Less Is More

‘Tis the season for excess.

At this time of year, when we should all be thinking of others and trying to be the person our dog thinks we are etc., the impulse to go overboard can get the best of the best of us.

When my children were little, and still true believers in the miracle of things appearing under a magic tree once a year, I felt the weight of their belief on my shoulders. I wanted to give them a happy day. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask, does it? Yet, now that I’m older, if not much wiser, I realize that happiness isn’t something you can wrap up with a bow and hand to your kid.

Happiness has to be won through struggle and toil, trial and error, through rain and cold and dark of night. And then, maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a few moments when the drab wet raincoat of trouble falls to the floor and the radiant joy of life is yours and everything seems worthwhile for a few incandescent seconds.

The secret to being happy is to learn to appreciate those fleeting moments, and to remember them after they quickly vanish, like a beloved song you heard once but can’t download onto your hard drive.

In December it sometimes feels as if too many insipid holiday songs have been weaponized. It doesn’t matter if you only go to the drugstore for a tube of toothpaste, or if you’re stuck in the express line at the grocery waiting to pay for your milk, the tortures of Rudolph and Frosty will make the experience memorable, and not in a good way.

I love music. But as the years have gone by it seems I’m ever more cranky and hard to please. So when I tell you I recently discovered the charms of ukulele music, trust me, it’s that good.

For those of us who had the misfortune to grow up when Tiny Tim was the most prominent ukulele player on the entertainment scene, the mere mention of the instrument was enough to empty rooms. It was a classic case of blaming the messenger.

The ukulele itself is a remarkable instrument, accessible to a small child, yet capable of producing anything from classical to jazz, from rock to bluegrass. And yes, even heavy metal, uke style.

I learned all of this, not only from my ukulele playing nephew, who is always way ahead of the curve on these things, but from a charming short film titled “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings.”

Shimabukuro, a native of Hawaii, began playing ukulele at the age of four. He had early success with a small band and gained local recognition. But Shimabukuro’s talent has taken him far beyond the island. His passion for an instrument seldom granted much respect outside Hawaii has made him an inspiration to a new generation of musicians, dazzling audiences around the world with his brilliant playing and his infectious personality.

And he does it all on only four strings. Who could ask for anything more?

Recipe for a “Great Dark Birthday Cake”

In the eyes of a child even a small pond can seem an ocean.
In the eyes of a child even a small pond can seem an ocean.

Shuffle the deck of time and space.
Stir in a cup of memory, a teaspoon of hope.
Add two cups of terror,
one stick of courage and a teaspoon of tears.
Beat in two or three hearts.
Bake in moonlight until shimmering with stars.

And there you have it. A recipe for an adult novel by Neil Gaiman.

In the last thirty years the dean of darkly romantic graphic comics and adult fairytales has proven that he can write about anything. Love, torture, family dynamics, urban decay, pastoral bliss, you name it. And all with the lyrical touch of a natural bard.

In his latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, touted as his first “adult” novel after years of putting out works mainly for young readers, Gaiman returns to his strong suit. The Ocean is a mythic tale of childhood fear that reinterprets the trope of the evil nanny, setting it in terms of interdimensional magic and horror.

Gaiman so vividly captures the sense of peril that lurks beneath the supposedly carefree time of childhood that I found I couldn’t read it just before going to bed. I made time for daylight reading in order to finish it the first time. Then I had to go back and reread the last two chapters to run my mental fingers over the scar. It’s not a story I’ll forget.

But most of all I want to remember the ending. Gaiman writes with a poetic lyricism that makes me stop every few pages to savor a line, an image: “The cloudless sky was splashed with stars beyond all counting.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is probably not a book for young readers. But anyone who has survived being young can relate to the seven-year-old protagonist’s struggle to understand what is happening and to find a way to stop the threat to himself and his family.

Gaiman balances the darkness in his novels with an almost palpable sense of security. As the little boy recalls being in the home of the wise woman who helps him: “I felt safe. It was as if the essence of grandmotherliness had been condensed into that one place, that one time.”

Not every child is granted such a gift of emotional safety. We live in world where monsters prey upon children every day. The world changes constantly; still it hasn’t changed enough.

Gaiman reminds us that there is work to do, but he does more than that. He sprinkles stardust to light the path out of darkness. He invites us to explore “patterns and gates and paths beyond the real.”

But you might want to bring a flashlight.

The Harp Unstrung

A Couple of Harpers in 1955

My father died last week.

He had been in poor health for years, suffering with various aches and ailments, undergoing treatments, countless examinations. He was pretty fed up with it all by the time he reached his 89th birthday, when we all came to wish him well, to encourage him to hang on for his 90th.

He didn’t argue with us, but you could see his heart wasn’t in it. All his old friends had already passed on. His failing body denied him the ability to work on his model trains, much less enjoy driving his car or sailing a boat. A lifetime of reading fine print had ruined his eyes. He still loved us, but he just wanted to stop. Yet his body kept going, the old heart pumping, the lungs pulling in air. His bones were still strong, even as his flesh melted away when he refused to eat anymore.

My father was a strong-willed man all his life. His opinions were firm, his beliefs not easily swayed. He worked hard for everything he had. His long career in law began in the early 1950s when he attended law school at the University of Virginia on the G.I. Bill. Like many of his generation, he already had three small children by that time. By the time he retired he had become a judge, and had seven children, a different wife, a handful of grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

You’d think he would have been a happy man.

But my dad was never able to stop being a father. And being a father for him meant trying to make his children do what he thought would be best for them. I understand this is a common trait among caring parents.

After my dad took my mother to court to have me declared legally emancipated when I was 18, we didn’t speak to each other until the day I called to invite him to my wedding, a little more than a year later. He replied, “Are you asking me or telling me?” At first I didn’t understand the question, but then he made it clear that he expected to be consulted about the man I chose to marry, even though he’d legally washed his hands of me.

Suffice it to say, our relationship was never easy from the time I left home. For years, in the beginning, before I had children of my own, I used to have conversations with him in my head, trying to explain why I felt entitled to lead my own life, make my own choices. I would write letters and never send them. I thought things would never change.

Then my father began a new family and had a new daughter. He delighted in her perfection, her obedience. Her devotion to him was unwavering and he rewarded her with his unlimited support. Hearing about her successes, I was glad he had the pliant squeaky-clean daughter he’d wanted. When she married a very successful man, whose job took him all over the world, my dad was at first happy.

But slowly, slowly, the old man recoiled from the praise heaped on his new son-in-law. Perhaps he felt the sting of being replaced as the alpha male in his daughter’s life. For whatever reason, he began to call me. At first I was taken aback by this. It had been so long since he’d expressed an interest in my life. But when he heard that I was taking college courses again, trying to finish my degree – 30 years in the making – he was enthusiastic and, yes, I could hear it in his voice, even proud of me again.

Slowly, as I learned the humility that only having children of your own can teach you, the conversations with my father became less difficult and more rewarding. We found common ground based on our experiences as adults. We seldom touched on the trials of the past, the divorce, politics, the reckless ’60s, the flaming ’70s. We talked instead of life itself, of how it warps and wounds, how it teaches and heals, how the long road may be rocky, but the views sometimes make it worth all the struggle.

I am grateful that my dad and I recovered the love we started with. He was a wonderful father when I was a young child. In one of the last conversations I had with him, when he was so weak he seldom left his bed, he talked to me of his childhood in Brooklyn, of his first model train setup, of his early boyhood friends, of his beloved Culver Lake in the mountains of Northern New Jersey. He said, “My childhood there was a wonderful childhood.”

That’s what he gave me. Maybe that’s all any parent can hope to give a child. All too soon they grow up and get swept away by the countless unpredictable forces at work in world. If I could talk to my dad today, he would understand exactly what I’m talking about. I’ll be missing him the rest of my life.

He’s moved beyond reach, but I still have things I want to say to him.

Where The Wild Things Went

Every parent is a lifeguard.

Maurice Sendak just died, at the age of 83.

Though I never knew him, the loss feels personal to me. Some of my happiest hours as a parent were spent reading books with my kids. For a time there I knew “In the Midnight Kitchen” by heart.

Sendak was a marvelous illustrator, but what set his work apart from most childrens’ books of his day was the way he confronted the terror, the vulnerability, the monstrous unfairness of childhood. Sendak infused his stories with humor and the courage of little people forced to survive in a world ruled by giants.

As this spring’s graduation season commences, attention will be focused on the bright young scholars heading out into the world while their once-giant parents are left behind with framed photos and video tapes. The story continues, the readers change.

In honor of Mr. Sendak, and all the writers and artists whose works give encouragement to parents and children alike, I offer here a column I wrote in the year 2000, when my oldest child graduated from college.

This column originally appeared in The Fauquier Citizen,  a weekly newspaper in Warrenton, VA.

Make Way for Graduates

In the thickening dusk I could just make out the shape of something standing in the road ahead as I drove my younger daughter home from soccer practice recently.

Slowing to a crawl, I edged the car closer until the shape gained definition, feathers, wings — lots of wings. A pair of Canada geese was attempting to escort four baby geese across the perilous winding road to the pond on the other side.

I stopped the car. The geese gave us a measured look and carefully shepherded their goslings back to the grass while my daughter and I watched spellbound.

“It’s like “Make Way for Ducklings,” I said to my 13-year-old. She smiled, recalling one of the favorite books from our family’s read-aloud years.

In Robert McCloskey’s Caldecott Award-winning book, a pair of mallards go through the full cycle of the parenting process. They find a safe place to nest, hatch their eggs, teach their children how to swim, find food and avoid danger, and then, in the book’s climax, the proud parents lead their children to the park pond and launch them into their new lives.

Although written in 1941, the simple story still resonates with parents everywhere, because it deals with issues every parent experiences — the desire to keep children safe, to prepare them to live on their own and the excitement of watching them try those wings for the first time.

I couldn’t help thinking about Mr. and Mrs. Mallard last weekend as my husband and I watched our oldest daughter graduate from college.

To me, it seems like just last week she got her acceptance letter, a moment of high celebration. Now suddenly four years have disappeared, and it’s time to watch our daughter fly yet farther on her journey.

I promised myself I wouldn’t be too soppy about the whole thing. After all, we had a lot of practical work to do between the various graduation events. In addition to attending the celebratory garden party, brunches and dinners, we had agreed to help our daughter buy furniture and move into her new apartment during the weekend.

In one sense, this was good. We were so busy it didn’t leave time to get too mushy. But finally, after the popping of champagne corks dies down and the rustle of graduation gowns stills the murmur of the crowd, the moment of passage appears, clear and  solemn despite all the euphoria.

There she goes, walking across the stage, smiling so wide, shaking the Dean’s hand, holding her diploma.

I’m reaching for my tissues, blowing my nose, fumbling for my camera. Even with 20 years of preparation for this moment, I still wasn’t ready.

During the long commencement ceremony more than 400 students received degrees of one kind or another. My husband and I, along with hundreds of other parents and well-wishers, sat on folding chairs outside the peaked white tent which looked like a meringue whipped to perfection under the clear blue skies. On the dappled lawn beyond the rows of chairs free spirits gamboled in the sun, unable to sit still for the long haul.

Most eye-catching were the toddlers and infants sporting fetching sunbonnets and straw hats. Doting parents and grandparents hovered around the small fry, applauding every new trick, every bright smile.

That’s what we do, parents. That’s our job. We watch the children grow, we teach them all we know, we applaud their efforts and  their courage and try to help them pick up the pieces when things fall apart.

That’s why graduation is such a big deal for parents. Yes, we’re proud of our children. Yes, we’re happy for them. Yes, we’re grateful for them. But it’s more than that.

We’re also a little proud of ourselves, for somehow getting through all the obstacles, for enduring the years between 12 and 18, and for somehow managing not to fall apart in the process.

To be honest, a part of me envies the graduates who have their whole lives ahead of them. I envy their energy, their optimism, their can-do attitude. I remember how it felt to think that my generation would change the world, and in a good way. Now, of course, I think the world changed my generation as much as we changed it, and not necessarily all to the good.

But the battle goes on. We need fresh troops. And I’m encouraged by what I see in these graduates.

So cut them some slack, world. They’ve worked hard and they’ve learned a lot and they have some new ideas. They may not be able to fix all the problems we’ve left for them. But they’ll give it a good effort.

Make way for graduates.