The Ugliest Painting in the World

The ugliest painting in the world hangs in the window of a shop around the corner from my home. I can’t keep my eyes off of it.

Parzival

The Ugliest Painting in the World

There’s something so compelling about it. I can’t decide if it’s mere mid-century kitsch, or an earnest attempt to grasp at spiritual themes of transcendence, duality, and grandeur just beyond our reach. The antique store owner has optimistically labeled it a “surrealist” depiction of good versus evil, but to my eye there’s nothing surrealist about it. It’s a straightforward depiction of the climactic scene of Eschenbach’s medieval grail romance, Parzival. Here, at the climax of his quest for the sacred chalice, the hero battles with a mysterious dark knight from a far-off Islamic kingdom whom he cannot best. In the battle, one’s sword breaks and the other is wounded, so the knights lift their visors in respect only to discover they are in fact half-brothers, sharing the same knight as their father. “I was against my own self,” says Parzival. In that instant of self-realization, Parzival’s name appears on the grail. He becomes the new Grail King, re-uniting East and West as the two brothers return to the Grail Castle together.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this since reading the start of my friend Mark Pulver’s excellent blog sequence about midlife. In it he explores his personal spiritual growth in the framework of Richard Rohr’s “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.” It contends that, rather than a single trajectory through life, the spirit is actually shaped around two distinctly different tasks, necessary for two distinctly different phases of life. If the first half of life is best characterized as a “survival dance” of finding one’s place,  then the second half of life entails a “sacred dance” wherein that place, great or small, is made sacred and significant as the soul comes to terms with who it is and who it is preparing to leave behind. The difficulty many face, it seems, can stem from a refusal to adapt, to continue seeking satisfaction in the skills and rewards of the “survival” phase, when in reality the “sacred” part of the journey requires something else entirely. The mid-life crisis, in short, is neither more nor less than being “against my own self.” Mark writes:

Here, society might trivialize my mid-life experience and tell me that I’m just afraid of getting old, that there is no second journey, and that only a tune-up is needed. It tells me to keep shoring up the container, maybe install some additions, buy a new car for the garage, and keep moving up the ladder with sound and fury… But I can assure you that more feathers in my cap will not do real the trick here. Don’t be fooled–there really is a second journey. My recent experience says that a second journey is beckoning me right now with a very different set of concerns and questions and ideals. I find this very exciting. To become fully who God created me to be, I need to realize that maybe I’ve been building my “stage” for a second kind of performance. Maybe the first half of ascending and building was just preliminary work for the real act of life where I can serve others more on a decent first-half platform. 

I’ll be curious to learn more about Rohr’s two spiritual phases in Mark’s blogging. It reminds me of my favorite first line: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost.”

That was Dante was writing about the midlife experience as far back as the 14 Century. And it’s important to note how he tackled it: not in the soft language of “spiritually,” but in the solid, worldly imagery of “religion,” trekking upward from Hell, through the perfecting ascent of Purgatory, before he could finally achieve Paradise.

As a younger man, I was especially drawn to all that primal, symbolic Christianity in things like Parzival, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and even Beowulf. All that Joseph-Campbell-Hero’s-Journey stuff makes a lot of sense when you’re a young knight seeking life’s adventure while keeping an eye out for signs of the grail and all the mystery it entails in the years of the survival dance.

Today, however, midway through my own life’s journey, it is the last part of Beowulf I find most compelling. Long after the monsters have been slain, one final adventure remains, the least adventurous and therefore the most challenging of all: the king has to die so his people may live. 

In other words, it’s about coming to terms with lack of fulfillment, finding what’s holy in “this is all I will ever be.”

I think being religious – in my case a Catholic coming from the Anglican tradition – can help with this experience in mid-life for three reasons:

  1. It tempers reality with hope – Faith teaches us not to confuse fulfillment with fullness of life. When embraced as a discipline, Western tradition encourages us to deem our life and body as nothing more than “a grain of wheat” being planted (John 12:24). That life, and the many real concerns of its first half in particular, is confused as an end unto itself is a flawed vision, like one’s own reflection seen “in a mirror dimly” (1Cor 13:12). What if mortality really is just preparation for REAL life?
  2. It suggests God has a way better perspective on our value than we do – Let’s face it: life makes us feel little. Especially in Silicon Valley and the tech economy, the great idolatry of our age is the cult of the exceptional self.

    And it is not that we aren’t exceptional. It is that so many dare not be anything other, no matter the cost. To be religious is to challenge that whole line of unexceptional thinking. We are of infinite value because we are so very ordinary and uninspiring. In the end, even the most “iconic” among us will show ourselves to be quite unexceptional, seemingly less worthy of human or divine acclaim than common sparrows, sold for two pennies. That’s the good news. “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Mat 10:29-31).

  3. It brings a context of meaning to unfulfillment, suffering, and even pain – The religious mind strives to experience all pain like childbirth; it is a way God tries to make more of us. Paradoxically, it is so-called religious people who are least equipped to handle it themselves, or encourage others who are suffering. “It must be God’s will,” they say in response to tragedy, or that he “works in mysterious ways” or “never gives us more than we can handle.” If they’re really scared, they’ll send you a postcard about footprints. But a serious embrace of religion in the West reveals remarkable clarity of thinking on this point. Far from platitudes, we have our own unique twist on the detachment typically attributed by Hollywood to Yoda or Eastern esotericism. When challenged to explain the unearned suffering of a man born blind, Jesus’ almost dumbfounded response was “that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (John 9:3). Unfair? Proof of a God who is ultimately unloving, and therefore all human belief in him must be manufactured? Well, maybe, but I’d contend the fact that suffering is spread around may be evidence to the contrary. The truth, regardless of motivational speakers, is that we are all equal opportunity sufferers. In the immortal words of William Goldman in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” The “spiritual” answer to that is to “come to terms” with one’s own suffering. The “religious” response is to recognize it is universal, and to let God make something of it. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves.” (Rom 8:22-23)

That is why although Dante’s Inferno gets all the recognition, it’s his Purgatorio I find the most beautiful. It is The Empire Strikes Back of the Divine Comedy, the middle chapter of a trilogy, bringing all the ideas of Episode I together and improving them, without quite resolving them. Much like Purgatory itself, one of the most misunderstood gifts of the Western religious tradition. To quote Saint John Paul II (canonized today), Purgatory is the “condition of existence” where God “removes… the remnants of imperfection.” 

If that’s all too Catholic, then Protestants can think of it as the kind of maturing faith the Apostle Paul was writing about when he said: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ… for this I labor and struggle, in accord with the exercise of his power working within me.” (Col 1:24-29) Or if you’re Buddhist, consider it a bardo.

It’s only as I’ve entered midlife myself that words like this, or Purgatorio or the end of Beowulf, start to make sense. I heard that passage described once like being a kid helping your mother make cookies. She doesn’t REALLY need your help, but always gives you something to stir. Now replace suffering for the dough, and God for your mother, and you get the idea. If faith is really a connection to somebody real, then some of that suffering gets poured into our bowl for us to stir. If we do so intentionally, then the cook can make something of it. 

Which, circling back to Richard Rohr and my friend Mark, is what midlife can be about… if we choose the hard work instead of the easy answers. If we can believe that the spiritual journey is in fact a process, then everything – from our lack of fulfillment to active suffering – can be an opportunity to enter the condition of purgatory now, as life sands down our own jagged imperfections for our own good, and that of the world we will some day leave behind.

And therein we find strength and purpose to endure. Like a bad painting.

© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

King o’ the Cats – A StoryWiseGuy Read-Aloud

StoryWiseGuy Read-Alouds promote literacy by reading aloud at the dinner table. Readers of all ages will enjoy the stories, while teachers and parents will appreciate the annotations modeling research-based instructional techniques to build critical thinking, vocabulary and fluency. Come on in and see what’s booking!

Tonight’s Reading: King o’ the Cats (Author: Aaron Shepard, Illustrator: Kristin Sorra)

Buy Online: http://www.indiebound.org/book/978144…

For instructional purposes only.

Rule of Three

A miracle happened today. Our family saw a movie. In a theater. All the way through.

No small feat, given that this was our two-year-old’s first movie in a theater. Bear in mind, we have only ever been able to go to the movies in pairs since my youngest son was born: usually my older son goes with me, sometimes with my wife, and on rare occasions she with me. Never before had we dared take all four at the same time.

The film? Oz the Great and Powerful from Disney Pictures and Evil Dead director Sam Raimi.

To be sure, we stacked the deck. We picked an unlisted matinée held specifically for families with young kids: lights on, talking and walking allowed, no previews. We watched the original 1939 film with him to build a familiar visual context: green witches bad, flying monkeys scary, yellow bricks good. I held him on my lap while my wife sat between me and his older brother plying both with snacks. The amazing thing is that it worked. We had so prepared for the usual baton race we run at church and family events that it never occurred to us everyone might simply sit back and enjoy the film.

We definitely were not in Kansas anymore.

And what a treat it was. Despite its flaws, Oz managed to keep all four of us in our seats, excited and occasionally giggling for more than two hours. For my wife and older son, it was an exiting fantasy adventure. For me, the Baum purist, it was a great new story that walked an impossible line of remaining almost perfectly faithful both to the back-story from Baum’s original books and the classic 1939 musical they inspired. For my youngest son, it was something fun to watch and talk about while we scarfed down popcorn and Raisinettes.

It dawned on me that we were looking at a new third act in our family life, one where the juggling of priorities between two parents and two kids might actually start to get easier, where every simple family activity wouldn’t require planning of near military precision. Where Act I was the story of becoming new parents, and Act II was about adapting to the competing demands of children of different ages and different schedules, I could now imagine an Act III consisting of the four of us walking arm in arm the same direction. Remember those “Optimistic Voices” when Dorothy’s foursome finally had the Emerald City in sight?

Yeah, something like that.

And that imaginary third act has tremendous power precisely because it is imaginary. It is compelling because it hasn’t happened, but it feels right and necessary. In storytelling, this is known as the “Rule of Three.” It’s a  simple rhetorical device stating how narrative elements are most satisfying when they recur in threes, that in fact we wait and listen expectantly for that third element to introduce itself. Whether it is friends met on the yellow brick road, or refrains in a song, or the cadenced sound bites in political speeches and corporate presentations, it just sounds right and feels best when it happens in threes. [Re-read that last sentence and you'll see what I mean]. In Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech you feel its full power: he says it nine times (three times in groups of three). Ever since Beowulf, English readers have been conditioned to look for the transcendence of the Rule of Three in the stories we tell and the lives we live: Beowulf wrestles Grendel and becomes a champion. Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother and is made King. Beowulf dies battling the Dragon and becomes savior of the kingdom.

Looking to our own lives as stories, that Rule of Three moves us because it breaks through another storytelling motif that shapes and often traps us. This past week, in response to a DC Comics storyline in which Damien Wayne, the son of Batman and his newest Robin, was killed in action, long-time comic book writer Paul Levitz said:

A wise editor once told me that in the end, there are two great stories: good man turns bad and bad man turns good. By that token, Damian’s journey and end is one of the greater tragedies in the long Batman canon.

While Levitz is a skilled enough writer to be speaking about a more nuanced idea, his words help illustrate the dualistic simplicity we fall prey to. Catastrophe or eucatastrophe. Damnation or redemption. Dark or light. This or that. One thing or the other, and never the twain shall meet.

When applied to a life off the printed page, that kind of thinking builds cages. We were young, but now we are old. We were free, but now we are trapped. We were rich, but now we are poor. We were strong, but now we are weak.

The Rule of Three breaks through all that by showing a third act is not only possible, but necessary for the fulfillment of the story. Instead of a life lived in tragic opposites, those opposites can be combined to create something new. Life, in short, is more than just beginnings and endings. When we acknowledge the Rule of Three, if Act I is the past and Act II the present, then Act III consists of a future that is made when those two are brought together.

In other words, where our culture simply conditions us to look for sequels, we are hard-wired to look for trilogies instead. Even (perhaps especially) when they are not there. It is simply built into our storytelling mind.

As I left the theater, I realized Disney had just manufactured a trilogy with a classic film at its heart. MGM’s Wizard of Oz will of course live forever. But now it has not one but two companion films from Disney to stand around it like bookends: Oz the Great and Powerful (telling what came before) and the misunderstood Return to Oz from 1985 (telling what came after).

Neither the prequel or the sequel will ever stand on equal footing with Victor Fleming’s classic. Both are enjoyably flawed. But seen together, both wrap the author’s original vision around his most famous derivative work. For fans of the written original, that becomes a real treat. It feels all the more satisfying because we can experience something we love in the embrace of a trilogy.

I began thinking about other examples of such “found” trilogies, stories or films created independently but, because of shared elements in their universe or a common creative vision, are simply more satisfying to the audience to experience as a trilogy.

The Antarctic Horror Trilogy (Poe – Verne – Lovecraft)

"There arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure."

“There arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure.”

Imagine a trilogy of novels written by three masters of gothic horror and science fiction, spanning the bounds of madness and human life on Earth against the soul-biting backdrop of 19th Century Antarctic expeditions. Believe it or not, such a series exists, begun by none other than Edgar Allan Poe in his only complete novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Kind of a horrific precursor to Moby Dick, Poe’s tale starts as a high seas adventure before sending the characters further and further south, eventually shipwrecking them in Antarctica. There amid the frozen wastes and eerie pale birds screaming “tekeli-li” into the sky, our heroes’ narrative comes to an abrupt end, face to face with a mysterious shrouded figure in white. This enigmatic ending prompted Jules Verne to write his own sequel to the work, An Antarctic Mystery, which sent another expedition to account for the characters who disappeared in Poe’s original novel, unveiling their ultimate fate at the base of an enigmatic Ice Sphinx hidden in the Southern continent. In the 1930s, H.P. Lovecraft then took up the setting in his novella, At the Mountains of Madness, making it his own in a tale of lost underground cities built by ancient alien races in Antarctica, where their monstrous survivors still wander, devouring explorers and speaking in the forgotten language of Poe’s bird cries. Spooky as they come and, when read together, clearly comprise a shared trilogy by genre writers at the peak of their craft separated by decades.

Ridley Scott’s Replicant Trilogy

Pris the Replicant from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner

Pris the Replicant from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner

Filmmaker Ridley Scott is responsible for some of the most thought-provoking and memorable science fiction brought to the screen. Although not direct sequels to one another, his classics Blade Runner, Prometheus and Alien form a dystopian yet very satisfying trilogy of sorts exploring the significance of synthetic humans known as replicants. Hunted down for bounty by a young Harrison Ford in Blade Runner’s 2019, the replicants have become a full-fledged slave race by 2089  serving aboard corporate starliners like Prometheus and Alien’s Nostromo in hazardous assignments. Typically the amoral villains of the films, they serve as a foil to the human characters’ own humanity, typically leading to catastrophic events through their literal adherence to corporate directives. When viewed as central characters uniting the three films into a shared universe, the replicants become proxies for the existential questions of the audience in gripping films that explore themes of human origins and fear of the unknown.

Ridley Scott’s Morocco Trilogy

Part of the Atlas Studios in Ouarzazate, Morocco. Used in Kingdom of Heaven. Photo by Zouavman Le Zouave

Part of the Atlas Studios in Ouarzazate, Morocco. Used in Kingdom of Heaven. Photo by Zouavman Le Zouave

Though set in other lands and centuries, three of Ridley Scott’s films made in Morocco share enough thematic unity to comprise a found trilogy, each set apart by almost precisely 1,000 years. Gladiator, set in Rome in 180 A.D. is one of my all-time favorite films, exploring the notion of honor, sacrifice and service to a Republic. More than a millennium later, in Jerusalem in 1184, Kingdom of Heaven revisits the notion of nation-building in a time when the certainty of Gladiator’s Rome has faded. Here, the fragments of Empire lead to competing military claims to the Holy Land. Both films resolve the moral conflict of the main characters in a similar way: once a kingdom corrupts, the true  general or knight will fight for its people. The 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia are dramatized in Black Hawk Down. Seen as the third installment of this military trilogy, it serves almost as a cautionary postscript to the other two films: as a highly professional elite squad sees a peacekeeping mission devolve into an international disaster, the soldiers soon find themselves fighting without a mandate, and solely for survival… at once both the highest and lowest of causes. Across this found trilogy, the civic values of Rome pass through the corrupting influence of the Crusades into the moral ambiguity of the modern world.

Star Trek Time Travel Trilogy

As a Trekkie, one of the most frustrating things about J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot film was that in changing the history of the future, it essentially wiped out every episode of every series and every motion picture released under the Star Trek banner to start fresh with a clean slate. The other most frustrating thing? How great it was. The film essentially restarts the  Star Trek timeline to reintroduce the classic characters in a visually updated setting, without any of the baggage of 40+ years of fan continuity. It did so in a gripping sci-fi adventure that was lovingly reverent of its legacy even as it cleared the foundation to build anew.

But wait! Maybe not all is lost. If the critical changes to the timeline happen in 2233, then although the rest of the 23rd and 24th Century stories no longer exist, those which happened in the past should remain (paradoxically) untouched. Which means that my two favorite original films, set in the past thanks to time travel, still count! Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home saw the Enterprise crew travel back to San Francisco in 1986 to collect a pair of Humpback Whales (extinct in their own time) to communicate with an alien menace in the future and repopulate the species. Similarly, Star Trek: First Contact saw the Next Generation cast pursue their nemesis, the Borg, back in time to the year 2063 to prevent alterations to their history (the very thing, in fact, that the new Star Trek brought about). So while the old classic adventures of Captains Kirk and Picard no longer exist in Star Trek’s future, they do remain in the past. So these three films can be viewed in chronological order as a kind of prehistory to a new Trek franchise, looking to the beginnings of Trek history in 20th Century San Francisco, on to First Contact with Vulcans in 2063 and finally the new adventures of the Starship Enterprise crew in a revised 23rd Century. I can’t wait for the new film this summer!

The beauty of the found trilogy is that it  opens closed stories to new possibilities. Old favorites can be seen in a new light, with connections to other parts of the past we never held together before. Old familiar futures can be rewritten when they no longer fit our present. Isn’t that worth the price of admission?

© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Health de-Screening

As a parent, I know how hard it is to find quality advice I trust enough to act on. I also know how hard that good advice can be to follow when it goes head to head with my lifestyle. Imagine my surprise when, shortly after the birth of my first son, the American Academy of Pediatrics made a formal recommendation that television should be completely avoided for children under the age of two.

“Don’t even have the baby in the same room as a running television,” said our pediatrician. My wife and I took a moment to pick our jaws off the floor, before asking why.
As it turns out, because of critical brain development in the first two years, exposure to the fast-cut editing of broadcast video media is suspected to impact attention span later in childhood.
You may ask, “What about educational shows?” As it turns out, they seem to have no positive impact on skill development for children under two.
What were we going to do? My warm fantasy of cuddling as a new family on the couch for a family T.V. night with the sleeping baby just went out the window. At first, we put the baby to bed before watching our favorite shows. But we took a more radical step when we moved: selling the T.V., intending to buy another.
We never did. And you know what? We don’t mind.
We’ve adjusted to life on mini-screens, naturally scaling down our viewing to smaller doses of streaming content.
But more importantly, we read at the table, play board games, build legos and play trains.
One day, we may get another big screen. But not today.
Clearly, this path is not for every family.
But every family can and should think about their children’s media diet, at every age, as freely as we discuss nutrition, exercise and the risks of tobacco use.
In Media and Children, the AAP notes that excessive media use can lead to:
  • attention problems,
  • school difficulties,
  • sleep and eating disorders, and
  • obesity.
It makes the following health recommendations for families around media consumption:
  • limit total screen time to 1-2 hours/day (t.v., games, computers, cell phones), and make non-digital media available in the home (books, newspapers, board games, etc.)
  • watch television with older children and talk to them about the advertising that they see
  • establish “screen-free” zones with no televisions, computers of video games in bedrooms or at the dinner table
  • spend time outdoors and doing hobbies
  • avoid all television and video entertainment with infants and children under two

© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Finding Mommy

For Mothers

Let me tell you a secret: everyone misses their mother.

It doesn’t matter who you are, how old she is, whether you live near or far away, or even how well you get along. You just do.

Shhh.

Don’t tell anyone. We’re not supposed to talk about it. Especially boys.

Our culture works hard 364 days a year to make motherhood something of a pathology. Think I’m kidding? Consider this: in order to provide new mothers the right to return to a job after the briefest of leave, the U.S. Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) had to categorize pregnancy and nursing motherhood as a kind of disability. Mother is a word we make insults out of on the playground. It is who we are teased for “running home to” when times are bad, literally and figuratively. Somehow, “mothering” connotes weakness.

All of this belies a truth we find too scandalous to tell: like it or not, human beings are social creatures, dependant upon intimacy. The simple biological fact of motherhood is proof positive that everyone, high-born or low, has only come into being through a connection to someone else. In a marketplace of people aspiring to be self-made, this makes us very nervous. We simply cannot become, all on our own.

One of the earliest psychological tasks of the developing child is to become aware of themself as something separate from the mother, literally learning  where “mother” ends and where “I” begin. That is why early bonding with a caregiver is so important during that first year: holding, nursing, singing, touching, looking into the eyes, rhyming. In today’s economy, families everywhere are challenged to find the best way to provide children sufficient access to their own mothers, as the mere 12 weeks offered by the FMLA falls woefully short. Like so many, our own family has made tremendous sacrifices so that our own two sons could benefit from their mother’s presence for as long as possible after their birth, and I will always be grateful that my wife made them the priority that she has.

Now that our youngest is two, we are entering new territory as I become the daytime caregiver for a few months while my wife tackles new consulting opportunities. Though it has been a beneficial arrangement, it takes some getting used to for all of us.

For instance, always a fan of “Little Critter,” my youngest son has suddenly settled on one book as his favorite naptime reading: Mercer Mayer’s “Just Me and My Mom.” Over and over again. Since my wife typically manages his evening bedtime routine, this gentle book offers something that he needs during the day to be reminded of his mother’s presence while relaxing with me. As anyone who has read “Little Critter” knows, the fun comes from Mayer’s playful contrast between the text and illustrations. Little readers instinctively get the difference between what Little Critter says and what he actually does, because it is often a reflection of their own thinking. “The city was very busy,” says a fearful Little Critter on his special day out with his mother. “I held Mom’s hand so she wouldn’t be scared.”

The playful, cartoonish style Mayer is best known for is very different from his early work. Another household Mayer favorite, “There’s a Nightmare in my Closet” from 1968, is so different from his work today that even adults fail to recognize they are from the same author. The prose, however, clearly comes from the same voice. If you close your eyes and listen, the funny story about the little boy frightening and befriending the monster in his closet might just as well be a Little Critter book. But instead of anthropomorphic country critters rendered in boldly inked lines, we have realistic suburban children in the detailed cross-hatching style that was typical of the day. Clearly, five years after “Where the Wild Things Are,” publishers wanted Maurice Sendak for their house style. In fact, I think I see a family resemblance. I have often wondered if Sendak’s fierce, yellow-eyed Wild Things from 1963 gave birth to the adorable Little Critter just 12 years later in Mayer’s “Just For You.”

Third Wild Thing from the right: Little Critter’s literary ancestor?

This is ironic, given the wild difference between each author’s take on childhood. Where Mayer tackles important childhood transitions with idyllic humor, Sendak famously dives into the shadowy unconscious and insecurity of childhood. The stuff mother doesn’t want to know.

In reality, childhood is deep and rich. It’s vital, mysterious and profound. I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.

-Maurice Sendak with cartoonist Art Spiegelman in the New Yorker.

But there is more than a little wild thing in Little Critter, whose sweetness comes with a heaping dose of puckish misbehavior. And though he never idealizes childhood, Sendak’s towering mothers are always an essential force of nature: stern, unbridled love. Consider Sweet Adeline in “Bumble Ardy,” his 1970 collaboration with Jim Henson.

Even in “Wild Things,” Max’s revenge fantasy after being sent to his room without any supper may be cathartic, but after sailing back into the night of his very own room he finds his supper waiting for him “…and it was still hot.”

That firm maternal tenderness can be easy to miss in Sendak, because it is so understated, but it is what ties his Wild Things to the world of Little Critter, and all the children’s literature that follows in his wake.

After all the bedtime stories have been read, there is one theme that keeps emerging: the search for the mother as the search for the self. Typically in this type of picture book, a small animal goes searching for its lost mother, encountering one species after another until it finds someone it resembles. I first noticed it in “Are You My Mother?” a lesser known work by Dr. Seuss’ protegé, P.D. Eastman.

A baby bird looks for its mother

But there are many more. One recent example is “Little Owl Lost” by newcomer, Chris Haughton…

A baby owl looks for its mother

…again in Julia Donaldson’s “Where’s My Mom?”

A baby monkey looks for its mother

…and of course in the greatest “Who’s Your Mommy?” book ever written, Robert McCloskey’s “Blueberries for Sal.”

A baby girl and a baby bear find each other’s mothers (and somehow avoid a fatal mauling!)

The theme is so prevalent in children’s literature, it almost goes unnoticed. Sendak even parodied it himself in his first pop-up book, “Mommy?” In it, a small child searches for his mother without fear in a spooky haunted house, until the surprise twist at the end reveals why.

A little boy looks for his lost mother, finds the Bride of Frankenstein

Now more than ever, we need books about mothers. We need our own connection restored, and we need to forge it fresh for our own children all year round, after all the Mother’s Day cards have been taken off the shelves. It takes more than Hallmark platitudes to forge character. The bleak realism of Sendak’s books is an answer to the modern cynicism that tries to segment the mother into disposable or marketable stereotypes (“soccer mom,” “tiger mom,” “working mom,” “blogger mom,” etc.) In children’s literature, “Mother” means a return to civilizing love. She is how we remember who we are and find the way home.

© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Sharing a World

My sons absolutely adore each other. It is becoming a real problem.

Seriously.

Imagine, if you will, a typical morning:

  • 0500 hours – Beta awakens (age: 20 months). Not yet ready to start the day, we contain him in our room where our little iPad prodigy serves as a biological snooze button thanks to immersive apps from Nosy Crow and PBS Kids.
  • 0540 – Verbal coin toss (winner gets to fetch coffee, loser gets to dress first). Objective: establish one functional parental unit prior to Alpha coming online.
  • 0545 – Alpha comes online (age: 5 years). Begins infiltration of sleeping quarters. Parent on duty relatively defenseless. Orders to stand down go largely unheeded.
  • 0550 – Brotherly affection commences. Unsolicited hugging interrupts iPad engagement. Junior sibling responds to disproportionate arms with evasive maneuvers and warning sirens. Senior sibling sulks. Neighbors awaken.
  • 0555 – Shower cut short. Joint show of force from parental units needed to enforce a DMZ defined by a huggy pillow.
  • 0600 – All you need is love. Unilateral peace talks commence. Beta violates accord to pounce affectionately on Alpha. U.N. observers use humanitarian food aid to begin breakfast and diaper change cycles to restore calm.

Gearing myself up to manage sibling rivalry, I was largely unprepared for the opposite challenge: two boys who are so physically affectionate, they annoy each other. It is a different twist on “learning to share.” Sharing isn’t sharing until both people want to. Do not take a hug until it has been offered. “Helping out” can also be a way of “taking over.” Doing something “for” is not the same as doing something “with” your little brother.

Often my wife and I focus our efforts on simply getting the two to inhabit the same space. Forget playing together. Nothing is going to entertain both a five- and a two-year old for very long. When one brother decides the other is more fun to play with than Fisher-Price, hugs and kisses become shoves and tears.  This is profoundly upsetting to our oldest son, who just can’t fathom what the problem is.

“I just want to give him a hug,” is a common refrain, after he has been pushed away. “I just want to show him how to do it” he’ll say tearfully, the unwitting king of a mountain of toys annexed from his little brother. It seems that the hardest lesson in the world to learn is that a hug will come in its own time. If he just waits for it, and gives his little brother time, he will almost always be surprised with a big squeeze from behind.

Don’t get me wrong. We want them to play together. We just want them both to recognize they are playing with another person. It is less about learning to share a toy than about learning to share a world.

I look for small ways to help the older realize his brother is not merely a supporting role in his story, but has a story of his own. It’s a lesson I want them to take to heart about  humanity in general.  I have found a few picture books that help my cause.

Good Night Gorilla” is a special favorite of my youngest right now. Peggy Rathmann’s wordless tale of a gorilla freeing the animals in a zoo to stage an uninvited slumber party in Mr. Zookeeper’s bedroom seems custom-made to appeal to little ones struggling to sleep all night in their own bed. The absence of words makes it a highly interactive book, almost an app on paper, that is better explored than read. Our toddler flips the pages himself, making each animal’s sound. Part of the magic comes from Rathmann’s use of small background details that tell simple running stories of their own alongside the main attraction. On each page, a mouse struggles to lay claim to a banana, while a balloon set adrift on page 1 continues to drift about on the edges of the action. Taking these at first to be sight gags for the benefit of the reading parent, I have come to appreciate them as a way to introduce even the youngest reader to the concept of multiple narratives.  Sometimes we read the book to laugh at Gorilla. Sometimes, we just play “where is the balloon?”

It is a technique Rathmann uses in many of her works. In the lesser known but even more slapstick 10 Minutes Till Bedtime,” a family of tourist hamsters gives a child a welcome excuse to drag out the bedtime countdown. Amazingly, each hamster has its own character gag that can be followed independently from one page to the next. But most magical of all is the subtle reveal, about halfway through the book. When the child looks out the door upon the throngs of hamsters lining up in his front yard, silhouetted in the distant background we see the familiar “Good Night, Gorilla” menagerie marching out of the zoo and into Mr. Zookeeper’s house! When the child notices it for the first time, it can be a magical moment. “Rira!” ["Gorilla!"] my son shouts whenever he sees it now.

Not only do both books take place in the same neighborhood, but they take place simultaneously on the same fictional night. It is a highly complex idea planted with the greatest of ease for even pre-reading toddlers to enjoy: main characters in one book are the background in another, and all have their own story to tell.

If you read enough children’s literature by any one author, such playful intertextuality is everywhere. Margaret Wise Brown’s “The Runaway Bunny” visually quotes her immortal “Goodnight Moon,” with interesting metaphysical fallout. A mother bunny assures her baby that there is no place he can hide from her love:

"If you become a fish in a trout stream, I will become a fishman and I will fish for you"

Not only does the image curiously appear as a painting on the wall in her earlier book, but Goodnight Moon’s “great green room” itself appears as the final proof of the mother’s love, essentially making the entirety of “Goodnight Moon” nothing more than the final waking fantasy of the Runaway Bunny as he gently falls asleep.

Even the venerable Doctor Seuss twists his own works in on themselves this way. Last month, when visiting Whoville with the Grinch, did you think to connect it with “Horton Hears A Who“… where the entire town, Mount Crumpit and all, is located on a small speck of dust about to be boiled in Beezelnut Oil?

Worlds within worlds, and lives within lives. What affects one story, affects all others it touches. That is the essential survival truth we could all do well to learn, so where better to introduce it than children’s books? After all “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.