01 July 2017

Covered in Bees!

When I was six years old, I stepped on a nest of yellow jackets. We had stopped on the side of the road to pee off the side of the car, par for the course on family roadtrips, and then my dad, little sister, and I wandered a little ways into the woods where we found an abandoned train track and decided to explore it. I was first. I remember the before and the after: first the woods, hazy and green, dappled light filtered through leaves, and then the pain.

We were somewhere along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Appalachian Mountains. Beautiful and remote. I stepped on the nest and suddenly I was surrounded by angry wasps. They were ferocious and unrelenting. I remember my dad yelling for me to run, but his voice came through a veil that panic had thrown between me and the rest of the world. On the other side of the veil, my dad yelled "Run! Run!" On my side, the wasps buzzed in my ears and my feet stayed frozen in place.


What a surprise it was to discover that the world can change in a second. That the ground can spin itself into a swarm and surround you faster than you can process it. I'm not sure if I knew before that moment. I'm not sure I know now. Maybe it's something we have to discover again and again. Maybe it's something we're better off forgetting.

Eventually my dad caught up to me and grabbed me under his arm, a frozen girl statue, and carried me out of the woods back to our little blue super beetle. I had been stung 13 or 14 times. My dad had 8 stings and my little sister had 3 or 4. My parents had no idea whether my sister and I might be allergic to stings. Our first aid kit was what we had in the car: I held cold cans of beer from the cooler against my hot skin as my parents frantically tried to find a Ranger's Station.

That's all I remember. I remember the woods, the buzzing, the fear, the freezing, and finally the cold aluminum cans against my baby skin. I have no memory of what happened next. I have no memory of how long the stings hurt.

Anyway, last night I startled a bunch of yellow jackets while I was cutting down burdock growing against the fence. One of them stung me, fast and hard, right on the wrist bone. There was no buzzing, no veil, no moment where time turned to honey, viscous and glowing. There was just this tiny F16 on a mission and a sudden shock of pain. And then there was me, yelling expletives at yellow jackets until it occurred to me to rescue myself. I went inside, washed my whole arm and hand with soap, took an antihistamine, and kept it on ice for the rest of the night.

There is something I appreciate about physical ailments: I like how they bring me back to my body. I like how they put my brain in its place. They remind me that no matter how smart I think I am, I am not in control of the universe, because I live inside a body that is subject to illness and injury. It keeps me humble.

But I don't appreciate this one. You guys, it HURT. It ached like muscles do after you get a shot. Last time I got a TDAP booster, my arm ached for two days. This was worse. I spent half the night googling additional remedies, but came up empty handed. Today, the ache has lessened, but the area around the sting is swollen and itchy and hot. I'm grumpy about it. I just want to complain.

Finally I texted my mom for advice. "This one sting hurts so much! How did I not die when I was little?"

She wrote back, "I gave you Benadryl and Advil right away and put a cold can immediately on the sting sites. Then I cuddled you until you felt better."

Ah, the missing ingredient: cuddles. No wonder I'm so grumpy today.

I think of the little girl who was me, sitting in the back of a hot car, scared, surprised, holding cold beer cans to her 13 stings. Another girl might never have gone back to the woods. Another girl might have developed a lifelong phobia of bees. But the little girl who was me didn't let the possibility of getting hurt again keep her away from the world. She went on exploring. She kept loving the woods. She stayed brave and curious. She stayed open to a world that could hurt her at any moment. 

The world hurts a lot these days. Some days it's the gathering swarm, coming from all sides. Other days it's the stealth bomber, unexpected and sharp. Some days it feels impossible to keep going.

But I am still that girl. I go on loving the world. 

16 March 2017

Ferdinand the Bull and the Power of Stories

In the picture book class I'm teaching, I asked my students to bring in books to share so that we could get a broader range of texts to discuss. One woman brought in The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson. My students are all much older than me (you have to be at least 50 to take the class, and a few of them are in their 80s), but we all had good memories of reading this simple story about a little bull who would rather smell the flowers than fight.
The Story of Ferdinand was published by Viking in September, 1936, to little fanfare. Early in 1937, though, sales began to grow weekly, and by 1938 this little book for children was outselling the enormously popular Gone With the Wind. The book's message of individuality, independence, and peace resonated with people across the globe. 
Not everyone loved it, however. The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was so threatened by its peaceful message that he banned it in Spain as long as he held power. After his death in 1975, copies of the book were seen as symbols that Spain was finally free.
Adolf Hitler also felt threatened by the little bull. He called the book "degenerate democratic propaganda" and ordered that all copies be destroyed. At the end of WWII, 30,000 copies of the book were printed and freely distributed among German children as a message of peace.
The women in my class are writing all kinds of stories for children. Today I heard stories about mysterious noises, first bus rides, learning the constellations, the National Parks, houses for mouses, baobab trees, new friends, and the food web. I loved them all.
At the end of class, we got into a discussion of current events. Many of the women are retired teachers or librarians, and like me, they are worried, upset, angry, disgusted, depressed, and overwhelmed by recent attacks on education, health care, the environment, the arts, science, immigrants, Muslims, and free speech (and that's just the list of things we talked about), both here in Iowa and on the national level. Some of them told me that they feel helpless and hopeless. Some of them told me they want to fight. Others said they wanted to help, but they didn't know how.
Ladies, I can relate.
I told them that these days I end my college classes by reminding my undergrads to be kind to each other. I told them that the drafts they shared in class today inspired and cheered me. I thanked them for sharing, and told them that this class is the highlight of my week. And then I reminded them that something as simple as a children's picture book about a funny little bull could be powerful enough to threaten dictators. 
Stories matter. Art matters. Your voice matters. 
Keep creating, my friends, and remember to be kind to each other.