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Building Weslandia

The story of Weslandia, as it exists in the picture book, goes like this: There once was a boy named Wesley. He was a clever boy, and though his parents cared little about him except to worry that he didn't fit in - or perhaps because of that - he was content being unpopular. Then one summer, faced with the lack of a project and any good ideas, he decided he'd use what he'd learned in school that year to form his own civilization. Since his backyard was bigger than most in his neighborhood, he found an undisturbed plot of land in the corner and waited for the west wind to bring him seeds.

After several days he discovered tiny red plants growing and after two weeks they had sprouted fruit. His neighbors, used to growing nothing but beans and tomatoes and Brussels sprouts, were alarmed at the eight-petaled monstrosities and raised their eyebrows when he said he was keeping them, but little Wesley just smiled to himself. By week 4, the "Swist" plants were a dozen feet tall (ten thousand, to Wesley) and he'd found more uses for them than for any of the neighborhood boys. Wesley began ignoring breakfast in favor of the fruit and dinner in favor of the roots; grilled and seasoned with ground Swist leaves, they were better than anything he’d ever tasted. He stopped wearing his watch since he could tell time by the sundial he'd made from leaves and stalks of Swist and stopped sleeping inside, preferring to lie on his back and rename the constellations. More and more he ceased to rely on the outside, devoting himself entirely to the creation and upkeep of his ideal world.

Wesley spent the whole summer inventing a new language, number system, and series of games all based off the Swist plant. The hours spent inventing in his backyard led to a discovery - the Swist seeds could be crushed to make a tangy juice that repelled insects and sunbeams. Suddenly, all the neighborhood kids who had teased him came to him, mockingly and then with intrigue, for a chance to smash the seeds or buy the juice. He lay in his hammock under the ten-thousand-foot trees and let them - and when September returned, Wesley had no shortage of friends.

The story ends there, but I know what happened to Wesley because I've seen the epilogue. He goes back to school in September, happy and filled with creative ideas. He continues to love learning and the bright world he once grew in his backyard makes killer fodder for his college essay. Time passes. Wesley graduates, grows up, falls in love, gets married. He moves to a suburban neighborhood, the kind with two types of houses (garage on the left, and garage on the right) but he’s still the little boy who wouldn’t conform; his backyard is slightly larger than the rest so that when he has kids - and he does - they will be able to identify with his story. And one day, those kids take his story to heart and run out to the yard to play. Checking on them a few hours later, Wesley expects a fully-functioning society but sees only a few branches piled into a tilting hut and his daughter throwing blueberries at her laughing brother and the two of them playing Swists versus Bullies. Wesley, unable to resist, knocks down the hut and takes it upon himself to show them what Weslandia really means - starting with the yard.

He rips out the concrete and replaces it with little squares of grass, bought from a home improvement store, that he squashes down until they lie flat and green and happy in the dirt. He has the pool painted black so the water is less Suburbia and more Weslandia, a deep beautiful blue that reflects that the ten-thousand-foot trees that tower above it. He puts in a pond, then another, then a smaller one with a waterfall that cascades from the second to the third. He puts in a swing - not any plastic set, but a huge one, attached to a branch that was once practically unreachable but (for the right price) can be brought down to his level - and a tire swing, a treehouse for his kids to play lookout, a small forest of bamboo, and one once-untouchable thousand-foot tree cut down and carved out into the shape of a heron he saw online.

Not content to leave the lesson outside, he brings Weslandia into the house. Boxes arrive from Vermont, California, France, Thailand. Boxes filled with packing peanuts that the dogs eat and statues of figures he doesn't worship but hopes will bring peace to the house. Boxes that his children play in: one saying rocketship, one painting the designs, one finding the fuel and carrying it outside and setting the trajectory to reach the ten-thousand-foot trees. The boxes slow down after a while, but they're still unexpected. One day it's an original replica [a Chagall she loved], the next a television [too big for the room], the next a piece of art [a dancing girl inside a metal cage] that she'll beg him return with tears in her eyes. And the more money he pours into his dream of Weslandia, the farther he moves from the game of use-what-you’ve-got that his children used to play in the yard.

Wesley tries to move onto the bigger and better, but he can’t. And eventually, finally, when sees what he's been doing, he can't even look at it. It's become ornate and gilded and disgusting, and all the stuff that he once took such pride in is now a mark of his mistakes. He thought it would make him happier, remind him of other times and places, but he feels it only traps him. And, too proud to ask for help, he stays trapped: always adding, and never getting any closer to Weslandia.


* * *

For my father; may I not become him. May I find the strength to hope that he'll find his own way, because I can't find the strength to stay with him. May he find Weslandia, because I'm afraid that if he doesn't then his story will become mine, too. For my father; may I learn from his mistakes.



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