A Medley of Hope

When I started reading to the children in my son’s elementary school classroom, I was a little worried. I could see the little tiles in the zoom classroom when I explained the theme I had planned out for that morning. I had planned Poetry and paired a fiction book by Dr Seuss with a non-fiction memoir by Margarita Engle.

My brain was doing a quick ‘Maybe’ check in the background: Maybe this was too much for them. Maybe I should have gone with a simpler theme. Maybe I should keep it simple and just switch to a sweet little book that everyone would feel comfortable and cosy with. I could’ve switched, but then I remembered the words of wisdom by E.B.White

Never write down to children – E.B. White 

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlotte’s Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.

More sound advice I have never heard in my life, for the children settled into the themes even if it was a little heavy going before the Thanksgiving holidays for them. 

I had chosen a book by Dr Seuss, The Butter Battle Book. The book is a brilliant satire of nuclear weapons during the cold war. Dr Seuss’ brilliance was in full display. The book is about Yooks and Zooks: The Yooks eat their bread with the butter side up, while the Zooks eat their bread with the butter side down. This leads to escalating differences and a long curvy wall is built between the two lands.

butter_battle

Soon, both sides start fighting by using weapons of increasing grandeur and magnitude starting from the Tough Tufted Prickly Snickle Berry Snitch to the Eight Nozzled Elephant Toted Boom Blitz. The book finishes with the Yooks and Zooks sitting on either side of a wall threatening to drop the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo, signifying the nuclear threat.

We discussed the long years of Cold War and how it was a true lesson in diplomacy that the two countries managed to keep from blowing us all up together. From there, we moved on to  the Bay of Pigs invasion, and then switched to the memoir, Enchanted Air, by Margarita Engle.

The author’s maternal side hails from Cuba, while her paternal side fled from the Ukraine – then a part of the USSR.

Dancing Plants of Cuba

In California, all the trees and shrubs

standstill, but on the island, coconut palms

and angel’s trumpet flowers,

love to move around,

dancing.

..

Maybe I will be a scientist someday

studying the dancing plants of Cuba

Her father’s family escaped from Ukraine, from a communist regime, not knowing whether those left behind survived or not. Her mother immigrated from Cuba.

Two countries

Two families

Two sets of words.

Her paternal grandparents’ recollections are therefore muted, brief and vague. How starkly, concisely, she sums up the human condition for survival? When she asks her Ukrainian-Jewish-American grandma about her childhood, she gets nothing more than ice-skating on a frozen pond.

Her maternal grandmother, on the other hand, regales her with richly detailed family stories, of many island ancestors, living their lives out on tropical farms.

In the poem, Kinship, she sums it up:

Apparently, the length 

of a grown-up’s

growing up story

is determined

by the difference

between immigration 

and escape.

In the poem October 1962, she writes about the standstill known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Grim news

Chilling news

Terrifying

Horrifying

Deadly.

US spy planes have photographed

Soviet Russian nuclear weapons

In Cuba.

Hate talk.

War talk.

Sorrow.

Rage.

The children looked sober and serious at the quiet tone of the poem. You could have heard a pin drop in the room. When asked for their opinions, they shared prescient observations, and looked stricken. I moved on quickly to the poem, Hope, that is the last poem in the book.

Hope

An almost war 

can’t last forever.

Someday, surely, I’ll be free

To return to the island of all childhood 

dreams.

Magical travel, back and forth.

It will happen.

When?

“By Jan 2015, independently announced by both countries, Cuba & USA restored  relations . ” I said to the class.

There was a palpable air of relief in the room. The children cheered while their proud teacher beamed at them. The questions that followed left no doubt in my mind about how well the children had perceived the stories. The more I heard them discussing how important it was to patch up between human-beings, the more I felt comfortable in future diplomacy. 

If only children could help counsel us, we would be far wiser.

Enchanted Air

I read Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle, expecting to read a good memoir about two cultures and two wings one grows as a result of hailing from mixed origins. What instead happened is difficult to describe in words for it was not a reading, it was a feeling. A transformative one. 

It is a children’s book. Each chapter is a small poem that stands in and of itself, but also ties into the whole narrative. There were so many places in the book when I found myself stopping to savor a poem, reading it again, and swirling the feelings it evoked in my mind. Later, I found myself passionately explaining it in far less elegant terms to the husband and children, scurrying to get the book, and fumbling through the pages to find the right poem.

For instance when she writes of ‘The Dancing Plants of Cuba’, she captures the essence of an island: 

In California, all the trees and shrubs

standstill, but on the island, coconut palms

and angel’s trumpet flowers,

love to move around,

dancing.

..

Maybe I will be a scientist someday

studying the dancing plants of Cuba.

Dancing Plants

How can one not love the child then who is later to task by her teacher for inventing dancing plants, as plants are supposed to stay still aren’t they?

Her father’s family escaped from Ukraine, from a communist regime, not knowing whether those left behind survived or not. Her mother immigrated from Cuba.

Two countries

Two families

Two sets of words.

Her paternal grandparents’ recollections are therefore muted, brief and vague. How starkly, concisely, she sums up the human condition for survival? When she asks her Ukrainian-Jewish-American grandma about her childhood, she gets nothing more than ice-skating on a frozen pond. 

Her maternal grandmother, on the other hand, regales her with richly detailed family stories, of many island ancestors, living their lives out on tropical farms.

In the poem, Kinship, she sums it up:

Apparently, the length 

of a grown-up’s

growing up story

is determined

by the difference

between immigration 

and escape.

This memoir is rich with details of her family, and her own dreamy self. 

She takes us along with her on her journey of growing up, and how her personality rows with ‘The Geography of Libraries’.

Spoken stories are no longer enough

To fill my hunger

I crave a constant supply 

Of written ones too.

As she grows, the mistrust between USA and Cuba, grows too. Their family is suspect simply for holding a Cuban passport, a part of her heritage cut off by souring diplomatic relations and the Bay of Pigs invasion. She first writes about the state of reality in the poem, Communications.

Abuelita writes letters in code,

inventing poetic metaphors,

to prevent the island’s censors

from understanding her words.

When she says Tio Dario 

is working hard in the garden,

Mom somehow knows that it means 

he’s been arrested and sent to a prison or forced labor camp.

In Secret Languages we learn

Right wing or left wing tyrants always

try to control communication

They always

fail.

The books ends with the poem, Hope.

It is no wonder that the book has won a string of awards. Looking at the history of the world, its themes are timeless too.