Saturday, November 23, 2013

The "Good Parts Version."

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When I was a nanny I had a few favorites. One was a little girl who loved the poem "The Doctor and the Dormouse." It's in a slim volume of poetry called "Now We are Six" (I am sure there is no need for introduction) and for many people this and its companion volume, "When We Were Very Young" summarize much that we romanticize about childhood. 

Christopher Milne himself, in his book "The Enchanted Places" discusses the complexities of being the inspiration for many of these poems but in the end he takes a mostly loving view of his father's view of his own youth. Art is always a manipulation, or a carving away of that which is not essential in order to get to the essence of the subject that interests the author.

 The real Christopher Robin's book is fascinating in its pulling back the veil to see a child (and adult) who was sometimes hurt and offended by his father's representations and, in a way, theft of his childhood experience. (Not to mention the public attention it invited --something a shy boy couldn't want  less. ) But even he acknowledges that A.A. Milne got some things right and that for those not so close to the material, his father created a world in which both parents and children find refuge and maybe a bit of that "celestial light" through which children view the world. (Wordsworth.)

Christopher Milne argues that his father got that wrong, that his father thinks Wordsworth meant that we see the child appareled in this light but  that what Wordsworth actually meant was that the child sees the world appareled thus. I am not sure there is much difference in the interpretations. Doesn't the former result in the latter?

I used to tote these two volumes to an apartment on 121st street where I watched two young children, a little girl and her baby brother. The little girl looked so much like the Ernest Shepard illustrations of Christopher, Alice and  Jane that it made it eerily fitting that she took to these poems with such intensity.  She was too little to understand the meaning or even the story of "The Doctor and The Dormouse," but she loved it all the same. She loved its rhythm and rhyme and she loved the fancy car in which the doctor road to and from the city and she loved the mouse with his paws hiding his eyes in a bed of chrysanthemums. 

I had a large library of children's books collected not only for my imaginary someday offspring but to put in my backpack at night for work. Children would often rush to see which books were hiding inside. A hidden  Hershey's Kiss made the discoveries all the sweeter. Armed with chocolate and the books that I loved I could face the long evenings of accompanying children through nights of awaiting their parents' return.

When I was pregnant I had hopes and anxiety. What if my child was not an Ernest Shepard illustration? How dare I expect her to be? And has she become one in my mind and through my camera's lens because that's what I want to see, just as A.A. Milne's agenda shaped the world's view of his own son? Do we rob our children with our projections or do we merely pass on our family culture? 

I borrow (once more) from William Goldman's introduction to "The Princess Bride." This is what I want to  to tell her about what I have tried to capture about her on camera and on paper. In so doing I hope I have not imprisoned her but drawn out her essence. Or at least how I saw it at the time:

"Anyway, here's the "good parts" version...My father read it to me. And now I give it to you. What you do with it will be of more than passing interest to us all." 

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