Something Lighter

I needed to listen to something light the other day because my thoughts had been immersed for too long in serial killers. I go for the crime drama shows and had just finished the last episode of Mindhunter on Netflix – two seasons about the early days (1970s) of the FBI’s “Behavioral Science Unit,” a department that studied patterns and traits of the baddest of the bad to help find and identify others of their ilk. The second season concerns the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-81. It’s heavy stuff.

Not yet ready for bed after I turned off the TV, I was curious how much of the show was based on fact so I googled Atlanta Child Murders. Seems the writers of Mindhunter got a lot right.

That led to curiosity about the renamed “Behavioral Analysis Unit” founded in 1972 at Quantico by real-life agents Robert Ressler and John Douglas. That led to a piece on the qualifications for being an FBI agent (what does it take to get that job) which I couldn’t/wouldn’t even consider for various reasons, which then led to an article about the most notorious of the serial killers, the Top Ten, the ones that shaped the initial studies and led to criminal profiling that is still used today.

Ted Bundy, Edmund Kemper, Jeffrey Dahmer and others – these almost alien men committed crimes that have no words strong enough to describe. Ghastly, shocking, horrifying, evil, wicked, despicable, heinous, demonic, atrocious, monstrous, brutal – all these words seem pale to me when examining the crimes. This is not the kind of stuff you should be reading before going to bed if you want good dreams.

So I finally said to myself, Yeah, something lighter maybe.

A gardening podcast perhaps? My gourds had reminded me that the garden was not a complete failure this year.

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My neighbor Jennifer took some that I offered and had fun with her daughter Anna Lane.

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But I didn’t find a gardening podcast. Instead I stumbled on something called The Slow Home. No, it’s not about the homeowner’s intellectual deficiencies. And it’s not about how fast we move (or don’t) when we are exhausted from shoveling too much concrete that is masquerading as dirt. It’s about purposefully, mindfully adjusting your pace, your home, your life to make room for the stuff that matters to you.

It was a lovely alternative to serial killers, I must say.  And an intriguing topic.

Taking our time, enjoying the moments, not in a hurry – do we do this as much as we should?  Thinking about such things reminded of some of the scenes I like best in some of the children’s books I like best. (These are for you, Mona!)

Such as when Frog and Toad stare at the garden plot together and Frog gently suggests that the garden will grow in its own good time.

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Or when Fern and Avery take turns swinging in the barn door in that famous summer of Charlotte’s Web.

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Or when the boy plays in the bracken with The Velveteen Rabbit.

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Or during One Morning in Maine when Sal and her sister Jane have to wait just a bit longer for their ice cream cones because of “Mr. Ferd Clifford and Mr. Oscar Staples, who were sitting in the store talking about trapping lobsters and how the fish were biting.”

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Or in Blueberries for Sal when Little Sal “picked three berries and dropped them in her little tin pail…kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk!” (Oh, may we take the time to hear the kuplinks and the kuplanks and the kuplunks in our lives!)

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Or when, “early every morning, Francois, the keeper’s son, stopped on his way to school to say, ‘Bonjour, Happy Lion.’”

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Or when Madeleine is not afraid of mice.

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Or when Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel are peacefully settled in the humble cellar of the new town hall and Mrs. McGillicuddy brings a hot apple pie 😊

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I was just reading to Ellie and Nelson last week, so I’ve got these lovely, peaceful images fresh in my mind.

 

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Frog and Toad and Fern and Avery and the Velveteen Rabbit and Sal and Jane and Francois and the Happy Lion and Madeleine and Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel make me wonder about “the company we keep.” For years I read these books and many others to my kids, over and over again, and now I read them to my grandchildren when they come visit. The pages are soft from many, many turnings. The images are familiar old friends that warm my heart and gentle my day.

We all have something, I hope, Something Lighter, Something Balanced, Joyful, Peaceful, Delightful for those times when Something Gruesome or Tragic or Angry wants to win the day and snag every part of us and paint the world all wrong. What’s your Something Lighter? I know some of your answers: fishing, golf, painting, woodworking, writing poems, cooking, playing games, watching the Patriots (!), playing Wordfeud or Rummikub, walking the dog… What else?

The Happy Lion

The long-range result of most anything is hard to predict, but in general, good begets good. When I was a kid, twice a year or so we had a book fair at school. My mother, God bless her, let me choose a few each time. I remember there being a flyer ahead of time describing the available books so that I could make careful selections. Bound pages with captivating drawings and compelling stories have always been a thrill for me; perhaps it started here. I eagerly devoured each new little book, unaware (as children are) that ideas and attitudes take root in the early years.

I remember only two books specifically, and of these, only one survived: The Happy Lion by Louise Fatio with pictures by Roger Duvoisin. I loved the exotic, Parisian setting and the characters’ foreign names, the lion’s unexpected adventure in town, the looooong sounds of the fire engine, and the sweet, unlikely friendship between the lion and Francois.

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This simple drawing on the last page of the book of Francois and the happy lion together says it all: We are friends, and that is that.  It doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks about that, or if they approve or understand or appreciate. We just are. The text confirms it:

From then on, the happy lion got the best tidbits the town saved for him.

But if you opened his door

He would not wish to go out visiting again.

He was happier to sit in his rock garden

While on the other side of the moat

Monsieur Dupont, Madame Pinson,

and all his old friends came to see him again

like polite and sensible people

to say “Bonjour, Happy Lion.”

But he was happiest

when he saw Francois walk through the park

every afternoon on his way home from school.

Then he swished his tail for joy,

for Francois remained always his dearest friend

I never felt like I had a dearest friend when I was a kid. I had friends, but not a dearest. It sounded very nice. What is a dearest friend? Let’s even forget the superlative for now — what is a dear friend? Once you have been around the block a time or two, you have a general idea about the definition, or at least you have your own definition, and whatever that is, I say stick with it: the way you look at it is the best way to look at it.

As for myself, the very idea of a dear friend warms my heart, and warmth is not usually a quick thing. I don’t think Francois became the happy lion’s dearest friend the first day he visited. Instead, as is generally true, I suspect their friendship happened little by little. One day the sun was shining and the birds were singing and the lion was basking in his safe and comfy world, when along came a boy, not doing much, just near. Maybe he walked along the edge of the moat, glancing up at the tawny gold fluff now and then, staring more than he realized, wondering, admiring.  He wants to be near me, the lion thought, and was happier than he had been before. The boy, for his part, was fascinated with the big, beautiful creature: the lines of the body, the gleam of the fur, the fluff of the mane, the size of the yawn, the graceful gait, the thoughtful eyes. The lion did nothing extraordinary (for a lion) but the boy did just like to be near him. And the lion felt special, chosen even. They made eye contact, which did not scare either one of them, so they looked at each other some more. It was a mutual like — interesting, unthreatening, pleasant. Something to go on.

On another day, clouds blocked the sun and the breeze was a bit chilly, but still the boy came and still the fur gleamed and still the lion’s eyes drew the boy’s attention away from everything else. He sat across the moat, not noticing that the bench was damp from the night’s rainfall, not noticing that he pulled the collar of his jacket a little higher on his neck against the chill, not noticing anything but the incredible animal. He gazed less shyly. Bonjour, Happy Lion, said the boy softly, and the lion smiled to himself and thought: I knew I liked him. Now I think he likes me. It’s not my imagination. Lucky me!

Day after day, the boy came. They did not change the world around them — the sun shined or it didn’t, Monsieur Dupont groomed his beard in that pointy way, Madame Pinson knitted scarves and socks all the day long, the squirrels and birds competed for food and nesting places. But Francois and the happy lion changed each other. They made each other feel different than they had felt before. To be liked, just because, this was something remarkable.  To have a friend, to have someone you could call a dear friend, this too was something remarkable.

Time. Togetherness. Smiles. Softness. More time. Care. Gentleness. More time. Understanding. Ease. Peacefulness. More time. Increasing beauty. Precious moments. Depth. Comfort.

And then a need.

It was not a need at first. The lion was simply curious and took a step through the door of his house and into the bigger world. He did not intend the hubbub that followed. He was just being his calm and friendly self, but the world was suddenly different. Things happened that he did not understand, people acted in ways that confused him.

“I can’t think,” said the happy lion, “what makes them do that. They are always so polite at the zoo.”

He began to lose faith.

“People in this town are foolish, as I begin to see.”

Just when the situation might have gotten ugly and frightening, along came Francois and met the need of the moment perfectly.

SUDDENLY,

behind the lion,

a little voice cried, “Bonjour, Happy Lion.”

It was Francois, the keeper’s son, on his way home from school!

He had seen the lion and had come running to him.

That’s what friends do. They run to us, come alongside us, walk with us through the confusing stuff, the scary stuff. They make us feel better just by being there.

The happy lion was so VERY HAPPY

to meet a friend who did not run and who said “Bonjour

that he forgot all about the firemen.

And he never found out what they were going to do, because Francois put his hand on the lion’s great mane and said,

“Let’s walk back to the park together.”

“Yes, let’s,” purred the happy lion.

“Being there” used to mean being there with someone, with in the sense of physical presence. Francois met up with the lion in the confusing city scene. Two kindred spirits, side by side, faced it together. In almost all cases, being with someone includes not only presence but also some kind of touch, a sense of comfort or perhaps even safety, and words. Words may be slippery and at times unreliable, but they have been part of our world for a very long time. In-person interactions include words as well as instant responses, the option to show rather than tell, and lots of nonverbal cues, mood indicators and behavior predictors. But we are not always in person. Sometimes words are written and communication changes.

Don’t get me wrong – I am ever grateful for written language, poor and incomplete a tool of communication as it may be at times. Words of greeting, news, counsel, humor, or desire help people who are not in the same physical space connect with each other. Until not so very long ago, distance communication between two parties was mostly limited to words on paper, sent via painfully slow routes. Letter-writers waited (interminably it seemed) for responses. Couriers sped along when a matter was urgent, and telegrams improved that speed. When the telephone was invented, people got used to hearing a voice through a device. And then the internet came, and email and cell phones and texting and skype and facebook.

I remember when email was new. I remember explaining it this way: I will type a letter to my friend and see the words on a screen in front of me, and then I will hit one of these buttons (keys, we now call them) and the letter will be sent (God only knows how!) to the person I am sending it to, who will be able to read my letter on their own screen. What a wondrous thing!

The frequency and methods of communicating not in person keep increasing. All this technology, in theory for some and in practice for others, improves the connection between people, easing the physical distance. Each advance seemed specifically designed to get closer and closer to the real thing, to enhance that connection, to lessen or seemingly negate the physical separation.  Email and text afford nearly instant responses (assuming you respond to every beep and buzz), and often include visuals that add enjoyment and understanding. Face to face video interactions (skyping, facetiming, whatever you choose) get you closer still.

I will grant there is good in technology – a lot of good — and I am very grateful for it. We do keep trying to get close. We do recognize the value of closeness. We know and want the real thing and we do what we can despite the miles. Also, while technology may not be the real thing, it is something, and something is better than nothing. We have more something than we used to.

But I will not grant all good. Technology is not the real thing, no matter how good it gets. The screen may be a window, but it is also a barrier. No technology will replace physical presence. Words on paper or on a screen are still devoid of eye contact, touch, smell, intonation, smiles, detail, and subtle clues that something is delightful or amiss or needed. Emoticons help a little. Video goes a step farther. I applaud the effort and intention and the bits of time people spend thumbing a text to a friend, but I will venture that if the happy lion had a cell phone during his rather confusing and challenging situation, he may have heard the beep and seen “Bonjour, Happy Lion” from Francois and it would perhaps have helped a little, but I doubt it would have met the need of the moment perfectly, as Francois being there in person did. Francois put his hand on the lion’s great mane and said, “Let’s walk back to the park together.” There is no emoticon for that, no substitute.

The other downside of communicating via technology is that it can remind us of what we don’t have. Like having bowl of steaming soup in front of us on a cold day that we must just stare at but are not allowed to eat. Like window shopping when we have no money. Like watching lovers when we are alone. Is something always better than nothing? We each must decide what, and how much, we can handle.

Can you be or have a dear friend using technology alone? Of course. You will just miss some things, and will miss them by noticing the absence of them and possibly by lamenting the absence of them. You will miss the gentle touch of a hand on your shoulder (or your mane, as the case may be), the smell of coffee brewing in the background, the almost invisible look of delight when a certain something is mentioned. An hour with someone we care about is worth a thousand texts. Nonetheless, we do, and will continue to do, the best we can with the tools we have. Technology will improve yet again and will get us as close as we can be without actually being there. But I will hope that we are coming full circle, that all the advancement in ways to simulate physical presence will serve to remind us more pointedly of what we’re missing and this in turn will urge us strongly to get to a place that is not simulated. Now that’s something to look forward to.

In the end, dear friendship involves doing what we can with what we have, working within our own bounds of time, resources, comfort and ability to enrich, strengthen and protect the life of someone we care about. In the pencil drawer in my desk is a tattered index card with the following quote handwritten on it by me long ago. More times than I can remember, it has reminded me that I don’t have to do everything, but I should do what I can.

I am only one

But still I am one.

I cannot do everything, 

But still I can do something.

And because I cannot do everything

I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

                                        —Edward Everett Hale

Francois did what he could do, and look what it meant to the happy lion. What he did was very good, and it was enough. Technology or no technology, that’s all any of us can do. And the best thing to do next? Rest. Smile. Then do more.