Last weekend, I was answering emails in my studio while my children were watching “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile” in my bed next door.
“Emory, why are you sad?” chirped my son’s voice, over the susurrus of the screen. A pause. “Emory, why are you sad?”
I poked my head out. My daughter’s cheek was pressed to the pillow, and tears streamed down her face. Her expression toggled between heartache and surprise, and I could tell, just from the arch of her eyebrows, that her own emotions were startling — even betraying — her.
“They’re happy tears,” she hiccuped. I absorbed enough from the TV to understand we were at the end of a stirring friendship montage set to music, and that she had been so moved by the sentiment, she’d shuttled into tears. I climbed into bed next to her and held her. I told her that movies, and books, often overwhelmed me in good ways, too. I told her that her receptivity to those emotions was nothing to be scared of. “It just shows you have a big, open heart.”
After we’d worked our way into smiles, I went downstairs to tell my husband.
“I was waiting for this to happen,” he said. “It’s her ‘Charlotte’s Web’ moment.” My husband has often recounted the time, when he was five or six, that he was watching “Charlotte’s Web” in his parents’ basement, eating a bowl of buttered pasta, and Charlotte (the spider) died. He sobbed openly, noodles falling from his mouth.
I think of these “early audience connection” moments as profound emotional touchstones. I’m frankly relived that my daughter’s (seeming? possible?) “first” anchored upon an uplifting message of friendship, and its resonance with her makes particular sense to me: she is, at the moment, falling in love with her little friends at school. They have nicknames for one another, and inside jokes, and the games they play at recess are shared with arched, amused eyebrows, as though precious intelligence that will dazzle and shock me.
My husband’s, by contrast, presented the startling concept of the death of a friend. This must have been terrifying for him.
I think of three simultaneously. The first, and certainly earliest: Maleficent from Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.” I found her so grotesquely disturbing that I routinely figured the flood-lights outside my childhood bedroom window as her horns. I would turn my back and feel the prickle of her eyes on me. I would spin around, and, for a moment, convince myself I’d seen her face, before I’d make out the mundane metal of the lamps. I was fixated on the violence of her spindle, and her gaunt, vampiric visage. She seemed to me anathema to all things maternal. My mother was soft, and kind, and pink, and this godmother-type figure was brittle and bones and darkness. Thinking back, it strikes me as interesting that I did fine with the Bambis and Dumbos of that era — films in which mothers and babies lost one another — but the subversive presentation of a different kind of mother, one who might torment and injure a child, distressed me.
I can’t remember any other cultural phenomena impressing itself so powerfully on my imagination until I was a more seasoned reader, at which point I read and absolutely fell apart at Katherine Patterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. Shortly afterwards, I watched and again fell apart at the movie “My Girl.” In both of these narratives, children die in natural accidents, and while without parental supervision. There was something pointedly unnerving about the notion that tragedy might arrive not because I’d done something obviously wrong, like running out into a busy street, or accepting a sticker from a stranger*, but at the unexpectedly baleful hands of the indifferent natural world that lived just outside my back door. These were not children who died in plane crashes or on crumbling bridges; these were children who died in shallow creeks, and thunderstorms, and swarms of bees. These stories reshaped the domesticated wilderness of my backyard into an unsafe space. The subtext stuck.
I write this and I wonder if I’m showing too much of my hand — whether I am revealing unprocessed fears that you might find very obvious about me already? I read a fascinating interview a week or two ago that has been flickering in my mind since. Laurel Braitman, in conversation with Anne Petersen, said: “I tell this to my students now: you can only write at the speed of your own self-awareness. You do not want the reader to have a realization or insight about your life that you haven’t had already or they will lose respect for you.” Perhaps many of you have already had insights about me that I’ve yet to unearth, or wrap my arms around. I hope you will bear with me as I write my way into them? Perhaps this is a lot to ask of you as my audience, but — well, if you’ve been with me for awhile, I trust you’re comfortable with the muck and imprecision that comes with publishing my thoughts daily. I am currently thinking a lot about a dinner party I attended in which the hosts asked us a series of questions from The Proust Questionnaire. One was: “What is your greatest fear?” I almost called out: “Next!” because I anticipated that everyone would say the same thing: “Losing a loved one.” I was shocked — shook! — when not one participant shared that fear. Not one. I found myself helicoptering above my own life for a moment, and saw vividly the string of illnesses and deaths that have profoundly marked me, driven me to medical anxiety in some cases, left me sheet-white in the face of benign symptoms. Perhaps this is clear as day to you, and has been for a long time. But it was news to me that I might be unusually scarred on this matter.
Anyhow – those coalescing awarenesses are tomorrow’s work. The project of the next many years. Today, let me recenter on the concept of early readerly connections: the texts that sent your emotional antenna to “alert.” What was yours? Can you remember the first time a book or movie pierced you? Rearranged your perspective? Twanged against existing fears and awarenesses, or seeded new ones? I wonder how these early moments have shaped your own fears and bugaboos? Do you find yourself still hung up on some?
*Does anyone else remember a grade school anti-drug campaign in which we were told that strangers might offers us stickers laced with LCD? I’m not sure if this was in response to actual incidents in the District of Columbia, or a roundabout way of suggesting that accepting anything — even something fun, and child-oriented — from a stranger was dangerous.
+Literary life raft — the stories we need in order to live.
+My favorite sunglasses, now available in four FUN new colors. I own in black, tortoise, and caramel but might need the pink or matte cream? These are really dramatic and have a designer (Celine-esque) shape to them, but the price is right.
+Major Zimmermann vibes for under $100. LOVE the bold colors. Selling fast!
+This Cleobella blouse sparks joy. Reminds me of Ulla, but much less expensive.
+Currently scheming about my Easter tablescape…these taper candlestick holders are on my wish list.
+$8 Easter bunnies — adorable as basket fillers or decor. I love the style / patterns available!
+I just sorted through my children’s bath toys, which had outgrown their container and were routinely spilt all over their bathroom floor. Many of them were molded or too-young for them. I bought this fun set of Bath Blocks as a replacement. BTW, this Ubbi bath toy holder is still such a genius design. The bin has large draining holes at the bottom and you set it on top of the “base” to let water drip out into the bottom such that toys are not sitting in water for days on end.
+This darling two-piece set is in my cart for mini. Love them together, but would also be cute as a top with jeans or a skirt with a white sweater.
+An on-trend raffia platform sandal for under $75.
+My daughter received a Boogie Board for her birthday, and — though we’ve had similar toys in the past (Magna Doodles, Amazon knock-offs), this one has been at her side whenever she’s at home. She’s obsessed with asking me for drawing challenges, like “draw a flamingo blowing a bubble” or “a lion brushing its teeth,” sketching on the board, and then erasing to do another challenge. Clever for restaurants, travel, or just home fun.
+I also saw they sell these mini “Boogie Board Post-It” type contraptions, which are a really clever way to use less paper. Like, a great mnemonic for those pesky little things you want to remember in the morning, e.g., “pack an extra snack for mini,” or “$2 for free dress!,” or whatever.
+Bottega vibes for under $50.
+Love this new pattern from Agua Bendita.
+A spectacular Mara Hoffman dress. Love the pattern, color, shape –!