For my wife, who knows the story.
Lent is here and I am not myself. There has been too much taking me out of my own skin: at work, at home, at church. I lack the time, the freedom, to spend even fifteen quiet minutes in contemplation or to read a chapter of a book, let alone write something that might bring me back to life. The result? King of all wild things.
A month of late nights mean I often get home just as my younger 10-month old son is starting for bed. It feels like I have so little time alone with him when he’s awake, and I have resolved to make time to read to him more often. I fear that, because of his older brother’s competing demands for attention, we end up playing more often than reading because it is something all three of us can do together. Somehow the stars aligned the other night, however. Mom and older brother were around the corner shopping, and the youngest was wide awake, so out came some old favorites:
A little board book warm up with Big Dog… Little Dog.
Then onto How I Became A Pirate for the perfect blend of bright pictures and funny voices… at least the way I read it. (Arrhh!)
Then out came the big guns for the finish and wind down to bedtime: Where the Wild Things Are.
This last book, especially, has become a joy to read my children, though as a child it made a bigger impression on me through its visuals than the story itself. It wasn’t a book we owned, but it was one I remember seeing everywhere. It lived in places where books belong: in class, in the library. Show me that iconic cover, with the wild thing sleeping in a hot jungle by a choppy sea, and I couldn’t help but think of bookshelves, carpet squares and the smell of paste and paper. Like a Rousseau painting, it’s muggy and calming. The pictures, almost haunting, took me out of myself to visit another set of feelings. Just what those were, I only now have the context to put into words.
That’s the genius of Maurice Sendak. He doesn’t just illustrate a story. He uses pictures to help readers feel what inspired it. Where The Wild Things Are broke with conventional childen’s literature when it was first published. In a post-1950s culture obsessed with the ideal of the harmonious nuclear family, it painted an unflattering picture: a nasty little boy, fighting with his cranky mother, is sent to his room without any supper. There, pouting, he imagines sailing away to a land full of vicious beasts instead, where he can be crowned “the most wild thing of all” without consequences… until of course they wear themselves out. Tantrum over, and in the reflective quiet before sleep, he starts to feel “lonely, and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat.” Returning to his room, he finds an uneasy peace with his mother who has left “his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.”
The book commits the unforgivable sin of children’s literature and gets away with it: it is honest, but it refuses to be cute.
“We’re animals,” Sendak once told Bill Moyers with his typical candor. “We’re violent. We’re criminal. We’re not so far away from the gorillas and the apes, those beautiful creatures…. And then, we’re supposed to be civilized. We’re supposed to go to work every day. We’re supposed to be nice to our friends and send Christmas cards to our parents. We’re supposed to do all these things which trouble us deeply because it’s so against what we naturally would want to do. And if I’ve done anything, I’ve had kids express themselves as they are, impolitely, lovingly.”
That is the great gift of reading to children, this book especially. At the end of a horrendous day, in a week when the whole family is sick and irritable, when all I want is to roar my terrible roar and gnash my terrible teeth, it can help me meet my little wild things where they are… which may be in precisely the same place. Frustration runs deep and anger shallow for men and boys alike. We want to love and be loved, true, but sometimes when the going gets tough, we just want to snarl and be left alone in our dens. Like Max in his little wolf-suit footie jammies, we need to live in our animal skins for a bit without consequence, learn to feel what lives underneath, and find our way back to human together.
That isn’t easy. All the stories make that clear: the soul of a man is trapped in the skin of an animal, and only love and vulnerability can free what lies underneath… but at the cost of one’s self. It is a universal symbol for the trials of masculinity. That image is so prevalent in the stories we read our children, if we read them together they won’t have to strike out into the wilderness alone. When our own words and feelings fail at the end of the day, the stories can teach them about us, about themselves, about what we all may become and the challenges along the way.
Oh come on, you say. These are just fairy tales. What do they have to teach us? Well, for starters…
1) When it seems bleakest, someone will care enough to recognize what’s underneath the appearance of the beast. That someone is special. Wait for them, and when the time is right, follow.
The girls had run away, but the bear called to them: ‘Snow-white and Rose-red, do not be afraid; wait, I will come with you.’ Then they recognized his voice and waited, and when he came up to them suddenly his bearskin fell off, and he stood there a handsome man, clothed all in gold. ‘I am a king’s son,’ he said, ‘and I was bewitched by that wicked dwarf, who had stolen my treasures; I have had to run about the forest as a savage bear until I was freed by his death. (Snow-White and Rose-Red)
2) Happily ever after is just the beginning of the journey together; expect complications with true love.
So when she reached home, and had gone to bed, it was the same as before. A man came and lay down beside her; but in the middle of the night, when she heard that he was fast asleep, she got up and lit the candle. She let the light shine on him, and saw that he was the most handsome prince one ever set eyes on. She fell so deeply in love with him, that she thought she couldn’t live if she didn’t give him a kiss at once. And so she did, but as she kissed him she let three drops of hot tallow drip onto his shirt, and he woke up. “What have you done?” he cried; “now you have made us both unlucky, for had you held out only this one year, I would have been free! I have a stepmother who has bewitched me, so that I am a white bear by day, and a man by night. But now all ties are broken between us.” (East of the Sun and West of the Moon)
3) Contrary to popular belief, lasting change takes more than a kiss.
But her tears only made the King very angry, and he said,” He who helped you in the time of your trouble, must not now be despised!” So she took the Frog up with two fingers, and put him in a corner of her chamber. But as she lay in her bed, he crept up to it, and said, “I am so very tired that I shall sleep well; do take me up or I will tell thy father.” This speech put the King’s daughter in a terrible passion, and catching the Frog up, she threw him with all her strength against the wall, saying, “Now, will you be quiet, you ugly Frog?” But as he fell he was changed from a frog into a handsome Prince with beautiful eyes, who, after a little while became, with her father’s consent, her dear companion and betrothed. Then he told her how he had been transformed by an evil witch, and that no one but herself could have had the power to take him out of the fountain; and that on the morrow they would go together into his own kingdom. (The Frog Prince)
4) Appreciate patience; this is no cakewalk for your partner.
She is appointed to be your deliverer in this way. She must spin and knit twelve shirts for you out of bog-down, to be gathered by her own hands on the moor just outside of the wood. It will take her five years to do it,and if she once speaks, or laughs, or cries the whole time, you will have to remain wild geese by day till you’re called out of the world. So take care of your sister; it is worth your while.” The fairy then vanished, and it was only strife with the brothers to see who would be first to kiss and hug their sister. (The Twelve Wild Geese)
5) Though it has its rewards, it isn’t all fun and games for us either.
“Listen, then,” said the old woman. “After the marriage ceremony is over, and when it is time for you to retire to rest, you must ask to be dressed in ten snow-white shifts. And you must then ask for a tubfull of lye,” (that is, washing water prepared with wood-ashes) “and a tub full of fresh milk, and as many whips as a boy can carry in his arms,–and have all these brought into your bed-chamber. Then, whenthe Lindworm tells you to shed a shift, do you bid him slough a skin. And when all his skins are off, you must dip the whips in the lye and whip him; next, you must wash him in the fresh milk; and, lastly, you must take him and hold him in your arms, if it’s only for one moment.” (Prince Lindworm)
6) In fact, it is a little bit like dying.
“Oh, Beast, Beast, why did you die? I was getting to love you so much.” No sooner had she said this than the hide of the beast split in two and out came the most handsome young prince who told her that he had been enchanted by a magician and that he could not recover his natural form unless a maiden should, of her own accord, declare that she loved him. (Beauty and the Beast)
7) But whether the change is more than skin deep is entirely up to you.
She welcomed Hans-My-Hedgehog and they were married. He sat at the royal table and she sat by his side. They ate and drank together side-by-side. When night fell, they wanted to go to sleep. She feared his barbs but he said, she should not be fearful and she would not be harmed. He told the old king, four men should stand guard outside their chamber door and make a huge fire. When he entered the chamber and wanted to go to bed, he would take off his hedgehog skin and place it next to the bed. The men should then come quickly and throw the skin into the fire and wait until it was entirely consumed by the flames. (Hans-my-Hedgehog)
Which brings me right back to Lent. For Christians around the world, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a time of preparation through increased attention to a threefold practice of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (note: “giving up something” for Lent is just for little kids; if you’re all grown up and still doing that, dig deeper!). As with all world traditions embracing seasons of purification and atonement, it is a practice meant to teach us to depend less on ourselves and more on the Divine. That means being honest about being broken, about failing ourselves, our God and each other.
It means stripping off the false skin and at least trying to change:
John (the) Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance (μετανοίας) for the forgiveness of sins. People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. (The Gospel of Mark)
The Greek word “metanoia” is what these fairy tales are all about. Though typically translated “repentance” it’s not about “changing your religion.” It literally means “changing your mind.” Change who you are, and what you choose. Change what you think and how you react if you want to experience the Divine.
Probably good relationship advice whether you are a seeker or not. After all, the man is dressed in animal skins.