Tuesday, July 1, 2014

soundtrack : of love and hunger


Much to my children's embarrassment and annoyance, on long car trips, I sing.  My song choices often include the wrong words and are intentionally (usually) sung badly.  Lucky for our kids, I have one for every occasion.  Really.  Any occasion.  Lost your skivvies somewhere between here and the lake?  Peter Gabriel's Secret World comes to mind, and the misheard lyrics pop out of my mouth: underwater, underwear.  Often these songs are from my a cappella days, or from choirs of long ago, or possibly from the 80's rock of my childhood.  And therefore, enjoying myself as I do, I get a lot more eye rolling than joining in when I burst into song.  Admittedly it is hard to sing along with a song you do not know.  Or with a song that has words that make no sense.

The kids are much more likely to join in -- singing along with me so to speak -- during the stories we read together because then we all know the words.  And as the summer progresses, we expand our repertoire, add to our set, with silly expressions and remember whens, with quotes from movies and books, and with funny things that strangers we brush elbows with have said.  Those songs they know.  We build our summer playlist of stories, the mix tape equivalent of our kids' generation,  and these stories become the soundtrack for our days.  We see what is before us in the context of the themes of the books we are reading, make connections or drop funny (only to us) witticisms, and exchange knowing looks when someone's words or behavior remind us of a well loved character.  And every once in a while, the words burst out of us, and we all sing along.

If yesterday is any indication, it appears that the first track on our summer mix tape is going to be Kate DiCamillo's Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures.  Because, as it does for Ulysses, yesterday was a day in which hunger ruled above reason.  And our awareness expanded just a bit thanks to a very good story.


This book is about the unlikely adventures of an ordinary squirrel who, due to an unfortunate run in with a vacuum cleaner, begins to live an extraordinary life, gaining supernatural powers.  And his sidekick, a young girl named Flora, is altered by the experience as well.  Her awareness is broadened.  Her world expands and she begins to understand more, finding her own strength and opening herself up to the complexities of people around her.  And DiCamillo's story starts when a young girl, a reader, a comic book reader, uses what she has learned from a book, uses the framework of the superhero adventures she loves, to lose herself within, to make sense of the confusing real world in which she lives.  And gives an unknown, bald, and nutty smelling squirrel CPR.  Here is the book trailer.

Two nights ago, I had read Kate DiCamillo's acceptance speech for the Newbery Medal.  It is a beautifully evocative speech, in which she tells of how she gathered words and memories and bits of important people in her life, and stirred those together with her need to work through her mother's death and find some joy in her life, to create a story.

We love Kate DiCamillo here.  Julia learned to read one summer as she giggled her way through the Mercy Watson series.  And Nicholas' thoughts after Tiger Rising, of how feelings can have physical manifestations and how sadness and worry can move within someone and change with time, will forever be one of the best conversations he and I will have with each other, and was such a window into his gentle soul.

Lucky for us, I had the audiobook version of Flora and Ulysses, The Illuminated Adventures out of the library.  Just as Flora uses her books and her love of a good superhero story to interpret her world, we found DiCamillo's book, its themes and silliness and quirky cast of characters, begin to illuminate our day.

Our morning started with the rehoming of Señor, the groundhog who finally decided to enter my trap once I filled the end of it with watermelon.  Apparently he could not resist the watermelon, though he could resist my strawberries.  Now substitute groundhog for squirrel in the passage below.  And you will see what I mean.


Not much goes on in the mind of a squirrel.
Huge portions of what is loosely termed “the squirrel brain” are given over to one thought: food.
The average squirrel cogitation goes something like this: I wonder what there is to eat.
This “thought” is then repeated with small variations (e.g. Where’s the food? Man, I sure am hungry. Is that a piece of food? and Are there more pieces of food?) some six or seven thousand times a day.
All of this is to say that when the squirrel in the Tickhams’ backyard got swallowed up by the Ulysses 2000X, there weren’t a lot of terribly profound thoughts going through his head. 
As the vacuum cleaner roared toward him, he did not (for instance), think, Here, at last, is my fate come to meet me! 
He did not think, Oh, please give me one more chance and I will be good. 
What he thought was Man, I sure am hungry. 
Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo

As I carried the full trap from the garden to the driveway, passing the house, I opened the back door and called to Nicholas.

I am taking Señor for a little drive! Want to say goodbye to Groundhog 2014?

Goodbye Señor! called Nicholas, who was just then sitting in the middle of his giant pile of Legos.  And goodbye groundhogs...unless he has been "makin' de babies.  All day long the babies."

He was quoting from a recent viewing of Pink Panther 2.  I know.  It's an extremely inappropriate addition to the soundtrack.  Kind of like putting Head like a Hole on a mix tape intended as a gift for a crush.  But it has led to some hilarious conversations with those who understand the euphemism and those who do not.
But he has passed away.  This is a euphemism of course.  I mean to say that he is dead.  He is departed from this world.  He is elsewhere and singing with the angels.  Ha, there is another euphemism: singing with the angels.  I ask you, why is it so hard to stay away from euphemisms?  They creep in, always, and attempt to make the difficult things more pleasing.
 Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo

Elliott insisted on coming along with me for the drive to Señor's new home, probably to make sure that taking the creature for a drive was not a euphemism for something more sinister.  It was in fact, just a drive.  We were hopefully taking him far enough away and sufficiently separated from us by other delectable plants and hospitable garden sheds that he will not make his way back to us.



Señor's new home will be a lovely place for him to live.  Frolicking in the large open meadow with what must be an enormous cast of butterfly and dragonfly characters already living among the long grasses.  Perhaps he will even meet Groundhog 2013 who had been been won over by cantaloupe.


I pointed the trap toward the meadow. Mentally adding Vivaldi's The Four Seasons to the mix tape.  Elliott said some kind words from the backseat of the Subaru. I wished I had remembered my garden gloves, so close to his teeth were my fingers as I tried to figure out how to open the trap.


I got it open, Señor cautiously stepped out, and then dashed toward the cover of the grasses.  He quickly found a culvert that I had not even seen, and went inside the large metal drainage pipe.  And stayed there.


It was hot.  87 degrees already.  And I thought this shady pre-made burrow with cool water looked like the perfect new home.  As we drove away, Elliott said, watching the meadow become smaller and smaller out the back window: I wonder if he will come back.  Imagine if he is able to get back to our house by traveling underground through all the pipes and animal burrows and tunnels from here to our house.  Like the Incredible Journey, but underground style.

¡Olé!  Giggling about that image, we headed back home.

We quickly took Señor's blanket and trap out of the back of the car and filled it with what we would need for a day at my parents' lake camp.  I tossed the audiobook into the front seat, having not yet started listening to it.  Hot, testy, and squabblish children in the backseat, missing their daddy who is away at a conference for the week, we did not make it past the mailbox before I had cranked the air conditioning, tossed the snack bag into the backseat like raw meat into the lions' den, and popped the first CD into the stereo.  And turned it up loud.
One of Flora's very favorite bonus comics was entitled Terrible Things Can Happen to You! As a cynic, Flora found it wise to be prepared.
Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo

Flora is a wonderful book, but it is made all the more enjoyable to me because of the perspective I had had been given by reading the author's speech about why she wrote what she wrote, the gentle underpinnings of sadness that lie under this funny, very funny, story with some of the best character's voices I have read in some time.  Given that our day had started with the rehoming of a groundhog and Elliott attributing a story of adventure to him, and really the story here recently of all the urban wildlife in our midst, a good story that gives voice to these creatures? We found it so intriguing and just perfect.

Flora and Ulysses became, that day, our first all together audiobook of the summer, and was enjoyed by all of us, a difficult task which only a few rare beasts have accomplished -- Wonder, The Penderwicks, and Calpurnia Tate among the chosen few from previous summers.

And having nibbled upon that story for the car ride all the way there, giggling together at the very funny tone and characters of the book, we arrived at camp with a shared story.
His brain felt larger, roomier.  It was as if several doors in the dark room of his self (doors he hadn't known existed) had suddenly been flung wide.
Everything was shot through with meaning, purpose, light.
However, the squirrel was still a squirrel.
And he was hungry.  Very.
Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo 

Once at camp, we ate lunch.  Peanut butter and jelly.  And cheese puffs.
...there was a big bag with the beautiful word Cheese-o-Mania written in golden script on the front of it.
He ate until the bag was empty.  And then he burped softly, gratefully.   
Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo 
We had, now, a shared eye toward layering a story upon what we saw around us.  The lake, the mountains, the camp building, the brook, and the creatures we saw while there.  We were spinning a tale of our own day, one in which some things went well, many things did not, and in which the unexpected surprised us frequently.

But there was something about the idea that one's awareness could be awakened.
I love your round head,
the brilliant green,
the watching blue,
these letters,
this world, you.
I am very, very hungry.
Ulysses' poem 

I think we may have taken in the beauty of what was there and the adventures on the lake a bit more fully with the possibility of a good story constantly in the background. And I do.  I do love each of their round heads.
I could feel the stories I read pushing against the walls of my heart.
I could feel myself expanding.
I did not, then, know the word capacious.
But I did know, I could feel, that my heart was being opened by the words I was reading.
Kate DiCamillo, Newbery acceptance speech 






















We have been given the sacred task of making hearts large through story.  We are working to make hearts that are capable of containing much joy and much sorrow, hearts capacious enough to contain the complexities and mysteries and contradictions of ourselves and of each other.
Kate DiCamillo, Newbery acceptance speech  

Needing a break from the sun, we headed inside and spent a very funny hour playing Apples to Apples, with some kid modified rules that made it so very hilarious, and hard for me to wrap my mind around.  Nicholas announced: Hey. Imagine if the word cards in front of you were supposed to describe you.



And pretty soon, we were weaving our own stories, based a bit on ourselves and our day, the mix tape and story guiding us, giving us mood and humor and unexpected snafus, with a good deal of fiction sprinkled on top.
Holy Unanticipated Occurrences!
Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo 

It was a very good story.

I am going to stick with this soundtrack for a bit.  Because here on our property, with the raccoons and groundhogs and squirrels and chipmunks and songbirds and hawks and snapping turtles and painted turtles all interacting with us and our domesticated animals, we can imagine a small furry creature capable of extraordinary acts.  

Last night I made a quick stop at the video store.  And picked up another variation on the same theme.

The Nut Job.  Highly enjoyable.  


And it has its own soundtrack, Gangnam Style, a curious and amusing place where pop music meets urban wildlife meets burglary.  If you can believe it.
Holy bagumba.
Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo, of course 

These summer days and little quirky moments.  A day that starts with a creature that we treat gently, enjoy, and set off on his way elsewhere.  He inspires a story idea and we will think of him on his imagined adventure often.  A day when we listen to the words and story of an author we do not know but whose words we know, words she creates for us as readers giving us a bit of a window into her why. A day when we explore a lake, float on our backs and look at the mountains, watch out for each other and take deep breathes looking into each other's eyes before plunging into the deep moving waters of the brook, synchronizing our breathing and ourselves.  Floating next to rocks and next to moss patches, chasing our buoyant Crocs in the current.  We gather these moments, the good ones and the ones when heat, hunger, and exhaustion lead to not so lovely behavior.  The animal and human characters we bump into. 
I have carried the word capacious around with me like a pebble in my pocket ever since I read the story for the first time eight years ago.
I have taken the word out and held it up to the light and admired it, and then I have put it away again.
I have been saving the word for something.  I didn't know what.
Kate DiCamillo, Newbery acceptance speech

Together we develop a shared story and a shared language. Putting pebbles in our pockets, so to speak. Perhaps one or a few of these pebbles will be the ones we pull out and hold up to the light in the future. To help us sing, write, or build something new.

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