Roses are Red and Violets…Blast Off

September 7, 2006 at 10:48 am (Uncategorized)

The other night at dinner, my two-and-a-half year old son Andrew unfolded a paper napkin next to his plate and plunked his sippy cup of water down on it. “This is my doily,” he said, patting the napkin. “And these are my violets,” he added, with a gesture towards the sippy cup.

It took Jay and me a few seconds to make sense of this tableau. “Oh, you mean like in Bread and Jam for Frances,” we said in perfect unison. “Yes,” Andrew replied. “Of course,” as if we were utter morons.

Andrew seems to derive many of his reference points from the books he loves. The paper napkin scenario is straight from Bread and Jam for Frances, in which the feisty little badger learns to love foods beyond bread and jam. The particular scene Andrew was recreating comes from Frances’ school lunch, where she unpacks an elaborate mid-day meal (including a vase with violets) onto a paper doily on her desk.

My son, however, is not one to be confined by the parameters of a narrative. While Frances sat at her desk and daintily consumed her lunch so that all its courses “came out even,” Andrew had another, more exciting, ending in mind. He studied the sippy cup and said, “Now, the violets will blast off.” He proceeded to count backwards, as if he were presiding over a space shuttle launch. “Five, four, three, two, one, BLAST OFF!” he said, and then launched his sippy cup/ violet vase into the atmosphere above our table, all the while making many whooshing and roaring sounds.

Andrew’s antics pleased me on a number of levels. First, he made me laugh when I was in a crummy mood because of the rattling in my chest. I’m sick – yet again – and not the least bit happy to be coughing and confined to bed with another round of bronchial disturbances. I also love the fact that Andrew finds such sustenance and richness in the written word. As a geeky booklover myself, it delights me to think that perhaps my son is beginning down a path of lifelong reading. Truthfully, he prefers reading to television; on several occasions I’ve asked him if he wants to watch one of his construction videos, and he says, “No, let’s read,” even when I’m so tired that I’d prefer to drop him in front of the TV and go get a nap.

Mostly, though, I was delighted by the liberties that Andrew took with the Frances scene. He remembered the narrative action, used the pieces of it which appealed to him, and then forged an ending that suited him better. He was proving himself not to be a slave to what was already written, already accepted as “real.” In other words, he was being imaginative.

“We live in a tyranny of the literal,” Jonathon Franzen posits in his essay, “Why Bother?” At times, I feel this weight of the literal on me acutely. Why must what is visible, what is known, be the only acceptable reality? Why cannot two truths, two realities exist in a single moment? I was raised Catholic, informed by the doctrine of transubstantiation, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that I ache for a more imaginative world than the one broadcast on CNN. For millions of Catholics everywhere, the Eucharistic wafer is both bread and flesh. The bread doesn’t hide the reality of the flesh, the theology goes, nor does the flesh inhabit only the imagination. Rather, both realities wholly exist.

In one of my college classes on medieval mystics, a professor presented the view that the doctrine of transubstantiation was deliberately mind-boggling, as was the notion of the Trinity (that God is somehow simultaneously three distinct entities, which would logically have to proceed from one another, but don’t). The point of making your head hurt trying to sort out how a priest could convert a wafer to the body of God, without losing the physical reality of the wafer itself, was precisely to make your head hurt, my professor said. The goal was to underscore how awesomely complex and beyond all rational thinking the divine really is.

I’m sure you are thinking, “What does all this have to do with violets blasting off into space?” Truthfully, not much beyond my desire for things to be as they seem – and also much, much more. Take my illness, for example. I’ve stridently proclaimed on this blog, that “illness is just illness,” and that to metaphorize disease into enlightenment is just plain bad. (and unfair to sick people, too) But I’m coming to realize that I need my sarcoidosis to be more than a random accumulation of white blood cells in my heart, liver, and lungs. I desperately need to take some greater meaning from struggling to live in the face of wheezing lungs, a racing heart, and chest pains shooting down my arms. I need my illness to transubstantiate into more than the triumph of dropping a milligram of prednisone from my daily dose, the seasonal cycle of MRIs, the seemingly endless parade of upper respiratory infections that break my monentum.

I feel like there is some deeper truth that I haven’t yet learned from my literal reality of testing, medication, and re-testing. This meaning eludes me now. But I’m pretty sure that the process of arriving at it isn’t far from that of Andrew improvising on Bread and Jam for Frances. The sippy cup, when wielded with the proper imagination, can be so much more – it can be violets, dangling from a vase, exploding out into the solar system, knowing no limits.

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