Today, we welcome a guest blogger, Mr. Pond! John Patrick Pazdziora can be found regularly blogging at “The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond.” I highly recommend the site and have been following it for some time now. Enjoy!
When I was little, my father went to stay at the hospital with an infection. He used to read to me every night at bedtime. Of course, he couldn’t from the hospital. So he made a cassette recording of himself reading a story. My mother would play the cassette for me at bedtime.
It wasn’t quite the same, really. I looked at the pictures, muted browns and greens and greys, and listened to my father’s voice, aged and muffled by the cassette player. It was a bit odd––to hear my father’s voice with him so far away for so long. (Time and space are entirely relative––and very, very big––when you’re two.)
That was how I learned I had an Uncle Elephant.
The story my father read was Arnold Lobel’s Uncle Elephant (New York: HarperCollins, 1981). It’s about a little boy––well, a little elephant, really––whose parents are lost at sea. The story begins with the little elephant sitting alone his room, crying for the death of his parents, afraid, very much at sea himself now.
I don’t have the book in front of me now, but I remember it was a sad picture. The little elephant wore dark clothes. His room was dark. The tones were muted, hushed.
The door opens, and in walks another elephant in a bright green suit.
Who are you? the little elephant asks.
I am your Uncle Elephant, says Uncle Elephant.
Uncle Elephant has come to take his nephew to live with him. And that’s only the beginning of the adventure.
Uncle Elephant lives in an ordinary house, with ordinary things, doing ordinary bits and bobs. Except––he doesn’t. Nothing is ordinary for Uncle Elephant. No sooner is he on the train home than he’s counting telephone poles as they flicker by.
Except––except––try as he might he can never quite do it. He misses one, has to start over. Then another. Has to start over. Then he and his nephew are counting together––telephone poles (topping the list of boring train-ride scenery) have become a sudden riotous game.
In kind, seemingly trivial ways, Uncle Elephant opens his nephew’s eyes to wonder. He doesn’t build space ships in his backyard, or gallivant into far distant dimensions, but he might as well have. When you’re with Uncle Elephant, ordinary places become magical, mundane things become enchantments. The world becomes a reckless adventure.
I haven’t read Uncle Elephant for years. But I remember the realization of wonder, the mysterious sense that behind grief and under sorrow there’s still magic in the world. The sombre colours of the pictures don’t change. The way you see them does.
Arts express emotive engagement with life. Fantasy in particular creates Story in alternate worlds. The differences in culture, or technology, or whatever, accentuate our own situation here––changing the colour of the light, shifting the patterns in the dark. It infuses us with a new way of approaching the world. The gift of that infusion is consolation, renewal from bereavement.
Bereavement robs us, stripping us of our security. Time and space––so large at three years old––confront us in denuded fragility, unalterable once broken. The world as it was is no more. We realize we must suffer our own breaking before there can be restoration. Only death gives hope of reunion with the dead.
Consolation, however, does not repair us. It doesn’t simply make life as if bereavement never happened. Consolation means learning how to look around with wonder again. The depth of our experience of sorrow opens us to deeper experiences of meaning and beauty.
So Tangle cannot find her way to the land where the shadows fall from until she loses Mossy among the shadows. Moist von Lipwig can’t get the Ankh-Morpork Post Office running––or find himself or fall in love––until the Post Office burns down. Samwise finds wholeness only after Frodo sails to the West. Harry Potter’s ‘dark night of the soul’ ends as he digs Dobby’s grave.
Loss is terrible, and sorrow unending. But through bereavement we discover consolation, and consolation gives us a world we couldn’t have found on our own.
It’s the gift of Uncle Elephant.
Uncle Elephant’s story ends with resurrection. Word arrives that the little elephant’s parents survived the shipwreck. They’re alive again. Uncle Elephant takes his nephew home. On the train, he starts counting again––not telephone poles, but days. The days they’ve spend together, rediscovering the world.
He doesn’t lose count.