Issue Twenty-Three - Winter 2014

Into the Land of Wild things

By Jeremiah O’Hagan

I’m supposed to begin this deftly. Ease into it, the theory goes, because if readers know immediately that my piece is about death or birth or terminal illness, they will disregard it as yet another this-is-my-life-splayed memoir. So I hook them with something else, invite them in with a fascinating and benign anecdote that, later, once they are invested and I have sprung on them the death or birth or terminal illness, will become a clever metaphor for the entire piece.

However, space is premium so I’ll just get to it: Within the past four months, my grandfather died and my son was born. There was no terminal illness, exactly, though near the end my grandfather’s pelvis was disappearing and the doctors guessed the deterioration resulted from radiation he received for prostate cancer years earlier.

I wanted the death and the birth to happen in reverse order. The death was unavoidable, but I wanted my grandfather to meet my son and then die. It didn’t happen that way and now, instead of having touched one another, they are bound only by stories.

My grandfather read me countless books when I was a child, told me tales from his life as I got older, and let me get dirty and make my own memories when I was with him. I owe him much. I wrote him a letter to tell him my girlfriend was pregnant, and took it with me to visit.

“Can I read it to you?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’ll read it to you.”

At the end, I had written: “It’s heart-stopping to think about being a father. But I’ve learned by watching you and I know a few things. I will sit our baby on my lap and tell him stories. I will walk with him into the world, and I will let him touch things.”

When Roman was born, Amanda and I got a stack of children books from friends. I was most happy to see Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

Sendak knew the basic tenet of storytelling: If the bones are believable, you can take them anywhere. Where the Wild Things Are is hyper-fantastical. There is a ship that sails through a day and in and out of weeks and for over a year. There are wild creatures and their rumpus. There is love so fierce that its truest expression is to devour. But it begins in reality. Max is being wild. He mouths off to his mom. She sends him to bed.

So, too, begin the six prose pieces in this issue of SHARK REEF, chosen by editor Lorna Reese and myself. A bus ride. A girl in church. A waiting room. Shoplifting. A teenager who’s weary of her parents. The every-day is ripe with stories that stretch our imagination and intellect. And, as in Sendak’s book, when we return to our bedroom and a mom who’s forgiven us and saved us a warm meal, we are not the same Max, not the same reader. Chels Knorr wrote in her essay, “Hundreds of Ways to Kneel,” “We dove into an extreme together, for which we are both forever changed and wholly unchanged.”

Poetry is much the same. Ted Kooser is one of my favorite poets because he freezes and dwells on single, ordinary moments and invites the reader to realize nothing is ordinary. The day-to-day is a cacophony of small wonders. The 11 poems in this issue, selected by poetry co-editors Tom Aslin and Gary Johnson, begin with someone spreading jam; with a man who carries letters; with “a circle of sandwiches and half-smoked cigars;” with someone sitting at a computer. We enter the poems to realize that reality is a labyrinth. We need a guide to help us through. We need a host of guides.

Once Max is banished to his room, his imagination takes over and Sendak’s illustrations stretch until they spill off the pages and the world becomes charmed and fascinating and idealistic and conflated and dangerous as Sendak takes us to the wild things and lets us touch the minds of children.

Minds that are, for their fantasy, maybe more adept than ours. In 1993, Sendak told Sarah Lyall, of The New York Times, “Grown-ups desperately need to feel safe, and then they project (that need) onto the kids. But what none of us seem to realize is how smart kids are. They don’t like what we write for them, what we dish up for them, because it’s vapid, so they’ll go for the hard words, they’ll go for the hard concepts, they’ll go for the stuff where they can learn something, not didactic things, but passionate things.”

There. It’s out. I will encourage Roman to read read read, to seek stories in music and cinema and photography and art and literature and on YouTube, because I don’t trust myself. Despite my best intentions, I am afraid that I will try to keep him too safe. I am afraid that I will become too safe. My desire to walk beside him isn’t to show him the way; it’s so he can show me the way to the land of the wild things.

Copyright 2014 O’Hagan