It’s about an apple tree. But, like all memories, it’s about much more than that.
Listen to the podcast here or click the graphic above.
In the second episode of Mad Men, Roger Sterling walks into Don Draper’s office and says, “I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing.”
As both a professional copywriter and a novelist, I knew exactly what that meant. Creative work, whether you’re coming up with sales angles and headlines or plot twists and character arcs, requires marination — periods of time in which the writer looks like they are doing nothing at all when in reality there is a whole hell of a lot going on behind the scenes, as it were.
Whether lying on the fabulous mid-century modern couch in your swank NYC office, taking long walks in the woods, or just staring into space at your desk, “doing nothing” is important. It looks to all the world like idleness — laziness, even — especially to those with more visibly active jobs. But it isn’t.
I was recently talking with a friend whose kids are intensely scheduled — school, music lessons, sports, and other extracurricular activities, one right after another, nearly every day of the week. I felt exhausted just listening to her list them all out. When I commented on how that seemed like a lot for a kid to do, she responded that otherwise her son got bored. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that her son will do something amazing with his life (and knowing his parents, I’m sure of it) but that thing will not be becoming a writer.
From my earliest days, I was a “lazy” child. After having had an extremely active (maybe even hyperactive) first baby who climbed and ran and tumbled all over the place, my worried mother actually asked the pediatrician if there was something wrong with little Erin, who spent most of her time sitting and staring off into space.
“She’s just thinking,” was his wonderful reply. And I guess I was.
As a kid I spent a lot of time drawing and reading and sitting in trees, all activities that allowed me to do a lot of thinking. Sure, I played sports and acted in plays and played an instrument as I got older, but most of the time, I preferred to just observe and think. I was never bored. I was never looking for more to do. In fact, I was really good at doing nothing at all, which, as I grew up, I realized not everyone can do.
My childhood talent for idleness came from my father, who loved nothing more after a long day at work than to turn the stereo up loud, sit down, and listen with eyes closed, drink in hand. He wasn’t someone who always had a bunch of projects going. He wasn’t going off to parties or performances. He liked being home and relaxing by himself. I can’t imagine him ever feeling lonely or bored during these times.
I certainly didn’t get my talent for doing nothing from my mother, who couldn’t sit down to watch a movie without also ironing or folding towels or cleaning out her purse. She was the list-maker, the errand-runner, the shopper, the one making dinner and cleaning the house. She was always productive in a way my father and I were not. Nowadays she’s learning to enjoy relaxing with a book (though I suspect she still can’t watch a movie without a sewing project in hand).
As a teenager, my sister jumped at the chance to get a job and earn money that she could spend while out with her friends. I resisted getting a job for as long as I could. I didn’t care about earning money because I didn’t go out with friends. I didn’t care about having a car, going to movies at the theater, going to the mall. Everything I liked to do, I did by myself and none of it cost more than I could earn doing chores around the house (which I would always put off until the last possible moment).
I was lazy and content.
Then at some point, perhaps once I was done with college, I turned into my mother.
With just a job and no school, I suddenly had a bunch of empty time to fill and a bit more money to spend. I began making lists and thinking up little projects and shopping for stuff I didn’t need. I started hobbies — scores of them — and filled my time with stuff to do. I still didn’t care to do the stuff that actually needed doing — like cleaning and laundry and grocery shopping — but by golly I made a lot of cards and jewelry and quilts.
I kept busy and I somehow got the notion into my head that any recreational time I had should be productive. That there should be some visible result or product of anything I did. Something to show for my time. I have no earthly idea where this notion came from. It certainly wasn’t a concept I was raised with. My parents never told me that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”
Maybe it was just the natural result of reading DIY magazines. Maybe I spent too much time at Michael’s and Jo-Ann’s. Maybe it was just living long enough in a frenetic, get-ahead-or-get-left-behind culture. I have no clue. But somehow I had lost the white space in my life. And while my twenties may have been extremely productive years in terms of things created, they were barren years in terms of creative thinking. They were years I thought about how I’d like to write . . . and yet didn’t write a word worth reading.
Lately I’ve been reclaiming my down time, from both responsibilities to others by quitting a few activities and from the arbitrary busyness I have tended to create for myself. I’ve spent entire afternoons reading and not felt guilty about wasting time. I’ve spent entire days closing myself off in a room to write. I’ve spent entire weeks off work without checking my email. I decided that it’s okay for my garden to just be pretty and not productive. It’s okay to binge-watch The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. It’s okay to amble through a park and watch ducks and collect pretty leaves.
Nothing has to come of it all. It’s just pleasant idleness. It’s just enjoying myself, my family, and my world.
And in rediscovering the idleness I was so good at as a child, I find that I am recovering the “empty” time I need in order to write.
“I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing,” Roger Sterling said to Don Draper. But he wasn’t doing nothing. He was doing his job, and doing it in such a way that he made his company quite successful.
At the end of our super busy months of September and October, I told my husband that I was not going to say yes to any invitation to go somewhere and do something on any Saturday in November. And except for one Saturday in December, the same conviction holds true. I don’t need the time to do anything specific at home beyond rake the leaves and do the laundry. I need that time to just do nothing.
I know that to a lot of people this seems kind of rude and selfish and antisocial and lazy. But it really isn’t. My 9-5 job is writing. My avocation is writing. And my writing well is not filled by engaging in activity for activity’s sake. It’s filled by reading, walking, observing, thinking. It’s filled by things that look like nothing.
Writers like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Wordsworth, Henry Miller, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, and many others understood the importance of giving the mind room to work by simply taking a walk, and this article has a lot to say about why that is. I heard a speaker at a recent conference relay some advice she had drawn from another writer (whose name escapes me) that “If you aren’t reading so much that you feel guilty about it, you aren’t reading enough.”
“It is in our idleness, in our dreams,” said Virginia Woolf, “that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” And if I, as a writer, intend to be about the business of discerning and presenting truth, I need the time that I need in order to discern it and present it in such a way that the reader experiences it in the most fulsome and lasting way possible.
If you are a writer or a painter or a poet or some other kind of artist who has been feeling guilty about the time required to do your art well, I invite you to join me in recovering and relishing your “idle” times — which of course we know are anything but. Others may not understand, but what they don’t realize is that every time they read a book or watch a movie or listen to a song that speaks to them, they’re enjoying the result of someone else’s strategic idleness.
In the past couple years, my son has been keenly interested in learning about natural phenomena, and particularly natural disasters. It’s a universal human impulse to want to know how things work, why things happen, what conditions must be present to form a cave or create a diamond or spawn a tornado. This desire to learn means we watch a lot of documentaries — old National Geographic VHS tapes from my own childhood, DVDs given as gifts or bought from the video rental place going out of business, online streaming programs found on Netflix and YouTube.
You won’t find me complaining about this. Documentaries are generally my genre of choice when scrolling through Netflix. Before streaming, I used to say to anyone who would listen that if they let me customize cable service so I got the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet and nothing else, I’d be pleased as punch. But I have noticed that my experience watching disaster documentaries as an adult is far different from it was when I was a child.
As a child, I watched clip after clip of the aftermath of earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods with a sense of detachment. I didn’t know any of these people. I’d never been to these places. I didn’t know anyone who had been to any of these places. The often grainy and sometimes black and white footage put distance between the disaster and me, in my real life, placidly going to school and eating dinner and squabbling with my sister. Nothing bad ever happened to me, and so I didn’t consider that it could.
But as an adult, with a husband and a child and a home with my name on the deed, I watch these documentaries with a lump firmly lodged in my throat, my hand hovering around my mouth. I say out loud, “Oh, my,” and “Oh, those poor people.” Because I imagine what it would be like if it happened to my family. I imagine the unfathomable grief at losing a loved one, the terror of an unstoppable force bearing down on us, the brokenhearted relief of surviving in body yet losing the entire contents of my home.
I feel much the same way when I read memoirs or diaries written by survivors of war, or when I see pictures of despondent refugees trying to get their children out of harm’s way, or when I read articles about the few doctors left in Syrian cities under siege, desperate for supplies and forced to prioritize patients who have the best chance of living while they must let others die.
I look at dates and try to recall what I might have been doing at that time when people were suffering. When this city was burning, was I up in my apple tree, wrapped in its pure white perfumed blossoms? When that city was underwater, was I filling the tub with more hot water because I didn’t want to get out yet? When this woman’s husband was executed, was mine bringing the steaks in off the grill? When that woman’s child died in an explosion, was I kissing mine goodnight?
We are not guaranteed happiness. We are not even guaranteed the time to pursue it. Sometimes my own blessings weigh on me because I know it is nothing I have done that makes me deserving of an easy life, just as there is nothing the victim of a natural disaster or a war has done to deserve a difficult one.
The world is broken and the consequences touch every corner of humanity. I wish this shared plight caused us to look to each other more often as brothers and sisters, fellow sufferers, fellow sinners in need of forgiveness and restoration. Instead it too often causes us to look upon each other as rivals in a zero sum game for power, prestige, and possessions, as though for some to win, others must lose.
Every good and perfect gift is from above. A blessing is a gift. It is not earned. It is not a gold medal awarded to you because of your years of dedicated practice. It’s not something you are competing with other people in order to obtain. It is a gift from a Giver with an infinite store. It is a manifestation of grace. And it’s something we can pass on to fellow bearers of the image of God (i.e., everyone on the planet).
What can I give the one who is suffering? My time, my listening ear, my prayers. A blanket, a stuffed animal, a note of encouragement. My love, my understanding, my care. A ride, a hug, a job. I can volunteer for the relief effort. I can help a newly settled refugee family understand their mail. I can teach English, invite the new neighbors to church, make a hot meal for the guy under the bridge.
I can raise a child who has great compassion, who thinks of others far more than I ever did at his age.
I often go through periods of wondering if writing fiction is a waste of time in a world that needs so many more practical things. Why contribute a novel when what is needed is potable water, enough healthy food, more medical supplies, and safer buildings? What is the point of fiction when reality is so pressing?
Invariably I am reminded that stories have power. Because it’s not just our physical needs that need to be met in this life. We need to know that we are not alone. We need to be reminded that restoration and redemption are possible. We need to remember what hope feels like. We need to believe that there is another future for us beyond our current situation. We need to dream. We need to encounter the divine.
Fiction can be an escape, but it’s more than that. It’s about processing reality. When we dream our mind is working to process bits and pieces of our waking life, to categorize and make sense of all that we experience. In the same way, fiction processes the experiences of all of humanity. It collects and observes, it arranges and interprets, it posits and enacts. Fiction is the REM sleep cycle of real life.
So, writer, whenever you or others are tempted to dismiss your creative work as a pointless extravagance, a waste of time in a world that needs concrete help and boots on the ground, remember that human beings are not flesh alone. We are flesh and spirit, living souls, created by God as part of his grand story and pre-wired for storytelling.
What can you do for the suffering person in addition to all the humanitarian efforts I listed above?
You can tell their story.
A couple days ago I got over the 40,000 word hump on my newest project. That’s a great feeling. If you’ve ever been involved in a big, multi-stage project, like designing a new garden or renovating a kitchen or building a suspension bridge, you know what it’s like to know what you need to do in the beginning, and know how you want things to turn out in the end, but be just a wee bit fuzzy on how the middle will work out. Well, maybe that’s not the best analogy, because probably most of you plan your big projects. Measure once, cut twice, etc. Wait…that’s not right.
But me? I’m not a big planner. Not when it comes to writing and not when it comes to projects. Sure, I’ll start sewing a dress with a pattern, but I usually buy fabric in various lengths without a solid idea of just what I’ll make with it. It always works out. And I’ll start a major garden rearrangement with one solid idea — that one plant will go here — but the rest is just keeping up with the dominoes as they fall. It always works out.
We’re thinking about redoing our sunroom and making it a more masculine room that will serve as a cigar lounge. That will take some doing. It will mean finally installing a railing on the roof, painting the girly wicker furniture with all-weather paint, moving all that up on the flat roof with an outdoor area rug and maybe some plants in the warm weather. It will involve redoing the flooring, painting the walls, installing a good ventilation system, getting new furniture, moving some books around, trading out my natural decorations for some that fit better with the manly, mid-century black leather look. It will be a big project. I can see the beginning and the end…but that middle bit is hazy. Knowing me, we’ll dive in with these vague plans, figure out the muddy middle, and it will all work out.
Writing a novel is more of a mental project than a physical one. Beyond the words and sentences and paragraphs stacking up in your Word document, writing a novel involves going deeper and deeper — into characters and conflicts, into settings and subplots. And into one’s own experience. Even if you’re writing about a world very different than your own, you will be writing about yourself, your thoughts, your struggles, your memories.
In the book I’m writing right now, I’m delving into some deeply confusing and sometimes painful experiences from my own childhood friendships and encounters, and using those things to propel the plot and affect the development of my characters. I’m dredging up the friendships that ended (why?) and the things that happen to us that we’re too young and inexperienced to process. I’m remembering the insecurities and the rugs being pulled out from underfoot. I’m remembering the things I got wrong and the things I didn’t even know were things.
By the middle of the book, with the tension and conflict ratcheting up, I’ve written myself into a place that I must go through, that I can’t put off any longer. I have several options for which way to take the story, to take the characters. There are cop-outs to avoid, there’s melodrama to avoid, there are wrong steps to avoid. Somewhere ahead is the right path for the story. And I know it runs right over a dead body.
Not literally, of course. I’m talking about those incidents you had long gotten over, had put to rest in your mind years ago, but now must dig back up because they were never wholly dead. You buried them alive, hoping, I suppose, that in doing so you’d smother them and all the questions they’d raise in your mind. And now, after 40,000 words, you have to dig them up, examine what’s left of the evidence, and come up with some answers.
It’s a tough place to be. It makes you start searching for people on the internet, looking for clues as to whether what they did or said to you all those years ago have had any effect on their lives. Often you come up with results that can feel incomprehensible but at least positive. Maybe you find that the girl who was so mean to you as a kid is now a sweet-faced fourth grade teacher. Maybe the kid who stole your bike is a now police officer.
Other results might be more troubling. Maybe your friend’s older brother who molested you is now married with two little girls and you wonder, had you said something way back when, if his life would have gone a completely different way. Maybe the friend you unceremoniously dropped when cooler kids came around ODed or committed suicide. And you find yourself wondering if her troubles started with her losing her close friend.
All those little childhood incidents — could they have had lifelong consequences? The little cruelties that were convenient at the time…what unknown repercussions might have been echoing for the past twenty-five years?
The lovely thing about writing fiction is that you can make things more or less consequential as your story demands. You draw upon those experiences, mold them, and let them propel you toward your conclusion. Yes, the writing of a novel in which you draw deeply from your own experience can be emotionally taxing. You might dig up that half-dead body only to find you still cannot understand it any more than you did when you first buried it.
But maybe you’ll finally be able to put it out of its misery and put it back in the ground for good.
And now, I must get back to writing. A hard scene is staring me in the face, daring me to write it. And that’s my only way forward.
By far, I buy and read real, physical, printed books over and above ebooks. And I love buying them at real, physical, brick-and-mortar stores. I especially love finding old used books at cramped and charming used bookstores.
Now, with all those caveats out of the way, here’s what I love about Amazon.com:
Way back when I was kid, I checked this book out of the old Bay City Library on Center Road about a hundred times.
I loved, loved, loved this book.
It kept me entertained for hours.
It taught me how to draw dogs.
It helped develop in me a love of the simple things — long walks, the seasons, and dumb (in the King James sense of the word) creatures.
It made me want to be an artist.
The only problem was, I couldn’t remember the name of the book (could it really be as simple as Dogs???) or the author/illustrator. When I checked it out of the library, I just knew where on the shelves it was. I never looked it up. And now that gorgeous, quaint library branch has been replaced by a much larger (and much more personality-less) new building. So though I’d been thinking about this book for years, wishing I could remember what it was called so I might find it again, somewhere, I wasn’t sure where to start. There are a lot of books on dogs and it was kind of difficult to describe.
It’s essentially the artist’s story of wanting to find his family’s next dog as his oldest hunting got so feeble he couldn’t do much anymore. As he considers which breed might be best, he paints them and mentions their merits and tells amusing stories.
Then suddenly I thought to myself, if I just had enough patience, I could click through every page of dog books on Amazon and somehow I would have to find it sooner or later. So I searched for “dogs, painting” in Books on Amazon. Then I clicked on the subcategory Dogs. And guess what I saw:
It was the second result in nearly 200!
Apparently I’m not the only fan of Poortvliet’s work (aside: no wonder I couldn’t remember the artist’s name) as the book enjoys 100% five-star reviews, and his other books are equally well-loved. I was surprised to see a publication date of 1996, a full ten years after my guess, as I was sure I’d been obsessed with it long before I was 16. But a look inside confirmed I had been more right than wrong. The edition on Amazon was a 1996 reprinting. The original had been published in 1983, just in time for it to settle comfortably into its spot on the shelf in the East Branch of the Bay City Library system and wait for me to get about as old as my son is now, venture up to the grown-up nonfiction shelves, and discover it.
I ordered a copy immediately and waited with great anticipation for it to arrive, which it did today. (Sunday delivery, what is the world coming to?)
When we got home from church I started flipping through it with my son, who wanted me to read him the notes on every page. (I think he asked me to do it because they are in cursive?) I immediately recognized every page, including some drawings and paintings I had outright copied as a child as I was practicing.
There was and is something about Poorvliet’s representation of the world — realistic, gentle, and with a sense of humor that doesn’t overwhelm — that I find irresistible. I like that in a time when modern art was being touted he continued to focus on realism and sweet illustrations. In fact, I was surprised (though perhaps I shouldn’t have been) to find that his most famous work, The Gnomes, was the basis for an animated series I also loved around the same time as I was checking Dogs out of the library: The World of David the Gnome. Does anyone else remember this?
I was sorry when I looked Poorvliet up for this post to find that he died in his early sixties in 1995, which I suppose is why they reissued the book in 1996.
At any rate, I’m happy as can be to have it now (and to not have to return it to the library in a month). It’s a volume I’ll keep at the ready for relaxed perusal with a cup of tea.
I’m alone a lot. This is not a problem for me. Usually. I like being alone to work. I must have some measure of alone time to read and write. But there is such a thing as too much alone.
When I was a child I planned to live alone when I grew up. Well, not alone exactly. I would live with animals—a horse or two, dogs of many breeds (all of which I had already named), perhaps a mountain lion . . .
I’d live in Montana where I would enjoy a vast view of mountains and forests and fields stretching off in every direction, a wisp of chimney smoke on a dim, far hillside the only indication of habitation in sight. I would heat my small cabin with a woodstove and read by candlelight.
No humans ever factored into my plans, not even my own family, not even as visitors. No means of supporting myself did either. Though I knew with certainty that I’d be running what would amount to a modest animal sanctuary, I never considered that I might need to buy dog food or pay a veterinarian or use a phone or flush a toilet.
One of the special qualities of childhood—one that I miss—is the unabashed embrace of total impracticality. No need to bother oneself about such petty concerns as money when there was fun to be had outdoors.
Another childhood tendency I miss is utter ignorance of the law of non-contradiction. At the same time I envisioned a solitary life of riding across foothills with an eclectic pack of happy dogs at my steed’s heels, I imagined I would be also be a noted explorer and photographer for National Geographic, a bestselling author, a chart-topping singer, and once, after watching Elvis Stojko doing backflips and landing quadruple toe loops (often while wearing tight leather pants), an Olympic gold medal figure skater, despite the fact I’d never ice skated in my life.
Whatever I did, I was confident of enjoying simultaneous worldwide fame and complete anonymity and solitude. Perhaps I thought my many admirers would write me letters that I would pick up once a month at a distant post office in a town with one blinking red traffic light.
I don’t think I have to tell you that none of this came to be. I have never owned a horse or a mountain lion. I have had one dog of mixed breed that already had a name. My small back yard looks into the back windows of a TV news station on a corner serenaded by the constant din of traffic on the four lane highway to the north and the expressway to the east.
I’ve never even visited Montana.
Except for the couple months leading up to my wedding, I’ve never lived alone.
Not long after Elvis Stojko captured the silver medal in Lillehammer (damn you, Alexei Urmanov), I met a funny, self-assured, dark-eyed young man during the auditions for Arsenic and Old Lace at my high school and thoughts of living alone vaporized. Five years later we were married, he was in seminary, and I was finishing a delightfully impractical undergraduate degree in English. Soon after that, we started having mice as pets. Eight years later, he was a pastor, I was working from my home office, and we had a baby, a cat, and a dog.
Our cat had to move due to our son’s allergies. Our dog died last month. Our son is in school.
And during the day, I am alone. Alone in a way I had not imagined as a child. Because in those childhood plans, there were always animals present.
I recall now why I wanted to get a dog in the first place. When we moved in 2005, I began working from home. Alone. Yes, I had the cat, but cats aren’t dogs. They don’t smile at you. They don’t initiate interaction until it’s really inconvenient for you (somehow they know). If I talked to our cat and got any sort of look in response it certainly wasn’t one that invited further discussion. Yes, she was amusing at times, in the same way an out-of-control friend might be—she made you laugh now and then, but mostly you were just waiting for her to destroy something dear to you.
I’m not sure about our son, because he doesn’t talk about it much, but I know my husband and I are feeling the loss of our old dog more than we expected we would. When I come home from my weekly visit to the office, I expect someone there to be happy to see me. But no one is. When I come downstairs in the morning I still expect there will be someone down there waiting for me, someone to say good morning to. But there isn’t. When something falls on the floor at the dinner table, we have to stop ourselves from calling out Sasha’s name so she can earn her keep. There’s no one to lick melted ice cream out of our bowls or syrup from a breakfast plate.
As I work in my home office my normal rhythm of breaks to let the dog out and in has been broken. I find myself standing up and walking into the dining room where our dog spent so much of her time in the past couple years and then kind of wandering around a moment. Why did I get up again?
I was going to run my own private animal sanctuary. Now the only life in this house during the day other than me is a rosemary plant I’m trying to overwinter inside and three freshwater puffer fish up in my son’s aquarium. But they aren’t much for conversation.
We’re still giving it time before we make any decisions…but our hearts seem to be inclining toward a new pet. Maybe sooner rather than later.
I’m not really a baby person. When my husband and I decided to have a child, I’m sure he was looking forward to having a baby. He loves babies. Babies smile when they see him make a goofy face. When I make a face at babies, their reaction often ranges from suspicion to terror. Maybe just as animals can smell fear, babies can tell when you’re feigning interest.
Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t dislike babies. I just don’t usually give them a second look when I encounter them in restaurants or stores. And it always surprised me when others seemed interested in my baby. Being fairly introverted, I was always a little put off when I went out in public with my own baby boy and found that, for most people, babies are like a magnet. Toting a baby around already makes every task take longer, and when you add nice little old ladies who miss their grandchildren to the mix, that quick run to the store to buy milk can turn into an excursion for which you should have brought snacks. Most of those strangers mean well, though occasionally you get someone who makes some thoughtless, slightly insulting comment.
Beyond just not quite getting it when people fawned over someone else’s baby, I found that having a baby is just plain hard work, physically and emotionally. You don’t quite understand the depth of the physical exhaustion of never sleeping the night through for years at a time until you’ve done it, nor do you realize just how terrible of a person you are without sleep until you’ve gone without for too many nights in a row. Plus, like many new mothers, I experienced some level of post-partum depression which, again, you can’t quite understand until you’ve been there. I felt bad about myself for at least a year, which was an entirely new experience for someone who was self-confident to a fault up until then.
Anyway, all this to say that I didn’t grieve as my baby grew into a toddler who grew into a little boy. Each new skill he learned was a relief: Excellent! Now he can walk without me worrying about him falling over and cracking his head on the coffee table! Great! Now I can eat my own meal because he can eat his! Fabulous! Now he can let the dog out and go get me that pen from across the room!
I like having a kid more than I liked having a baby. Every year gets more fun as my husband and I get to watch our boy grow into a smart, silly little guy who makes jokes that actually make sense and informs me as I’m coming downstairs to make his lunch that he already did it.
And one of the very best things about having a kid is introducing him to all the stuff we liked as kids. Books, movies, TV shows, restaurants, toys, museums, beaches, and even entire cities. When everything you love is new to your child, you get to experience it like the first time again. You get to rediscover the emotional weight of your own childhood over again. And lucky for the both of us, that means good memories because we were blessed with good childhoods.
Zach has been excited to play old video games on the Apple 2C computer he still has (with all the big 5 1/2 inch floppy disks that still work after more than 30 years!) and read his favorite series of books, The Great Brain, with our son. He’s introduced him to Gordon Korman books, Voltron, model rockets, model trains, and Pac Man. Together they’ve built things out of wood and repaired things around the house. I’ve been excited to take the boy out to collect rocks, work in the garden, examine insects, and walk in the woods. We watch nature documentaries together and pick up feathers and press autumn leaves. Recently the boy helped paint a bathroom and decorate for Christmas. He loves to cook with both mom and dad. He thinks the movies his parents watched as kids are just as hilarious as they think they are.
One of the things I’ve been waiting to share with my son is my love for the book Watership Down by Richard Adams. I first saw the animated adaptation when I was about his age. I read the book for the first time soon thereafter and read it at least once a year for the entirety of my childhood and a few times as a college student and an adult. I also listened to an audio book of it many times and watched the film again and again, despite the fact that it leaves so much out. Simply put, I was big fan. But the animated movie is really bloody and the book is quite long, so I’ve been holding off introducing my nightmare-prone seven-year-old to it.
Until this week. I had a hankering to read it again myself. I glanced through and saw that the chapters themselves, while there are many, are fairly short. I knew I’d have lots of terms, both in English and in the rabbits’ own language, to explain. I knew the very British style and sentence structure might take some getting used to for him (I’m sure I learned more about language and expanded my own vocabulary immensely just from my repeated readings of this one book). But ready or not, I wanted to get him as hooked as I was.
I gave him a general idea of the content — an adventure story of a group of rabbits that must leave their warren to find a new home, encountering many dangers along the way — and explained that the story could be violent at times.
“That’s okay,” he said. “I’m okay with violence.”
[Pause for mother to be slightly concerned and mentally review all the shows he watches that might be considered violent…Realize it’s all comic-book violence with no blood and no death shown on screen…Feel a little better…Realize that Watership Down may be the most real violence he’s encountered thus far in his life…Remember that he and his father are reading through Judges right now and feel much better about it because this is just rabbits, not people, and it didn’t actually happen…]
See, these are the kinds of taxing want-to-do-things-right-and-not-mess-up-my-kid-for-life thoughts one has as the parent of a seven-year-old.
At any rate, we read the first three chapters last night. And just as I had been as a child who loved to imagine I was various animals, the boy was hooked and has already identified with one of the rabbits: Blackberry. At this point in the story, the reader knows almost nothing about him beyond the fact that he has black-tipped ears. We find out later that he is the most clever rabbit in the group. But it only took one or two sentences featuring him for my son to declare, “I’m Blackberry.”
“You know,” I said, “when I was a kid, Blackberry was my favorite too.”
I put down the book and left the room to get my guitar for his bedtime songs (three every night). When I returned, he was a rabbit. Just as I had once been. And I can remember how it felt to be a rabbit. Timid and nervous and wiggly. Then powerful and swift.
And always a little magical.