Tag Archives: Marion Dane Bauer

Between Facts and Truth

Library door

Photo by Stefan Steinbauer on Unsplash

I have always believed in story.  I believe in it still.

But I am learning something in these late days of my career.  Stories don’t have to be inventions.  They can come from the world of very solid facts.

I used to accept a distinction I remember Madeleine L’Engle making in her uniquely emphatic way.  Libraries, she liked to say, are divided between fact—and here she would wave a dismissive hand toward the shelves that held nonfiction—and truth.  Truth, of course, meant fiction.

There is no question but that fiction spins out the very solid truth of its author’s psyche.

There is no question, either, that I have used my fiction to reveal my own truth, a truth drawn from that place of perpetually unfulfilled longing that I have carried—that we all carry—from childhood.

I love imagining characters, giving them names and histories, investing them with a desire drawn from my own hidden desires.  I love following their struggle.  The resolution these creations of mine bring to the page goes far beyond any my own life has ever achieved.

The power of that resolution, both for myself and my readers, comes from the feelings story engenders.

Feelings transform us all.

In recent years, though, I have discovered something that belies Madeleine’s neat division.  Facts can also be vehicles for story.  And framed as story, facts can lead us to a deeply felt truth.

To make that discovery I have had to open doors into worlds I’ve seldom visited before.  Astronomy.  Quantum physics.  Botany.  Biology.

And beyond those doors I have found larger stories than I am accustomed to telling.  They are spun from the new facts I’ve been gathering, but even in terms of Madeleine’s divisions, they are profoundly true.

That is because facts told in the right cadence, gathered into the right form, shaped toward the right meaning can move us.  And feeling is all.

Thus my latest picture book, The Stuff of Stars, published by Candlewick in 2018.  Thus two new recently acquired picture books, We, the Curious Ones, which explores the tension between science and story over the centuries, and One Small Acorn, which tells the story of a single acorn within the story of a forest within the story of us.

What drew me to each of these topics wasn’t the facts, though those fascinated me, but the story inside the facts.

Facts are useful and necessary.  They can be enormously interesting, even astounding.  But they can easily be presented without heart and too often are.

Facts, however, that open a door to understanding ourselves and our place in the world can bring us to feelings that transform, just as fiction does.  Both sides of the library can speak truth.

We live today in a collapsing world.  Yet the wonders that stretch on every side, both the wonders of far-flung space and the wonders that lie beneath our toes, fill me with awe.

And I can think of no more profound truth than what we find when we open ourselves to awe.

None of the stories that grew, consciously or unconsciously, out of my childhood angst ever discovered awe.

For that I had to discover facts.

 

May You Live In Interesting Times

Sparrow

Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

Everyone has heard it before, the old Chinese curse.  “May you live in interesting times.”

And the times have never been more “interesting.”  Not in my lifetime, anyway.

First there is Covid19.  Then the police in Minneapolis murder yet another black man and my city goes up in flames.  Now homes near me are being threatened—“We’ll burn you in your sleep”—for having Black Lives Matter signs in their yards.

At this writing Covid19 is responsible for over 400,000 recorded deaths around the world.  Well over 100,000 of those are in my country.  Far more than 1,000 have died in Minnesota, my state.  All those numbers are still rising.

And who can begin to count those other deaths, the ones that come directly or indirectly from our country’s deeply ingrained racism?

Most disheartening of all, this human suffering has become yet another political football. If we ever had the capacity to pull together in a time of crisis in this country, we have certainly lost it now.

And yet—here comes my confession—I wake each morning into gratitude.

Why?  Because I wake to this world, a world that holds us all, holds such pain and holds such comfort, such sweetness, such heart-rending beauty.

In the first days of the Covid19 crisis, I stood one morning in my shower and said to myself, “At least for today, I have hot water.”

“At least for today, I have good work waiting.”

“At least for today, I have the privilege of breath.”

And I have repeated those words every morning since.

There are others out there, of course, too many others, whose today is much more difficult than mine.  They don’t have hot showers.  They don’t have work.  Sometimes they don’t even have breath.

But how can I help them by failing to rejoice over all that has been given to me, if only in the quiet of my mind?

I bought a new home a year ago, a strange thing for an octogenarian to do, but I did.  And last summer our sprawling yard was grass and sunshine—too much grass, too much sunshine—and mosquitoes.  We looked out on it with pleasure but could hardly step outside.

This summer we have a screened gazebo and rain gardens and baby lilacs and forsythia and ferns and lots of young, trees.  Red bud and crab apple, clump river birch and balsam and cedar, a lovely honey locust.  Our yard has become a paradise of chickadees and cardinals and downy woodpeckers and goldfinches and bluebirds!  I’ve never had a bluebird in my yard before.  Ever.  And they came to nest in the bluebird house my partner put out for them.

Safe at home, forced to be safe at home, glad to be safe at home, we have luxuriated in our small, green paradise of birds.

Then the house sparrows came.  They bullied the downy woodpecker out of the house he was preparing for his mate.  Then they moved on to kill one of the adult chickadees settled into another house.  They killed a naked baby, too.  After which they flew off, taking their murderous ways with them.

“Our” bluebirds were still there, though, still flying back and forth, carefully, carefully, carefully tending whatever family they had begun.  (We didn’t dare peek.)

And then one day they were gone, the bluebirds and all the rest of the colorful choir that had kept us spellbound.  All, all gone.

When my partner peeked—she’s the bird woman in our family—she found a nest with two perfect blue eggs.  Only that.

This time we don’t know where to place the blame.  Some raptor, perhaps, taking care of its needs as we take care of our own three times a day.  (I have more sympathy for raptors than for sparrows, though I know that the sparrows never asked to be brought to this place.)

So . . . this is the world we live in.  All of us.  A beautiful world, an abundant world, a miraculous world.  A world in which even birds maraud and kill.

A world in which a virus is just another form of life, struggling to survive.

Still . . . I wake each morning knowing I can never sing sweetly enough, persistently enough, loudly enough to match the largess of my days.

Even in isolation, even in pain and loss, my song can never be enough.

Amen!

Bee

Photo by Dmitry Grigoriev on Unsplash

In the name of the Bee –
And of the Butterfly –
And of the Breeze – Amen!

Emily Dickinson

My City is Burning

Fire

Photo by Cris DiNoto on Unsplash

My city is burning.

Yes, I live in Minnesota, in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where a police officer knelt on an unarmed black man’s neck while three other officers—and many members of our community—stood watching.  You probably know the story.  The black man died.

As I write this the ashes of those fires are still hot.  And there is no guarantee there won’t be more fires tonight or the night after.  Or the night after that.

Will we ever learn to see by the light of those fires?

This terrible moment in time makes me stop, once again, to examine my own history.

I grew up in the mill housing at the edge of a small Midwestern town.  It was a working-class community, exclusively white, mostly eastern Europeans and Irish.  My dad was the chemist at the cement mill and our family was English.  We were part of the community and never quite belonged.

Our town was one of three that had grown up across from one another along a river in northern Illinois, and I learned at a young age that there had once been a sign.  It was one of those don’t-let-the-sun-set-on-you-in-this-town kind of signs.  I never found proof that the sign had actually existed, but the reality of the warning certainly did.  Those who weren’t supposed to let the sun set on them knew who they were and stayed away.

Which means I grew up in a profoundly segregated world.  I always knew it was segregated and my parents taught me that segregation was wrong.  But still, I didn’t have a clue what it meant to be non-white and excluded or what my own whiteness might mean.

I remember loving Al Jolson films.  I was well into adulthood before I had even a glimmer of understanding of the insult in a black-face performance.

Even more important, I didn’t know that I didn’t know.  And I didn’t know that my whole society, the dominant society that I took to represent the whole of it, was at least as ignorant as I.  Only recently I stumbled onto the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and realizing it was a classic I’d never seen, settled in to enjoy.

Who doesn’t love Audrey Hepburn in her big sunglasses and tiny black dresses?  But then there was Mickey Rooney as a clumsy, screaming Asian man with a whole set of extra dentures to make him suitably buck-toothed. I was beyond appalled!  Did such a characterization ever seemed funny?

All of which puts me in mind of something I encountered in last year’s fine documentary on Toni Morrison.  The film quoted a line from a reviewer—white, of course—of one of her early novels.  He said something like, “Maybe someday she’ll grow up and write for and about real people.”

That one doesn’t even require a comment.

We all come into the world trapped inside our own skulls, inside our own skins. We gather into groups and name ourselves “the people,” and we find a word for everyone else that means “the other.”  The whole world does it.

And when any one group gains power over others, that power will not be—has never been—used well.

I was born into that dominant group.  Born into an inauspicious milling community but with a white skin. I have spent my life trying to see past the limitations of my whiteness, but true understanding hasn’t been easy to come by.

I do know something about being other.  I am an old lesbian, so I have had no choice but to learn about otherness.  But not only am I still protected by my white skin, I lived so long in the heterosexual world before I ever acknowledged my sexuality that without even wanting to do so, I pass.  (Once another lesbian said to me, “You’re a good spokesperson for our community because you look so safe.”)

We in this “white country” are finally being forced to recognize the multicultural world we actually live in.  Our journey of recognition is often a clumsy one.  And sometimes we are more than inept, we are vicious.

We in the children’s book world are being forced to make the journey into a multicultural world, too.  And I could say the same thing about clumsiness, ineptness, even viciousness for us.

It’s a steep learning curve for those who started out believing that we were the standard by which all others should be judged, that everyone else when they finally got there would, of course, want to be just like us.

I am encouraged, though, to know that the identity I was born into and have always lived in, the trap of my white skin, is finally cracking open.  Just a bit.

Open enough, I hope, to let some of the light of otherness shine in.

I regret deeply that sometimes that light has to come from fires.

Peace on Earth

Peace

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

Praise god or the gods, the unknown,
that which imagined us, which stays
our hand, our murderous hand,
and gives us still,
in the shadow of death,
our daily life,
and the dream still
of goodwill, of peace on earth.

Denise Levertov