One Thousand Words on the Faithful Mr. Sendak

I didn’t plan to write about Maurice Sendak.

Where the Wild Things Are is admittedly wonderful, but I don’t specifically remember reading it as a child, like I do The Monster At The End of This Book.

II read it to children when I babysat, but I think I read Good Night Moon more often.

And the only other book of his that I’ve read is Brundibar, but that’s because I’m a fan of his co-author, Tony Kushner.

I absolutely abhor how when someone dies everyone jumps on the band wagon. Suddenly people who didn’t even know the deceased is raving about them, calling them geniuses, pretending to be their best friend.

This happened to non-celebrities too. I call it “dead saint phenomenon.”

That’s when a perfectly lovely, but perfectly normal person dies and all their faults disappear. In an instant they become the best spouse, the best parent, the best person to ever have lived.

I understand wanting to remember the good things, but at least be realistic. No one is perfect. And if they were, you wouldn’t want to know them because they would be incredibly annoying and constantly making you bad.

When I die, I want people to say, “Yeah, she was ok. A little stand-offish, but nice enough, I guess.”

I’d want my mom to say, “It drove me crazy that she always left her shoes on the stairs” I’d want my friends to say, “She never returned my phone calls.” Or “She could really hold a grudge.”

Because that’s the truth. That’s who I am. What’s the point of making me sound like I had no faults?

Now, I’m not saying that Maurice Sendak wasn’t a genius or a very nice person. He was an amazing artist. But just because I read his book once or twice, doesn’t give me the right to write about him.

If I was greatly affected by it, I could certainly write about my personal experiences with his work, but I can’t presume to write about him as a human being.

And his work hasn’t affected my life, so I wasn’t going to write about him. I’m simply not qualified to sing his praises in a blog and I’m unwilling to contribute to the dead sainthood phenomenon, even if it is deserved.

Then yesterday, as I was driving home from a meeting, Terry Gross was rerunning Fresh Air interviews with Mr. Sendak in honor of his passing and he said something that really did affect me. So I feel that gives a little latitude tonight, even though I’m not going to say he was a saint.

In the section of the program highlighting a 2003 interview, Terry asked him how important being Jewish was to him, and about his faith. This was his response:

“I am not a religious person, nor do I have any regrets. The war took care of that for me. You know, I was brought up strictly kosher, but I — it made no sense to me. It made no sense to me what was happening. So nothing of it means anything to me. Nothing. Except these few little trivial things that are related to being Jewish. … You know who my gods are, who I believe in fervently? Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson — she’s probably the top — Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats. These are wonderful gods who have gotten me through the narrow straits of life.”

His words brought tears to my eyes. I hadn’t realized it before, and could never have expressed it so eloquently, but those are my beliefs too.

Over the past year (yes, it’s been almost a full year) of writing, I’ve been struck by how often faith and religion presents itself on the page. Based on my church-going habits, or lack thereof, I would have never guessed religion would be anything I wrote about at all.

But I guess I think about it quite a bit. It’s even a theme in my novel in progress and one of the main character is a “pastor” (in quotes because I have doubts about his qualifications for that role.)

I wouldn’t call myself a person of faith, and I’m certainly not religious, but I’m not an atheist. I believe this is most likely some sort of higher power, mainly for the same reason I believe there is probably life on other planets. It seems hugely arrogant to assume we’re it. And kind of depressing too.

I do enjoy some of the drama of the church experience – the “trivial things” Mr. Sendak mentions, the music, the candles – but much of organized religion leaves me cold at best, disturbed at worst.

I’ve always envied people of faith. It must be reassuring to know there’s a plan, someone looking out for you, an afterlife. It must take some of the pressure off this life.

But listening to Fresh Air I realize that maybe I’m faithful after all but, like Mr. Sendak, I turn to writers, musicians and artists for my faith, for my strength.

I have never been moved to tears by a sermon or a church service. But after hearing Arthur Miller speak about his life and work, I literally sobbed.

I cried when the animals came marching down the aisle at the beginning of The Lion King, too. The grace and power and music were too overwhelming to remain dry eyed.

One of the most spiritual experiences in my life was standing in a room at the Museum of Modern Arts in New York, surrounded on all four sides by Monet’s Water Lilies.

And my copy of The Sun Also Rises is as well-thumbed as most Bibles or Torahs.

My “gods” are playwrights and novelists, instead of poets and composers, but it’s the same idea.

So I’m not jumping on the bandwagon by honoring Mr. Sendak tonight. Instead I’m paying tribute to his gods and, even know I don’t presume to know him, based on his discussions with Terry Gross, I think he might approve.

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One thought on “One Thousand Words on the Faithful Mr. Sendak

  1. Pingback: Blog Post #500! | One Thousand Words Project

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