I’ve been running this blog for a while now, and I love writing on it. When I get a chance to write in between deadlines, I’m always thrilled. One thing I love is that perfectly poised moment in time before I choose a book to write about. I ask myself the question: What do I love so much I can’t not write about it? And there are always a million and four books which pop to mind before the choice plops into my head. And then there are days like today. Days when I’m forcefully reminded of the world outside of my deadlines and my family and my blog– days when I’m reminded that All Is Not Well. I won’t go into all of the news of the past few days– but the devastation around us can’t be ignored: the hurricanes, the strained relations with other countries, the shooting. How do we respond to these crises, beyond opening our hearts and our hands and giving where we can? How do we learn to relate to them without either trying to ignore the bad news or crumbling into a depressed and anxious mass?
Warning: this is a slightly irritable post because I am anxious and scared about the state of the USA right now. I’m also writing from a café, without really editing properly, so please be aware that I’m writing off the top of my head slightly, and cut me some slack accordingly, please.
I am probably the world’s worst person to give advice on such matters: my usual response is either to stop checking the news or, as after the Sandy Hook school shooting, which happened when I was pregnant, I collapse. Today I thought I’d try something different. I thought I’d seek wisdom in my considerable library of excellent books: was there something in there which would help me attenuate my fear and anxiety without repressing the ugly truth?
I was reminded of the book my Changeling and I were reading last night before bed: They All Saw a Cat, by Brendan Wenzel. (This is his first book, I believe, which makes me rather jealous– it’s a beautiful first effort!)
This is an ingenious little book, where we see the cat walking through the world with his whiskers, ears, and paws, and then we see how each of the creatures the cat encounters, from a child to a goldfish to a bat, sees the cat differently. The cat, we are reminded, is always himself, with his whiskers, ears, and paws, but a dog will see him one way while a bird will see him another way. And, in the end, we’re asked to imagine how the cat sees himself.
There’s more than a little reminiscence of Kipling in here (“But still I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.”), but the perspective isn’t the cat’s, whom I can imagine saying, “The dog sees me as a ranging danger, but still I walk through the world with my whiskers, ears, and paws.” No, the perspective isn’t even the dog’s, who might say, “There walks my enemy the cat with his whiskers, ears, and paws.” The perspective is the omniscient third person narrator’s, which is to say, our author-illustrator, which is to say, the one creature who sees how we all see differently: bat, earthworm, and snake.
Remember, this is not a “Charlesbridge book,” it’s a “Chronicle Books book.” What do I mean by that? I mean that the publication style is different. If this had been published by Charlesbridge it would have had back matter including lots of excellent information about how different creatures see things differently, coming from a scientific point of view. There would have been a page of resources for children and one for instructors. It would have been an excellent book in that way, and you’d know that the very best fact-checking had gone into each illustration. (I love Charlesbridge, people.)
Coming from Chronicle Books, however, it has none of that– and, in this particular case, I don’t feel the lack. (I did read a review where one reader did lament the lack of back matter, but I disagree.) The book, as it comes to us from Chronicle Books, is instead about the subtler message of our own perspectives: how do we all see things differently, and what does that mean? Just as I can imagine two different publishers handling the same manuscript in two different ways which would have produced two radically different books, and each would be a valid take– well, our narrator sees how all different creatures can see the same animal, a cat, in all different ways, each valid to his own experience, and we come away with a kind of “hodgepodge” cat of different perspectives. And we wonder, further, how does the cat see himself?
Leaving it here, you might be thinking, “Deborah, this all sounds terribly flaky and, frankly, like you’re saying that everyone’s perspective is valid– no matter how violent and awful it might be. And didn’t you start out saying that you lamented the violence and awfulness out there?”
Trust in Chronicle Books, my friends. Have a little faith. (I love Chronicle Books, too.)
No, this isn’t a primer in what we might describe as moral relativism. This is simply a book about how we all see a cat– and how that cat sees himself. If there’s a deeper message to that, it’s not about moral relativism; it’s about empathy. The book doesn’t tell us “Everyone’s position is valid,” but, very simply, “How does this creature see this other creature? Can I understand him?”
For example, I am deeply and profoundly convinced that the dog’s perspective on our cat is WRONG. That dog is completely off in every imaginable way. But when my heart is finished flooding with anger over the dog’s essential wrongness, I am capable of absorbing what his perspective is, and I know the breadth and the limits of that perspective. What does it teach our children when we read this book together? The hope is that it teaches them the following: “This dog sees the cat as dangerous, and he’s scared of it. He’s also incorrect because I know that cat isn’t dangerous.” That might lead us to wonder, “Is there a way to help attenuate his fear of the cat?”
Maybe. That’s the hope.
I could go on into a discussion of how adults could apply these lessons– how I intend to apply these lessons– but let’s stick mostly to children and general lessons here, and refrain from wandering into the sticky region of gun laws, etc. And I think the general lesson here is to remember the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would be treated yourself. Think of their fears as you think of your own fears. This doesn’t mean you have to accept their positions, but it does remind you of their humanity. And a child who remembers that is less apt to smack a friend and take her truck away; we can extrapolate how an adult who absorbs these lessons might behave.
I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of being told either: “You have to accept this other person’s perspective because it’s equally valid,” which feels irritating and, frankly, stupid; or “Fear and hate anyone who is Other,” which sits badly with my bleeding-heart Canadian liberalism. I’m sick of it all, and I want a new perspective. Brendan Wenzel recommends standing back, taking a deep breath, and absorbing others’ perspectives. Well, I think it’s worth a try, isn’t it? How do we cope with the depth of destruction going on around here? We remember that our fellows are our fellows, and we try our best to treat them with respect, even when we violently disagree about the path forward.
If you think this sounds a little simplistic and airy-fairy, that’s fair criticism. I’m arguing that with myself, too. But remember that my particular argument here is how to respond to tragedies without either collapsing under the nastiness or denying it. And, yes, I think that remembering that we’re all in this together is at least the first step forward. Arguing comes next.
These are just some quick thoughts, top-of-my-head style, but thank you, Brendan Wenzel, for the reminder to think and feel with others– and ultimately to come back to: How does the cat see himself?
(But the dog is wrong.)