January 7, 2013
The Chronicles of Narnia have been some of the most formative books in my life, a situation in which I know I’m not alone. I got my set as a Christmas present from my grandparents when I was 11 or 12.
There’s a common criticism of them, however, out of many quite reasonable ones, that’s irritated me for a long time.
He may not have been the first to think it or to say it, but author Philip Pullman’s articulation of what he finds wrong with the books, encapsulated in the problem of what happened to Susan Pevensie and why, when she does not return to aid Narnia in the final book of the series, may be most responsible for a now widespread interpretation that Susan is cast out of Heaven because she grew up and embraced her sexuality. Indeed, I think I have hardly ever had a conversation about these books since college in which “The Problem of Susan” didn’t feature prominently in their criticism:
Susan isn’t allowed into the stable and the reason given is that she’s growing up. She’s become far too interested in lipstick, nylons and invitations. One character says rather primly: ‘She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.’ This seems to me on the part of Lewis to reveal very weird unconscious feelings about sexuality. Here’s a child whose body is changing and who’s naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one’s body and one’s feelings. She’s doing what everyone has to do in order to grow up.
And it is a god who hates life because he denies children life. In the final Narnia book he gives the children the end-of-term treat of being killed in a railway accident so they can go to heaven. It’s a filthy thing to do. Susan is shut out from salvation because she is doing what every other child who has ever been born has done – she is beginning to sense the developing changes in her body and its effect on the opposite sex.
It’s tempting and convenient, because it echoes charges so commonly made against Christianity as a whole–that it’s intrinsically set up to punish natural human sexuality, among other things like critical thinking and self-determination.
It’s too bad that Pullman’s interpretation is practically unsupported by the text. You’d have to take the passage in question completely out of context of the entire rest of the series for it to be even remotely plausible; indeed, even by quoting it incompletely, he leads his listeners in a nearly complete distortion of the reasoning behind Susan’s exile.
Here is the incident, from The Last Battle, which Pullman cites:
“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”
“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”
“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”
“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
Susan is not just doing what she needs to do to grow up. The reason given is not that she’s growing up; the text itself refutes this. Lady Polly, the speaker after Lucy’s now-infamous line, denies that growing up is what Susan is doing at all.
She is pretending that her previous experiences in Narnia never happened. She denies the people she knew there, who she loved and who loved her, people who died for her and what they meant to her, what she’s been through and everything she’s done up to this point. She calls all of it a childish game.
Nor is there any defiance of the will of Aslan here, who has never in this entire story forced any of these people into any task or burden or mortal danger against their own free will. Who has in fact, repeatedly, stood by and let them actively make bad choices. She doesn’t hear an order from Aslan and say “no,” “I don’t want to,” “not this time,” or “fuck you, I’m not a plaything.” She denies that she ever knew him.
Some other points of Narnian history further illuminate the absurdity of Pullman’s claims:
1. That time in Prince Caspian when Bacchus showed up for a romp…
The crowd and dance round Aslan (for it had become a dance once more) grew so thick and rapid that Lucy was confused. She never saw where certain other people came from who were soon capering about among the trees. One was a youth, dressed only in a fawn-skin, with vine-leaves wreathed in his curly hair. His face would have been almost too pretty for a boy’s, if it had not looked so extremely wild. You felt, as Edmund said when he saw him a few days later, “There’s a chap who might do anything–absolutely anything.” He seemed to have a great many names–Bromios, Bassareus, and the Ram, were three of them. There were a lot of girls with him, as wild as he….
“Is it a Romp, Aslan?” cried the youth. And apparently it was.
And it’s a delightfully saucy good time, for a god who supposedly hates life and is into damning children for sensual exploration.
2. Susan herself, in The Horse and His Boy, is described as having multiple suitors. She’s being courted for marriage by Prince Rabadash of Calormen…
“Now, Madam,” the King was saying to Queen Susan (the lady who had kissed Shasta). “What think you? We have been in this city fully three weeks. Have you yet settled in your mind whether you will marry this dark-faced lover of yours, this Prince Rabadash, or no?”
…but she’s awfully sweet on Corin, Prince of Archenland (though here she’s mistaken a runaway slave named Shasta for the prince)…
But he had no time to think of that before the most beautiful lady he had ever seen rose from her place and threw her arms around him and kissed him, saying:
“Oh Corin, Corin, how could you? And thou and I such close friends ever since thy mother died. And what should I have said to thy royal father if I came home without thee? Would have been a cause almost of war between Archenland and Narnia which are friends time out of mind. It was naught, playmate, very naught of thee to use us so.”
There is no condemnation whatsoever stated or implied for her romantic activities.
A minor character who also occurs in The Horse and His Boy, Lasaraleen is a childhood friend of Aravis, and perhaps unexpectedly, one of my favorite characters in the series. She’s a party girl, socialite, and trophy wife…and perhaps the most totally and unabashedly herself of anyone in this world. She loves luxury, being seen, and having a good time.
[Aravis] remembered now that Lasaraleen had always been like that, interested in clothes and parties and gossip. Aravis had always been more interested in bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming. You will guess that each thought the other silly.
We’re supposed to see Lasaraleen as doofy and shallow, but she’s also affectionate and loyal. She helps her friend escape from being caught and returned to an arranged marriage at serious risk to herself, and no further particularly harsh criticism is made of her life choices.
4. Other adults have come and returned to Narnia before.
-King Frank and Queen Helen
Former London cabbie Frank and washerwoman Nellie become Narnia’s first king and queen in The Magician’s Nephew. They are already adults when brought to Narnia (albeit accidentally in Frank’s case). Aslan treats them with trust and respect and is clearly not expecting chastity, but children and grandchildren from them.
“Rise up King and Queen of Narnia, father and mother of many kings that shall be in Narnia and the Isles and Archenland.”
-Digory Kirk and Polly Plummer
The first human children to stumble into Narnia, they return as adults (probably in their 60′s or 70′s) with the others for the Last Battle. Peter and Edmund, wearing beards at their reappearance, are also young adult men by this point. Presumably they’ve all done what they had to do to grow up, and it didn’t include betraying the memory of everyone they’ve ever loved.
Nothing in the world of this story indicates that any of the other protagonists who have grown up either in Narnia or out of it, did not go through “naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one’s body and one’s feelings.” Nothing. Because, as Pullman correctly observes, these feelings and explorations are fairly universal.
The gravity of Susan’s sin is not in her embrace of superficial frippery, or in any normal adolescent desire on her part for adulthood, sexual experimentation, maturity, or self-determination. It’s her betrayal of her true self. It’s her denial of her own emotional history and experience, and what a lot of other people went through by her side.
And even for that, nobody bars the doors of the Stable to Susan as she begs to go through to eternal life. She is not in Narnia, because she, for her own reasons, chose not to get on the train whose demise brought her siblings and former mentors back to Narnia for the Last Battle. Susan may have saved her (earthly) life by not getting on that train, but at the ultimate cost of her own authenticity.
Ability to return to your true home requires acceptance of who you really are. That’s not something that Aslan, or the Emperor Over the Sea, or all the forces of Deeper Magic are capable of doing for her.
October 6, 2012
Some people have a thing against writing in books; I don’t. I love a book best that is obviously well-loved and well-marked. It’s one of those things that I thought would irk my romantic self about the Kindle, even as my practical self couldn’t really argue against free books that take up no space.
In this manner I came to be reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi on my Kindle…somewhat bittersweetly. It’s largely about the heartbreak of the loss of the entire occupation of steamboating–its skill set, way of life, and all of its romanticism–to superior and more cost-effective technology–the railroads–in a stunningly short amount of time.
But lo and behold, the Kindle preserves at least some of the functionality, if not the rough beauty, of other readers’ notes and underlinings. This is probably not news to very many people but me, but I’m still figuring this thing out…but you can not only make your own underlinings and clippings of text, but see how many other readers underlined a passage for saving. And reading backstage one night, I found that five other readers, at least of this digital edition of Life on the Mississippi, had underlined the following:
De Soto, the first white man who ever saw the Mississippi River, saw it in 1542.
Disappointment for my fellow readers swelled, for the paragraph from which at least FIVE of them had extracted that fragment as the vital piece of information actually reads:
To say that De Soto, the first white man who ever saw the Mississippi River, saw it in 1542, is a remark which states a fact without interpreting it: it is something like giving the dimensions of a sunset by astronomical measurements, and cataloguing the colors by their scientific names;–as a result, you get the bald fact of the sunset, but you don’t see the sunset. It would have been better to paint a picture of it.
Teh irony it hurtz sometimes. I wanted to smack my forehead on something in frustration, the way you would with a normal book, but I was afraid of hurting the Kindle.
Twain attempted to convey the sheer insufficiency of factoid to describe the age and majesty of the river when compared to the ridiculously small amount of time for which European settlers had been taking it for granted, and the significance that all of my fellow book underliners took from it…was the barest factoid, without context, that could be extracted from Twain’s vivid warning simile, in his long love song to a thing incomprehensibly old and powerful when compared to human civilization and understanding.
I seem to recall Twain having sardonic things to say about human intellectual density. I could nearly hear him sighing from his grave.
June 11, 2012
It was my first clue that atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them–and then they leap. –Yann Martel (Life of Pi)
There is a common conception of what faith is, even among the religious faithful, that has always really bothered me: That to have faith is to believe in something irrational, without evidence, just because you’ve been asked to, or taught from a young age that you should, nevermind any subsequent experience or reasoning to the contrary. That to have faith is to choose to believe against any logic or evidence, to refuse any rational questions about what you say you believe because it falls under the title of “faith,” that you reap some kind of reward or approval for the purity of thought with which you uphold a logically indefensible position.
I don’t believe that’s what faith is anymore.
Because when I saw this picture, I thought, “that’s what faith feels like,” and I knew that feeling.
It was exactly like this.
I am alone, under the open sky, on a footbridge across the ocean. I have no supplies, no shelter, no map, no help, no possible escape to one side or the other, and only the vaguest idea that the home I’ve never seen could, improbably, exist at the other end of this, if there even is an other end of this.
Faith is not irrational certainty; faith is pursuit in the face of utterly rational uncertainty when you have no remaining acceptable choices. When knowing what you now know, having seen what you’ve seen, you can’t do otherwise anymore, even in the face of overwhelmingly probable failure.
Faith is closely related to hope, but also to exile, and exhaustion, and desperation.
There is nothing behind you.
There is no way back.
There is nothing there you’d go back for even if you could. And you can’t, really.
So you go forward. Because there might be something that you barely even know how to dream of.
Faith is not deliberate ignorance or irrationality. Faith is just what you do when you can’t do anything else anymore.
Faith is when survival means giving up on everything you thought you knew.
And I think to call on faith this way is an ability that most humans possess, regardless of any belief system that we do or don’t claim.
February 29, 2012
The whole time I was watching this:
…I was thinking of this:
The Tin Woodman knew very well he had no heart, and therefore he took great care never to be cruel or unkind to anything. “You people with hearts,” he said, “have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful….”
Now would you like to see something incredibly eerie…?
How often do the people we say have no hearts, in fact have the greatest ones?
Who are the people who tell us that they’re not worth having?
January 29, 2012
“Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.
“And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe despite the callow protestations of certain adults that books–especially the dark and dangerous ones–will save them.” –Sherman Alexie
So I got a Kindle for Christmas. I hadn’t previously thought that I wanted one, but agreed to give it a whirl…and now that I have it, I really can’t deny its usefulness, even as some features irk me.
I had the prospect of a long bus ride back home in front of me, and had learned the hard way on my trip out to Kansas City that Greyhound’s advertised free wi-fi is actually a deeply unreliable prospect. A friend had recommended Gregory Maguire’s Out of Oz, the conclusion to the series that began with Wicked. Though tempted to make that my first download and jump right in, it had been a long time since I’d read Son of a Witch and I barely remembered its plot, I hadn’t even gotten to A Lion Among Men yet, and I was feeling pretty rusty and unmoored in my Oz lore in general, so I figured maybe I’d better start back at the beginning…and read the original, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which, somewhat embarrassingly for a book-loving girl born in Kansas, I never had.
I got the complete original 14-volume Oz series for something like $4.50. Okay…I started to admit that this Kindle thing could be pretty great.
So, rolling through the desolate wintery hills of Missouri and Indiana, I started reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Baum includes a note at the start of the book:
Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.
Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.
Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today [“today” being the year 1900]. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.
My heart sank; I was sure to be in for a fatally boring read, and I had 28 hours ahead of me. Compelling stories require real threats and real stakes; this was, like, the very first lesson of my college dramatic writing class…in which the movie version of The Wizard of Oz was Exhibit A.
But I was not to be disappointed, because let me just say, for a fairy tale supposedly stripped of nightmare and malice…The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contains a whole lot of death, dismemberment, and treachery. Most prominent is the origin story of the Tin Woodman, who was once a flesh and blood human being, a poor woodcutter, whose love for a Munchkin girl was resented by the old woman she worked for. The old woman went to the Wicked Witch of the East, who enchanted the woodman’s axe to kill him off one piece at a time…until having lost all of his original parts and thus lacking a heart, he didn’t die but simply became indifferent to the girl he’d loved.
There’s also the Wizard’s frankly admitted tyranny over the Emerald City and enslavement of its population, the complicity of the “good” witches with this, their rather transparent use of Dorothy as a pawn to regain the power of the silver shoes from the Witch of the West, that witch’s enslavement and abuse of the Winkies and flying monkeys…the field of poisoned poppies is still there, and some other nasty stuff, too…it’s a dark tale.
Even trying to write a children’s story without menace, morals, or survival lessons (if we believe that that’s what he was sincerely trying to do; I’m not actually sure that I do), Baum couldn’t do it.
It’s as if violence and hidden evil are things that must, one way or another, always be addressed in stories for children. Because children know they exist even as well-intentioned adults attempt to deny them; they live in constant knowledge of their own vulnerability, and so a children’s story that attempts to deny or obscure their reality will always fall flat.
When we believed, as Baum did in his time, that morals and character were being explicitly and consistently taught to children in school, church, extended families and communities (whether they were or not, or what we might think of what kind of morals were being taught, is another story entirely), did writers for children feel less of a need to write explicitly or realistically about these things? And now that, I think it’s arguable, we feel a widespread anxiety that these things are not being taught to children very well or consistently or at all, do children’s writers again feel an obligation to address them more openly and honestly, even in ways that are graphically, horribly violent?
Ironically, when our culture and educational system overwhelmingly address youth as shallow, technology-obsessed, and morally ungrounded, more compelling writing for children and teenagers addresses them seriously and respectfully as thinking, competent people, capable of astonishing empathy and courage. Adults who lack regard for children as whole people who think and suffer and deserve to have their suffering taken seriously, can’t give them what worthwhile literature does: examples of real strength, intelligence, and hope from characters their age.
I think particularly of the heroes of two series that I don’t think it’s unreasonable to predict will wind up as the defining examples of children’s literature of our time: Harry Potter, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.
And when I say “teaching morals and character,” I don’t mean talking down to children about these things, but addressing real problems of existence, conflict (including war and murder), conscience, and ethics in the serious way that children actually crave and are capable of handling, which is far greater than we as a society typically give them credit for.
The Wizard of Oz succeeds as children’s literature, not to the extent that it denies or obscures the reality of violence, evil, fear, and loneliness, but to the extent that it utterly fails to.
In her New York Times op-ed from October, “No More Adventures in Wonderland,” Maria Tatar says that we shouldn’t oppose the current dark and serious trajectory of children’s literature, “it is hard not to mourn the decline of the literary tradition invented by Carroll and Barrie….No other writers more fully entered the imaginative worlds of children — where danger is balanced by enchantment — and reproduced their magic on the page. In today’s stories, those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”
But I disagree that there ever was childhood fantasy untainted by adult anxieties. Enchantment isn’t a balance to danger; it’s bound inextricably with danger. Great children’s stories are safe zones precisely because they deal with very real adult danger in a safe medium, not because they make it zany or ludicrous. There is no escapism here. Good children’s stories are still almost always survival lessons, because there is no need for fantasy or enchantment without the reality of evil and heartache. Hook may be ultimately contemptible, but he’s not an interesting character unless he’s a truly mortal enemy.
If I look back to the books of my own childhood (rather than the children’s stories I discovered as an adult), of course I’m fond of Goodnight Moon, Make Way for Ducklings, and The Caretakers of Wonder; but the book that hands down meant the most to me then and still does now, is Saint George and the Dragon, Margaret Hodges’ adaptation for children of an episode from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which spares no gory detail of Saint George’s three battles against a nightmarish dragon terrorizing the medieval English countryside. It’s an enchanting tale, gorgeously illustrated with watercolors of whimsical fairies and English sunsets. And everyone involved—George, Una’s people, the dragon—are fighting horrifically for their very lives and there’s no pretending otherwise. (And I tended to identify with the dragon above either of the human protagonists, but that’s another story entirely.)
When Tatar writes that “It’s hard to imagine Carroll or Barrie coming up with something like that. They were as passionate about their young readers as they were about the books they wrote. In 1856, Carroll purchased a camera with the hope of freezing time through his portraits of little girls. By capturing them in photographs, he made sure they never grew up,” she reveals that the style of children’s literature she mourns says more about the prejudices towards children of its authors, rather than the actual needs or character of children or anything about their world.
What happens in a book can’t hurt you. What happens in real life certainly will, if you have no prior example for how to cope with it. People who actually respect children and teenagers as people, trust them to use books to learn what they need to. Abuse, sex, violence, alienation, homophobia, hatred, etc., are things that happen to children and teenagers, and the fact that we think they shouldn’t isn’t enough of an excuse to deny them the emotional resources for helping themselves, and letting them do so privately and in their own time. That is what good stories, especially the darkest stories, provide: precedent in a safe context for dealing with cruelty, the difference of others, and emotional complexity, rage, fear, and confusion.
“Instead of stories about children who will not grow up, we have stories about children who struggle to survive,” Tatar writes of our most successful children’s literature. But it was never really otherwise, except in the fantasies of adults.
November 9, 2011
Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?
We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.
-George R. R. Martin, author
I feel much the same way as GRRM about fantasy—that it connects us to a deep internal knowledge and history of our own psyches, and recalls something huge and eternal in us. Epic fantasy, when I was in middle and high school, assured me that there was so much more worth living for than my schools and community were trying to tell me.
But I’m not sure about his dim view of reality…as opposed to the disposable and shallow nature of much of what is sold to us as “reality,” and told we have to accept as the scope of our adult lives.
May I suggest, that if strip malls, plastic and plywood define your reality, and you don’t like it…you’re doing reality wrong.
Because reality is all that stuff, George, but reality is also—
The whistle and rumbling murmur of an early-morning train.
Reality is the first pale green shoots of peppermint pushing up through the dirt in March.
Reality is the guy who plays Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” on Peruvian pan pipes in the Times Square subway station.
Reality is the stunning silence of a great blue heron taking flight.
Reality is the old Hispanic men in my neighborhood who sit outside in the summertime, playing an eternal sidewalk game of dominos with their boomboxes turned up loud.
Reality is sunset over the Hudson River.
Reality is moonlight, starlight, candle light, lantern light.
Reality is creaky old bookstores, and the thrill of reading a forbidden book hidden between the shelves.
Reality is the feel of sand as soft as cake flour under your feet.
Reality is the smell of wood smoke on the first cold night of fall.
Reality is stained glass, dark coffee, red wine, rosewood incense. The brush of a fat cat around your ankles, the way evening light moves over the Brooklyn Bridge and tops of the sycamore trees, rooftop Fourth of July parties with the sky on fire around you, waking up on a foggy morning in the Catskill mountains, the sound of the concertmaster tuning an orchestra, tiny cemeteries behind old churches, hidden waterfalls, thunder in a snowstorm, the way deer’s eyes shine in the dark in a flashlight beam.
Nurture magic, wonder, and beauty wherever they occur in your life. They are real—far more real than strip malls, suburban office parks, and Disneyland—whatever anyone tells you.
July 8, 2011
I have not meant to take such a long break from blogging. I wish I could say I’ve been accomplishing something immense and impressive, but I have not been. I’ve been job hunting, resume-updating, and finally filing for unemployment, thinking, cleaning my apartment, getting ready for an upcoming dance tour, and doing a lot of coffee shop sitting and reading.
Now I’m sort of out in the country, just outside the village of Pawling, New York. It’s about two hours away from Grand Central Station by train, and a world away in other respects. I’m dogsitting for a very sweet Australian shepherd named Patches, who, true to his sheepdog breeding, will not let me go anywhere alone, even just to the kitchen for another cup of tea. He enjoys Parmesan cheese on his food, understands mostly words that start with ‘b,’ and doesn’t understand why we would go outside for any reason–like reading by the pond or pulling weeds in the garden–other than playing frisbee.
It’s raining softly outside while fireflies wink over the grass, which I just stood outside on the porch watching for a while. The humidity is nearly tangible, and the entire small world of this little community is a deep twilight blue-gray color. I’m writing and listening to the Counting Crows’ August and Everything After. I’ve determined that it’s actually impossible to get anything else done with the TV on in the background (I’m way too visually-oriented)…I’ve probably watched more ludicrous television this week alone than I have in the entirety of the last 8 or 10 years (My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Intervention, House, The Matrix Reloaded) and remembered why I do not have and do not want one in my apartment. Actually, I’m semi-seriously developing a hypothesis that depression is so rampant these days because American television is depressing…I swear, even the commercials for anti-depressants are depressing in their absurdity, to say nothing of the commercials for household cleaning products.
I see deer and rabbits in the yard almost every day, and get almost no usable cell phone signal. I realize how much I miss seeing stars.
I’ve made cupcakes and given myself a very unfortunate and painful sunburn across my lower back while out working in the garden. I didn’t think to put sunscreen where there was a gap between my jeans and tank top when I was leaning over.
I’ve become certain, from the distinctly purposeful-sounding rustling and crinkling sounds, that there’s some kind of small nocturnal creature making a home in some stacked grocery bags of junk in my corner of the living room. The dog is not roused to do anything about this situation for me. And I don’t just move away, because this is the only place in the house where I can pick up a wi-fi signal.
And I’m wondering out of nowhere if anyone else remembers a certain children’s book.
I remember this book from the year I was in 3rd grade, or maybe 4th, but I’m sure the book was much older than that. It was on the classroom bookshelf, and I was totally entranced with it. I read it over and over again. And yet cannot remember the name of it.
It was told in the style of a series of fables, about a very wise old legal adviser in the Japanese royal court. People brought seemingly impossible cases to him, and like Solomon, he always had the fair and clever solution. One case was about a wiseguy trying to circumvent a progressive tax law that taxed people based on the number of doors their homes contained by building a house with only windows. One was about a court servant who accidentally broke a priceless vase, for which the normal penalty would be death since she couldn’t hope to repay the cost with all the money that she’d ever earn in her life, and one, my favorite, was about a poor man who lived above a noodle shop. He was starving, but said that as he ate his plain white rice every night, he felt like he was eating a more substantial meal because he enjoyed the smells of the cooking from below so much, they flavored his own meal. So the noodle shop guy wanted to charge him for the food he hadn’t eaten, since he claimed he had enjoyed it just as much as if he had.
I don’t even remember the actual resolution of any of the cases. I don’t remember the title of the book or the author. Googling “children’s book wise old japanese guy” gets me nowhere. So for my blog friends and pen pals old and young, a crowdsource question: Does anyone else recall this book?
April 25, 2011
I just finished a book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard, which I picked up after I saw it referenced in two different places within a short period of time. I don’t believe in coincidences; it’s been my experience that when the universe presents things so plainly and repeatedly to me, it’s because they’re going to mean something significant to me.
I requested a copy from the library first, but returned it and went and bought a copy after I loved the first chapter that much. My apartment is small; I have to be selective about buying books.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is written very much in the heritage of Thoreau’s Walden. In 1971, Dillard lived near Tinker Creek, in Virginia, and wrote about finding immense significance in the abundance, intricacy and violence of her ecological neighborhood over the course of a year. It’s a wonderful book to read in the spring.
I was particularly struck by what she says about the human quality of innocence:
Innocence sees that this is it, and finds it world enough, and time….It is possible to pursue innocence as hounds persue hares: singlemindedly, driven by a kind of love, crashing over creeks, keening and lost in fields and forests, circling, vaulting over hedges and hills wide-eyed, giving loud tongue all unawares to the deepest, most incomprehensible longing, a root-flame in the heart, and that warbling chorus resounding back from the mountains, hurtling itself from ridge to ridge over the valley, now faint, now clear, ringing the air through which the hounds tear, open-mouthed, the echoes of their own wails dimly knocking in their lungs.
What I call innocence is the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration.
We’re so accustomed to thinking of innocence as a negative state: as a lack of knowledge, a lack of sexual experience, a lack of maturity, something to be overcome. Even in more desirable terms, “lack of guile or corruption; purity,” in the phrasing of my New Oxford American Dictionary, innocence is defined by absence, by lack. In Dillard’s conception, by contrast, innocence is a positive, nearly palpable state of intensity, a potentiality, a spark, not only the absence of self-consciousness but a presence–devotion–and the capacity for active pursuit of joy.
I wish that we valued innocence more in this way, rather than infantilizing and dismissing it. For example:
A picture of devotion, fittingly, to a man who gave us so much by pursuing it himself.
April 18, 2011
I’ve sort of been looking out for an excuse to write about this topic, and lo and behold, I got a request (thank you bbsmum!).
One day in college I was sick in bed, and asked a friend to bring me over some tea and books. One of the books she brought me from her personal stack of library books was Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life & Education. As evidence of how much she said she’d loved it herself, it was already weeks overdue.
I’d never heard of unschooling before, but I was a convert. I mean, I sort of understood, with that book, how people become religious zealots. It so succinctly and vividly captured everything that I felt was Wrong with the public education system.
At its most basic, the concept of “unschooling” contests the premise of the traditional school system that children best learn what they need to know by being forcibly confined to a classroom for 7 hours a day, 9 months a year, for 13 years, and mandated to learn all the same things at the same time in the same way as everyone else for most of those years. I’ve come to think of it as “factory-style schooling.”
Rather, the premise of the unschooling movement is that children come as they are desperate to learn, they don’t much have to be coerced or threatened into it, that people learn best by doing first-hand what they’re truly interested in. That the wide world is full of educational opportunities free for the asking and people should be able to use whatever resources work best for their own purposes. And that, intrinsically, children deserve no less than adults to be taken seriously as people worthy of respect and of having a say in the conduct of their own lives.
Some caveats: I’m speaking of the American compulsory public school system in its predominant form. I’m not against the idea of any schools ever, at all. I have no personal experience of charter schools, specialty schools like Montessori or Waldorf or schools designed to accommodate specific disabilities or special interests, so I don’t have any basis on which to make generalizations or criticisms of them. I know that people choose those educational options for a whole variety of reasons (the operative word being choose). And I know that some public schools are doing really wonderful things (one of the coolest in my opinion being the New York Harbor School) to give their students greater opportunity for self-direction and creativity.
I’ll try to be brief (ha), as there are many good books on this subject, about some of the reasons I think unschooling is worthy of consideration as an alternative to how we currently educate most of our kids:
1. The school system does not have students’ best interests at heart. It can’t. It’s incapable of having any respect for individual learning needs, life needs, passions or ambitions that fall outside the narrow parameters it’s designed to allow. Because the system isn’t designed to give impassioned minds as free a reign in their own highest development as possible, but to keep as many young people under control in as small a space as possible. The convenience of the system will always take precedence over individual well-being.
2. The school system is dishonest. It lies to students about what life is really like and what will be required of them. The traits most required for success in school are obedience and credulity, whereas the traits most required for success in life are creative problem solving, courage and critical thinking. Rather than discouraging immaturity, ignorance and short-sightedness, it exploits those traits to keep students under control with fear of the future. Adults with any self-regard wouldn’t put up with a fraction of the disrespect, humiliation and absurdity that school kids do every day only because they don’t know that they have a choice. By isolating students from working adults and from the world as it really is, schools create the impression that the knowledge they offer is all there is, and the way they require learning is the only valid way. The system calls people failures who simply can’t do things the way it demands. It says that education is something separate from real life by cutting students off from the world around them and from genuine experience. It says that life is something you’re preparing for, that you’ll be qualified for upon graduation, not something that you are living.
3. Age grading reinforces immaturity. It deprives kids of older classmates to be role models and mentors, younger classmates to be models and mentors for, and pathologizes healthy and helpful relationships between students of all ages as developmentally inappropriate or undesirable. It demands that there’s a right or a wrong age to learn any given subject or skill.
4. I’ve made this argument before, so I’ll truly keep it short here: the main values instilled by the school system are obedience, conformity, and fear of authority. Those are not the traits we most need citizens to have to fix our democracy, our economy, and our environment.
5. The real world is so much better, so beautiful, wondrous, strange, astonishing and so full of things to learn to do. Thirteen years is too long to spend locked up.
Though I’m tempted to try to anticipate and preemptively answer some of the more common objections to the unschooling movement, I’m curious to see what will naturally come up in discussion. So comments section, take it away!
March 29, 2011
For the vast majority of my life, I never felt like I had much in common with other girls. Most of the people who ever tormented or abused me were girls or women, and so before I was very old, I didn’t have much desire left to have anything in common with them. I could never call myself a feminist. I read Mary Pipher’s much-discussed book about the emotional lives of adolescent girls, Reviving Ophelia, in high school, thinking “surely this expert will be able to articulate what’s really wrong with my life and then I’ll be able to explain it to everyone who’s getting it wrong (and not least of all, to myself).”
I was bitterly disappointed. It was a marvelous book (and I still think so), but it was like reading a very fascinating book about a completely alien species. Not me.
Then there was a sequel of sorts, Ophelia Speaks, a compilation of teen girls’ own responses and reflections on their lives and the original book, seeking to let girls speak for themselves about their lives and somewhat fill in the gaps they felt were left in Pipher’s book. I ran out to buy it. “Now someone will tell the truth for me, surely now someone will get it right!” I thought.
Nope. It was another fascinating book, this time in the words of the fascinating aliens themselves. But I recognized myself nowhere among them. I started to accept that either there were no girls like me anywhere, or I wasn’t a real girl at all. I don’t even remember there being any women who made me think “I could grow up to be like that.”
And then (to make a very long story short), I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and in reading the blogs and books of other autistic women and developing supportive relationships with them, I found a way to identify with other women at all for the first time.
I don’t write much about my work, for a variety of reasons, but it’s been no big secret lately that I’ve been working on a particularly difficult production, which has taken more or less everything out of me in the past couple months. It was a choral music piece called From the Fire, about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which had its 100th anniversary this past week. On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly teenage girls and young women, either burned or jumped to their deaths because they were locked in on the 9th floor of the factory building near Washington Square when a fast-moving fire broke out in a bin of cotton scraps. The tragedy proved a watershed moment in the social history of America, for workers’ rights and unions, mandates for workplace safety, and voting rights for women.
Within the first couple weeks, the rehearsal process had become so hard that I felt myself starting to shut down emotionally and detach myself from any real feeling for the show, which was the last thing in the world that I wanted, since what this kind of show can accomplish is exactly the reason that I wanted to work in theater in the first place.
Then one night in vocal rehearsal, I sang along silently in my head as the chorus of girls sang a line of a song: “Blessed are you oh lord our God who made me a woman, yes, a woman who can work.” And it hit me: I am one of these girls–the ones in front of me. I was there to look out for them, backed up by a strong union, in no small part because of what happened to the girls of Triangle. Performing artists are still a vulnerable population in many ways, and I was one of them, and as hard as things were still going to get, my job was to protect them. I was there to be on their side.
In the final song of the show, a cascading canon of voices sing out the names of girls of the Triangle factory, both survivors and the dead. The performers had been directed to abruptly face outwards, to an individual member of the audience, as each one sang her line. It wasn’t until the third performance, which happened to fall on the actual anniversary of the fire, that I realized that one of the student actresses, in the down right corner of the stage, was turning directly to me (where I was calling the show from an improvised platform) when she sang “Lizzie will be remembered.” I teared up. I couldn’t hold her gaze for more than a moment.
I could practically feel the ghosts of the Triangle girls around me.
And they were all my girls.
More on the production:
From the Fire production homepage