Belonging

We may begin to feel our belonging in the breath – here we may take sanctuary, here we begin to feel our place in creation.  Taking refuge in each breath of our life, in each beat of our heart, we find a quiet place of belonging.  This refuge, this sanctuary, is neither given nor taken away by the chaotic demands of an unpredictable world.  This place belongs to us, and we to it.  It is where we make our home.

Wayne Muller in
Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood

“Where My Books Go”

W.B. Yeats speaks to the greatest wish of all writers – and eloquently so.

All the words I gather,

And all the words that I write,

Must spread out their wings untiring,

And never rest in their flight,

Till they come where your sad, sad heart is,

And sing to you in the night,

Beyond where the waters are moving,

Storm darkened or starry bright

W.B. Yeats
London, January 1892

Behind the Mist

“What’s depression?” I asked my father.

“It’s all about the power of the mind,” he said.  “The only thing that will make it go away is your own determination.”  He ran his hand over the window ledge and frowned at the smudge on his fingers.

When Rosa was happy our house was filled with music.  I could never imagine the silences returning.  The light in her studio burned through the night.  One summer she painted Corry Head.  The gorse blazed like a fireball.  Purple heather covered the rocks.  She painted it with the mist falling down and hiding all of the color.  I wondered if that was what her life was like.  Always trying to escape from behind the mist.

–from “To Dream of White Horses” by June Considine

 

There is so much about his passage that speaks to me.  The father’s misinterpretation of how it is to live with depression.  The son’s seeming lack of information, yet more complete understanding.  The descriptive pall the illness brings – both literally in the dust that builds up and metaphorically in the mist that envelops the person suffering.

A Patch of Peat

Beside me a patch of peat was touched with green as though it had gone mouldy, and up from it went a little forest of buds, each on its slender stalk, for spring had come to the moss as well as the curlews.

– from “The End of the Rainbow” by Lord Dunsany

from phys.org

This line jumped out at me because it perfectly describes the little sprigs emanating from the carpets of moss at the edges of the forest right now.  Beauty in nature and word – captured.

The Nest

“We’ve come because of the baby,” she said.  “We’ve come to help.”

That’s all I had to read on the book jacket to be hooked.  There’s a problem, a possible trauma, surrounding the birth and/or care of a baby?  I’m in.  Not because I revel in such things, but because I look for solutions, for ways other people dealt with such things, for ways to support others in similar situations.

But The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (illustrated by Jon Klassen) is so much more.  It is rated for ages ten and up, but I found it compelling and psychically scary as an adult.

There is a baby, the main character Steve’s new brother, and he has an unnamed degenerative disease.  There is confusion on Steve’s and his sister, Nicole’s, parts.  There is the overarching sadness that permeates the entire family’s lives.

There is also a recurring vision that Steve has.  A group of luminous wasps that visits him in his dreams and offer to first help, and then ‘fix’, the baby.  This is where the psychological component of the story comes in.  When dealing with trauma and situations far above our intellectual or emotional understanding or ability, it makes sense for the brain to conjure up solutions.  However, Oppel blurs the line between Steve’s inner world and outer reality.

Steve struggles with an unnamed mental illness, one in which he makes bedtime lists and washes his hands so much that they “got all chapped and red, especially around the knuckles”; that makes him feel as if he is “all in pieces . . . like [he] had a hundred shattered thoughts in [his] head, a hundred glimmering bits of stained-glass window, and [his] eyes just kept dancing from one piece to the next without understanding what they meant or where they were supposed to go.”

In his dreams, the wasps – the queen in particular – talk to him about the baby’s condition, about how sad a situation it is and what might be done to remedy it.  Steve senses his parents’ sadness, feels his own.  He feels helpless, both in not knowing exactly what is wrong with his brother and not being able to do anything to improve it.  The queen gives him a solution.

 

“It’s just not something you can patch up with a bit of string and sticky tape.  No, no, no, we have to do this properly.  Go right back to the beginning of things.  Go deep.  That’s the proper way to do things.  No half measures around here!”

“You mean going right inside the DNA?”

“DNA – aren’t you the clever one!  Yes, good, you’re on the right track.  And we’ll go deeper back still.  That’s where it will make the most amazing difference.”

 

Steve’s relief at the queen’s assurances of making his baby brother better does not last as she reveals more of her plan, however.  It was never about ‘fixing’ this baby; it was about replacing him with a superior one.  In this special nest just outside the nursery window, they are incubating a baby from the larva state – to replace the ‘broken’ one inside.

Ironically, Steve is petrified of wasps and soon discovers he is allergic to them when one stings him on their back deck.  The fact that he looks to the very thing that terrifies him to solve a problem that terrifies him even more speaks to the psychic line Oppel dances along through the entire book.  Another exterior fear, the man who travels the neighborhood in a van offering to sharpen knives, delves into his interior world as well.

All of this swirls around Steve’s compelling need and desire to keep his brother safe.  It is not about perfection – for either of them – but protecting our true selves.  Whether mentally ill or physically disabled, the dignity of an individual human life is paramount.  And Steve dives into his worst fears to safeguard his brother’s.

the-nest-9781481432337_lg

 

Dialogue 101

The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes by Anna McPartlin9781250093851

My most recent read, devoured well into the wee hours of the morning because I haven’t yet gotten off my holiday schedule and accepted the fact that I have to be up soon in the morning.  And because it was that compelling.

Rabbit.  Johnny.  Juliet.  There is so much that’s good about this heartbreaking and hilarious book, but it’s a particular scene of dialogue I want to shine the spotlight on today.

So tight, so fluid, so funny.  One of those scenes you read and instantly know it’s gold.  The kind of writing you strive to achieve.  The fact that it’s got some great Irish wit just endears it to me even more.

Grace walked through the front door with her suitcase.  Before she had her coat off, Lenny was halfway down the stairs.  When she saw his face, she covered her eyes with her hands.  ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said.  ‘I have no idea what happened.’

He held her close and kissed the top of her head.  ‘You lost it.’

‘I hurt you.’

‘It was an accident.’

‘I threw a mug at your face on purpose.’

‘I should have ducked quicker.’

‘If this conversation was the other way around, you apologizing for hurting me and me making excuses for you, people would call it domestic violence.’

He laughed.  ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, Grace.  We’ve been together for twenty years and this is the first mug-in-the-face incident we’ve had.  I think I’m safe enough.’

‘I’m so, so, so sorry.’

They walked together into the kitchen.

‘I know,’ he said.  ‘Now can we forget it?’  He put on the kettle and she sat down on a stool facing him.  ‘Toast?’

‘Yes, please.  I’m starving.’

The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes, Anna McPartlin, 2014

Simply See

Home again, and Jane and I are going walkabout.  I have her rigged on my shoulders in the backpack.  Distributed throughout the aluminum frame and snugged straps, her weight dissipates to nothing.  After all, she weighs little more than a good-sized chicken.  As we step into the yard, I twist my neck to get a look at her face and find her looking out over the valley below.  Her eyes are wide and steady beneath the brim of her floppy cap.  How far out of infancy do we lose this gaze, with its utter absence of expectation or prejudice?  What is it like to simply see what is before you, without the skew of context?

from Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting by Michael Perry

Some Similar Sunday

Just when you think you’re trudging this road of life and parenting alone, you come across a gem like this.  I’m brought back to the Sunday evenings of my childhood, where we ate not popcorn, but scrambled eggs or a solitary bowl of cereal.  I’m mise-en-placed to any meal with my own children where we rush to throw a paper towel on the spilled pool of milk before it cascades down the cracks between the leaves of the table.  And I’m gleefully reminded how this all must be done with laughter.

It must have been a sight: eight to twelve of us packed around the dinner table, heads bowed over books splayed flat (somewhere a librarian cringes), the pages held open with one hand while the other dipped in and out of the corn, back and forth from bowl to mouth, the rhythm interrupted only when someone refilled a bowl or took a pull at their Kool-Aid.  When your eyes are fixed on text, you tend to fish around with your free hand, and nearly every week someone upended their Kool-Aid.  The minute the glass hit, Dad jumped up to make a dam with his hands in an attempt to keep the spill from leaking through the low spot in the table where the leaves met.  For her part, Mom grabbed a spoon and scraped madly at the spreading slick, ladling the juice back in the glass one flat teaspoon at a time so it could be drunk.  The same thing happened if someone spilled their milk.  Sometimes when I wonder how my parents managed financially, I think of Mom going after those spoonfuls of Kool-Aid like an environmentalist trailing the Exxon Valdez with a soup ladle, and there’s your answer.

from Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting by Michael Perry

This is Love

When the other Dr. Meescham was alive and I could not sleep, do you know what he would do for me?  This man would put on his slippers and he would go out into the kitchen and he would fix for me sardines on crackers.  You know sardines?”

Ulysses shook his head.

“Little fishes in a can.  He would put these little fishes onto crackers for me, and then I would hear him coming back down the hallway, carrying the sardines and humming, returning to me.”  Dr. Meescham sighed.  “Such tenderness.  To have someone get out of bed and bring you little fishes and sit with you as you eat them in the dark on night.  To hum to you.  This is love.”

– from The Illuminated Adventures of Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

Loss in Children’s Literature

The first book caught my eye from its display, the title singing to my soul, The Poet’s Dog, a novel by Patricia MacLachlan.  The second, I found flipping through the bins of picture books, its title, Until We Meet Again (Susan Jones), speaking to my family’s recent season of loss.  Little did I know how thematically intertwined they both were.

Both titles speak to children bearing and moving through the loss of a loved one.imgres

The Poet’s Dog is more novella than novel and told in sparse prose.  But it is told from the point of view of Teddy, the poet Sylvan’s dog.  And Teddy, while wise and loquacious for a dog, is dealing with the stark life left him by Sylvan’s death.  There is a beauty and simplicity to the unfolding of this tale and the healing that takes place.  Teddy, in saving two siblings from a raging storm, is himself saved by their companionship.  The siblings, Nickel and Flora, and readers don’t find out what exactly happened to Sylvan until halfway through the book, which is really quite wonderful in terms of grief.  Teddy, like so many experiencing loss, comes to a slow realization of the gravity of the absence of his loved one; even slower, comes the ability to share the painful parts of that loss.  He opens up as he comes to terms with it – and it is through the gentle love and presence of the now dear young friends.

untilwemeet-448x600Until We Meet Again, a picture book by Susan Jones, illustrated by Shirley Antak, is told from the perspective of an adorable little boy, made so both by Antak’s rendering and the amazing way he transcends death’s grip on his beloved grandfather.  The opening sequence shows the deep bond and ritual of this grandfather/grandson relationship.  The boy obviously adores the strong influence of his grandfather.  When he first gets news of his grandfather’s eventual demise, he is unsettled, of course, but this midsection of the book sets the stage for the last, when the boy becomes the strong influence.  He initiates and continues all of their special traditions, validating his grandfather, cementing their unending bond, and gathering his own strength for life without him.

Both these titles tackle a topic that is usually met with the awkward shrug of a smile, the stammering silence of not knowing what to say.  The subject matter is the stuff we try to shield our kids from, not books we willingly hand them.  But as with any tough topic, the children dealing with death need them right now.

Ironically, I chose not to share them with my children right now.  Perhaps I am being naive in thinking I can protect them from the direct blow of death for just a bit longer, but they’ve yet to be at a funeral.  They blessedly haven’t felt the stinging sorrow of a daily hole in their lives.  The deaths dealt to our family recently have been on their periphery.  But to know I have such gentle and poignant resources in literature should I need them – I’m glad the literary universe conspired to bring them both to me in the same lending cycle.

 

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