The Magic Of Creation & Fairy Tales

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In his book The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre, Jack Zipes wrote, “Fairy tales begin with conflict because we all begin our lives with conflict. We are all misfit for the world, and somehow we must fit in, fit in with other people, and thus we must invent or find the means through communication to satisfy as well as resolve conflicting desires and instincts.” The truth of his words sink deeply in as I have begun to write my own fairy tale after having read and collected them for so many years.

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I was first introduced to the genre when my Great-Aunt Annie gave me a small picture book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (much of the darkness and brutality of their tales were cleaned up in this edition).  It was one of the first books given to me as a Christmas present and would become one of my childhood favorites.

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This collection of fairy tales is one of the books I have kept over the years because I cannot imagine my life had I not been given it. I did not just read fairy tales, but became a part of them and they of me. There was something deep and truthful about their stories that enraptured me and engrossed me and drew me in. I entered fairy tales the way children in them so often entered the forest. The places they led me to were frightening and fantastic and allowed me to dream of magic.

In our home, the conflict that so often arose there, could also be mirrored in the relationships of fairy tales. Families were often fractured and broken. And yet, no matter how difficult and dangerous the situations were, these stories always ended with a happily ever after, with overcoming the terrors and the troubles and the trials. As a quiet, shy and introverted boy. I wanted to believe in such endings.

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And yet, despite my love of fairy tales, I had never really attempted to write one until the beginning of this summer. It started as a project between my younger son and myself. Since he is adopted and often struggles with identity, I thought what could be a better way for him to do just that than in a genre that is all about identity and struggling with who one is and of the monsters and forces in the world around us. What better gift than to work on a story where such struggles end in triumph?

He was thrilled when I proposed the idea to him. But what would our story be about?

It was my son who came up with what our fairy tale would be about: a young boy who loves with his parents by the edge of a great forest learns that he was a foundling that they discovered on a bed of moss in the forest itself. Desiring to know his true identity and where he came from, the boy decides to journey into the forest to find the answers to his questions.

The poet W. H. Auden once said, “The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.” It’s also what you must do to write one as well. So we did!

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Since my son is from Ukraine, we decided to use the Slavic myths and fairy tales instead of the more European ones that most people know. Ours would be inhabited by the figures of Russian and Ukrainian fairy and folk tales. Figures like the Baba Yaga, the firebird, Father Frost and Kot Bayun. We would also add our own twists on them: creating our own characters and takes on established figures and motifs that run throughout all of Slavic folklore and mythology.

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What’s fascinating about writing this fairy tale is how much of it we incorporate with ourselves and our own struggles masked in the archetypes of a character like the crone Baba Yaga or the forest itself. I love how Maria Tatar describes this process in her book Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood:

“Magic happens when the wand of language strikes a stone and makes it melt, touches a spindle and turns it into gold, or taps a trunk and makes it fly. By drawing on a syntax of enchantment that conjures fluidity, ethereality, flimsiness, and transparency, writers turn solidity into resplendent airy lightness to produce miracles of linguistic transubstantiation.

What is the effect of that beauty? How do readers respond to words that create that beauty? In a world that has discredited that particular attribute and banished it from high art, beauty has nonetheless held on to its enlivening power in children’s books. It draws readers in, then draws them to understand the fictional worlds it lights up.”

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The reason fairy tales have stayed with us and have had such a deep impact on those who both read and hear them is that they connect to something primal about us. They strike a chord of truth within us that we understand that there is darkness and light, and that the choice determines our characters and our outcomes. Fairy tales show us that kindness is rewarded and selfishness leads to destruction. We are enchanted by these stories because they reveal truths to us that we cannot find anywhere else.

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Who doesn’t delight upon hearing the words, “Once upon a time . . .”

Walt Disney built so much of his empire on them.

Our culture thrives on fairy tales disguised as dramas or even advertisements. Nikes are the magic shoes that give us amazing athletic prowess. Coke is the magic elixir we drink and find friendships.  Wear this makeup and it will make you look younger and more beautiful than all of the other fair maidens.

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We need fairy tales because we long for them to be true. As Jack Zipes wrote, “If there is one ‘constant’ in the structure and theme of the wonder tale, it is transformation.” We all long for transformation. Is it any wonder we keep retelling the tale of Beauty and the Beast?

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And I hope for transformation, even tiny glimpses of transformation, in my younger son as we write this tale together. It is the opportunity to not only spend time together creating and allowing him to discover the true limitlessness of his imagination (something he had never been able to do before he was adopted), but hopefully find some healing in the power of storytelling. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.” This is a lesson he’s learning by being a member of our family and our community.

Fairy tale characters struggle to overcome witches and monsters and bestial forces, but this child has really faced the demons and the darkness that exist in the forest of this world. We are going through our imagined forest together, writing of a young boy who defeats his enemies, makes friends in those he encounters (human, animal and bird), and, ultimately, overcomes and triumphs. I hope that the story he is helping me write is one that will resonate within his own mind and heart and soul. I want him to see that he is the boy, Pavel, from our story. He is a hero. He is truly braver than the knight Ilya Muromets.

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‘Words,” Maria Tatar writes, “have not just the astonishing capacity to banish boredom and create wonders. They also enable contact with the lives of others and with story worlds, arousing endless curiosity about ourselves and the places we inhabit.”

And they do.

My younger son and I sit on my bed with all of our notes scribbled in notebooks spread out and all of my fairy tale books within reach and we talk and write and dream and imagine. We create worlds and characters and scenarios of terror and wonder. This is, indeed, the true magic of fairy tales.

characters from Russian fairy tales

 

The Beauty Of Bird Watching

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Bird watching requires me to be present, to be silent and to be still. All of these things are a spiritual practice and I cannot help but think of Christ’s asking us to “Consider the birds of the air…” It’s a command I can easily and willingly obey. As a child, I loved to spend time in the woods behind our house and to discover birds, collecting parts of egg shells or empty nests or feathers. All of these things were prized by me and ended up on my bookshelves. My mother was horrified to see me picking up such things and warned me about how “dirty” birds were and to go wash my hands. Her warning, however, did not deter me in the least.

I loved laying in the fields or in my backyard on a beautiful spring or summer day and watch the birds in flight within the Carolina blue sky. I loved to hear birdsong from the trees and bushes, that seemed to fill the mornings and early evenings. Sometimes I would go to the local library to check out bird guides so that I could name what I saw: filled with delight when I spotted a bird and then found it in the guide. To know the name of the bird made this small event somehow more magical, as if naming meant the bird was somehow connected to me. It also meant that I was constantly on the look out for new birds.  Where we lived, I saw a lot of Robins and Cardinals (my mother’s favorite and our state bird).  Seeing them often, however, did not diminish their beauty or my desire to watch them.

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As I grew older, however, I lost the magic of seeing birds. They became common objects, mundane and I did not take the time to pay attention and notice one bird from another. They, unfortunately, fell into generalities of trees, plants, and rocks (all things that had held me in their thrall during my childhood years) and I found myself paying more attention to girls and dating and music and all that encompasses the drama of the teenage years. Putting away childish things is the business of supposedly growing up, though I have come to appreciate the idea of maturing into childhood because it’s filled with wonder and delight.

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It was only when my younger son began his interest in bird watching that my love of birds returned to me as a pure gift that life wants to give to us when we are open and allow it to. His enthusiasm for spotting birds drew me in and I found myself going on nature walks or spending time in our back yard watching and, as I had once done, helping him locate the birds we saw in the field guides I bought for him. His joy translated into my own as we observed birds going about their daily business. The birds were no longer mundane but were no less miraculous than burning bushes or ladders to heaven.

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How had I lost this? I began to wonder. Why did I stop noticing? Stop paying attention? Why had seeing not been important?

To be present to these birds was to be present to the holy, the sacred, the divine. There is a Zen saying that goes, “Consider the trees which allow the birds to perch and fly away without either inviting them to stay or desiring them to never to depart. If your heart can be like this, you will be near to the way.” As I watched birds, I realized how pure an act it is. I don’t try to collect or capture them, but am content to simply watch them and let them be. I am aware of the birds in the world around me and this makes me open to not only birds, but all of nature. I see myself not disconnected from them but that we are both sharers in this world.

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There’s a Chinese proverb that goes, “A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.” I want to be more like that: less in need of answers, more in need of songs. To sing for singing’s sake. Pure music because it flows from the simple desire to make music. It is creation at its simplest and most amazing. There are times when I am walking through nature and I just stop, close my eyes and listen to the birdsong that fills the trees and my own soul. Emily Dickinson, the poet of small things, wrote, “I hope you love birds, too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.” Hearing their music is on earth as it is in heaven. It is glorious and rapturous. It is to find joy in the moment, just as I do listening to the sound of streams.

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There is a euphoria to spotting a bird, especially when I know exactly what bird it is. The Black-Capped Chickadee or Carolina Wren or Painted Bunting or Killdeer. I find myself, no matter where I am, looking for birds. Seeing a hawk soaring overhead as I drive through the country or seeing Carolina Chickadees in the trees of a Target parking lot as they fly down to eat crumbs.

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One of my family’s favorite parts of Spring is to see the Barred Owls that take up residence in our oak trees. Their families become a part of ours and we welcome their arrival and take pleasure in seeing their precious owlets. Or hearing the sounds of their calls at night. Deep down, secretly, I think we all still hope that one is going to deliver our letter from Hogwarts.

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Now, when we go on vacation, we always look up where a great place is to bird watch in whatever city we are traveling to. We plan to go to nature parks so that we can spend time together doing something that continues to open us up to the natural world and to be amazed at the abundance of bird species. To see the diversity and the glorious beauty of some of their brightly colored feathers. I always carry my camera to snap photos of the birds we find so that we can look them up later. Although, with technology, we can also do that with Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s app eBird.

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Bird watching is the cultivation of patience. Of being alive and awakened to what’s around you. To suddenly seeing the hummingbird drinking nectar from the fluted, brightly colored flower in our garden. It’s letting go of expectation and opening oneself up to what might see, a bird we’ve seen many times before or a new species that makes us gasp for breath in wonder. Either way, one comes away changed and grateful.

The poet ee cummings wrote, “may my heart be always open to little birds who are the secrets of living.” And I heartily agree with him. It is a kind of prayer that we pray to allow ones heart to always be open to the birds and not take them for granted. To wait and watch is to stop the world’s busyness. It is letting go of the notion that humans are of greatest importance and the center of everything.

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To watch birds is to have a willingness to stop thinking about self. To focus on that which is outside of ourselves. It is to see the beauty and harmony that underlies all of nature. To look through binoculars and see that what one thought of as a plane, brown bird has subtle markings on their feathers and that there is a grace and deeper beauty than what one had first imagined allows for the opening of one’s soul to the true wonder that really is all around us.

Why would I not want to share in that? Why would I not want my sons to do so as well? It is a treasure that we can do this together. We are, all of us, allowing ourselves to be opened up to another dimension of our world, to seeking understanding in places where we had so busily overlooked them before.

To sit there, silently and watching, is a form of prayer. And, I cannot help myself, that when I do spot a bird suddenly, I find myself saying quietly, “Thank you.” This moment is, indeed, a precious gift. The world around us is filled with ten thousand truths if we let ourselves be present to them. May I always welcome such flights of wisdom and wonder into my life.

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Happier of happy though I be, like them
I cannot take possession of the sky,
Mount with a thoughtless impulse and wheel there
One of a mighty multitude, whose way
And motion is a harmony and dance
Magnificent….
~William Wordsworth

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Dr. Who, Wonder Woman, & A Wrinkle In Time

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One of my favorite TV shows, Doctor Who, just announced that the next Doctor would be a woman. Does those bother me? No. Not at all. It makes me excited at the possibilities that this opens up for storytelling. The actress, Jodie Whittaker, I know from her work on Broadchurch, another show I love to watch. She’s a strong actress who I am rooting for that the story lines will be strong enough to showcase her talents.

The DoctorAfter twelve male doctors, it will be great to have a female take on this iconic role. When I told my oldest son that the next Doctor was going to be a woman, it made me proud that he responded with enthusiasm and was excited by this change.

What can a strong female bring to this role that a male could not? How will she and the writers see the Doctor through the lens of being female and is there a difference to how she will be played compared to that of a male actor? This will be challenging and thrilling and interesting, which is never a bad thing for drama. I also love how young girls will now be able to see themselves in this Time Lord as they had not been able to before.  I love how my sons will now get to see yet another strong female role model in the media (as they get to see one at home with my wife).

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Just a day before the BBC announced their casting decision, the teaser trailer for A Wrinkle in Time finally came out. Far longer than my love for Doctor Who, is my love for this novel. As a young boy, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s classic back when I was in middle school. Instantly, I connected with the character of Meg Murry. Like Meg, I felt like an outsider and an oddball. I identified with her and loved that L’Engle used what Meg considered to be here weaknesses to be the strengths that saved everyone from the Darkness. Even though I was a boy, I saw much of myself in Meg and longed for her to be real so that we could be friends.

A-Wrinkle-in-Time-images-700x300When I heard that Ava DuVernay was directing this epic for Disney, I rejoiced. Not only did I love her film Selma but also her powerful documentary 13th.  Both brought a masterful eye to their subjects and made me to stop and consider what I knew about a subject that was familiar (Martin Luther King, Jr.) and the racial injustice of the American prison system. The idea that a story that was so familiar to me would be seen afresh and anew made me excited at what lay in store.

Then when I saw the diversity in casting for not only Meg, but Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), I loved that it made these characters alive again.  I loved the character of Meg Murry and the fact that she was being played by a young actress of color meant that even more children would be able to love and identify with her was brilliant. Besides, Meg should be defined not by her color but by her character.

Hopefully, this film will make such casting normal and not be seen as brave or unusual.

A WRINKLE IN TIME

All of this comes after a summer where our family’s favorite movie was Wonder Woman. When asked what I wanted to do for Father’s Day, that film was my choice to go to with my sons. Growing up, I loved super heroes and there have been many, many, many super hero movies – predominantly male. How many versions can we have of Batman, Superman, and Spider-man (including one this summer)? Yet, as a boy, one of my favorite super heroes wasn’t Superman but Wonder Woman (played on television by Lynda Carter).  When I heard they were making a Wonder Woman film, my hopes were very low because of all the dreadful DC movies that had come out (Super-man, Batman Vs. Superman, Suicide Squad). But Wonder Woman was vastly different and far superior to not only those films, but many in the super hero genre. Why?

Wonder WomanBecause Wonder Woman was a hero to be a hero. She wanted only to help out of a goodness. In the midst of dark, brooding super heroes who appear to be conflicted and miserable all the time, it was refreshing to see a hero who was a hero. How sad that we so seldom see that in movies now. Gal Gadot portrayed a super hero who was strong, moral and good. Her Wonder Woman had both an inner and outer strength of character. And it was awesome to watch as the Amazonian women came riding out on that beach or swinging down from the cliffs to attack the Germans. Who’d have thought that Princess Buttercup from The Princess Bride could shoot a bow with three arrows in a manner that made me want to stand up and cheer? I also love that Wonder Woman is now my younger son’s favorite super hero.

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Seeing female characters that are equal and empowered does not threaten or emasculate me in any way or do so to my sons. I embrace and welcome them. Having grown up in a house with a strong mother taught me that this was not something that challenged my male identity. My mother’s strength did not weaken me but raised me up to be strong, too. Her intelligence meant that she taught me to question and wonder and ponder and really investigate and challenge why things were as they were. “A closed mind shows open ignorance,” she taught me. She raised me so that when I got married, I would seek a woman who was strong and intelligent to go through life with together so that we could exhort each other, as well as have each other’s back.

And indeed I did.

My wife’s strength only makes me stronger just as I hope to do the same for her. I love that she has opinions that differ from mine and that she’s not afraid to say so.

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As a boy, I was never told not to read a book because it was a “girl’s” book. Because of that, I grew up reading about characters like Meg Murry, Jo March, Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls, or Sara Crewe. It also meant that as I got older, I continued doing so and discovering Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Cassandra Mortmain, and, most recently, Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen.

LeighI also loved movies that had strong females in them, especially Princess Leigh from Star Wars, who was often the one who got the males out of a tight spot, as well as had some of the best lines.

I don’t believe equality should be an issue for debate but a given for all, no matter a person’s race or sex or sexuality. When I see that the Doctor is going to be a woman or that Meg is going to be a girl of color, I welcome it because that means that these creations that I love and have held so dear are opening themselves to more people loving and caring about them. It means that a girl of color can now see herself as Meg or a girl can see herself as being able to save the galaxy while traveling through time in a TARDIS.

These changes do not threaten me, they make me hopeful that the world will be changing to a better one. By casting Dr. Who as a woman or characters from A Wrinkle in Time as people of color, then that means others can now embrace and see themselves in them in a way they could not before.  I hope that, not only will girls watch these shows and movies and feel empowered, but that these works will do the same for my sons. By seeing these TV shows and films will encourage my boys to continue to champion equality and not see such casting decisions as unusual but as the norm. I want a world that’s better reflective and inclusive of all who are in it. The universe is now bigger and without limits.

As Madeleine L’Engle wrote in A Wrinkle in Time, “Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything.”

YES! We must. All of us.

For that reason, I cannot wait for 2018 with its new Doctor and its new Meg.

 

 

 

Books As Places We Inhabit

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In his novel Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman writes, “I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.” The truth of that statement resonated deeply with me. As a boy I inhabited books and the books inhabited me. They were often more real and more constant that the world about me. They were both escape and connection. I wanted to live in Narnia and Neverland and the hundred-acre wood and in the Thames Valley of The Wind in the Willows or the Murry home from Madeleine L’Engles Time Quartet or The Shire.

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I wanted to be part of the Five Little Peppers or the March family. I wanted to adventure with the Bastable children as they attempted to recover their family’s fortune or to discover the secret garden with Mary Lennox at Misselthwaite Manor or discover little people living in our home just like in The Borrowers. I wanted to raft down the Mississippi with Huck Finn. Or see the mysterious rose on B-612 that the Little Prince so dearly loves. Or visit the kingdom of King Babar and Queen Celeste. Or discover a bear to adopt in the Paddington Railway Station.

I wanted friends like Anne Shirley or Sara Crewe or Jo March or Meg Murry. Brave and imaginative girls who created stories and adventures in a way that I thought only I did.

In M is For Magic, Neil Gaiman writes, “Stories you read when you’re the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you’ll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit.”

I think he is spot on with his assessment. The books I discovered either at my school library or local library are most often the ones that have loomed largest in my imagination. Why is that?  Because, as I said, I was inhabited with books and those books held my imagination as no other books ever have since because I had brought so much more of myself to them. I invested myself into these stories as only a child can.

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It began with picture books that my mother would read to me, often before bed. Fairy tales and stories of a velveteen rabbit or about collecting blueberries or making way for ducklings or of a bull who wants only to smell flowers or Harold with his magic purple crayon that I, still to this day, would love to have. When I read Beatrix Potter or Goodnight Moon or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, I still hear my mother’s voice reading them to me. They are connected to one of my favorite childhood memories: her presence by my bedside, reading stories that were either new or familiar, that were cherished and beloved, in a way that opened words up to me and made me want to read them on my own so that the magic contained in words and sentences, in pictures and pages, would be available to me any time that I wanted to read – and I always wanted to read.

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I started with those same picture books and then moved on to The Golden Books, where I discovered The Pokey Little Puppy or Scuffy the Tugboat. I embraced whole-heartedly the worlds of Maurice Sendak and Richard Scarry and Dr. Seuss. I wanted to join in the wild rumpus and be an inhabitant of Busytown.

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I wanted to read every book at my school library and then at our local library. I wanted to solve mysteries with Frank and Joe Hardy. Those books were thrilling and exciting and made me turn the page to find out what happened next. They also made me want to be a writer because I attempted to write my own version of those kinds of stories. I loved that it was boys solving these mysteries instead of the grown-ups.

Nothing was more real to me than the worlds that was found between the covers of a book. The characters that populated them were often dearer to me and closer than real people were. They understood what I did or they helped me to understand what I didn’t.

And the authors who wrote them weren’t like the adults that I knew. They didn’t hide things from me, but they let me in on secrets. They included me in their unfolding of stories. Unlike teachers and so many adults, authors were the ones who taught me what I truly needed to know: yes, there is darkness in the world, but one can overcome it if one makes the right choices.  So I don’t believe in hopelessness. I don’t believe in cynicism. I believe dreams and heroism are what’s always expected because of fairy tales.

Authors like Maurice Sendak, J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbitt, Madeleine L’Engle, E.B. White, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, A.A. Milne, P.L. Travers, Diana Wynne Jones, and J.R.R. Tolkien were just some of the teachers who have shaped and influenced how I see the world and approach it with a sense of wonder and optimism, not out of naiveté, but an honest desire to make the world better and more wondrous because that’s how we imagine it should be.

Books were always open doors that were always and forever open to me for exploration. Books allowed me to discover and uncover what I felt, thought or imagined. Books made the world both bigger and, somehow, more connected to myself.  In The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis wrote, “For what you see and hear depends on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.” He helped me to see that the world was infused with magic, that something as ordinary as wardrobes and streetlamps were magical and extraordinary. He made me believe that worlds could be sung into being by lions.

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I remember reading Matilda and found a comrade when I came to the lines, “So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.” Like Matilda, books transported me to new and exciting places and made me long to see more of the world and to encounter the cultures and customs of other people. As a child, I sat in my room and traveled to such distant lands by simply picking up a book.  Reading made me empathetic towards others because stories taught me to imagine the world from different points of view. The opened the world to me and helped me to navigate it.

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Books have been and always will be freedom to me. They continue to be the places I still inhabit the most. I still return to the books of  my childhood, from time to time, because it’s like visiting with old friends or going back to see one’s home. Yes, things have changed and the stories aren’t always what we remembered them to be, but there is still so deeply within them, a real and tangible part of who I was and who I am and am still becoming. Those books remain dear to me because they are a rich part of me and my life.

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The Proust Questionnaire

Marcel ProustSince today is the birthday of the great French author, Marcel Proust, I decided to celebrate by answering his now famous questionnaire. This began as a parlor game but has been answered by such luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, Paul Cezanne to such modern celebrities as David Bowie or Stephen Frye to anthropologist Jane Goodall. It also become associated with James Lipton asking his version of questions from it at the end of Inside the Actor’s Studio.  Marcel Proust believed that one would learn more about the true nature of a person by their answering them.

Here is his basic questionnaire and my answers to them.

  1. What is your idea of perfect happiness? Reading.
  2. What is your greatest fear? Loneliness.
  3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Jealousy.
  4. What is the trait you most deplore in others? Cruelty
  5. Which living person do you most admire? Jimmy Carter.
  6. What is your greatest extravagance? Spending hours in a bookshop.
  7. What is your current state of mind? Filled with imagination.
  8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Tolerance.
  9. On what occasion do you life? Questionnaires.
  10. What do you most dislike about your appearance? Weight.
  11. Which living person do you most despise? Politicians.
  12. What is the quality you most like in others? Kindness
  13. What is the quality you most like in a woman? Intelligence
  14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse? Apparently, apparently.
  15. What or who is the greatest love of your life? My wife.
  16. When and where were you happiest? Whenever I’m in my imagination.
  17. Which talent would you most like to have? Singing on-key.
  18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? My introversion.
  19. What do you consider your greatest achievement? My sons.
  20. If you were to die and come back as another person, who would it be? Mister Rogers
  21. Where would you most like to live? England (or Narnia)
  22. What is your most treasured possession? My autographed books
  23. What do you regard as your lowest depth of misery? My struggles with Depression.
  24. What is your favorite occupation? Author
  25. What is your most marked characteristic? Wit
  26. What do you most value in friendship? Loyalty
  27. Who are your favorite writers? Dostoevsky, Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, Italo Calvino, Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, W.G. Sebald, Annie Dillard, Madeleine L’Engle and the list goes on and on …
  28. Who is your hero in fiction? Atticus Finch
  29. Which historical figure do you most identify with? Jim Henson
  30. Who are your heroes in real life? Teachers & Librarians
  31. What are your favorite names? My son’s
  32. What is it that you dislike the most? Mornings
  33. What is your greatest regret? Wasting so much time worrying about what others thought of me.
  34. How would you like to die? In my sleep
  35. What is your motto? Take time each day to discover more beautiful questions to ask.

Those are my answers to Proust’s thirty-five questions. What would yours be?

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The Shape Of Self

IMG_4496“Who are we,” Italo Calvino asked,  “who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined?”

Reading this statement, I thought about how much of what we refer to as our identity is given to us from sources outside ourselves: the family we grow up in, the books we read, the people who come in and out of our lives, the music we listen to, the films we see, the religions we choose to embrace or reject, the society and culture that we are in.

So much of our identity is shaped by story. The stories that are rooted in memory (a combination of both reality and our shaping of reality to fit within a specific framework or context that makes our lives a cohesive narrative). Much of those memories are stories that are told to us by our families about our past and how they recall who we were, what we did, and even in the photographs that were taken. That’s why when we lose someone from our past, we lose a part of ourselves, a part of our story, a part of our memory.

How much of our stories are shaped by the stories of our parents?

IMG_4497How much of how we see ourselves is shaped by how our parents see or saw themselves?

After the funeral of my grandmother, on my father’s side, I was sitting next to him on their couch in their living room. My dad said aloud, though not really to me, “I never got a new bicycle. Every bike I ever had was a hand-me-down. I never got a new one.”

In that moment, my heart broke for this man who still saw himself as a boy who wasn’t worth a new bicycle. How much of that one (what many would see as insignificant memory) shaped his life and who he became? How did that impact his relationship with his own parents? And how much of that memory impacted my own relationship with him and he with me? How much did it affect how he saw himself as a father?

IMG_4498My own mother saw herself, in many ways, through her own mother’s telling her of how horrible giving birth to her was and how she would never, ever go through that pain again. Because her mother presented her birth as traumatic instead of as a miraculous gift, my mother’s relationship with my grandmother remained a strained one. I think it also effected how my mother saw herself. The identity her mother was giving her in that retelling was one of difficulty and never with a mention of that act being worth it because she had her for a daughter.

In many ways, my parents both, I believe, felt in many ways, unwanted and how did this impact their marriage and their being parents to my sister and I?

How much of their fears and insecurities became those of my sister and I?

While having struggled with this for many years, I look on both, not in anger or blame, but with a sense of compassion and tenderness towards the unseen wounds that both carried within themselves.

How much of my own marriage and parenting has been influenced by my own childhood fears, insecurities, memories, and joys? Certainly I work towards parenting my sons by seeing them, not through the lens of my own life and mistakes, but as them having their own identities and not merely as a reflection of myself.

IMG_4493Certainly, having grown up a day-dreaming, overly imaginative, bookish kid, I have been shaped by the stories I cherished and read and reread most often. So often the characters in books were more real to me than the kids around me. One of the first authors whose works had a huge impact on me was Maurice Sendak. With classics like Where The Wild Things AreIn the Night Kitchen, the Little Bear series he illustrated for Else Holmelund, his Nutshell Library series, as well as his collaborations with Ruth Krauss, I saw the world as wondrous and, while there were wild things, wild things could be tamed. As Maurice Sendak so wisely said, “. . .from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.” That was also why I was drawn to fairy tales and fantasy books (series like Narnia and Middle Earth) because they were not only an escape for me, but a way of processing the reality that there was light and dark, good and evil, and that there were obstacles to be overcome.

Childhood and memory are so interwoven with fantasy. Stories that are retold are reshaped and reformed. We remake ourselves over and over, again and again. How much of who I am is shaped not only by my own memories, but the memories I have of reading and of the books that are dearest to me? When I think back on my childhood, I cannot disconnect those years from the books I most loved: Charlotte’s WebA Wrinkle in TimePeter PanAlice in WonderlandCharlie and the Chocolate FactoryAnne of Green Gables, the Little House on the Prairie series, Little WomenThe Secret Garden, and The Wind in the Willows.

These books shaped me and instilled in me a love of reading, of words, or imagining and living within the worlds that these beloved authors created. They led me to the books that would usher me from childhood to adulthood; to writers like J.D. Salinger, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy,  Neil Gaiman and so many, many others. Certainly my childhood love of fairy tales and fantasy helped me to entere the magical realism of fabulists like Mikhail Bulgakov, Jorges Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino, Salman Rushdie, and Karen Russell.

Their words have found me in times when I most needed them, to remind me that I’m not alone, that what I was going through was part and parcel of life. They connected me to a bigger world when I sometimes felt my world was such an isolated one. How much of my ability to embrace those different from myself came from being able to imagine myself as other characters from the books that I read?

How much of my own sense of self was emboldened by Jane Eyre’s? (“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will”)

How much of my deciding to adopt a child was born from Anne of Green Gables or the orphans that populate so many of Charles Dickens works?

In so many ways, I am what I have read. They have expanded my thoughts and beliefs, they have offered me better and more beautiful questions to ask, they have opened me to experiences that I would never have considered if I hadn’t read their writings.

Disney ClassicsThe same could be said of the films that I have cherished. As a boy, going to the movies was a magical experience. There was no VHS Tapes, DVDs, or Blu-Rays to allow me to watch a film over and over again as my kids have. Instead, we went to the theater whenever Disney re-released one of their classic films (DumboSnow WhitePinocchioPeter Pan). Sitting there in the dark, watching these films play out on the big screen was overwhelming to me and I liked to imagine myself in their stories, as a character in them, as the hero who overcomes all odds and obstacles. Like fairy tales, these films showed me possibilities and that our choices determine our character.

As I grew older, these films were joined with super heroes (Christopher Reeve as Superman) and science fiction (I cannot even begin to express the huge impact the original Star Wars films had on my imagination and my love for mythology and the hero’s journey). After seeing films, I would go home and have my friends and I reenact or play out scenes from the movie (casting myself as the lead and hero each time). This became a way of processing what I had just watched and integrating its narratives into my own.

Fanny and AlexanderTo this day, I am still drawn to films that embrace the magical (Pan’s Labyrinth, the work of Hayao Miyazaki, AmelieThe Double Life of VeroniqueFanny and Alexander). I am also drawn to works that make me think and to question. Directors like Ingmar Bergman, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick are all filmmakers who understand that art, like prayer, is a reaching beyond self towards the transcendent. The way they so often view the world, God, and nature has made me rethink my own and to ask, “What do I believe and why do I believe it?” (This also goes back to childhood and how much of our beliefs are not so much formulated by us but given to us by our parents).

What tiny details shape us in ways that we aren’t even aware of?

IMG_4499How much of who we are stems from what we imagine ourselves into being or becoming? How many astronauts or scientists became so because of Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or an author because of a book a librarian suggested we read and it changed everything for us in such a way that we could be nothing else but a creator of such imagined worlds? Or what film sparked something in the imagination of a child that stirred within them the desire to make their own movies?

How much of our present is an attempt to escape or rewrite our own pasts? I think, so often, when we get married, we marry people who remind us of our parents but, in whom, we hope will correct the mistakes of our parents.

How much of our identity do we allow to be shaped by the opinions of others and our need for acceptance? By our family, our peers, and our colleagues? How much of what we go see, read, buy or wish to own are shaped by what we see through the lens of others? Oscar Wilde once quipped, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

How much of our desires to have or to experience come from a wish to reshape our own lives so that it isn’t like that of our parents?

In his book Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald writes, “We take almost all the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious.”

The self is not stagnant, but is ever-changing. Self is a process by which we become again and again, over and over, defining and redefining ourselves by what we discover and uncover in the world about us: through memories, books, films, music, relationships, friendships, experiences, travels, and discovering new questions to ask. There is something beautiful and frightening in that. And I cannot help but wonder: what will be the books and films and people who shape and reshape me in the years to come? Isn’t this all part of the wonderful mystery that is life?