In Search of the Wild Things

I never read ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ as a child.  There were many books in my personal library; scattered about my room, hidden under the bed or in the closet, crammed into my toy-box or even, on occasion, sitting on a bookshelf.  Maurice Sendak’s book was not among them.  When I did finally encounter the book it was like meeting a long lost friend.  Even as an adult I could still identify with Max and I knew we would have been the best of friends had we met when I was still a child.

Inheritor of my father’s temper and my mother’s imagination, I certainly had my “wild” moments, and like Max, I knew how to see and travel beyond the confines of my small room to the place Where the Wild Things Are.

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another…,

I’m having a quiet day simply relaxing on the couch reading a novel.  Turning the pages without thinking, I am lost in the story when from nowhere, calamity strikes.  My cat, whom I’d thought was asleep on my lap, is now careening through the house like a small grey cyclone.  Furniture is sent askew as odds and ends go tumbling from shelves in his wake.  Finally he stumbles, caterwauling, into a wall with a resounding THUD.  I am on my feet and shouting at him as he calmly stands, shakes himself off, regards me for a moment with an unconcerned glance and proceeds to saunter away.

Cats and Dogs are wild things.  We like to think we have tamed them but the truth is that if they are calm and behaved it is as a courtesy to us and little more.  We provide them with food and water and shelter and in exchange they pretend to be like us.  Maybe they even fool themselves for a time.  Eventually though, there will be a smell or a sound or some movement in the corner of their vision which will remind them of what they are and the “Wild Rumpus” will begin.

That very night in Max’s room a forest grew, and grew, and grew until the ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around…,

Not long after hearing about Maurice Sendak’s death I am sitting in my backyard thinking about the story he is best known for.  Closing my eyes, I listen to the world around me, filtering out the sounds of civilization.  The cars passing on the street, a lawn-mower in the distance, the whirr and tumble of my washing machine all retreat until I hear only birdsong and the clatter of squirrels romping through the trees overhead.  There is movement in the underbrush a few yards away.  Mice perhaps, or birds, or something bigger.  Whatever ‘it’ is, it’s making a lot of noise as it goes crunching through the dry leaves left over from last Autumn.

I’ve heard these exact same sounds before while standing in forest miles from any civilization.  It is not hard to conjure the Wild in otherwise civilized places.  We are living in the place Where the Wild Things Are.  We’ve trimmed the bushes and mowed the grass.  We’ve paved lots of it (too much for my taste) and built our nice comfy houses but if we went away for a while the Wild Things would come back soon enough.  Just close your eyes and see if you can’t hear them there, waiting.

…and they were frightened and called him the most Wild Thing of all!

We live in fear of the Wild Things.  We rip and tear and gnash the world beyond recognition and we push the Wild Things to the very edges of the landscape to escape them.  Perhaps we fear them because we still hear them in the underbrush and in the trees overhead, watching, waiting.  Or are they closer still?  Do we not see them when we look in the mirror?

For as long as there has been civilization we have feared the Wild Things.  We are terrified that they will come and take our food and our young and our lives.  We build walls and fences and traps to keep them out.  We dig up the land and deprive them of food and nesting places for their young and ultimately we deprive them of their lives.  We build religions and laws that tell us that we are better than the natural world, separate from it and charged with it’s stewardship or subjugation.  The Wild Things are frightened and call us the most Wild Thing of all.

But Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye…

Goodbye to you Maurice!  Your imagination and knack for simple and honest storytelling will be greatly missed.   Max, if you are reading this, I can only hope that you will continue to don your wolf coat and guide both children and adults through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to Where the Wild Things Are.  We could all use the occasional Wild Rumpus to remind us where we come from.

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Filed under Culture, Literature, Nature, Spiritual Journey

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