Monday, February 26, 2018

Secrets, Nooks, and the Refuge of Books

On a hill above my elementary school playground, stretched a row of large ornamental bushes. On the outside, they had large, waxy green leaves. On the inside, an open space within the supporting branches. It was like a cave inside a bush.

One of these was the SMP--Secret Meeting Place, where I and my best friend, both of us insatiable readers and budding writers, escaped from the inanities and tortures of recess. The hill and the bushes were officially off limits. But we learned how to sneak up there with our books, rain or shine. The leaves kept out a lot of rain.

What joy. What simple joy.

It didn't last. 

One day, we were betrayed by a sharp-eyed classmate. I still remember the playground teacher blowing her whistle, shouting at us to come down. As readers of many books of adventure, we had formulated an escape plan.

Out of the SMP we ran, darting from bush to bush, sliding down behind the cover of the portables. My friend went one way and I another. Our agreed on rendesvous after such a catastrophe--a nook in the library, off course!

And there we met ten minutes later, scared by our discovery and narrow escape, but jubilant, too. We were safe, in the library. With books, where we belonged.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Eleanor Estes' The Hundred Dresses should be "Smack-Dab-in-the-Middle" of Every Classroom Today

Image result for Eleanor Estes 100 dresses

The classic children's book, The Hundred Dresses (1944, Harcourt Brace) by Eleanor Estes, was my favorite book in the third grade. I loved it then because of the surprising end reveal of the astounding creative ability of Wanda Petronski, a Polish immigrant.

Wanda is bullied by her classmates for being different, especially by Peggy and sometimes by Maddie. But Maddie, who narrates much of the story, feels uncomfortable about Peggy's bullying. Bu like so many of us Maddie is afraid to speak up.

The book's beautiful ending grips the imagination. But it's realistic, too. Even as a child I resonated to Maddie's resolution at the end:

"She was never going to stand by and say nothing again. If she ever heard anybody picking on someone because they were funny looking or had strange names, she'd speak up. Even if it meant losing Peggy's friendship. She had no way of making things right with Wanda, but from now on she would never make anyone else so unhappy again."

Estes had the art, sensitivity, and skill to make the young reader feel the impact of prejudice and bullying. The Hundred Dresses should be "smack dab in the middle" of every classroom today.

Lighting the Bonfire of Your Imagination

We have survived the longest night of the year—again. Many people still light bonfires on Winter Solstice night. Bring greens in the house to encourage the sun to return. Light candles. Put lights on the evergreen trees. They’re waiting upon the darkness.

This is an act of the imagination. Imagination and the symbol generating capacity of the psyche are inextricably related in a way I’m still trying to understand. Someone postulated that it wasn’t an opposable thumb, and therefore tool-making ability, that led to human development, but our capacity to make symbols. I think that capacity emerged from our visual, pre-verbal experiencing of the world.  I see a tree, though I have no word for it. It has fruit. Limbs I can climb to escape a predator. Without words, I see the tree and come to associate it with food and safety. This was the arising of symbolic thinking.

In the spirit of the bonfires burning to wait upon the dark last night, we can also set a fire to light our imaginations. I’ve been a writer since the second grade, but only in the last four years have my imaginative abilities truly taken flight. And I know why. I began to record and watch my dreams.

Dreams arise out of the dark, out of that pre-verbal symbol making place in our psyche. Dreams are pure metaphor. Gob-smackingly original. As I watched my dreams and saw over time how the symbols and metaphors developed, my ability to think metaphorically grew exponentially. It was set on fire. I was exercising the fundamental “muscle” where all writing arises from—all poetry, fairy tales, myth, and story. 

I am perpetually awed at the abundance and richness going on way down deep. How much I had missed before I began paying attention. Dreams and myth are hard to understand—at first. The language of symbol and metaphor is really a foreign language to our conscious, rational minds. Like any foreign language, it has to be learned. If any artist, any person, takes the time to learn this language, to wait upon the long dark night, I promise that your imagination will blaze bonfire bright. 

“If you wait upon the silence, it is not silent. 
And when you wait upon the darkness, it is luminous.” 
--CG Jung. Collected Works Volume 17