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?

David Byrne On How Music Works

David Byrne Launches The Meltdown Festival 2015

I was first introduced to the music of Talking Heads when a friend suggested I get a copy of their album Speaking in Tongues back in 1983. From its opening song of “Burning Down The House,” I was hooked. I had never heard anything like this band and I anxiously awaited each new album. Even after David Byrne left the group, I continued to follow his solo career, particularly his work with Brian Eno. He, along with Peter Gabriel, introduced me to world music.

David Byrne’s work has always been protean and eclectic, which is what has always made him so fascinating and brilliantly original. One never knows what to expect whether it be in music, film, poetry or art. And How Music Works reveals the cross-pollination of knowledge from so many facets of the arts and science that Byrne has spent a lifetime piling up. What other musician can write about creativity in terms of adaptation referencing how birds and whales have to their surroundings and the changes that have come about because of humans to architecture as an instrument to how the mind can be manipulated in regards to images and sounds?

David Byrne is a deep thinker who is able to connect the dots between what appears to be dissimilar subjects: from neuroscience to the mixtape to Bunraku. Because of this, Byrne deftly causes the reader to consider, question and to think about these subjects as well.

We live in a world that is crowded with noise and sounds that are more often forced on us as we go about our days. There used to be a time when one had to go out to a concert to hear music performed live but now, with the advent of portable music devices, it is now the soundtrack to our lives as we hear music playing in our earbuds or headphones. “Are mobile devices,” David Byrne writes, “and the musically cluttered world we inhabit starting to substitute for our interior voices?”

When I read that question, I found myself pondering what he’s asking and the implications of what that really means. I consider how humans have impacted the soundscapes of our environments and the effect that has had on the aural landscape as well as nature itself. We can go to the woods and no longer hear what our ancestors heard if they had gone to that exact same spot. And what have we lost by this?  Byrne later writes, “Now hearing is ubiquitous, and silence is the rarity that we pay for and savor.”

Byrne books

David Byrne understands and writes about the interconnectedness of the arts to the world in so many more ways than most musicians would even stop to consider. Byrne is not interested in writing a music memoir, though there are passages about his career (both in Talking Heads and solo), but the book is more about his observations and understandings of not only the music business but music and sound itself. This book is filled with ideas and intelligence, wit and wisdom. This book is an exploration of his interest in music from around the world (Bollywood to Brazilian Pop to Balinese gamelan to Afro-Cuban to Pink Floyd) to literature, poetry, art, architecture, movies, and fashion, to writing about the pure the delight of discovering new music and how we are able to do that now through mediums like Spotify.

And music has a huge impact on our lives in ways that people before us would never be able to fathom. It has become a part of our memory, collectively and personally. We think in terms of where we were when we first heard a band like The Beatles or who we were dating when we first heard a particular song. Songs are interwoven with who we are. “Something about music urges us to engage with its larger context, beyond the piece of plastic it came on-it seems to be part of our genetic makeup that we can be so deeply moved by this art form. Music resonates in so many parts of the brain that we can’t conceive of it being an isolated thing,” David Byrne writes,  “It’s whom you were with, how old you were, and what was happening that day.” A song comes on the radio and I am immediately remembering a certain summer when I was dating a specific girl and what she was wearing and where we were. This is especially true of songs that cause us to remember those we have lost and are no longer with us.

How Music Works covers a wide range of thought-provoking topics that draw the reader in and, more importantly, makes them think in new ways, not just about music, but all that shapes and is shaped by it.

David Byrne How Music Works

David Byrne’s official website:

David Byrne

 

 

Miyazaki & The Importance Of Story

Miyazaki at his desk

“I do believe in the power of story,” Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki once said, “I believe that stories have an important role to play in the formation of human beings, that they can stimulate, amaze and inspire their listeners.”

Miyazaki's Totoro drawingThe first time I encountered the work of Hayao Miyazaki was when my older son was a little boy and we checked out a DVD from our local library called My Neighbor Totoro and it was like nothing I had ever seen before. The story of childhood innocence of two girls dealing with the possible loss of their mother moved me to tears. It was a beautiful, magical story that captured the wonder of being a child in such an honest and imaginative way. And who else could ever have imagined something as wondrous as cat bus? One of the things I loved most was that the magical creatures were not viewed as scary by the girls, Satsuki and Mei, but as marvelous companions to befriend. After my son and I watched this film, both of us were hooked and began to watch all of the Miyazaki films we could get our hands on.

Kiki’s Delivery ServiceCastle in the Sky, The Cat’s ReturnPorco RossoNaussicaa of the Valley of the Winds and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Howl's Moving Castle

Each one was so unique and yet so familiar like a favorite fairy tale that enchanted us because we found something new and surprising each time that we watched his movies. I was delighted and drawn in by Miyazaki’s storytelling and his inventiveness. Yet at the heart of each film was a sense of humanity, the importance of love, family, nature and pacifism. His movies were also inhabited by brave, self-sufficient girls as their protagonists. This is especially true of the character from my favorite Miyazaki film: Chihiro from Spirited Away. As Hayao Miyazaki has said, “Many of my movies have strong female leads – brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe with all their heart. They’ll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a savior. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.”

Spirited Away train

Like Alice in Wonderland, one of my most cherished and returned to books from childhood, Spirited Away transported me to a magical land that did not always make sense (as the world so often doesn’t to children). Chihiro is very much a regular kid (in attitude, posture and responses to her parents) at the beginning of this amazing tale that draws you in and does not let you go for the entire length of the film. Populated with a cast of characters which are both strange and beguiling, the viewer watches as Chihiro deals with loss (of her parents) and even her name (something that stems straight out of fairy tales where names hold magical powers). In fact, in this new land, she is renamed “Sen,” which literally means “nothing” or “zero.” As the story unfolds, it amazed me at what a beautiful, magical and melancholy meditation this was on a child growing up. Once again, I found myself deeply moved by the way in which Miyazaki wove a tale of a girl’s maturing emotionally, spiritually and physically in such a manner into a fairy tale. (Something I would also see in another of my favorite films, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth).

Miyazaki Princess Mononoke drawing

All of our family became engrossed and enchanted by each successive Miyazaki movie (Princess MononokePonyoThe Secret World of Arrietty and The Wind Rises).

Miyazaki painting

Hayao Miyazaki sees the beauty in all things. “You must see with eyes unclouded by hate,” he has said, “See the good in that which is evil, and the evil in that which is good. Pledge yourself to neither side, but vow instead to preserve the balance that exists between the two.”

Miyazaki's Arrietty drawing

The visuals from his films are masterpieces of art, still hand-drawn and painted (something unheard of in this age of computer animation). Yet the simplicity reveals the magnificence of the images. They remind me of gorgeous illustrations from beloved children’s books that I grew up with and, would later find out, that Miyazaki did, too. Classics like The Borrowers (which he turned into The Secret World of Arriety), The Little PrinceTreasure Island and A Wizard of Earthsea to name a few.

Miyazaki

Growing up a sickly child, Miyazaki found refuge in books. Both allowed him a lot of time to imagine. Books and his imagination were his escape from the grimmer realities of post-World War II Japan.  Is it any wonder then that his goal became to make films that told children “it’s good to be alive”? Unlike so many other storytellers, he does not focus on hate and despair, but on hope and joy.

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“I believe that children’s souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations,” Miyazaki has said, “It’s just that as they grow older and experience the everyday world that memory sinks lower and lower. I feel I need to make a film that reaches down to that level. If I could do that I would die happy.” His movies do just that, they dig deep into the well of his subconscious to where memory and childhood dwell. His ideas and visions are rooted in the books he loved to read and liberated him from what he described as his “physically weak body.”

When I watch Miyazaki’s films, I, too, am transported to my own childhood and a life that was filled with books, imaginings and the nature I surrounded myself with. His movies remind me of the sheer delight that comes from the wonder of a master storyteller. You enter his worlds and do not want to leave, but to linger there and to become friends with the characters that inhabit those stories.  Like my favorite books from boyhood, his films make me dream of the lands and worlds that are both fantastic and recognizable for they are the land we all once lived in.

Miyazaki with his creation

 

 

Memory & Identity

memory

The Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel said, “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all . .  . Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it we are nothing.”

What is memory?

Memory is who we are. We are our memories. They define and shape who we are, how we act and react, how we think. And memories can be triggered by something else: a smell, a taste, a sound. I can hear a song on the radio and immediately think of who I was with and what I was doing the first time I ever heard it.

When considering this type of memory, I cannot help but think of Marcel Proust tasting the Madeleine dipped in tea and how that simple act caused memories of his childhood to come flooding back. From this came his great magnum opus In Search of Lost Time. A masterpiece about what is perceived, what is remembered and the links between perception and memory.  It was Proust who coined the term “involuntary memory,” which he believed contained the “essence of the past.”

Proust

For years I had attempted to read this monumental work to no success – until the death of my mother. It was only after her dying that I found myself drawn into this stream-of-consciousness masterpiece. Why? Because prior to my mother’s death, I had no context for searching for “lost time” or the past. I had not experienced enough to be able to fully appreciate or grasp the melancholy desire to return to the past. The older I get, the more I find myself doing this: revisiting my own childhood and having questions about memory.

The Greeks had a word nostos that meant “return” and another algos that means “pain or suffering.” Those two words are where we get our word nostalgia. Nostalgia, therefore, is the suffering caused by a desire to return to the past. Certainly there is a sorrow or loss that runs throughout Proust’s novels just as there is in any of our lives when we look back. We remember those we have lost. With each person that we lose who have known us since childhood, we lose a part of ourselves, a part of our story and our memory that is gone.  After the death of my mother, I have often been filled with sadness that I cannot ask her about events from my own life that I am unsure of or ask her about her own life experiences and memories.

In one of my favorite novels, The History of Love, Nicole Krauss writes, “Every year, the memories I have of my father become more faint, unclear, and distant. Once they were vivid and true, then they became like photographs, and now they are more like photographs of photographs.”

It’s true. As the years pass, I lose more and more of my mother. I have to work harder to recall the sound of her voice or her laugh. I catch traces of her in myself and, especially, in my younger sister.

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It’s interesting how I grew up in a house with two parents and a sister,  but we can recall the same event differently. Aspects that stand out to me, are forgotten or were never noticed by somebody else. My sister and I can talk about our childhoods and have completely unique versions of how they unfolded and of our parents. Part of this is due to my being older but it’s also because our memories are filtered through who we are and our own perceptions and experiences. How we perceive often becomes how we see. Whose memory is the correct one? Can both be?

Memory is malleable. We reshape our memories with each retelling of a story. Something shifts, something changes. Memory is fiction. Memory is fantasy. Even Proust wrote, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

An article in The Atlantic by Erika Hayasaki addresses this, “Memory distortions are basic and widespread in humans, and it may be unlikely that anyone is immune.” She then asks, “As our memories become more penetrable how much can we trust the stories that we have come to believe, however certainly, about our lives?”

It’s a fascinating question. What is reality when it comes to memory? How much of what we believe is memory has been changed by personal life experiences? How much of what we call memory has been reconstructed over the years until we might even be shocked by how far it is from what really transpired? How much of memory is us attempting to integrate the details we remember into a coherent narrative?

This becomes even more difficult in people with traumatic memories. Those lodge themselves in a part of the brain where they cannot be assimilated into a narrative story, so much so that, when asked about such moments, they literally can only answer, “I don’t know.” They more often feel those memories in the present when they are triggered by something that reminds them. The past becomes present. They become trapped in their memories.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

How often do we reshape our painful memories or simply try to forget them?

I cannot help but think of the brilliant film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in which the shy, soft-spoken Joel Barish (played by Jim Carey) decides to have all of his memories erased of a relationship that has ended rather than deal with the pain they cause him. The majority of the film transpires in his mind as the memories are being erased and we watch how other memories from Joel’s past begin to interweave themselves into those of his former relationship with the free-spirited Clementine (played by Kate Winslet). Slowly, we begin to see how memories from all of Joel’s past has impacted his life. We see visually how the memories we carry inside of us impact, positively or negatively, on our relationships and our perceptions of reality.

The memories we carry are tinged with emotion. As Erika Hayasaki wrote, “For all of us, the stronger the emotion attached to a moment, the more likely those parts of our brains involved in memory will become activated.”

What’s interesting is that scientists have recently discovered that the mind makes two copies of an event, it creates two memories, one for the present and the other is for the long-term version. In fact, researchers at MIT and a team in Japan discovered that two parts of the brain are involved in collecting and storing personal memories. Short-term memories are stored in the hippocampus, while the cortex stores long-term ones simultaneously.

brain

Our memories lie at the core of who we are. Memory is defined by the totality of the things we’ve experienced in our pasts. Two people can experience the same event differently only furthers the individuality of memory. In his work A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume wrote that our identity or our self is a “bundle” or a collection of sensations or impressions.  So what happens if those memories are erased (not by a machine like in Eternal Sunshine) but are lost through Alzheimer’s or dementia? How much of their identity is lost by the loss of memory? Or when memories from the past solely become their present? So that a son is thought of as a deceased brother? If those memories are stored for long-term how can those who suffer alzheimers or dementia become unable to access them? Can scientists discover a way to access them? Can identity be found and regained?

The more I research and study memory, the more fascinating the notion of memory, identity and self becomes. With each answer I uncover, a new question is formed.

French author Guy de Maupassant wrote, “Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.” But, after reading all that I have, I have to ask: Is it? Really?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Idea Of Home

IMG_4108“You can go home again,” Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote, “so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.” When I read that statement, my first thought was, “Hmmm, I wonder what she means by that?”

That one sentence was something that stayed with me long after I first read it and I began to reflect on the nature of what really is a home.

What do we think of when we think of home? A specific house? A town or city where we grew up? The family we were born into? The family we created through marriage? The close friendships we make that often feel more like family than the ones we were born into?

As a child growing up, home was my entire universe.  And there is one specific house, our house on Windy Rush Road, that when I think of home it is the one of my childhood up until the age of twelve. It is the home inhabited by summer and neighborhood friends and the woods I loved to explore. It is the place that looms large in my imagination. But it is also, in many ways, an imagined place. It is the home that exists more in memory than in reality any more. Although there were four of us living in that home, I would guess that each of us would talk about that one house differently from each other. We would have a unique perspective on that moment in time.

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For me, it is rooted in summers. In wearing shorts and running barefoot. Of feeling the sun on one’s skin. Of playing until dark. Of catching fireflies in mason jars with holes punched in the top. Of bats darting about in the night sky eating bugs. Of riding bicycles and playing games that we made up to entertain ourselves. It was running through sprinklers. It was developing my first crush and the heartbreak of her moving away.

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It was my first kiss. My friends and I were playing war and I was shot. My death scene was spectacular and Oscar-worthy. I didn’t just drop to the ground but died dramatically and rolled to the bottom of our front hill. As I lay there dead in the grass, I suddenly felt lips kissing my own. Quickly and tasting of apple juice. I opened my eyes to see the girl who lived next door running away. My heart pounded heavy in my chest. I cannot even count how many times I let myself get shot that day, but the kiss was not repeated – at least not again that day. We were summer sweethearts. I had a shirt with x’s and o’s on it. She would give me a kiss for every “x” and a hug for every “o.” My mom, tired of washing that shirt, asked me why I kept wearing it. I just shrugged and answered, “Cause it’s my favorite.”

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It was the place of t-ball games and kick the can and Christmas and birthdays and swimming lessons and of my Mom telling me that “Everything was going to be all right” and I believed her. It was walking home from school and finding that she had just made chocolate chip cookies that I could drink down with milk as I told her about my day.

There was where I discovered music by listening to my parents’ record collection, as well as the one I started to collect of my own favorites. It was The Beatles and the soundtracks to movies and Broadway musicals. It was the home where my friends and I used to put on our own shows and lip-synced and danced to music.

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It was the home where I was first read to at bedtime by my mother and where I not only learned to read, but loved reading. I discovered Where The Wild Things Are and The Five Chinese Brothers, E.B. White’s books and Roald Dahl’s, and the ones that would have th hugest impact on me: C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. After reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, I tested out all of our closets and was utterly disappointed that they did not lead to any magical lands no matter how much I called out for Aslan. I also pestered my poor mom with my begging for them to please buy me a wardrobe, which, alas, they never did. Those are the books I still own and have read with glee and delight to my own children and watched as they, too, embraced them into their own childhood worlds.

That home was the one that I recall whenever I hear Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song “Stones in the Road.”

When we were young we pledged allegiance
Every morning of our lives
The classroom rang with children’s voices
Under teacher’s watchful eye
We learned about the world around us
At our desks and at dinner time
Reminded of the starving children
We cleaned our plates with guilty minds
And the stones in the road
Shone like diamonds in the dust
And then a voice called to us
To make our way back home

Although I was often a very lonely child, most of my memories of that house are of the idyllic childhood where I still approached everything with wonder and the belief that the world was a magical, wondrous place.

No place like home

I cannot help but think of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz who first dreams of escaping the dreariness of home, but once in Oz, spends the rest of the story wanting to return to home in Kansas. “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” And, by the end of the book and the film, Dorothy realizes the truth, ““If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

How many of us are the same way and have to learn the same lesson?

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Children long to grow up. To have their own experiences in the world and are very definite in telling their parents just how their lives will be different and how they will parent differently. “I will never, ever tell my kids ‘Because I said so’ as a reason to do something,” I once informed them. If I only knew then how frustrating and exhausting parenthood can truly be and how one is pushed to the point where that is the only answer one can form. We rush headlong through our years and when we have reached adulthood begin to look back with a heartbreaking longing for the time we had (especially when we have lost a parent). With our own children, we learn that the days go so slow but the years whiz past by so fast it makes our heads spin and we blink to find our own children to be children no more. And begin to understand the melancholy beauty of Joni Mitchell’s song “The Circle Game.”

I love how Maya Angelou puts it, ““The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

Everyone does not think of a place in their past, as those were broken homes that are not seen in nostalgic sepia tones, but as memories so painful that their lives have been spent trying to escape them and make their own home.  Or what is home for the child who is bounced around from one foster home to the next? Or grows up in an orphanage?

Home can be the place where we begin to form our identities or the places where we find them. Home is discovering acceptance for who you are and not who you’d like or wish to be.  It is unconditional love and warm embraces and shared tears and to have someone or some others who see who you are, warts and all, and welcome you whole. Home is wholeness. Some are born into it and some only discover it later and, sadly, there are those for whom home is an idea they will never ever know.

Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse wrote, ““One never reaches home. But where paths that have an affinity for each other intersect, the whole world looks like home, for a time.”

Perhaps there isn’t one home but many in our lives. As we grow up and go out into the world, we find our homes not in being rooted to the same place, but those we make community with wherever we may be. It is the welcoming table and laughter and tears and shared experiences. It is not having to pretend and wear a mask but to let another see who we are and what we are really going through.

Home is the light in the darkness. Is it any wonder that the Talking Heads sang in the opening to their song “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)”: Home is where I want to be . . .

We all want to be there. We all want a place where we can call home.