This is a story about a magic wardrobe – but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
So let me start by asking you a question. How many of you believed in Santa Claus when you were little? I certainly did. I believed in Santa long after I’d given up on fairies, and witches, and thinking that if I concentrated hard enough, I’d be able to fly. Year after year, when I opened my eyes on Christmas morning, I would find myself surrounded by toys. Model trains and Lego sets, Barbie dolls, books, puzzles, one of those early Super Soakers – you name that 90s toy, I got it for Christmas.
Let me be clear, though. It wasn’t because I got a lot of toys that I believed. It was because even as a five-year-old I had a pretty good idea of how rich my parents were…which is to say, not at all. I knew that they couldn’t possibly afford my Christmas bounty. In fact, I remember bluntly saying to my mother, “Ammi, there must be a Santa Claus, because you’re too poor to give me such a lot of toys!”
The really odd face she made when I said it made me realise that had I sounded a bit insulting without meaning to. What I didn’t realise at the time was that this was my first great insight into what it means to be Santa Claus. Because it was true: my parents were not rich. They had no hidden stash of money to buy me innumerable little luxuries. They were two young Sri Lankans who had just moved to Australia, trying to make their way in Sydney, a city that’s not exactly known for being affordable. But they were on a mission to be the best possible parents that they could be, and they made millions of daily sacrifices for this mission.
And this is where the wardrobe comes in.
They would start planning in January. They would go to the shops, see a toy, and put it on lay-by, paying for it slowly in instalments. Other people were buying washing machines and fridges, but my parents were buying giant Lego sets. And when they finally brought it home, they would put it behind a wardrobe in their bedroom. There was a gap between the wardrobe and the wall which served as a nice little hiding place, so they could just chuck things behind it. They became so single-mindedly dedicated to their task of saving up and collecting gifts that by the time Christmas came around, there were more gifts than they even remembered putting there.
I don’t really recall when I finally pieced the whole Santa-thing together. It was a gradual process, but part of it is about beginning to understand the kind of people my parents are. Because you can smuggle toys in from the car and devise elaborate hiding places, you can send the kids to bed and stay up till 3am to tiptoe in with presents so they won’t suspect a thing, and you can wear the best surprised face in the world come Christmas morning, but you can’t hide your character 364 days of the year.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve realised that my parents play Santa to many, many people in our community every day. They’re always buying thoughtful gifts, or finding a way to cheer up someone who is down, or lending money to someone in a tight spot. Most of the time, my parents are the only ones who know that this friend is in a jam. They treat their whole life as if it’s that magical wardrobe of overflowing gifts, reaching into themselves and coming up with more to give than seems logically possible.
Part of what makes them like this, I think, is their own childhood experiences. In 1970, the Sri Lankan government initiated a (painful) socialist experiment in self-sufficiency; it was a time of no imports, intense rationing, long queues for basic necessities, and everyone wearing the same kind of dress because there was only one kind of fabric being sold in shops. Despite the fact that they had so little, or perhaps because of it, people found inventive ways to share and make more of what they had. It was as if everyone learned how to play the magic wardrobe game together (and there’s a really poetic irony in that an experiment in self-sufficiency is what gifted my parents with a sense of abundant sharing without fear).
I’ve noticed that there’s a pattern to their abundance thinking that looks strikingly similar to the way children believe in magic. You could say it’s almost a set of interconnected rules for invoking their magic wardrobe…and they work every time.
First of all, they never fail to express their gratitude for what they have, which has the effect of reframing reality. I love hearing my parents talking about their childhood, because the stories are not just about my father waiting for hours in the queue for bread, but also about his mother welcoming unexpected guests as if she’d known they were coming all along, making a tasty treat with her meagre ration of sugar and insisting they also stay for tea. All these stories about scarcity are coloured with beautiful enoughness. In their words, the 70s seem better than they were.
Second, like children who have their eyes and ears open for proof that magic abounds at the edge of their peripheral vision, my parents are always tuned in to seeing more than what is just in front of them. This is why they’re able to sense unspoken calls for help, and are often the only people in the room to know that a friend who seems to have it together is really in a bad way. They’re also always the first to help.
Thirdly, they have an unshakable belief in how much they can do for others, which quite often exceeds their material capacity. It defies logic, but they do it anyway. At the end of each year, my mother has a seemingly endless list of people to get gifts for, while at first glance it looks as if her resources will run out before she gets to everyone. And yet, just as she did when she was Santa, she’s so committed to bringing joy that the money stretches to fit.
(There are unexpected benefits to this way of seeing the world – I suspect that some of their “good fortune” over time really comes down to their optimistic gratitude, ability to see signs that others do not, and their propensity to dream big. They also just radiate so much contentment and comfort that other people think my parents are richer than they are, which only goes to show how little money can really buy.)
In short, my parents are magical superhuman beings, simply because they live life with abundance. Which leads me to ask all the movers, shakers, and change-makers reading this: how might we invoke our own magic wardrobe in our work, using our gratitude to reframe our reality, keeping our eyes and ears open to sense the social problems that no one seems to see, dreaming up big, audacious, seemingly-impossible solutions, and unlocking a generosity that exceeds our capacity, in order to be our most magical superhuman selves?
This is an edited transcript of a talk I gave at the September 2016 edition of ‘Audience Takes the Stage’ at Creative Mornings Boston, as a tribute to the two superhumans who raised me. The theme for September was ‘Magic’.