• Niki Sparks

Inside Out


We saw the movie Inside Out last weekend, and I can't stop thinking about its parallels to my own life. In the movie, Riley is a happy only child growing up in Minnesota with a pond in her backyard. Her parents teach her to skate and play hockey and the three of them are more than a family, they are a team. Riley's life is idyllic, magical--until the day she comes home from school and finds a For Sale sign in the front yard.

I was the only child and the only grandchild on my mom's side for eight dazzling years. We lived in the city I was born in, minutes from my beloved Nana, Grandpa Joe and Grandma Ferol, and aunts and uncles. Our house was on a cul-de-sac and had a tennis court in the backyard. Next to the tennis court was a huge treehouse platform that looked off over the field I walked across to go to my elementary school. One of my fondest memories was filling a paper grocery sack full of the helicopter seeds in the yard and climbing up into the treehouse with my Dad to send them showering, spiraling down.


Niki Hobbs was a lucky, lucky girl.

I have a child's blurry recollection of the events that transpired in the fall semester of my first grade year, but by spring we had moved three hours away from all of our family and I was attending a new school for the second half of first grade. My new teacher, Miss Oppenheimer, was a kind and wonderful first grade teacher, and I met nice girls who lived a short bike ride or walk away from our new house. But that house didn't have a tennis court or a treehouse or my Nana and grandparents minutes away. And too soon, it didn't have my mom and I.

In Inside Out's opening narration, Joy (a character representing that emotion) is explaining Core Memories. She says:

"But the really important ones are here. I don't want to get too technical, but these are called Core Memories. Each one came from a super important moment in Riley's life, like when she first scored a goal. That was so amazing! And each core memory powers a different aspect of Riley's personality."

My most distinct core memory--the moment that has marked my life more than any other--was coming home from school less than a year after we moved and finding my Dad unexpectedly home. He told me that he and my mom were getting a divorce. Nothing could have prepared me for that moment, nothing. My cul-de-sac life before the move had been magical, but even after we moved I had a child's naive belief that things were good, just set a few hours too far from some of our favorite people.

That life-altering day was more than 35 years ago, but I can still close my eyes and see me and my Dad in that sunken family room off the kitchen where he had once made a quail dinner so bad it turned me off game meat for life. Running to my room and slamming the door, refusing to move lest it make it all real. I weep for that little girl as I write this, and I wish I could stop her from the myriad ways she would act our her pain ever after.

In the movie quote above, Joy says each core memory powers a different aspect of Riley's personality. I know that the personality trait that was born in me on that horrible day in second grade was vigilance. I have done everything I can for these 35 years to stay aware of what's going on in my relationships, my physical surroundings, my life. The privilege of living as a carefree child died that afternoon. If I remain on alert, I won't be surprised when the next bad thing comes, because I will have seen the approach.

This vigilance has come at a price. I am so tightly wound sometimes that I can't breathe for the fear of what may go wrong. I am constantly looking for problems to solve, so I can prove I did my part to keep things good. I think and talk incessantly about upcoming plans, working all permutations in my mind to preempt any disasters. I'm exhausted from all this vigilance.

In a couple weeks, I will be going to Rwanda. I did not plan the trip or make any of the arrangements, and know very little about the details of what will be happening each day we are there. The broken, vigilant girl in me wants details, so I can plan and strategize, but she is being overruled by the expanding, exhausted part of me that still believes in magic and surprises and trusts that I don't have to know it all yet. Feel free to pray for both of these girls, we need it!


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