Lego

I am so sorry that we can't give our Lego bricks to Ai Weiwei! We took them all to the nice little boy down the street.

The Chinese dissident artist, as you know, needs masses of them to make art for an Australian exhibit about free speech. The Lego people won't ship a bulk order to him because they don't approve of their product being used in art with a "political context."

So then #legosforweiwei became a thing. Ai has set up Lego collection points in Beijing, Berlin and Melbourne, in case you're passing through and feel the need to offload Lego yourself.

I am enchanted by the stuff and the little worlds kids make of it. All of one summer we gave up the dining room table to Lego creations; another summer it was the front porch (I still find bits when I garden.) There were these clever mats bristling with Legos' raised buttons that you could build anything onto: mountains, castles, Mars. And Lego "guys," (always guys: "Look at the Lego guy I made...") firing up their jet packs or jousting on Lego steeds or taking off from secret bases. I miss it all.

My friend and I, when we were kids, played with nifty little stuffed mice our parents had found in an English toy store. Our mouse families grew greatly when we discovered them for sale in a shop in Toronto's Colonnade, where we went to the children's theatre once in a while. 

The mice were irresistible. Little felt waistcoats, skirts made of narrow ribbons in tiers, thready tails and convincingly mouse-like feet, upon just two of which they stood, being clever, clothes-wearing mice. We built their houses out of heavy cardboard crates from the cheese shop in Yorkville, and furniture out of shirt cardboard from our fathers' bureaus. We invented intriguing (to us) mousy lives for them -- routines and adventures and complex family structures.

Mouse House (yep) was a core activity, like skating or swimming lessons and day-long "bike hikes" fuelled by packed sandwiches and Becker's orange drink, during which we would venture deep into into the ravines and sometimes far past parentally-established boundaries. Our imaginations were essential to us, our imaginings as valid to us as the physical detail of our small worlds (school desks, squalling young siblings, the mesmerizing curlicues of smoke that trailed upwards from ashtrays on the kitchen counter or the coffee table.)

If you can absorb yourself completely as a child, or with a child, in a little world of Lego, or eccentric little mice, you can imagine yourself into anything -- the life of a character in a book or from history, or the person in difficulty next door.

I have been thinking about children in very different circumstances recently. That's partly because of the news -- people we must try to imagine ourselves to be, clinging to children and plastic sacks, trudging cold and hungry across Europe, and because of Lawrence Hill's fine novel The Illegal, which conjures up the desperation and determination of a young refugee, and partly because I've been reading about the lives -- the rituals, games, chants -- of persecuted Jewish children during the Second World War.

Somewhere in those accounts was this vignette: a child tenderly wrapping a wooden spoon -- or was it a stick? -- in a small piece of cloth and rocking it. A doll.

The image has been haunting me: a child the world had failed, comforting a stick in a rag. 

Ai Weiwei has been preoccupied with the fate of children. His stark wall bearing the names of pupils who perished in their shabbily-built schools during the Sichuan earthquake, which the AGO exhibited a couple of years ago, is unbearably moving. 

Failures of imagination fail us all. (That includes, much less importantly, the stuffy real-life corporate Lego "guys.") The very quality that infused my lush little world with magic, and, I believe, a nascent empathy, seemed recently, repeatedly, to have deserted public discourse. We need its return. 

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