Archives for June 2017

Paddington Lives

In 1958, Michael Bond published A Bear Called Paddington. In 1996, I used Bond’s bear as the theme for our firstborn son’s room. Paddington wasn’t exactly a hot item — he wouldn’t get his own movie until 2014. But I knew I had the right bear when I saw the Paddington Bear Baby Book with these words inscribed on the cover: “Please Look After This Baby. Thank You.” So much like the label Paddington wears, “Please Look After This Bear. Thank you.”

Bond purchased the original bear at Selfridges department store. Once he started writing, he pictured the bear with his blue duffle coat and red hat and brown suitcase looking like the London children who were evacuated during the Blitz. Paddington arrives at Paddington Station from “Darkest Peru,” sent by his Aunt Lucy, who can no longer care for him because she has to go into a home for retired bears.

“I hope I’ve done the right thing,” she said when she arrived back at the home. “It feels as though I’ve lost a part of myself.”  (from Love from Paddington)

In “A Bear Called Paddington,” the Brown family discovers the bear at the train station while picking up their daughter for summer holidays. Bond wrote many more Paddington books, the latest of which, Paddington’s Finest Hour, was published in April.

Guess what? Even though Paddington was my nursery theme, I never read a single one of Bond’s books to my son. I read him plenty of other children’s books by British authors. I read A.A. Milne. I read Beatrix Potter. I read Kenneth Grahame. Why not Paddington?

Because I doubted myself. Was a refugee bear really the best choice for a baby? Was I even fit to be a mother anyway?

The day the news broke about the death of Michael Bond was my son’s birthday. I got out the Paddington baby book and reread the whole thing. Then I read Bond’s obituary and several tribute articles. This sentence caught my eye: “Paddington is eternally optimistic and always comes back for more, no matter how many times his hopes are dashed.”

There still was hope for me and my relationship with this bear. I headed to the library.

Our library is a bit like a garage sale — you never know what you’ll find. I arrived during the summer storytime. A man was doing a demonstration with a live python. Mr. Bond, you died too soon. You could have written “Paddington Meets a Python.” Pity.

I grabbed every Paddington book off the shelf and sat in a high-backed chair to read and take notes. The first was Paddington Bear and the Christmas Surprise. My son would have been 1 year old when it was published. In the story Paddington surprises his adopted family with a trip to see Santa and ride a winter wonderland ride at a department store called Barkridges. Disappointments ensue, but Paddington saves the day because, as he says, “Bears are good at mending things.”

The other four Paddington books were learning books: a counting book, an alphabet book, a book to teach colors, and one to teach opposites. As I read them, I had a surprise: I owned these books. My son and I read them together.

Suddenly I remembered. Someone gave us the set, probably a neighbor friend who was a retired teacher. I don’t remember if those four books came with a label, but if they had, it should have read, “Please Look After These Books. Thank you.”

As I reread them it all came back. Seventeen jam tarts. An open suitcase filled with jars of marmalade contrasted with a closed suitcase. The color book uses pictures to illustrate how red and white combine to make pink — when Paddington uses the washing machine. And in the alphabet book L stands for “label.” Of course it does.

So my son must have thought that Paddington was a bear who taught concepts like numbers and letters. Which is not untrue. But by skipping the stories I failed to show him that Paddington is also a bear who teaches about optimism, politeness, and generosity.

Despite bragging that I don’t throw out children’s books, I no longer own those four. At some point I must have given them away, probably to the annual book sale put on by the Friends of the Waco-McLennan County Library. But here were those same four books, in a library 180 miles away, on my son’s birthday, the day after Michael Bond passed away. How does that happen?

Well, when you cast a bear on an ocean liner, in a lifeboat, with a note from a loved one, somehow he finds his way to a safe place, even if that place is very, very far away.

 

“But what are you going to do now?” said Mr. Brown. “You can’t just sit in Paddington Station, waiting for something to happen.”

“Oh, I shall be all right . . . I expect.”  The bear bent down to do up its case again. As he did so, Mrs. Brown caught a glimpse of the writing on the label. It said simply, “PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS BEAR, THANK YOU.”

(from A Bear Called Paddington)

 

 

 

‘Miss Rumphius,’ story and pictures by Barbara Cooney

My friend Sharon Gibbs recommended this book to me, and L.L. Barkat recommended it to her. I’m always up for a good picture book — one whose words and pictures work together to tell the story. This one was published in 1982 and won the American Book Award. The Lupine Award, presented by the Maine Library Association, got its name from this very book.

The fictional story — which feels real — is about the Lupine Lady, a little girl named Alice who, over the course of her life, finds a way to take her grandfather’s advice: “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.” That something has a lot to do with lupines.

After working as a librarian, Miss Rumphius travels the world. When she goes to the Land of the Lotus-Eaters, the text says, “and there, getting off a camel, she hurt her back.” In the picture, she’s pressing her hand into her back while she rides the camel sidesaddle.

Two pages later, she is bedridden. She looks terrible. There is a cane beside her bed, a cane which we won’t see again until the end of the book, when she’s not just old but “very old.” The picture shows Miss Rumphius alone in bed with her cat and a book she is not reading. She stares straight ahead, but we’re told she notices the colorful lupines outside her window. She says, “I wish I could plant more seeds this summer so that I could have still more flowers next year.” The next sentence is, “But she was not able to.”

By my math, she’s down for an entire year: from spring, through summer, then “a hard winter.” Then spring comes again, and “Miss Rumphius was feeling much better.” That’s a long time to be in bed, girlfriend.

Even though this story is fiction, I don’t believe this narrative choice is careless. Barbara Cooney illustrates this page meticulously, and the words she chooses to describe Miss Rumphius’s state are “not very well,” as in “The next spring Miss Rumphius was not very well.” Wait, don’t you mean “not feeling very well”? Nope, that is not what Cooney says. She says, “not very well.” That’s not a feeling; that’s a diagnosis.

I started Googling, to find out if anyone else out there had questions about Miss Rumphius and her back. I found a curriculum enrichment guide that asked, “Why do you think Miss Rumphius’ back stopped hurting? (She became excited and involved in the flower project.)”

Wait, what? We’re not talking about a little twinge eased away with over-the-counter meds and tea. We’re talking a solid year in bed. If your back is hurting for that long then either a) your back needs surgery or major physical therapy, or b) something in your heart and mind and soul is “not very well.”

I don’t think it’s answer A. If it were, Miss Rumphius would be unable in the next few pages to “take walks again,” to “go up and over the hill,” to wander “over field and headlands,” and to ride a bike. The text tells us, “Her back didn’t hurt her any more at all.” That’s wonderful. The lupines she scatters are lovely.

But what do we miss when we skip ahead to the flowers?

We miss the pain of a year in bed. We miss the agony of the page before the year in bed, when Miss Rumphius buys her long-dreamt-of house by the sea and declares herself “almost perfectly happy” (italics in the text). I think her almost-happiness is about more than finding a way to fulfill her grandfather’s admonition to fill the world with beauty. I think she is lonely.

The second to last page shows Miss Rumphius in her house again. Now she is very old and needs that cane. But she is not in bed. She’s in a chair in her living room, surrounded by ten children, two cats, and a cockatoo. The children are eating tea and cookies (there was no food in the bed rest picture). Her hand rests on the head of her great-niece and namesake, Alice. Just as Miss Rumphius once sat on her grandfather’s knee “and listened to his stories of faraway places, now little Alice says, “Often she [Miss Rumphius] tells us stories of faraway places.”

On the last page little Alice is running away from the other children, her arms full of lupines. She wants to go to faraway places and then live by the sea, like her great-aunt, the Lupine Lady. Miss Rumphius passes along her grandfather’s advice of a third thing she must do: “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

But, oh, Alice, there is one thing more. You must let people in. You may hurt your back or your foot or your elbow in the course of your adventures, but please, dear girl, don’t hurt your heart so badly that you are unable to move for a year. Let your home by the sea be filled with children and critters. Serve cookies and tea. Tell your stories.

 

 

14 June 2017

(I wrote this in the Thursday morning poetry group, which has been meeting for more than 25 years, but which I only attend occasionally. The first line is something the host actually said.)

 

If the plumber shows up, just keep writing

If the birds preen and beckon, just keep writing

If the graduates graduate without pomp and circumstance, just keep writing

If the Zoom chat zags, just keep writing

If the translator takes off for Moscow, just keep writing

If the tiger escapes his tidy sanctuary, just keep writing

If the deluxe model is less than delightful, just keep writing

If the passengers pressure you to revolt, just keep writing

If the family’s attempt at vacation fails, just keep writing

And if the day is long and lonely, filled with irresponsible promises flapping like tired pied pipers,

dear Writer

you know what to do.

 

‘The Happiness Dare’ by Jennifer Dukes Lee

I’m late to the party that is The Happiness Dare by Jennifer Dukes Lee. It released last summer, but I saved it to kick off this summer.

As I read it, I found myself wishing it had come out not one year ago but three or four, when I was profoundly unhappy. But maybe it worked out better this way. Lee mentions that “in one skinny minute, a crisis can grow out of nowhere to devour your happiness.”

Yes, sometimes it’s a crisis. Sometimes it’s more like a cancer growing in secret for a long time.

I was a little like Beth in chapter 13, “My first thought is that happiness is a three-syllable word, and some days that just feels like too much. It’s hard to live, and it’s too big of a word to say.”

Actually, I’m more than a little like Beth. Beth is me. I said those words in a voice message to Jennifer Dukes Lee while sitting in one of my happy places, under the enormous oak tree at my church. It’s so big it has stone benches underneath it.

At some point in my journey, I found myself asking the same question Lee did that led to the dare that then became the book: “God, do you want me to be happy?” The answer, I was certain, was no. With this big a loss? With this much collateral damage? Being happy felt more than a dare — it felt like a betrayal. As in, How dare I be happy after This.

So it’s no wonder that I so greatly appreciated the story Lee shared of another Jennifer, one who “fought for happiness.” She experienced a greater loss than I can imagine, and she responded, “I had to move from darkness to light. I had to.”

So did I.

So I did.

Something remarkable happened along the way: I found new ways to be happy. Most weren’t big. But I built so many of them into my day, like a shield of tiny pebbles to handle the inevitable ongoing disappointments and conflicts. Soon those small happinesses were all over the place. I wasn’t Happy, but I was experiencing a hundred happy moments each day.

Things like tea blended with local lavender from the farmers market, reading a novel on my turquoise bench, a bike ride on my favorite route after the bridge was finally fixed, writing up a to-do list, watching a storm come in, visiting with my husband, listening to a new playlist on Spotify, inviting friends over for dinner and planning and cooking.

I cultivated small happinesses because I had to. I didn’t know what my happiness style was and didn’t care. Just knew I needed to fight for it. When I finally took the happiness assessment in Lee’s book, my scores were remarkably similar. Four of them differed by only one point, and the leader wasn’t that far ahead of the pack. In short, I had been forced to diversify my happiness.

And guess what? I got happier. Not big, giant Happy but a hundred small happys. Happy enough.

 

If, like me, you’re late to the dare, no worries. I have a copy to give away! Leave a comment, and I’ll draw a name.