardboard boxes, wood blocks, balls and string and this was all still going to do for the spoiled post WW II generation, as far as they were concerned.

 Paper dolls were still popular when I was a little girl.  They had beautiful paper outfits you cut out and that were supposed to stay on with little folded tabs but never did.  Sometimes I created my own smaller paper dolls that would fit into shoe box houses.  We would take the lids off the boxes, and my father would use his Swiss army knife to cut out doors and windows that folded back.  When it was time for the dolls to go to sleep in their match box beds, I could put the lid back on and it would be night inside—the rectangular space filled with shadowy darkness.

When I was in third grade, my parents bought a new Echiler home in a tract just outside the city of Orange.  The next year my father converted part of the garage on the right side of the house into an art studio.  He covered the cement floor with new yellow-white pine boards that fitted together tongue and groove, put a shelf on the wall for his oil paints and brushes, set up an easel and one rainy winter installed a small black potbellied Franklin stove for heat.  Here he would paint at night and on weekends, interesting paintings we all grew to love as we watched them take form.


Linda Vista house in Orange CA 1970 1024x655 Nothing is a Part of Something


This is one painting from that period, an untitled work on a large piece of masonite of people walking in Laguna Beach, our favorite place to go in the summer.


Paul McCoy early 1960s Ray Johnston photo 20071 1024x689 Nothing is a Part of Something


I personally enjoyed spending time watching my father paint in his studio because it was quiet and peaceful there in contrast to the rest of the house filled with five rambunctious children and their neighborhood friends.  But there was one rule if I wanted to watch: ‘no talking.’  Since this was such a hard rule and possibly to give the girls of the family something to do so we wouldn’t need to ask him so many questions, our father built us a an elegant Le Corbusier four story doll house out of wood.


Villa La Roch photo Steve Cadman wickimedia commons 1024x768 Nothing is a Part of Something


This photo is very reminiscent of looking into the open side of our doll house for some reason, possibly the configuration of the squares and rectangles.  Our new place lived at the far end of the studio on the pine floor near the Franklin stove.  It was outfitted with the beautifully crafted English Dol-Toi furniture I had purchased with my allowance over the years when I wasn’t spending it on boxes of Sugar Frosted Flakes.  I still have most of these pieces which came from a wonderful children’s store called The House of the Mouse (perhaps capitalizing on the popularity of E. B White’s Stuart Little) near the Broadway Department stores in one of the Orange County malls.  I had a blue couch and two matching living room chairs, a three inch tall china sideboard, an elegant wing chair upholstered in red Chinese silk, a bed and nightstand, dresser with mirror, upright piano and a desk with a fold-out shelf for writing tiny letters.  Everything else we needed such as blankets, curtains, dishes, rugs etc. to outfit the house all had to be made from inventive reuse of found objects and scraps of wood, cloth and paper.

Playing with dolls was an imaginative pastime, one which appeared to have had no practical usefulness until I got much older and looked back on it.  Now I can see that many of the same elements needed to write fiction were involved.  Once the home was furnished and decorated the dolls then acted out dramas composed of the issues and relationship dynamics observed in the adult world.  The space inside the doll house (the invisible air) was taken for granted—we arranged our furniture and played out our stories within it not realizing it was the ‘negative space’ of an artistic composition and also important.

I finally stopped playing with dolls in sixth grade.  When I went to high school I developed an interest in literature, perhaps drawn to the telling of stories and the creating of alternative worlds in this new form.  Some questions lingered over the years about books and plays I read during that period.  What really possessed the Macbeths to go on their murderous rampage?  Why did Mersault feel no remorse for shooting the Arab?  Why did the deck have to be so stacked against Tom Robinson?  Why did Kurtz whisper, “The horror!  The horror!”?  I could never understand.  Then one day many years later I started to understand.

One purpose of literature is to explore the literal ‘heart of darkness’ inherent in the human condition.  Consequently, if we in our experiences suffer darkness, feel grief or are tormented with insoluble questions— that is not to be counted as ‘nothing.’  That is not wasted time even if it kept us from writing.  Instead, these experiences help us understand what makes literature deeply powerful.  These experiences can make our own stories richer and more compassionate.  They can make our lives and our work one unified artistic composition.


Image Credits:

Real estate listing photograph of Orange, CA Eichler house, 1970.

Untitled oil painting by Paul McCoy, circa ealy 1960’s.  Photograph by Ray Johnston, 2007.  McCoy family private collection.

Photograph of Villa La Roche 1923 Le Corbusier, Paris by Steve Cadman, July 2007.  Wickimedia commons.


Literature references:

Macbeth by Shakespeare

The Stranger by Albert Camus

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad