Summoned

Here in midlife, I’ve become an early riser. I am usually up before the sun, 5:30 or 6 in the morning, sometimes even earlier, and I love the quiet time before anyone in the house is awake except me and the cat. It’s also a crucial part of my work schedule. So I get up, get a cup of tea if I’m chilly, and settle down to the computer, or my notebook, or a book. And in the past several years I have written or read my way through sunrise every single time. Not once have I gone for a walk to hear the dawn chorus up close, or stepped out the back door for a moment to look at the eastern sky. Maybe I would have done otherwise if the house faced east instead of west, if I could have just peeped out the kitchen window as I got my tea and seen more than dimness, but if I’m honest I have to say, probably not. I think of a philosophy professor who, legend had it, wouldn’t pass anyone who hadn’t gotten up to see the sunrise once, and I know that I’m neglecting a part of my education, and a part of my being. I’ve seen the sunrise before, and I haven’t regretted missing it when I was getting needed sleep, but to be awake and not take note of it seems like a sad waste.

I’ve thought about this from time to time and said to myself that I was going to pause to watch the sun come up one of these mornings, set an alarm if necessary to drag my head out of the laptop, but I haven’t done it.

Then, yesterday morning, Mookie came running into our room while it was still dark, saying “You have to see the sky! It’s so beautiful. It’s the sunrise!” and that, that was irresistible. I went into her room with her and pulled back the curtain to see the pink clouds and peeping sun that have been there for me every morning. I had ignored them for hundreds of mornings, but I couldn’t say no to her, and so at last I opened my hands to the gift they offered.

I’ve used the poem “Summons” by Robert Francis in at least one Sunday service.

Keep me from going to sleep too soon
Or if I go to sleep too soon
Come wake me up.

See that I see, he begs. Mookie does this for us every day–not usually while we’re trying to sleep nowadays, a change for which I admit I’m grateful–but in the many ways she says, Look at me, Look at this, Come play, Come see. Often I put her off. She wants to play and I join in half-heartedly, hoping she’ll get lost in her imagination again and I won’t really have to spend too much time on the floor moving paper dolls around. Or I know she would enjoy time in the yard if I gave her a nudge, but I’m content for us both to hole up indoors, so I let her inertia carry me. But the words, “Come look,” are ones I can almost never resist. Yesterday, my daughter invited me to live by the words I had quoted and approved, but often ignored. And I was loath even to thank her, because one rule of parenting is Never Encourage Them to Wake You Up Early (though, it being winter, it was only 20 minutes before my alarm would have gone off anyway), but I was so delighted by the simple glory of the morning, and so delighted that it delighted her, that of course I did. And I’m thanking her again, here. Thank you, baby. Keep seeing that I see, please, always, and I will try not to be too hard persuaded.

several years earlier

Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.

That’s one of my favorite sayings from Pirkei Avot, which I used to study with my dad. Richard Scarry probably never read it, but I salute him for being willing to learn.

Scarry’s books were beloved by generations of children, but as many readers noted in frustration, their implicit message to girls was that they could be moms, nurses, dental hygienists whose job was apparently to be redundant instrument trays, or teachers. Just about everything else in Busytown was done by men: that is, male cats, rabbits, raccoons, etc. When Scarry heard the criticisms, he took them to heart. He changed many of the drawings and words in editions re-drawn just a few years before he died.

picture-110-624x389For example, in Best Word Book Ever, “fireman” and “policeman” are changed to “firefighter” and “police officer.” Pants have been changed to skirts, ribbons and frills added here and there, ties added elsewhere, to show that judges might be women and teachers might be men. (Of course the pants-wearing, ribbonless characters could also be female. But kids understand this shorthand for male and female. And sure enough, in the earlier editions, when these characters have explanatory pronouns, they are generally male–maybe always, though he is too prolific for me to check.) The dental hygienist is not just standing there with a tray of tools, but showing a child how to brush one’s teeth; the farmer, male, now works alongside another farmer, female. A playground scene has girls bouncing a ball and being “it” in tag, and boys, not just girls, are playing ring-around-the-rosy. A fire scene shows that the cat waiting to be rescued is now just a “cat in danger,” not a “beautiful screaming lady” as formerly (though admittedly the cat is still in pink), and the other cat who’s actually taking his/her fate into his/her paws by jumping into a net is no longer identified as a “gentleman.” The musician, once a clarinetist in short pants, is now wearing a skirt suit and playing that most unfeminine instrument, cymbals.

As one can see from the comments in this Flickr set, some readers are highly critical of these changes. Apparently they think it’s “politically correct” to show Father Rabbit cooking alongside Mother Rabbit, and to add Chanukah to the holiday pages. It offends them greatly that an author decided to tell girls that they might have an actual role in an emergency besides screaming helplessly for a “brave hero” to rescue them. Well, boo on them. In the world I live in and want my kid to live in, women have jobs other than making their families’ meals, and men help keep house, and children of any sex can play any game on the playground. If all her books contradict me, what is she to think?

Me, I love Richard Scarry for welcoming the changes in once-rigid gender roles and helping to bring more changes about. He provided role models, and became one. It also meant that when Grandpa Stu asked whether Best Word Book Ever and What Do People Do All Day? were good presents for Mookie, I could say “Yes, please!” She opened the package tonight–for the sixth night of Hanukah, a holiday that is now celebrated in Busytown as well as in our household–and spent the rest of the evening reading them raptly. And we didn’t have to worry that her dreams of being a doctor or dentist or paleontologist were being subtly quashed as she did.