A Crane, a pottery wheel, and a lesson: Never give up

Play Review: “A Single Shard”

I wasn’t sure about taking Fair to see the new Seattle Children’s Theatre play, which is recommended for ages 8 and up. Fair is not quite 7, but I tend to try and “size up” a bit when it comes to books and experiences for my kids, plus she had an afternoon nap, so I had high hopes when we arrived at the theater yesterday for opening night.

I wasn’t disappointed. There were so many entry points to the story for her, multiple ways in which she could connect with the tale of a hopeful orphan boy, that she was hooked almost as soon as the lights went down. Not the least of which, it turns out, was food (perfect because no matter how much we give her, the ever-hungry and orphan-skinny Fair is always thinking of more).

Food plays a special role in “A Single Shard” — there is very little of it, often not enough to feed those who need it. So the food we see takes on an almost mythical quality. Among a landscape of hunger, the food is highlighted, and our attention to it emphasized. A palmful of rice, a simple scoop of kimchi and bean curd: These morsels, when they appear, seem like food fit for emperors. We can almost smell the sweet rice, taste the salty chewiness. We feel acutely the hunger of those who need it, and the reverence of those who cup a simple meal in their hands.

The larger lessons of the story are illuminated in much the same way. Often in children’s plays, films and stories, the message can be difficult to find. Maybe the sets are flashy, the special effects dazzling, the musical score mesmerizing. And the message, buried.

Not so in “A Single Shard,” a play adaptation of Linda Sue Park’s Newbery Award honored book of the same name set among a community of potters in 12th century Korea. Against the backdrop of soft, aesthetically soothing sets that transport us to village life, even the youngest school-age children will be able to clearly receive the lessons this touching story has to teach them and the main character, an orphan boy named Tree Ear. They seem to be served to us as a trail of small, satisfying bites, the complexities and richness of these lessons stewing, deepening — but never obscuring — as the story proceeds: If you never try, you will surely fail; be honest to all including yourself; a promise is a promise.

Fair was riveted. The story has every excitement a kid-friendly plot should: Intrigue, sadness, hope, danger, reward. But the scale is small — and not in a bad way: The simple but beautifully designed pottery shop of master potter Min draws us in, tempting us to lay our hands on the working pottery wheel and shape the clay that can change the characters’ lives. With detailed sound work and especially through the tender character of Crane Man, a plain wooden bridge becomes a loving home and the heart of the story’s touching central friendship. Even my youngish daughter could read the message here: What makes a family is to care for someone.

By the time we wandered out of the theatre, dazed, still tasting the sweet rice and dreaming of the soft clay of the potter between our fingers, the most important lesson of all was still warm inside of us: Never give up.

Literary Xanax for moms

It was with a certain smugness that I learned Seattle had once again made the list last year for the top 10 literate cities in the U.S. (following only No. 1, Washington D.C.). I took this as a directly personal sign, a confirmation that the Green Rider and I had indeed made the right decision 10 years ago when we quit the sun of California and drove north. We were in desperate search of literacy then. We were young writers, romantics, readers (and not parents) — all of which go perfectly together, of course — and for our escape from So. Cal we settled on Seattle because it seemed to embody everything romantics like us aspired to. That is to say, snuggling in by a fire with a glass of Malbec, some Mt. Townsend Cirrus, a (faux) fur rug and a teetering stack of books. Yes, the paper books, the ones that came before screens. Screens just don’t look the same to me with a few errant droplets of wine, the pages lovingly bent, finally cast aside … temporarily … to the corner of the (faux) rug while other pursuits are studied.

Ahem. Anyway, I love the literate bent that is as a religion here in the PNW. I have a screen now but I haven’t given up paper books, either. I can disappear into time in Secret Garden Books, Elliott Bay, Third Place Books, Santoro’s, Mockingbird and lots of others, and my children will do the same. When we are having a crazy day or week, when everyone is snapping at each other and a round of Xanax seems like an almost legitimate solution, we try to stop in a bookstore. Suddenly, everyone is quiet, absorbed, imagining. Calm descends with the turning of pages.

I had a phase after becoming a new mother where I only wanted to read “mother” books: Memoirs of mothers, novels of mothers, parenting how-to’s and how-not-to’s-or-you-will-ruin-them-in-a-dastardly-way. I still relate to the writing of and for parents, but I sweep my net more broadly. In most anything, I can cull the parenting lessons it seems I most need. I have genres that I do and some I don’t. I have months or even years when I crave complex works and paragraphs thick with metaphor and the realms of the obscure; and then at times I crave truth and only truth; or falsehoods woven into the most unbelievable yet truth-echoing tales; or poetry; or … insert almost anything here.

Over the past six months, these books have stuck in my craw. They are not “books for parents” or “books for moms” per se – and what does that mean, anyway? But something about each one of them has fed me in some aspect as a mother, spoken to me, advised, calmed me, sailed me away or brought me face-to-face with what I needed to see.

  • “Poser” by Claire Dederer. This book is classified as a yoga memoir, but you don’t have to ever have come anywhere near a yoga mat to identify with the world of desperately striving, well-intentioned, and internally roiling North Seattle mothers Dederer recreates. Some of her descriptions of life post-baby made me want to simultaneously bark into hysterics and curl up and have a nice little visit with the twins of Post Partum Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
  • “Rough Likeness” by Lia Purpura. These essays are pure poetry. No one writes prose like Purpura. She makes you contemplate language word by word. Every overlooked detail of everyday life, from the geography of suburban sprawl to a darkening sky, becomes, newly, something that will amaze.
  • “The Lonely Polygamist” by Brady Udall. I’ll volunteer in full disclosure that I am a sucker for anything on the topic of polygamy. No, I don’t want to try it out myself, but perversely I do want to watch others have a go at it. Golden Richards, the protagonist and husband of four wives (dad to 28!) has a few problems juggling all his responsibilities, and it’s book crack to settle in and watch him try.
  • “Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House” by Meghan Daum. Daum’s essays are vomitously honest and quietly self-deprecating, but what makes this book a favorite read and a rec for parents in particular is the way it tears the curtain off of all of us and our obsession with the great American dream of home ownership. Whatever Daum has fooled herself into thinking about how a house can make us whole, most of us have thought, too.
  • “A Visit From the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan. Alternately described as a novel or a collection of short stories, it won the Pulitzer for Fiction in 2011 and impressed me with its unexpected plot arc. There are several stories interwoven, and it’s a bit of detective work (not the unpleasant kind) to unravel the threads. But when you do, the end comes as a satisfying last course in a slow meal of small, connected bites. It is the kind of story to make you yearn for your crazy younger days, and simultaneously project out to the horizon of your life, squinting for what’s to come.

What books have brought you deep motherly insights or convinced you to hide out in the bathroom from the hoodlums recently?

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