Thoughts and illustrations on living on the autism spectrum.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

S, Storyteller Spectacular

Maurice Sendak’s name didn’t mean a thing to me growing up, but his books sure did. An essential piece of my early childhood in the late 70’s, they left a vivid impression for many different reasons. I didn’t know the man behind it all, until the Colbert interview, and it was then that I grasped the extent of his awesomeness. Then and now, he kept it real.

“Where the Wild Things Are” was the one to pick up and get lost in the pictures. What young child couldn’t relate to escaping banishment to your room through fantasy? They say some found the Wild Things too scary, but I never did. Terrible? More like big doofuses with googley eyes. I wanted to be in there rumpus-ing it up. “Wild Things” is called a parable about anger, which Sendak rightly recognized is intense for children. Imagination is indeed a valuable tool for working through that very strong emotion. And how comforting that Max is free to be as bad as he wants, but when he decides he’s ready to come back to reality, his supper is waiting for him and is still hot.

“Pierre,” on the other hand, was unsettling to me from the get-go. Telling everyone and everything to f*** off, without provocation? Oh yeah. If you’re under 5, been there, done that. But it seems far more sinister here. Is Pierre just testing his limits, or is he some kind of psychopath? Could he really be so heartless to not “have to bother with a mother and a father?” Does he have some kind of death wish? Even the lion is like, “Look, dude, I don’t really want to eat you, but if you insist.” The neat and tidy happy ending is little consolation, because it’s not clear whether Pierre actually learned to care, or if he’s just giving lip service, like so many of us when we’re told to say “sorry.” All the while, we see Pierre’s mom and dad displaying patience, never losing their temper as they put up with all his crap. If his words are hurtful, they sure don’t let him see it. These people are saints. Charles Hatfield explains the kind of love they show:

“I’m not talking about ‘love’ earned through some disciplinary calculus that seeks to impress its grinding lessons on the child - apologize, say you’re sorry, don’t act out - but love given openly in spite of our essential f***ed-up-ness.”

I’m thinking that's the essence of what it means to be a good parent. Especially when you have a child on the spectrum. Landon Bryce speculates that Pierre might qualify for an autism diagnosis. In any case, his story serves as a reminder of one of the most difficult lessons of growing up; to learn empathy for others and realize your words have consequences. And, a reminder of the goodness of parents. There’s something to ponder this Mothers’ Day.

The most lasting impact of Sendak’s work on me wasn’t through books, but music. “Really Rosie” was the soundtrack to a 70’s animated special, which by the way, I never even saw, till I Youtubed it this week. But we had the vinyl LP, and I wore it out until it scratched and popped. So much so, that when I remember the words, I remember where the skips were.

K, keeping, K, keeping, K, keeping kangaroos…

The music by Carole King and lyrics by Sendak were instantly connectable, about jungles, and soup, and vampires. Thematically,  it celebrated imagination, dreaming big, and being able to be anything you want to be. A star in your own movie.

“Such Sufferin’” seems to be the track I come back to the most. It bridges the gap between child and grown-up, as Rosie realizes that dreams aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and she needs to stay grounded in reality. Somehow this doesn’t diminish the optimism of the record at all. As a child, I puzzled over what was so hard about being a grown-up that you needed to pop a Bufferin. And years later, I can say, oh yeah, now I get it.

Money, success, I’d settle for less,
If I’d just stop this sufferin’.

Sendak himself said much the same thing in his own words, “There must be more to life than having everything.” And it’s true, being a grown-up can suck. But it’s okay, because you can have your reality and your fantasy too. Sendak was undoubtedly a believer in the need for fantasy into adulthood.

He was not on the spectrum, presumably. He was not a parent. He was a marginalized outsider whose greatest pleasure seemed to come from creating his art, his way. Childhood is wonderful and terrible all at once. Maurice Sendak understood that, and he encapsulated it like nobody else.