Tuesday, November 19, 2013

drawing in anticipation of a rewrite

A little doodle. A quick change. A small visual act of anarchy. Like the mustache drawn on the mean popular girl in your high school year book. It makes you feel a little bit better. Quietly. On the inside.

Or the time that I took a green marker when I was ten. And on the IBM box that was in my bedroom I wrote the word green, after the letters IBM.  I know.  What can I say? I was bad to the bone.  And that is just about as subversive as I got as a child.  Moments later, after grinning to myself as I stood back to admire my work, I grabbed a black Sharpie marker.  And scribbled over my writing.  And turned the box around backwards to the room.

But doodling.  Naughtily.  It is power.

Every summer, we stop into a shop near the beach which has a collection of postcards that make me laugh.  Hard.  I go in there just to spin the turning postcard holder and be amused for a few moments.  I have gifted these items to a few friends.

I am not sure they were as amused as I am.  And I have a magnet on my bread box that I am not sure amuses my father.

I am saying nothing about my life, which does in fact sometimes feel as though it alternates between that of a 50's housewife, Ma Ingalls on the prairie, and the Real Housewives spiral of destruction in rapid waves of irony.

In reality, I love our life.  I love the 50's motor boat in the barn that only occasionally works.

The new to us antique drying rack that is so beautiful to hang out our laundry that just left a straight line of brown goo on each and every item I hung on it last night.

The fact that we can only have sandwiches when I have remembered to make bread.

That our 250 year old home has gifted me a rich history.  And seven mice in the silverware drawer.  And that was just today.

Or that I will be headed to school for the all family assembly in a bit, but clad in a certain aroma.  Of chicken poop worked seamlessly into my fabulously stylish boots.

I enjoy the contradictions of our life.  The quirky blend of old and modern, so perfectly represented by this old home we live in with the lacrosse bounce back walls and bouncy houses in our yard.  The fact that I am pretty sure there's nobody else in a full sweat under her LLBean parka at school pickup because she was just chopping firewood.

This is what makes our family, our story, the story we each write for ourselves.  The quiet behind the scenes, I can't believe I am doing this right now kind of stuff we do.  Like rooting around in the back seat of your car for something, anything, to wipe your child's nose with.  And in the end pulling off your sock and swiping at that sweet and typically kissable -- but right now utterly disgusting -- nose.  So very good a story this life is.  Yet sometimes that IBM green rebel bubbles up in me again and I just want to draw a mustache on it all, want to do something to turn the sickly sweet on its head.

* * *

And that is what drew me so completely into the hilarious Battle Bunny, by funny men Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett, and Matthew Myers, when I took it out of the library this week.  I leafed quickly through it, recognizing it from having read a bit about it on that whole interweb place.  Here.  And here.

I took it out and had to reassure Elliott on the way home that someone had not defaced the book.  That it was intended to look as though someone had doodled all over it.  I should have known right then that Battle Bunny was going to cause some trouble in our lives.

A few days later, I found the book again.  This time in Nicholas' room, on his nightstand.  Under his library copy of Catching Fire.  This pairing was funny to me.  I picked Bunny up and popped it in the bag of activities I was assembling to entertain Elliott while we sat outside Julia's piano lesson.

And later that day I pulled it out, sitting on a bench in our piano teacher's home.  I struggled with how to read it to him.  And decided, since I was alone and whispering and Elliott insisted on being read to, that I would read each page twice, once as Birthday Bunny and once as Battle Bunny.  I was amused.  As amused as I'm also enjoying this apocalyptic love triangle Nicholas had been, as reported by Jonathan who had found Nicholas giggling and reading the book long after bedtime several nights before.

But Elliott?  Elliott was not amused by Battle Bunny.  Not even a teensy eensy bit.  He would have happily read Birthday Bunny perhaps.  Somehow his preference for a story that was supposed to be a joke, supposed to be the most boring silly insipid overdone story ever created?  To be honest, it made me feel a bit like a failure.

He prefers the cute to the subversive.  In this age for him of growing awareness of his world, of how sometimes this world is a bit uncomfortable, unsettling, or scary, and not so cute, he still wants to believe in the possibility of a surprise party thrown by furry friends.  And also?  Please don't take away the magic.  I need to remember this as I snark it up a bit more with my older children, smile at things that a few years previously I would scold them for it being potty humor, sarcastic, or not nice.  

Elliott is not new to the concept of rewriting a story.  He has been at this for some time now.  One of the first times I remember him doing it was after finishing Chris Van Allsburg's The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.  In this story, a mischievous dog finds his way onto the grounds of a grumpy man, Mr. Abdul Gasazi.  The boy, searching for his dog, comes upon Mr. Gasazi, who tells the boy that he has changed the dog into a duck.  The boy sadly heads home, after his possible dog/duck flies off with his hat.  In the end, he finds his dog back at home, waiting for him.  But it is unclear whether Mr. Gasazi played a trick on the boy and never performed this act of magical punishment, or if in fact the dog had been ducky for a bit and returned home after Mr. Gasazi's spell had worn off.

Upon finishing Gasazi, Elliott frowned.  And sat silently.  And then got up and grabbed a piece of paper and a marker.  And drew the missing picture.  Irritatedly.  Drew a picture, and then placed it where it belonged between two of the last pages.  And closed the book.  And returned the book to the shelf.  There.

I forgot about the picture, but found it a week later when I was pulling out books to return to the library.  Elliott had drawn, in a thick black marker, hurriedly but purposefully, a picture of the house.  With a hole in the roof.  And the hole in the roof had a definitive shape.  That of wings.  I could clearly see evidence that a duck, with a hat in his beak, had dropped out of the sky, crashed through the roof and returned home.  Elliott had apparently not been pleased with the uncertainty, the ambiguity of the end of the book.  And had inserted his own evidence of what had actually happened.  Allowing a reader, once they get to the end of the book to go back perhaps, and find evidence of what had really happened.  Evidence of magic no less.

He could accept the magic.  But not the uncertainty.

More recently, we were reading Tony DiTerlizzi's Search for WondLa.  The book was, admittedly, a bit over Elliott's head in some ways, and there were parts that were frightening for him.  But we read on carefully, pausing, discussing, and checking in, because Elliott was connecting with the futuristic creatures in this book in compassionate and thought provoking ways.

However, toward the end of the book [spoiler alert] one of his favorite creatures dies.  And Elliott?  He was not ok with it.  He was so very sad.  He sobbed.  And in the end, he did his rewriting.  This time taking it to a whole new level.  He convinced Jonathan that his ending, the fixed chapter, the one in which nobody dies?  Needed to be illustrated, printed to match the text, fastened into the binding of the book.  And so, in the interest of psychological health and a good night's sleep, we did.

A few months ago he and I were looking through the book again, at the pictures for ideas for Sculpey clay creations.  And we came to the end of the book, a bit lopsided with its extra pages.

Oh.  That's from when I rewrote the end.  So that nobody died.  I didn't like it when that happened.

He looked at his chapter for a few moments, running his finger over the string that held it in place.

We can probably take that out now.  He smiled a bit sheepishly at me.

And I want to draw a better picture of Otto.  I can draw him better now.

* * *

One of the things that has struck me most about Battle Bunny is that it was written first as a traditional Golden Book-ish sweet young children's book.  But written with the intention to be overwritten.  To be changed.  To turn the sweet eyes of the Birthday Bunny into the heavy eyebrowed devious glances of Battle Bunny.  That the space in the pictures, the action, the original figures, needed to allow for change.

The power of editing, of changing, of rewriting.  I am in the midst of it myself.

I have taken that pricey graduate school degree of mine. And scribbled over it.  It's still there.  I use it each and every day. The next version of myself with babies is overlaid on that picture as well, but that layer is fading as well.  And now?  Now, this version is less formal, with a lot more grit, and chicken poop, and dirty laundry.  And growing children who demand very different parenting, their needs changing rapidly and unexpectedly.  And I have erased some of the untested assumptions about childhood and parenting that I had back then when my fancy degree was the whole story.  Unblemished, sparkly and Birthday Bunny new.  Now it is my background.  And luckily, and entirely unintentionally, I left space for the rewrite.   I have doodled a Bogs wearing, ax wielding woman with an egg basket dangling from one arm over the picture of the tidy professional I once was.  I stand back, run my finger over the picture and take a look.  And I like what I see.

Even so, I am sometimes still tempted to scribble over the image, the me, for now.  To turn the defaced box around backwards, to hide it from scrutiny.  But that impulse to hide myself?  Now it's something I want to stop myself from doing.  And so, I'll leave it.  Here.  For a while at least.

The power of revision, the power to change something.  We all have it and we all do it.  When one feels unsettled or something isn't quite right.  And I hope our children will do it, will rewrite when they need to.  Will remember to leave space for changes, possibilities, and opportunities to layer over what once seemed right but no longer is.  And to do it with a bit of humor.

And our “new” version of the story was so much better, so strange, so satisfying.

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