Moving the Monkeys

The day Granddad died, I picked up a small statue of three monkeys joined at their sides and slipped it into my pocket.  I don’t remember ever having seen it at his house until I wandered through the newly vacant rooms in the failing sunlight that evening.  The monkeys were positioned with their hands over eyes, ears, and mouth, one each.  See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.  That command did not impart any particular insight or comfort then.  Merely, I needed something to hold, something to work my fingers across as I ventured into this new world I had not known before.  A world where I had no Granddad, where accidental tragedy could strike for no reason, not as a punishment for something I had done or said, just as an act of the universe.  Not an act, even, as the universe has no intent, only a flow of 10,000 things.  I worked my fingers raw over the next couple of years rubbing those monkeys in my pocket.  I felt a visceral relief from having a physical pinpoint for the ache of my loss, a relief that no other mouth, words, or arms offered.  Still, I thought little about what they might be saying to me.

After a while, the acute pain drifted away from my daily life.  No longer did I need the physicality of worry stones or talismans.  The monkeys lived in my jewelry box for a long time.  When we bought a printer’s tray from a thrift store and turned it into a knick-knack shelf, I dug them out and placed them in a tiny compartment for display.  For so long I had forgotten about their existence, deaf to their silent message.

Last November, when Malik showed up at our kitchen table to do his homework, mountains of homework that would hopefully salvage the first semester of his senior year, the memory of their soothing grooves came flooding back, first to my fingers and then to my consciousness.  His is not my story to tell, but suffice it to say that he had more to worry about on the tip of his pinky finger than I have had in all of my years.  Something in my core being recognized something in his core being, call it a disbelief in what is called the order of things when clearly there is no order.  Before taking him back to where he was staying, I tore the house apart looking for those monkeys, forgetting that they had been watching me from their perch.  Perhaps they heard my desperation and beckoned me from the the shelf.  I rescued them and pressed them into his hand before he got out of the car.  Neither he nor I officially believe in the magical powers of objects, but I told him that these monkeys had comforted me during a time of great distress, a time when I could not understand the mysteries of the cosmos but desperately wanted to.  For what it was worth, I could sense that he needed some kind of similar comfort.

His dream, his vision for his life, did not seem to match what the universe had laid out in front of him.  It was speaking and showing him its evil ways, or at least its most disagreeable ways.  Despite this, he seemed to avoid speaking any evil about his future.  I think now the axiom must be a kind of conditional statement lost in the truncated rhythm of the command.  If we can keep from listening to the evil around us, keep from seeing life as evil, then we will not speak evil into existence.  What we allow ourselves to perceive and receive will directly impact what we generate.  Concentrating on disagreeable things will cause us to continue the production of disagreeable things.  But if we can protect ourselves from the evils around us, that is where our hope resides.  And no one can protect us but ourselves, not even the monkeys.  They serve only as a reminder that we can, even in the midst of great destruction and misfortune, become agents of our own fate through intentional action.

In Everything is Illuminated, Lista is the sole survivor and keeper of the memories and artifacts of a community destroyed by Nazi soldiers.  When a young man comes looking for answers about his grandparents’ past, she tells Jonathan that the buried engagement ring, “does not exist for you. You exist for the ring. The ring is not in case of you. You are in case of the ring.”  That scene has haunted me, needling at my understanding, for years.  I think I am coming to an understanding of her words.  The monkeys did not exist for me to find them, but I exist to learn from them and move them to their next place in this world.  Malik exists to be a vessel of this same idea, and already he is moving the monkeys.

An 18-year-old young man loses many things.  Keys, phone chargers, innocence, papers.  But when we arrived at the tiny dorm room in Iowa that will be his home for the summer, Malik fished around in his pocket, pulled out those monkeys, and balanced them on top of his mini fridge.  I hope they remind him to stay anchored to a reality where he is in charge, if not of the events that happen around him, at least of his interaction with and reaction to those events.  Seeing, hearing, and speaking beauty and wonder into this world, we will prevail.


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It’s been a long time since I’ve had something to say.

Well, that might not be true. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like saying anything.

I feel like I’ve been holding my head under water. Waiting to see if I will pull it up to take a breath or keep it still and feel the smooth, cold, serenity of water flooding my voice.

It’s been a silence that has been comfortably numb.

But why?

But why?

But why?

Maybe because my voice has felt too quiet… it’s a vicious paradox that when we are pressed into the clear cool water, we are thinking that everything is muted eternally. We can’t hear ourselves think, so who will hear us speak?  We can’t hear ourselves think, so who will hear us tell the world it is wrong?

Maybe it’s because I’ve been focusing on what I thought was psychological survival, in a cold and privileged belief that silence is what I was destined to live with.

Maybe it’s laziness.

Maybe it’s hesitancy.

Maybe it’s time to break the silence.

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Pancakes: A Ritual

Question:  Mommy, why don’t we go to church?

Answer:  Because we have pancakes.

I don’t mean to be flippant about religion or other sacred traditions.  We are just not a religious family, though each of us has his or her notion of the human spiritual condition.  But one regular, cohesive, protected institution Kevin and I have created for our family is Sunday morning pancakes.

Before kids, our weekends were sprinkled with late morning breakfasts at 43rd Street Deli.  We perused the newspaper while lingering over bottomless cups of coffee.  Sleeping in was an unappreciated luxury.  When Lily was born, all of that changed.  What seems like a thoughtful construction of the ideal family actually started quite by accident.  When Lily was a toddler and we had just moved to Tampa, Kevin got a job at a lawn service that required him to work on Saturdays.  Our only day to settle and explore was Sunday.  We both worked diligently on other days to make sure that Sunday could be a day we spent together, engaged in activities that nourished our souls.

In August school started for me, and I was newly pregnant with our second child.  Lily spent the days with my mom and Grammy, both of whom would both plop her up on the counter and let her play along at whatever they happened to be doing – making bread, baking cakes, clipping coupons.  This is why we moved to Tampa: so that our children could spend their days at home with grandparents like I did growing up.  With this attention, Lily developed a love of “helping” in the kitchen.  A second pregnancy left me exhausted to the core, so by the time Sunday rolled around each week, I needed a break.  One morning, Kevin graciously left me sipping my coffee on the couch while he took Lily into the kitchen to make breakfast.   He randomly chose pancakes, not knowing that this choice would cement a family tradition taken very seriously on Leila Avenue.  Lily loved this activity so much that she would insist on weekly pancake breakfast in lieu of any other suggestion.

If I had been in charge of this activity, I would have found the organic, whole wheat, sustainably sourced, guilt free box mix and happily whipped up the newly required meal.  No, if I had been in charge, I would have bought that box mix and then pushed it to the back of the cabinet each week, opting instead for my box of cereal.  I love cooking, but I do not love cooking breakfast.  Not enough coffee.

Kevin, on the other hand, was not only excited to make a hearty breakfast, but also sought out, tested, and perfected a from-scratch recipe, only occasionally deviating for experimentation with various grains and fruits.  As a complement to these pancakes we must serve pure maple syrup, not the high fructose corn syrup of my childhood.  I tell myself that the less processed maple syrup still contains important minerals and phytochemicals in it that corn syrup does not offer.  Really, the rich amber flavor and silky texture make breakfast seem elevated to a more ethereal experience.  It is so good that we forgo other luxuries like cable and new cars to justify the expense.

The kids are so spoiled by homemade pancakes and maple syrup that Aunt Jemima leaves them disappointed in the lack of mixing authentic ingredients and disgusted at the thickly pouring product.  We had to have a special conversation about being thankful for the box mix at Papa’s house, because he only means to be helpful and accommodating to our routines when we stay at their house.  We are clear that whatever is offered by a host is meant to be appreciated.

Pancakes have paved the way for many of these learning moment conversations.  No matter what craziness is going on during the week (from soccer practice, gymnastics, art classes, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and riding lessons to faculty meetings, graduate classes, homework, and essays) we can count on a quiet, homemade meal around our table on Sunday morning.  It is still our only common day off during the school year, even now that Kevin has a different job.  Sometimes it is the only meal we eat together all week, anchoring us to the idea of communing in spirit as we commune in nourishment.  I love our other tradition of movie night and pizza, allowing us to unwind after a busy week and laugh together.  And I love our frequent outdoor picnics, whether in the front yard, the pier, or the park where we can breathe in fresh air and contemplate blades of grass between our toes.  However, the Sunday morning breakfast carves out a special type of space for us.   In this time, we can laze, philosophize, dream, plan.

One year, when what I call the Veruca Salt Syndrome seemed particularly rampant, we instituted a gratitude round at all sit down, family meals.  We had to take turns saying one thing we were thankful for each day or read a blessing from the book Saying Grace: Blessings for the Family Table.  Often the kids are thankful for some special treat at school or the chance to play with Sara, their neighborhood best friend.  Kevin and I are thankful for various respites at work – a cooling rainstorm or an extra period off.  These rounds sometimes lead into realizations about how lucky we are, but they always spur conversations about the minutiae of life that roots us in purpose and pleasure.

Sunday breakfast is also the single meal where no vegetable cajoling happens.  Although this dialogue happens less frequently now that Henry has begun expanding his palette, for a while it was a part of daily mealtime that nearly drove me insane.  For about three years, Henry only ate three food groups:  bread, cheese, and peanut butter.  Sometimes he would venture into the daring world of yogurt or pasta, and I dared anyone to tell him that pizza contained a form of tomatoes.  I tried to be calm and cool, nonchalant about the intake of vegetables.  I bought books where children taught a big, friendly monster about nutrition.  I bribed with dessert.  I did not want to make meal time a battle, but I desperately wished for him to ingest some whole foods.  And maybe more than that, I wanted him to experience and experiment with food in the way that Kevin, Lily, and I would.  We love new textures and flavors and national cuisines, and I wanted him to enjoy that with us.  At least I knew that Sunday morning would bring us a meal that we could enjoy in peace, with no worrying or bargaining, no pressure or guilt.  Who doesn’t like carbohydrates smothered in fat and sugar?  I jest, but the tradition of this calm meal taught me that the act of eating might be just as, if not more, important than the food itself.

Throughout these seven years, pancake making has followed us around the map and through several iterations.  Pancakes at Papa’s house in New Smyrna make for a filling start to a long beach day.  We have also made them at a cabin in the Poconos, on the campfire at Hillsborough River, on the griddle at Fort Desoto, and at various friends’ houses up and down the East Coast.  Kevin has mastered the art of the picture pancake, aided by a selection of specialty gadgets.  He and the kids, once Henry was old enough to join the crew, have tried crepes and waffles and even ebelskivvers – delectable mini pancakes stuffed with gooey goodness.  They sometimes add bananas or chocolate chips, sprinkles or nuts.  We even have a set of Halloween themed pancake shapers.  But always, we come back to Kevin’s tried and true recipe, enjoying the efortlessness of its easily memorizable ingredients.  The kids are even to the point now where helping is more like a chore than a special treat, which is why I was surprised when Lily volunteered to be in charge of pancake making for Father’s Day.

There is pancake batter congealed on the surface of the stove that has been there since Sunday.  It is Wednesday.  I can’t get it off, or at least I couldn’t get it off when I half-heartedly rubbed at it with a rubber spatula last night before wandering back into the living room and sinking into my chair with a jelly glass of Zinfandel.  I sat in my chair thinking about how Lily could possibly be old enough to make pancakes all by herself.  (This has revolutionized my Father’s Day duties, so I am willing to live with the batter dribbles.)  It’s hard to believe she has been practicing with Kevin for the past seven years.  She’s got the recipe scrawled in her nine year old handwriting.  She can pour milk and mix eggs and even turn on the griddle.  What once she delighted in helping her dad do she now gloats over being able to do by herself.  Henry is not quite as interested in the production process, preferring instead to help with the distribution and quality testing.  But he is equally invested in the routine, often waking up hoping that it’s Sunday, even in the middle of the school week.

Finally, pancakes represent the lessons I want my children to grow up with:  the value of your family, the comfort we find in traditions, the satisfaction of making things by hand, the importance of being thankful for your blessings, the art of good conversation, and the magic that exists in simplicity.

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Blog Morph

There have been no book reviews so far this summer.  Although I have read several books, all their secrets lay dormant in my soul.  I suppose none have moved me sufficiently, or I have not been practicing intentional reading – gasp, I have not been noticing and noting!  More likely I have been noticing and not noting.  I need to notice something worthy of noting.  Anyway I read Member of the Wedding, and while I liked it quite a bit, I didn’t think of anything to say afterwards.  Surely a fault of mine and not McCullers’ dense, humid prose.  In fact, I did relate so much to Frankie, so I think there is something to say, or for me to say, but I have to dwell there a bit longer.  Think more Eugenides’ suburban worlds than the deep south.

Until that time comes when I need to say something brought on by the discomfit of a novel, I think I shall toy around with The Aspiring Poet’s Journal and the results thereof.

Morph 1.  The summer of poetry exercises.  I can’t do the book one day at a time as it is laid out.  I have to read over several pages at once and try a few things before one of the exercises resonates.  The exercise on day 36 asks you to choose a phrase to explore, and for some reason the children’s rhyme “Bubble Gum Bubble Gum in a Dish” came to mind immediately.  Just so happens that the exercise on day 38 asks you to list as many children’s counting games as you can, and the one on day 39 asks you to work one into a poem.  This is what happened.

The Slings and Arrows of Fortune

Bubble gum bubble gum in a dish

How many pieces do you wish?

If you can think fast enough to not order

A multiple of the number position you occupy

You will know instantly how many pieces to choose,

So it’s not really like wishing at all,

But more of a knowing, of a consciousness.

But if your mind, like mine,

Behaves as a sock tossed in the washing machine

With Kevin’s unsecured cargo pants’ pockets,

So that it begins by working earnestly in circles

To become clean once again until

A square of Velcro crosses its orbit and hinges

On the sock’s very self-doubt, or numbness, or oblivion

And ends by being tugged along by the larger accoutrement

Unaware of the direction or speed or purpose, then

You will have no idea what number to utter to the game boss

And so will say something arbitrary, like four,

because it is your favorite number, or thirteen,

because it is part of the hive mind, always there and slithering

around like something important,

and you will not have thought at all about whether

or not that number will keep you in the game.

But you say it and you’re still in.

Usually I write this mess and then abandon it because it doesn’t make any sense.  And because I am lucky enough to have Emily Coolbeth as a confidant, critic, and coach, I actually did not abandon this immediately.  Sometimes I need her to point out what might actually make sense (imagine the feeling when I’ve conveyed a metaphor successfully to someone else with no prior activating knowledge!) and remind me what the core of the poem is.  So I looked at what I was trying to say and tried to make it say that.  This is what happened.

Slings and Arrows

Bubble gum bubble gum in a dish

How many pieces do you wish?

If you think fast enough not to order

A multiple of your position place,

You will have instantly calculated

how many pieces to request so that

the ousting hand does not alight on you.

It’s not really like wishing at all,

But more of a knowing, a consciousness.

But if your mind, like mine, acts as a sock

tossed in the washing machine with flapping

cargo pants pockets – so that it begins

by working earnestly in circles

To become clean once again until

A square of Velcro crosses its orbit

and hinges on the sock’s very self-doubt,

or numbness, or oblivion – and ends

by being tugged along by the larger

body unaware of the direction

or speed or purpose, then you will have no

idea what number to utter

to the game boss, and so will say something

arbitrary, like four, because it is

your favorite number, or thirteen, because

it is part of the hive mind, always

slithering by like something important,

and you will not have thought at all about

whether or not that number will keep you

in the game.  But you say it, and you’re still in.

I did two exercises in one day!  Beginner’s luck or something.  The other exercise I did, I think from day 35, asked you to pick one word that comes to mind quickly and write about it.  I was resistant at first because the first word that popped into my mind was watershed, and I didn’t even know what it meant.  I had to look it up.  But then I couldn’t think of another word because my mind just kept going back to my personal connections with the word, different watershed moments of my life.  Those poems are sure to turn out cheesy!  So I kept putting off the writing, hoping I would think of a different, more worthy, word.  But then I just started, for lack of something better to do.  The book asks you to make two lists, one of words you can make from those letters and one of words that rhyme with the chosen word.  I added a line of words: words that it reminds me of or sounds like.  Going through those permutations (I think that’s not the mathematical usage of the word, but I like the word so much I only wish I had more opportunities to use it and so have created some on my own) was such a cool exercise in sound, in assonance and consonance, in how to create a holistic sound vibe, of something rounder and bigger than rhythm.  And I had earlier read an Emily Dickinson poem, so I think her rhythm and tone have manifested themselves here.  “This was a poet – it is that” is the first line of the poem I read.  This is what happened.

List of words:     Wait waiver watts shelf shedding assured head

Head sad wash washed terse dew rehash straw

Fed potting shed said bled barters head harbors bread


All this time I’ve been waiting on the shelf,

Head awash in dewy straw, the threads

So loosely woven by stalking heads and falsehoods,

Assured that each sad day would one day have fed

The moment that harbors bread, my watershed.

All that time I spent waiting on some sad shelf

Head awash in some straw made damp

By the spray from the potting shed –

Seeds of knowledge galvanized in impotency,

Made me waiver when the time to barter

Place for space drew tersely near.

Now head rehashed in dewy stars

I wait assured that I’ve been fed

By, some have said, my watershed.

Emily has already given me rich feedback, comments that thrilled me to the bone.  Someone else made a similar meaning out of cryptic metaphors!  Someone else noticed a motif I had not consciously created!  I am excited to rework this piece, also, but I am going to post this now.  It is long.  I might lose my nerve.

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A Few Thoughts on a Summer Reading Choice

I just finished Crazy Horse Electric Game by Chris Crutcher.  I read it in only three days, and there are three variables that factor in to that speed:  it’s spring break, it was a pretty easy read, and I wanted to keep reading it.  Admittedly, parts of the book seemed to contain plot devices that too neatly fit the narrative trajectory.

A black bus driver pimp who helps the main character when he shows up on the streets of Oakland?  As Jewell said, can we get any more stereotypical?  Yet the pimp is not the typical Good Samaritan; instead he is surly and begrudging, and when that sort of character trait belies my expectations (hopes, even), it makes the story seem a little bit more believable.  Even if the details of Lacey’s life are groan-inducing, Crutcher’s observations about the human spirit through him are haunting.  Upon finally understanding the mystery behind Lacey, Willie realizes, “This is what happens when we astonish ourselves with our capacity to be vicious; when we realize so late how our expectations have betrayed us.”

Is it too optimistic that a nonprofit school run by Morgan Freeman a la Lean On Me allows Willie to attend the school free of charge in exchange for mopping and painting? Or that the teachers are all selfless, inspiring miracle workers?  Statistically, you’d probably find a few kooks, a few lay-a-bouts, and a few old crusties sprinkled among the hardworking and bedraggled.  When I worked at ARMI, we definitely had a core staff of people who cared about kids, but we also had someone who drove the bus drunk and someone who lived in a tent behind the school and barked at the kids in German, just to recall a few of the gems.   Anyway, I had a dream the night after finishing the book about one of the guys who worked there who really did care about kids – played basketball with them , used his own money to get them rewards, held them to high standards.  In my dream, I was working at a strange prison school where I had to teach underwater in a huge swimming pool (thinly veiled metaphor!), and when I came up on the pool deck, there was Boderick talking to one of my current students about not being able to do a worksheet.  I tried to reassure the kid that what is most important is that he learn how to be an adult and that his probation is in order before he got out of school.  Then I asked Boderick if he had heard about Dozier, and he hadn’t, but he knew of other schools that abused students in similar ways.  He called one of schools on speakerphone, and we listened to the screams of children in the background. We sat together just sobbing.  I don’t really ascribe to dream theory, but I think from that particular dream it’s pretty clear what was on my mind.

Is it obvious that the parents will not be able to cope with the death of one child and crippling and subsequent disappearance of the other?  That probably is obvious.  But they really remind me of the parents in Hung – aging sports star and high school beauty only together because of memories, only apart because of the inability to make new memories.  And hey, in the book, the dad doesn’t become a male escort, unlike the guy in Hung.  Most importantly, though, is that I think the dad will make a great comparison to Okonkwo later in the year when we read Things Fall Apart.  Both characters suffer from inflated ego and have troubled relationships with their sons due to their much gendered, narrow expectations.

Is the dialogue kind of hokey because the dialect seems to be trying just a little too hard?  Definitely, as he is no East Coast Zora Neale Hurston, but possibly even because the book is 26 years old and the slang/manner of speaking might have, almost definitely has, evolved since then. I think his problem with dialect is that he is trying to capture the syntax but I want to hear the accent. I think when you hear a dialect you mostly remember the way words sound and less so can quickly pick up the syntax of the thing. Like, you might remember some idiosyncratic structures but you probably won’t learn the rules just by listening, which makes sense if you think of language acquisition stages and how we learn words first and sentence structures much later. Anyway, I don’t think he got the varying pronunciations or at least I can’t still hear them echoing in my head. I would have to look back at a passage

I consider it a good sign when the characters don’t do what I want them to do because usually I want them to do fairytalish things.  As an example, there’s the prostitute. I thought she would leave the pimp, or I thought she would at least throw Willie a bone even at graduation. But she just stared passed him. Some might call her a flat character but to me that is realistic. She wouldn’t change so quickly, if ever; that would be too romantic.

All in all, I consider it a successful literary experience in the sense that it has left me thinking of the characters’ pain, the questions that pain raises, and the possible future outcomes.  It has left me wishing I knew Willie or could read more about him.  And I still don’t trust Sammy, the martial arts Tai Chi instructor who is maybe the most caricatured one in the book.  The wise Asian who hangs upside down from buildings and spouts “philosophy” about passion and staying alive is so suspicious to me.  I keep thinking he’s somehow involved in the Asian gang, and I don’t know if that’s because he is not believably fleshed out or because of my own biasing.  I love the parallel friends Johnny and Kato, and I like Telephone Man quite a bit. I like Lacey best of all, even though he is horrid, and I’m not totally comfortable with the role of violence in the book.  So while it is not a top performer among beautiful language experiences, there is much in the book to ponder as a human being.

Things to consider further: violence, voice, figurative language, the dialect again

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A Lesson in Compassion

I don’t think I can tweet.  Or at least, I cannot digest information quickly enough to consume tweets.  (Eat tweets?  I have a terrible tweet tooth.)  Twitter is all the teacher rage right now (perhaps because we have rage and are trying to channel it?) but I get too excited and I can’t read fast enough.  The blog is more my speed.  It takes longer, and I don’t produce as much, but I get to ponder at my pace.  I guess I can tweet the blog?  Crushing.

You know what else is crushing (and curiously joyful)?  Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.  The story of Louis Zamperini, Olympic track star and World War II prisoner of war, captivated only a few days of my summer vacation because I could not put it down.  She managed to tell a thoroughly researched history lesson that included so much information on bombers and so much devastating detail in a very lucid style.  Really, you wouldn’t believe how much I know now about B-24 bombers and 1930’s track statistics.  Doesn’t sound that interesting, but she made it so.  Of course, Zamperini’s experiences getting shot down over the pacific and surviving almost fifty days adrift only to be captured by the Japanese and thrown into a war prison made for a very exciting framework.  But she also recreated the thoughts and events so clearly, with so much detail, that even non history and military buffs would be riveted.

The tragic, excruciating events were sometimes difficult to absorb.  Zamparini (and all of the prisoners) suffered such traumatic physical and mental abuse that my stomach was literally in knots reading about what one human could do to others.  While the starvation and beatings ravaged their bodies, the denial of dignity and information punctured their very souls.  So when I say this book was crushing, that is what I mean.  However, how could I call a book on this topic joyful?  Where, in such an ugly patch of history, would even one shred of joy live?  Compassion.  To say that Zamperini and others who were with him demonstrated compassion is to understate the bounds of the soul.  I don’t want to ruin the end of the book, but I will suffice it to say that his capacity to overcome his trauma and forgive his trespassers completely blew me away.  That is the lesson to be learned from this book.

Yet, I do not feel compassionate when the US (or perhaps the UN?  Honestly, I don’t remember the name of the body in charge of prosecuting war crimes) ended the search for Japanese generals, prison guards, and others who violated international treaty laws during the war.  After approximately eight years, we exonerated all warrants, paroled all prisoners, and granted amnesty to those in hiding.  With energy of the Cold War mounting, we desperately wanted Japan as an ally, and the procuring justice for war crimes interrupted that desire because the war trials were highly unpopular with the Japanese citizenry.  Moreover, the US declined funds from Japanese assets for its soldiers who had been POW’s because it already paid them the paltry sum of something like $1 for each day they could prove they were mistreated.  The funds went to those in other countries.  And then I saw this article in the news as I finished the book:

Laszlo Csatary: Hungary arrests 97-year-old alleged Nazi war criminal

Sixty seven years later, people are still arresting Nazis.  And I do think that man should answer for his actions.  But why  still Nazis, and not still the Japanese?  Is it because we can categorize our disapproval under a political party name instead of the name of a nation state?  Because politics demand we move on with the governments named “Germany” and “Japan,” reserving punishment for those who can be corralled into a fringe group?  I grew up learning the atrocities of the German side of the War, learning the cruel details of the Holocaust, learning the dangers of eugenics and Nazism.  I never really learned about the Japanese faction of the Axis powers, how unbelievably harsh its military was, how large a death swath they carved through China, Korea, and other neighboring nations.  So after reading Unbroken, I just couldn’t understand why Japan got off the hook. (I suppose using the phrase “off the hook” too flippantly, because many Japanese military officials and prison guards were executed.)  And I am left wondering, because I know that Neo Nazis are alive and well, if there are similar groups still sputtering in Japan.

Zamperini visited some of his old prison guards while they themselves were imprisoned.  “At that moment, something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was over.”  I guess if he can get over it, so should I.


Filed under Laura Hillenbrand, Non Fiction, Unbroken

2 Summer Movies and a Letter

Dear Lily,

I never wrote the letter to you that is supposed to go in the baby book.  Procrastination is my biggest vice… unfortunate, since it is also a dress my muse often wears.  (If the sun could wear a dress.  Katniss.)  I guess I just thought I would have time to do it eventually.  After all, it took seven and a half years for me to complete our wedding album, but a wedding is an event that remains static.  I had all the documentation to prove we were there.  But you… you keep slipping through my fingers like the needlefish at Picnic Island.

I think when they put that page in baby books, they want parents to express their hopes and expectations for the impending offspring.  I guess I must have subconsciously thought that was mighty strange; really, who else could you be but you?  Now that I know you, I will write the letter from a different perspective.  I can’t say what I wish for you to be because you’re already someone.  I can’t, either, make it a compendium of who you’ve been these past six and a half years.  You’re not like the wedding, as you’ve been changing each minute since you joined this world.  There are parts of you I have regrettably forgotten, parts that you outgrew as quickly as you did your size 1 diapers or first shoes.  You’re more like the needlefish, glimmering and swimmering through the water with crazy joy.  I can’t remember exactly how you said brefkest instead of breakfast or the jokes you told; I can only remember that you did those things that brought joy and frustration to my life.  (Just to be honest about the frustration.  But which triumph will be born without it?)  Like trying to remember what the sunshine looked like glinting off of the water.  But who you are now, and what I see in your future because of it, is what I can write about.

After seeing you at the dinner table on Independence Day, I have realized that I am running out of time to say something about the current you vis a vis the future you.  You sat at the table, eating your vaca frita, conversing with the adults with ease and aplomb.  At once I saw my little girl whose sun-tanned chin could only hover above the table top and a much older girl whose conversational wit and rapt attention rival that of many adults.  Gone is the shyness, the liquidly silent eyes, the hesitancy to speak up.  You are growing up so fast.  I guess it was mightily coincidental of me to notice it on Independence Day.  I know – hope – it will be a long while before you declare your independence from us, but it is on the horizon, because your horizon stretches so long and so far into the future.

Already you know more than me about so many things – why, just this evening you corrected my grasp on the violin bow with thinly veiled impatience.  What is more joyous to me is not what you already know but rather what you seek to know and how passionately you seek it.  This is a big summer for you, with horseback riding lessons beginning, reading on your own, and owning your own violin.  And each week you are urging another trip to the library so that you can find more books on the topics arresting your attention at the time.  It is that wonder, that inquisitiveness that is your most wonderful quality.  You are beautiful and caring and aware and sensitive and loyal and hilarious – all the things two parents could hope for.  But when I think of how interested you are in learning just about anything, it makes my heart just about burst.

I love to see how all of the best qualities from me and your dad well inside you.  Of course, I also see the qualities perhaps not so desirable, but human all the same, curl around the edges of your little being.  You’re as stubborn as your dad and you worry as much as I do.  Hopefully, little bug, these are traits you will learn to use to your advantage.

I finally decided to write this letter because I saw two movies this summer – one with you and one with grown-ups – that just radiated you.  Watching the main characters in these two movies gave me a glimpse into the girl you are and will be.  They are both such interesting characters, and for whatever reason, I can’t get them out of my head.  I think because they are both adventurers, and you are so entrenched in the adventure narrative right now.  Everything is about being a scientist or going on a camping trip or rescuing animals or fighting Octimus and Morticon.  So this is where this letter comes from.  Who you are now and what I feel now.  Although we parents are all kind of like Vonnegut’s Tralfamidorians in that we look at our children and see frame by frame who they have been at each past moment… by the time you read this you will know what I mean.

First I saw Moonrise Kingdom (directed by Wes Anderson, one of my favorite directors).  Aside from giving me a strong longing to live on the Island of Penzance, my favorite thing about the movie is how it created a dreamlike nostalgia and purposeful symmetry of landscape and character.  The scene changes were so stark and the arrangement so careful, I felt like I was looking at someone’s summer camp scrapbook.  And the story line was very cute, very Whisper of the Heart.  Two teenagers, outwardly very unalike, run away together on a camping trip.  Oh, by the time you read this you will, again, know what I am talking about, so I won’t summarize.  I keep saying to people that if you were to run away on a camping trip (or just about anywhere), you would bring exactly what Suzy takes with her:  her cat, a suitcase of books, some rubber bands, scissors, and binoculars.  Why, just yesterday we went to the mall and you toted along a bag that included said items plus your kaleidoscope.  (Ok, Zora was, thankfully, not in the bag, but I’m sure some fuzzy stuffed likenenss of her was.)

Suzy is quiet and sensitive, perceptive and contemplative.  That contemplation seems to lead to a good deal of despondency and unrest for her, perhaps because her parents only orbit around her, absorbed in their own unrests.  Hopefully, if I can avoid being as detached as Bill Murray’s character and as brazen Frances McDormand’s character, you will not wish, as Suzy does, to be an orphan.  (As for stabbing someone in the kidneys with scissors… let’s just say you do have a passionate streak that I would not like to see aroused in anger.)  In explaining her sadness, Suzy shows Sam a book she found on her parents’ desk about dealing with a difficult child.  The title had more to do with their warped perspectives than with Suzy’s actual being, I’m sure, but it fueled her anxiety about being liked and accepted.  Sometimes as you fall asleep you worry about the same thing.  (Heck, sometimes as I fall asleep I worry about the same thing.)  We both should recognize and appreciate the Sams in our lives — we are surrounded by people who love us despite our anxiety.

Later that same week, we all watched The Secret Life of Arrietty (written by Hiyao Miyazaki, one of your favorite directors) together on DVD.  Although I did not realize it at first, this is Miyazaki’s interpretation of The Borrowers.  I always think that I read or saw The Borrowers as a child, but I think I get it confused with The Littles.  I won’t comment on the movie’s quality of translation because I can’t clearly remember the original.  But I can saw that his vision is a beautiful one, and he brings the same lushness of color and shape to this telling that he did to Ponyo.  To you, unpleasant sounding words are worthy of disdain, and I could tell you were suspicious of the word Arrietty.  However, as soon as the movie started and Arrietty leapt through the damp grass shards with a pansy leaf for head cover, only seconds from the grumpy cat’s swipe, you were hooked.  Your gaze never faltered for the rest of the film.  As Arrietty stubbornly sought to explore the human world, she put her family in danger.  And then she, just as stubbornly, fought to protect their way of life.  I think through her unwavering persistence, she learned some important lessons about the dangers and beauty of life.  If she had listened to her parents, she should not have made such a wonderful human friend.

The instant credits started rolling you burst into tears.  I suggested that the ending, as Amy had warned us, was too sad, as friends parted.  But you were insistent that the ending wasn’t sad, it was just bad.  What a terrible place to end the movie, you exclaimed!  What would their new house look like?  What happens to Sho?  Do they meet again?  You just wanted more.  I can understand that.  You also claimed that you want to be a borrower, which came as no surprise to me, given your love of everything tiny.  Seriously, your glee magnifies as the size of something shrinks.  Kittens?  Cute.  Tiny kittens eating tiny cupcakes with even tinier toy ponies?  The windows rattle with your enthusiasm.

It’s now been a few weeks since we watched Arrietty.  Today, while Lien was over to play, the two of you dressed in layers of fairy clothes, satchels, backpacks, and survival gear.  You grabbed your twig wands and headed out into the butterfly garden in our front yard, damp with the daily summer rain.  When you came back inside with a basket of yard detritus and bits of rope, you announced that you were borrowers looking for a place to spend the night.  You camped on the wilderness rug and nibbled on berries borrowed from the kitchen.  The movie clearly enriched your adventure narratives with new fantasies.

These characters, Suzy and Arrietty, remind me of the things I love about you and make me look forward to watching your imagination run away, run wild.  I know your life will contain sadness, dear child, as have theirs.  And I hope you continue to have the fortitude and creativity that make dealing with life’s wrenches possible.  Even beautiful.



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Filed under Being a parent, Moonrise Kingdom, The Secret World of Arrietty