Reflecting on Giants with Sophie and Scout

“Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”

~John Calvin

I’ve been thinking about giants. Some giants we make and others are made for us. Specifically, I’ve been considering one of the giants in England and the one that used to reside in Alabama. This week I saw the movie The BFG based on the book by Roald Dahl. I also read Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Granted, they are both fictional stories and, one might say, from very different places in the literary world. But the best fiction tells us something true about ourselves, and these two very different stories share much in common–only in reverse. They both address the human tendency to manufacture a hero. This is an idea worthy of exploring.

In The BFG, Sophie, a bright, precocious, and incredibly brave little orphan girl looking for someplace to tie her heart, meets a giant. In the beginning, she is afraid of him. She starts off seeing him maybe not even as a person but as a thing to be feared. He is big, mysterious, seemingly ignorant, and possibly dangerous. But Sophie does not cower under her covers. She inherently senses something needful and beautiful, something of value for her. As the giant carries her to his cave and takes care of her, we learn he is not only more human than most human “beans” and not dangerous but we find that his heart is even bigger than his ears. (Once you read the book, you’ll get the reference!) He is a BFG, a Big Friendly Giant. The huge giant and the little girl become great friends. And, it would seem, Sophie finds what she was seeking, what she needed, what we all need–not necessarily a giant, but a friend with a giant heart.

I will not give away the story; you must read this scrumdiddlyumptious tale for yourself. Suffice it to say, Sophie’s perception of the giant changes as she gets to know him. Isn’t that the way with most people we allow ourselves to get to know? How often are our first impressions of people shattered when they surprise us with some word or action that is “out of character” and our view of them changes, expands to include and envelop new personality traits? How surprising it is when these new traits deviate greatly from our original image. Despite Malcolm Gladwell’s premise in his book Blink, that it is usually within the first couple of minutes of meeting someone that we form an image of them that will stick, maybe we can overcome that and, as the old adage goes, not judge a book by its cover. Sir Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “A mind once stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Our impressions of people are expanded by our increasing and varying experiences with them, never to return to our original, more limited first impression.

In contrast to Sophie’s relationship with her giant, the relationship between Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her father Atticus Finch seems to move in the opposite direction. It grows more troubled over time as we progress from To Kill a Mockingbird where Scout was a young girl, to Go Set a Watchman where she is now 26. We fell in love with Scout and Atticus in Mockingbird. Atticus was the hero when he defended a falsely accused Negro man in an Alabama courthouse. (I don’t feel I’m giving anything away here. If you haven’t read Mockingbird, well, get to it!) Because of his integrity, Scout places him on a pedestal. And we, as the readers, can’t help but do the same. Who wouldn’t want a dad like that?

But in Watchman, he falls off the pedestal as Jean Louise (as she is called as an adult) learns her father is a bigot. (I’m not going to tell you the whole story. You may want to read it, and if you haven’t, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt; it just came out in 2015. You may not want to read it. You may want to keep Atticus on that pedestal. Believe me, I understand.) Jean Louise finds Atticus at a meeting with a bunch of people using racist language and distributing racist literature and learns her father is not who she thought he was. The impression she had of him for so long is shattered and she feels betrayed, feels it was all a lie. Her giant shrinks. But is this merely a consequence of growing up? Maturing? Seeing our parents for who they really are, warts and all? Her perception of him changes as Sophie’s perception of the BFG changed, but in Jean Louise’s case, this happens in a negative way. We get the impression she doesn’t feel it widening her perspective as much as bringing her secure world crashing down to the ground.

At the end of Watchman, Jean Louise and Atticus have the hard conversation. She is very heated. He remains cool and composed. You get a black and white version of Gregory Peck in your mind as Atticus pushes his hat back on his head and justifies himself while remaining tender with his beloved daughter. She is still the jewel of his heart, but she is growing older and her perspective needs to change in order for her to grasp the complete picture, the whole truth with all the nuances of who her father really is. And who put him on that pedestal? She did. Was it fair to him that he would have to live up to some larger-than-life image she conjured up in her mind?

At the risk of waxing psychological, I suggest that Mockingbird offered us, among other valuable lessons, a picture of a healthy father-daughter relationship. In my opinion, a little girl needs to believe her daddy can slay dragons. He should be a knight in shining armor–for his little girl. But in Watchman, Scout is no longer little.

We loved Atticus Finch for his integrity and his tenderness with his daughter. So much controversy has been made over Harper Lee’s portrayal of him in Watchman. I think it’s because we wanted to believe in the Herculean version of him. We, too, want to place him on the pedestal. And keep him there. But what if this other side of Atticus is true to his character, too? Doesn’t that make him more human? More plausible? Or maybe it transports us way back to the beginning of our quest. Maybe it sends us, like young Sophie, to the window at the witching hour, where, parting the moonlit curtains with trembling fingers, we peer out at the shadows, our hearts yearning for a hero.

 

 

 

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Electronic Roadkill

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The phone lay smashed on the road. I stood there staring at the innards. Its back had been sheared off to reveal its guts. Eviscerated. I found myself paralyzed. Knowing, of course, this thing wasn’t alive but still not wanting to touch it, I flipped it over with my foot, knowing what I’d find but still curious. Aargh! A smashed screen. Why was I shocked to see it? As if it were a face that had been morbidly deformed in an accident. What had brought about the demise of this creature? Had someone run it over with the car? Was it intentional or accidental? No matter. Did you pick it up? my family asked later. No, I didn’t pick it up, I replied. As if it were an absurd notion. If I’d shaken myself out of my reverie, I would have remembered that in reality, it was just a piece of garbage, but at that moment, staring at it in the road, it was a living thing–or had been living. And why? Because as much as we would deny it, or, at the very least, hate to admit it, we pour our lives into these gadgets and we draw our lives out of them. When we forget our phones, we feel naked, incomplete, as if we’d lost a limb.

Our centers of communication, they help us notate, schedule, calculate, monitor, search and surf for information, music, whatever—the world in our pocket, at our fingertips. FaceBooking, texting, snapping photos of anything we find even slightly amusing to post, paste, send, and share, share, share with the world. Constantly. Day and night. In them, we carry around a portable alarm clock, stop watch, timer. It seems like such a short time ago since they came into existence, and yet now they are ubiquitous. You have a smartphone, right? we ask as if to say, you have a pulse, right? Even children have them.

They consume us. Look at the way we drop our heads, curve our backs, grasp the miniature centers of our world like my precious, my precious and tap-tap-tap with fingers and thumbs, curling ourselves around them, like a caterpillar curling itself around the leaf it’s munching on. It drawing our attention, we drawing our sustenance from it. And, like bugs, walk right into the trap, the Inter-Net. No one drags us. We do so willingly.

In the 1990s, (the not-so-distant past) you could tell what people were doing by which tool they were using. We had a desktop home computer that indeed sat on the desktop and it was indeed at home. And it stayed there. We turned it off when we were done. Then we did something else. The TV sat by itself in the living room. We turned it on when we wanted to watch a show. We turned it off when we were done. The telephone sat on a table. We used it to call someone. We hung it up when we were done and walked away. Today it’s not always easy to tell what people are doing. Texting is obvious– pecking away at the screen like a caffeinated squirrel. However, with the the one-thumb-scroll, a person can be surfing the internet or browsing emails or ordering plane tickets. Then they stare at the screen. Are they reading, watching a movie, or checking out the latest viral YouTube video? Today the phone is always on, always in the pocket, always available for whatever whim we let sweep us away. There is no walking away from it. Be honest. Who turns their phone off at night? Those two people raising your hands—that precious phone is on your nightstand, isn’t it?

We are attached to our phones. They have become appendages. So when I saw the phone in the road completely demolished, I couldn’t help but mourn someone’s loss. They had spent many hours and much energy sending and receiving bits of life on the information superhighway via that little hand-held device. Kinda scary that so much of someone’s precious life can be held in a palm. But it reminded me that I have a choice. I have the power to choose where to pour my life, how to spend my time. I can invest it in social networking or in the actual human beings sitting beside me in the same room. I can choose to consume images and ideas from a screen or I can gaze at sunsets and into the sparkling eyes of my children and my husband. Phones are fragile things. But so is life. I looked up from the broken phone in the road, the electronic carcass, and saw the trees rising tall above me, felt the sun warm on my face, heard the originators of the tweet—the birds—singing sweetly. I don’t need buttons and passwords and charger cords to enjoy the beauty around me. I can keep walking. Hands free.

 

 

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To Brooklyn–and Beyond!

“I have been through some terrible things in my life, some which actually happened.”* My two teenage sons were going to a concert in Brooklyn. I was terrified. We live in Connecticut. Not Hartford …

Source: To Brooklyn–and Beyond!

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On the Floor

I nearly trip over the guitar and the tubes of paint and the piles of clothes and the cords running like river tributaries on a map on my way to the bed to wake him up. I almost twist my ankle getting there. Is it my job anyway? He’s old enough. He shouldn’t need me to wake him every morning. Isn’t that the alarm clock I hear blasting on the shelf? How can I hear it from the next room and he not hear it five feet away? So I snap, and he mumbles amidst the piles of curly hair. As I trudge away, I realize the guitar, which had been a Christmas gift, is dismantled. I sigh, shake my head, and find my way to the sanctuary of the laptop.

I find an email from the prayer chain. A little boy is in the hospital. A little one we know. The news is a bolt right to the heart. Time stops and sounds hush as the spotlight of my attention comes down around this little one in the photo on the screen, baseball cap over his cropped hair, big grin.  In the days to come that smile may fade a little as fatigue overtakes him from all the tests and treatments to get the white blood cell count down and his platelets and his strength back up. In the next photo, there’s Mom and Dad. Dad wears a paper gown and a hair net, protecting his son from his germs. Mom’s wearing a big smile. I search her eyes for exhaustion and fear. I don’t see their traces. Yet. It’s only the first day of treatment.  I wonder how she’s holding it together so well. I would be in pieces on the floor.

This mom, she’s a friend of mine. She was the one who prayed with me that day in the store. We were both there to buy food, but I had received heart-shaking news and walked the aisles like a zombie grabbing boxes and cans of who knows what and dropping them into the cart, going through the motions. My head and my heart elsewhere. And then I came around the last aisle and there she was, this mom with her little pigtailed girl in tow. Are you all right? she asked. I’m sure it showed on my face. That it had been the longest shopping trip. That it was about to be a very long year. No, I’m not. And there it was. My feelings all spilled out in the aisle in the grocery store. Clean up in aisle 7. She hugged me right there in the store as she prayed for me. Right there in the store. My brokenness and the gift of her attention, her intentional blessing washing over the cracks in the tender armor of my mother’s heart.

And now there she is in this photo with her little boy and her husband, trying to hold it together, holding onto each other and more little ones at home and their faith in divine promises. My heart goes out across space and time, trying to touch hearts that are hurting as mine once did and does again in sharing their pain. The only way to hold her from here is supernaturally, hands folded, knees on the floor amidst the clutter of dashed dreams, or were they merely expectations? I widen that spotlight of my attention out to those on my immediate stage left and stage right. Starting with the one upstairs who dismantled the Christmas guitar.

A couple days later I went to check on the status of my son’s room. It was still a mess, but my guy had reassembled the guitar. Before he did, though, he added his own flourish, his own color. That sweet boy in the hospital likes to play ball, my special guy makes art. I’m glad I had retreated to my office that day instead of blowing up about the clutter. It gave me a moment to breathe, regroup, and remember my priorities. Even with the tubes of paint scattered on the floor and the paint stains on his good pants, the mess doesn’t seem so messy. At least that mop of hair is still resting on the pillow in his own bed. He’s here. Why does it sometimes take a crisis in order for me to appreciate the very fact that my children are even present with me here in this life?

This precious family on my screen–the one I’m praying for–they remind me not to sweat the small stuff. Amidst earthly plans now sanctioned to a corner somewhere and tubes carrying the good stuff in and the bad stuff out, prayers going up and challenges coming down, it may look like a mess, but sometimes clarity comes in the hospital room or the teen’s bedroom or even in a grocery story. And sometimes it’s a friend who gathers up all the tears we have spilled on the floor that offers us a glimmer of heaven.

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This Changing Landscape

(I read this at the Litchfield Writers Guild June Coffeehouse 2016)

The tree was going to fall on the house. It was growing in that direction. It was teetering in that direction. If it didn’t fall on the roof, I was sure it was going to fall on our friend sawing it down. As he cut around the base with the chainsaw, the zzz zzz cut straight to my nerves. The top of the tree was tethered with a rope to the tractor my father-in-law drove, pulling the tree away from the house as my husband DJ yelled, “Back, back!” The saw buzzed, the tractor drove, Back!, Back! And I prayed Please let this go well. And the 200 year old, 65 foot tall tree thundered until it hit the ground with a BANG and shook the earth beneath our feet. It had fallen exactly in the middle of the yard. Not on our house. Not on our friend. And as I stared at the fallen giant, in the sudden quiet, I realized, after I told myself it was all right to breathe again, just how much the landscape had changed. Would never be the same. No more refreshing shade in that part of the yard in the heat of August. No more laughter from the kids soaring on the tire swing.

That was last year. We were digging a new well and the big rig couldn’t maneuver around the yard with the tree in the way. We loved that old oak, but given the choice between the love of a tree and a reliable water supply, we opted for the water. We had lived in the house fifteen years and in the apartment over the garage for four years prior. The tree was part of the family. A silent, ever-present living ancestor, it had been there for two centuries. We weren’t the ones who had planted it. Someone else could take the credit for that. If they were still around. We were the ones responsible for taking it down. A little guilt there. But we did add many things to our yard over the years.

When we first got married, I knew as little about gardening as I did about replicating mom’s meatloaf. By contrast, I would soon learn that my new carpenter husband could not only visualize houses from blueprints, he could also plan out gardens pretty well. He bought shrubs and perennials and suggested where we should plant them. They started to come up and they complimented the spaces where they were planted. In this way, we designed our landscape. Things started to take shape. Sure, little plants would not always last and one year the moles ate our tulip bulbs, but for the most part, things stayed the way they were. It was fun deciding what we wanted, where we wanted it, and planning what the future yard would look like. That was over 20 years ago.

Somewhere in that time, my grandmother gave me a Rose of Sharon. We planted it beside the porch’s white rails, gingerbread posts, and sky blue ceiling. The pink hibiscus flowers offered an nice contrast. The bush flourished there for quite a while. Bumblebees loved it. A few years ago, an ice storm damaged half the bush. I pruned off the dead parts. Where most people would have a V-shaped bush, we now had a Y. The following spring we celebrated a multitude of blossoms. The pruning had actually strengthened it. Time passed and we took the blooms for granted again.

One day I came home and something was missing. I didn’t know what it was right away. My heart noticed before my eyes did. Then I realized that the blossom-laden branch lay on the ground. It was broken. We had had a very hard rain the day before. The pounding rain off the porch roof had disintegrated the woody stems and soaked the roots.

I can’t say that I acknowledged its presence every day. Sometimes even when we don’t pay close attention to things on a daily basis, when something changes, we notice. Where we had intentionally cut down the tree in our backyard, the passing of the Rose of Sharon was something that happened when we weren’t looking.

That was the end of it. It was sad. Like we had lost another member of the family. I look at the space where it stood and in memory’s eye, can still see the pink flowers. DJ says we can replace it, but I say no. That chapter is past. Let the Egyptian garlic grow. It self-seeded under the bush long ago, and now, with the sun unimpeded, is twice as tall. Hummingbirds visit its nodding blooms.

When we lose people, our personal landscape changes. For 18 years we were blessed to share our corner of the world with both of DJ’s grandmothers. Nan lived next door and Grama lived up the street. Nan loved books and history and English cookie tins. I’d look out my office window to see her filling up bird feeders or hanging sheets on the clothesline or sitting on her screened-in porch in the summer with the door open, reading a book or building a jigsaw puzzle. I mowed her lawn in the summer and shoveled her walk in the winter.

Grama up the street was more of an extrovert. She loved people and parties and all things leopard print. We went to her house for family get togethers, always with music and laughter and cake. The Christmas tree would be bright and gaudy, laden with thick shiny garland, and the thermostat set at 80, with a log burning in the fireplace, but it was more something to joke about than complain about. And, even with her walker, Grama would dance and sing. In the summer, she sat outside on the bench under the lilac bush, wearing big dark glasses and a festive sweater.

A year ago, Nan passed away, and last year Grama did, too. They were both 94 and had been part of our personal landscapes for a long time. Now everything is different. Nan’s house still stands next door, but it’s vacant and gutted, no longer full of cookbooks and faded photos, and the glass elephants she loved. Now it’s full of someone else’s dreams, undergoing major reconstruction by her grandson who inherited it and hopes to move in one day.

Grama’s house is also vacant and has been cleaned out and the yard cleaned up. A for sale sign stands in the front yard. No more parties, no more leopard print. No more reason to visit. Just quiet. Random cars show up in the driveway sometimes. Possible future owners? With the passing of these grandmothers, our emotional and physical landscape has changed. If someone new moves in, when someone new moves in, they’ll move things around, make it their own. Our view will change.

Sometimes we stop and stare at a new addition in our landscape. Like a new baby. So much wonder and promise in such a small package. I remember learning that I was pregnant for the first time. I stayed up all night thinking, “I’m going to be a mom. I’m going to be a mom. I am a mom.” And then dreaming, visualizing our growing family. The happy effects a new baby has on a husband and wife. Of course you can’t foresee all the things that will change, but you dream just the same and vow to do things a certain way so all will go well.

Life goes fast. It’s good to stop and remember things and people along the way. To remember loved ones, we take photos and make scrapbooks and plant gardens. The pale pink roses climbing the picket fence were ones my grandmother bought me years ago at Agway. The oregano plant DJ received from a friend when he worked at the Ag station when we first got married still grows in the garden. Two small rose bushes my mother purchased for Grama’s funeral last summer grow in the front yard, too. I didn’t have a place to properly plant them where they would get the attention they deserved. I dug a new garden just for them, changed the landscape a little to accommodate these new beauties.

The red bergomot and orange poppies I planted tell another story. They were grown in the green house at Newtown High School where DJ works. He brought them home at the end of the school year in 2013, six months after the Sandy Hook tragedy. Every spring when those flowers come up I remember where they came from. I recall that day. One of those days when everybody remembers what they were doing when they heard the news.

My oldest son Tim was in his first year back at public school after being home schooled for several years. He had missed the bus that day. I was a little aggravated by that, but then young David and Sarah were so good about my waking them up. As I drove up the hill to the green, the view was breath-taking. Peach sunrise and icy branches on the trees. Kids snuggly in blankets. Bundling up on a cold winter day to take their big brother to school was an adventure for them. Three hours later I would hear the tragic news of the shooting. Of children. And my husband in lock down. Every year, the poppies come up and the bergamot comes up and as they retell the story, the hummingbirds and the butterflies visit.

After that tree was felled in the backyard last summer, we just stood there for the longest time looking at the emptiness it left behind. Before the thunderous crash, we hadn’t thought about the effect that emptiness would have on us. We removed one thing and the whole landscape changed. The way the light fell on the ground, the shadows, the temperature.

The immediate mess was the jungle of green leaves. Piles and piles of leaves and branches. A tangled mass that would need to be cut. But looking at the natural debris at our feet, the air was lighter, the sun warmer on the tops of our heads, unimpeded by the former green canopy. The rig came in and dug a new well. We dug up the entire backyard to run new pipes to the house. We smoothed out the earth and planted new grass seed. The happy result was a grassy backyard that was lusher and greener than ever before. Thanks to the sacrifice of the old oak.

Sometimes we add to our garden. Sometimes we take things away. Sometimes things are taken away. But it’s always a garden. Always fertile ground for new growth and a renewal of the old. Even when the landscape changes, there is always something green, always something blooming somewhere. Hope, as it turns out, is perennial.

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A June Coffeehouse

The Litchfield Writers Guild presents its 13th annual June Coffeehouse on

Monday, June 13, 2016

6:30-9:00pm

Doors open at 6:30pm. Musical interludes 6:30-7pm and at intermission by pianist

Hank Milligan. Readings start promptly at 7pm. Original stories and memoirs from

local writers.

Free admission and refreshments.

The Litchfield Community Center

421 Bantam Road

Litchfield, CT 06759

(860)567-8302

Come join us!

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Decluttering

Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way recommends writers write three morning pages every day to get the creative juices flowing. They don’t have to be Pulitzer material. They can be anything the writer is thinking about. Any stray thought that enters her mind, whether it be a song or what’s for dinner or a rant about the drippy faucet. The amazing thing is that it works. It works because it gets all the stuff that is on your mind off your mind. And then you can think. What a luxury that is, especially when you are a working mom in the thick of the busiest time of your life. For me, what it does is remove the top layer of clutter from my brain. Like clearing off a desk.

It used to be, I had things piled high on my home office desk. Stacks of bills to pay and then file, kids’ artwork from school, to-do lists, framed photos to hang one day when I figured out how I wanted to arrange them on whichever wall I decidde on. My high school physics teacher was a wonderful, brilliant woman, but she had a messy desk. She would laugh at herself as she searched for her lesson plans and say, “A neat desk is the sign of a weak mind.” She knew she was making excuses for herself! I went on to do the same thing as an adult. I had a lot of plans, a lot going on my mind, post-it notes all over my brain. I had piles of things I wanted to get to someday. Well, as they say, someday never comes. Then when you have a free moment all you have is a messy desk.

Well, sometime after I became an adult, I grew up. I realized that someday wasn’t coming, or at least not too soon. Or at least not today. So, I decided to take care of the paperwork I had been stacking, hang the photos, and simply put things away. Maybe I would get to some of the things I had been “planning” to do, but while I was busy doing other things, why not file planned projects neatly in the file cabinet? Or pack them neatly in a box? And if I don’t get to them someday, you know what? It’s ok. Why do we torture ourselves?

Once I cleared off all of the things I didn’t care enough about to attend to right away, all that was left was today’s to-do list. Once I completed those tasks, I did another profound thing–I threw it away. After that, guess what was on my desk–Nothing! Seeing a clear work space launches me into action. I want to write. I want to create new things. And then I want to clean them up so I can enjoy the same excitement the next day I visit my room.

I feel this way about writing, too. Just as the desk is like an archaeological dig, with the most recent trappings of life on the top layer, our minds are cluttered with our most current concerns on the top, older issues further down, childhood memories usually buried deep. When I sit down to write, I’m thinking about the chores that need to be done, what to make for dinner, getting ready for work tomorrow, even the song on the radio. I’m not thinking about writing some great work of literature. (Maybe I’m daydreaming about it,  but I’m not sketching the plot.) In order to produce anything more interesting than a status post on Facebook, I have to clear the top layer of current clutter in my mind. Julia Cameron’s idea of morning pages, or journaling, does that for me. Then, like having a clear desk– I can think.

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