Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Storyteller Spotlight: Stuart Little and Tuck Everlasting

It all started with a seed planted in a dream, when our imaginations do what our souls may not get enough of during the day: exploration and travel to places with no boundaries, encountering characters that we couldn't conceive of in the waking hours. We are but passengers along for the ride. Author E.B. White dreamt of his classic children's book character Stuart Little in 1926 while sleeping on a train on his way back from the Shenandoah Valley to New York, according to Wikipedia, which also noted biographer Michael Sims wrote that Stuart "arrived in [White's] mind in a direct shipment from the subconscious."

Childhood is like the dream world too in a way, full of new discoveries, adventure and mystery. So much of this period of my life as a new parent feels like a dream. I'm reading aloud to my audience of one, our nearly seven month old daughter, Grace. I've been told of the importance of reading to babies but was prodded even more by American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines encouraging reading from infancy. In  a CNN article on the recommendations, a parent left this comment:

"Our bedtime ritual always included having my daughter pick out a book, then we'd sit together in a rocking chair while I read her a story. I used to think it was such an exhausting daily chore as a sleep-deprived parent after a full day at work. Now she's going off to college and dear god I wish I could go back and relive every single one of those moments so I could treasure them in a way I didn't when it was happening."

I'm trying to take almost every parent's advice to us about cherishing these fleeting times. So much of right now is about savoring life with baby, and then making imprints in my brain and remembering. Travel is like this too for me. I love seeking out new places that move my soul and stay with me even if I'm just there for a few days, hours or minutes. My heart happily returns to these places, but I rarely physically visit them again, with too many other places left to see. Travel in that sense is very dreamlike for me too. With my second wedding anniversary approaching, I'm daydreaming about our California honeymoon journey.

Childhood, travel, reading a book: all absorbing and momentary. I enjoy photography when I travel to later bring the details to life for me. When reading, I love the feeling when a favorite passage moves me, and I wish not to forget the words, just as I long not to forget the places I visit. I am recording them for my own memory, and sharing them with you too readers, and I hope they spirit you away like they did for me. Here are two storytellers, Stuart Little and Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting.

I share Stuart's eagerness for the day. I too am up early, and the waking hours of the morning are my favorite of the day filled with such quiet pleasures: seeing Grace's smile, hearing and saying "I love you" to my husband Steve, the taste and aroma of a cup of coffee, reading the morning paper, walks outside with the dogs, no matter what the weather, listening to birdsong, and time in the garden.

"Stuart was an early riser: he was almost always the first person up in the morning. He liked the feeling of being the first person stirring; he enjoyed the quiet rooms with the books standing still on the shelves, the pale light coming in through the windows, and the fresh smell of the day."

Favorite books on my bookshelf bring back memories like times spent with dear friends...

while others hold grand adventures that await.

Stuart experiences love with Margalo, a bird that takes refuge in the Little's fern, and he seeks her out in the late hours, telling her...

"Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast," he whispered, repeating a speech he heard in the movies."

These words, from Romeo and Juliet. How I was intimated by Shakespeare in youth, and perhaps still am a little.

Life takes unexpected turns, and Stuart is a substitute teacher for the day. He and the students reflect on the simple things,

"Summertime is important. It's like a shaft of sunlight...or a note in music....or the way the back of a baby's neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy....Stuart sighed. Never forget your summertimes my dears."

Remembering my summertime trip to Lake George.

When Stuart ventures out to find his beloved bird who has gone missing, he meets a telephone repairman who tells him,

"There's something about north, he said," something that sets it apart from all other directions. A person who is heading north is not making any mistake, in my opinion."

In New Hampshire last autumn. We live in the East (in New Jersey), and when planning domestic vacations, look so often to the West or North. The landscape of the Southwest still haunts me most. What direction pulls at your soul?

The repairman continues,

"Following a broken telephone line north, I have come upon some wonderful places....Swamps where cedars grow and turtles wait on logs but not for anything in particular; fields bordered by crooked fences broken by years of standing still; orchards so old they have forgotten where the farmhouse is. In the north I have eaten my lunch in pastures rank with ferns and junipers, all under fair skies with a wind blowing.

My business has taken me into spruce woods on winter nights where the snow lay deep and soft, a perfect place for a carnival of rabbits. I have sat at peace on the freight platforms of railroad junctions in the north, in the warm hours with the warm smells. I know fresh lakes in the north, undisturbed by the Telephone Company, which has to follow its nose. I know all these places well. They are a long way from here--don't forget that. And a person who is looking for something doesn't travel very fast."

At Apple Hill Farm in New Paltz, New York

I cannot recall how I got my copy of Stuart Little, but I'm so glad it had a place in baby's library. Tuck Everlasting found me in the most unexpected of places, a book swap at my town's recycling center. It is a tale of a girl, Winnie, in New York state who encounters the Tuck family, who long ago drank from a magical spring in the deep woods that gives them eternal life on earth.

I think about water and how it gives us life. With people leasing out their land to oil companies to drill for natural gas in a process known as hydraulic fracturing (fracking), I reflected on this passage,

"The ownership of land is an odd thing when you come to think of it. How deep, after all, can it go? If a person owns a piece of land, does he own it all the way down, in ever narrowing dimensions, till it meets all other pieces at the center of the earth? Or does ownership consist only of a thin crust under which the friendly worms have never heard of trespassing?"

My scientist author friend J.J. Brown penned Brindle 24, a cautionary tale about the effects of fracking on our precious water supplies, among other environmental issues. Below, in Phoenicia, New York. I hope fracking doesn't come to New York State and elsewhere.

"All wheels must have a hub. A Ferris wheel has one, as the sun is the hub of the wheeling calendar."

A Ferris wheel in Seattle, Washington, in between the life sustaining trees.

"The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning."

The weeks that come before are only a climb from the balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color. Often at night there is lightening, but it quivers all alone. There is no thunder, no relieving rain. These are strange and breathless days, the dog days..."

Babbitt  recalled, "My mother, an amateur landscape and portrait painter, gave me art lessons. She always made sure I had enough paper, paint, pencils, and encouragement. I grew up wanting only to be an illustrator." Reading parts of Tuck Everlasting, I recalled what Picasso once said, "Often while reading a book one feels that the author would have preferred to paint rather than write; one can sense the pleasure he derives from describing a landscape or a person, as if he were painting what he is saying, because deep in his heart he would have preferred to use brushes and color."

Winnie ventures out of her overprotected house into the nearby woods, wondering why when she spends time there that she never did before....

"For the wood was full of light, entirely different from the light she was used to. It was green and amber and alive, quivering in splotches on the padded ground, fanning into sturdy stripes between the tree trunks. There were little flowers she did not recognize, white and the palest blue; and endless, tangled vines; and here and there a fallen log, half rooted by soft with patches of sweet green-velvet moss.
And there were creatures everywhere. The air fairly hummed with their daybreak activity: beetles, and birds and squirrels and ants, and countless other things unseen, all gentle and self-absorbed and not in the least alarming."

At Muir Woods in California.
"It had been different when they were out-of-doors, where the world belonged to everyone and no one."

A raven at the Grand Canyon. I'm so glad we have national parks, which to belong to everyone and no one.

"Outside, in the ring of trees around the pond, the birds were celebrating, giving the new day a brass band's worth of a greeting. "

Birds at Lands End in California. At nighttime when we have a fire, we hear the insect world performing their choruses. I think of all the life that surrounds us everywhere.

The day Grace was born, an acquaintance of my husband's passed away. I thought about life passing and new life coming into the world, and when I deadhead flowers in the garden I think too about this cycle of life. Our garden looks similar, but is so different each day.

"The rowboat slowed and began to drift gently to the farthest end of the pond. It was so quiet that Winnie almost jumped when the bullfrog spoke again. And then, from the tall pines and birches that ringed the pond, a wood thrush caroled. The silver notes were pure and clear and lovely."
"Know what that is, all around us, Winnie?" said Tuck, his voice low. "Life. Moving, growing, changing, never the same two minutes together. This water, you look at it every morning, and it looks the same, but it ain't. All night long it's been moving, coming in through the stream back there to the west, slipping out through the stream down east here, always quiet, always new, moving on. You can't hardly see the current, can you? And sometimes the wind makes it look like it's going the other way. But it's always there, the water's always moving on, and someday, after a long while, it comes to the ocean."
"Know what happens?" said Tuck? "To the water? The sun sucks some of it up right out of the ocean and carries it back in clouds, and then it rains, and the rain falls into the stream, and the stream keeps moving on, taking it all back again. It's a wheel, Winnie. Everything's a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping. The frogs is part of it, and the bugs, and the fish, and the wood thrush, too. And people. But never the same ones. Always coming in new, always growing and changing."

Tuck tells her that "dying's part of the wheel, right there next to being born. You can't pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that's the blessing."

The sun peeks through the trees in Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia. Flashback to my visit there, and my pursuit of happiness and betterment. Whatever may come, feeling very blessed to be part of the wheel of life.


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