Thursday, April 13, 2017

Between Shadow and Light

Kate DiCamillo @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

I read Kate DiCamillo for the first time this past month.

I started with The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

This quote by C.S. Lewis from The Four Loves expresses the book’s theme for me:

“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Yes. But not to love is a casket.

From Edward Tulane:

[all happy stories must end with love]

“But answer me this: how can a story end happily if there is no love? But. Well. It is late. And you must go to sleep.”

[one of my favorite themes in literature, the idea of being known]

And Edward felt a warm rush of pleasure at being recognized, at being known.

[being named, listening]

Edward knew what it was like to say over and over again the names of those you had left behind. He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.


“Two options only,” he said. “And your friend chose option two. He gave you up so that you could be healed. Extraordinary, really.”

[the casket]

He prided himself on not hoping, on not allowing his heart to lift inside of him. He prided himself on keeping his heart silent, immobile, closed tight.

[hope, vulnerability, courage, journey]

“You must be filled with expectancy. You must be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next.”

“I am done with being loved,” Edward told her. “I’m done with loving. It’s too painful.”

“Pish,” said the old doll. “Where is your courage?”

“Somewhere else, I guess,” said Edward.

“You disappoint me,” she said. “You disappoint me greatly. If you have no intention of loving or being loved, then the whole journey is pointless.”


I ached with a hopeful ache and moved on to The Tale of Despereaux.

From the very beginning, all I could think about was a Rembrandt painting. Darkness, darkness, a touch of light. Darkness, darkness, a touch of light. So masterfully painted.

The April sun, weak but determined, shone through a castle window and from there squeezed itself through a small hole in the wall and placed one golden finger on the little mouse.

[eyes open]

The light was shining onto the ceiling in an oval brilliance, and he was smiling up at the sight…

“The last one,” said the father. “And he’ll be dead soon. He can’t live. Not with his eyes open like that.”

But, reader, he did live.

This is his story.


Despeareaux’s sister Merlot took him into the castle library, where light came streaming in through tall, high windows and landed on the floor in bright yellow patches.


“Once upon a time,” he said aloud, relishing the sound. And then, tracing each word with his paw, he read the story of a beautiful princess and the brave knight who serves and honors her.

Despereaux did not know it, but he would need, very soon, to be brave himself.


“Oh,” he said, “it sounds like heaven. It smells like honey.”

The song was as sweet as light shining through stained-glass windows, as captivating as the story in a book… Despereaux forgot all his fear… He crept closer… until, reader, he was sitting right at the foot of the king.


… A rat named Chiaroscuro and called Roscuro, a rat born into the filth and darkenss of the dungeon…

Reader, do you know the definition of the word “chiaroscuro”? If you look in the dictionary, you will find that it means the arrangement of light and dark, darkness and light together. Rats do not care for light. Roscuro’s parents were having a bit of fun when they named their son.


His rat soul longed inexplicably for it; he began to think that light was the only thing that gave life meaning, and he despaired that there was so little of it to be had.

“I think,” said Roscuro, “that the meaning of life is light.”


There are those hearts, reader, that never mend again, once they are broken. Or if they do mend, they heal themselves in a crooked and lopsided way… Such was the fate of Chiaroscuro. His heart was broken… Speaking of revenge… helped him to put his heart together again. But it was, alas, put together wrong.


And the passage was dark, dark, dark.

“I wil tell myself a story,” said Despereaux. “I will make some light. Let’s see. It will begin this way: Once upon a time. Yes. Once upon a time, there was a mouse who was very, very small. Exceptionally small. And there was a beautiful human princess whose name was Pea. And it so happened that this mouse was the one who was selected by fate to serve the princess, to honor her, and to save her from the darkness of a terrible dungeon.”


Light and Dark
Hope and Despair
Love and Loss

Suffering, longing, regret, abandonment, tragedy.

Song, story, beauty, forgiveness, courage, redemption.

Love, even though it hurts.
Love, even though it’s ridiculous.

Because life isn’t worth living without it.


I began to think about N.D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl.

Could we improve this picture? How can we make it not better but best? Remove the tension and the contrast. Remove the black. All of it. Remove the struggle and the inevitable end.

Leave the white. Only white. And now it is perfect. Perfectly blank.

If we live in art, struggling in the boundary between the shadow and the light, unable to see the whole, how can we begin to judge? How can we presume to talk about a better painting, a better novel, when we see only a single line, a single page, and it brings us grief?

…And so we speak. Each of us wanting our own position a little more comfortable. Each of us wanting to see a little more happiness, a little less contrast, wanting to skip the struggle, throw away the novel and save only the final page, the FINIS. A world of tombstones would have no wars, no hardships, and no complaints. So would a world without births or loves or creeping, crawling, walking, or growing things.

A better artist would have made this world more like the moon, only without the black space behind it, without the contrast of edges. A sprawling, near-infinite moon. Erase the craters.

The painting is blank. The art is numb. Perhaps it is the best of all possible numbness.

And later,

When men act out their lives within a tapestry, where meaning and beauty exist, where right and wrong are more than imagined constructs. There is evil. There is darkness. There is the Winter of tragedy, every life ending, churned back in the soil. But the tragedy leads to Spring. The story does not end in frozen death. The fields are sown in grief. The harvest will be reaped in joy. I see a Master’s painting. I listen to a Master’s prose. When darkness falls on me, when I stand on my corner of the stage and hear my cue, when I know my final scene has come and I must exit, I will go into the ground like corn, waiting for the Son.”

And then,

“Why do we so often ignore the beautiful in exchange for the cute?”

Kate DiCamillo’s writing is not cute, friends. It loves. It hurts. And then it sings with hope.


As if I needed the message pounded deeper, deeper, CiRCE Institute published this article by Greg Wilbur yesterday:

Chiaroscuro: A Contemplation for Holy Week
The dance of creation is resplendent with the pattern of chiaroscuro and with the musical motif of sorrow transforming into a melody of joy.

Rembrandt. Spring.

Creation. Words, song, bringing light. A cycle of night and day.

Death and resurrection.

I’m listening.

The theme of hopelessness turning into rejoicing, of weeping that lasts for the night before the joy that comes in the morning, forms the basis of fiction and story. If we did not feel the peril and potential loss of the knight as he battles the dragon, we would also not feel the thrill of the victory over what seemed to be hopeless. A hero that nonchalantly and easily dispatched dangers and foes would not stir the imagination, the blood, or our concern. In fact, he comes off looking a bit like a bully. His light does not shine brightly because the darkness is not deep and seemingly impenetrable.


Danielle said...

We listened to The Tale of Despereaux and I was struck with how DEEP it was. We all loved it. I've not read any of the others. We did listen to Flora and Ulysses and while it was weird, it was also more deep than I expected. They are the type of books I love, layered, with a story and a deeper meaning and message. Her Christmas children's book "Great Joy" is also beautiful. Brings tears to my eyes every time!

Misha said...

I needed this today. In the last year and a half I have lost three ones dear to me. Your summary of quotes and stories I already love was like homesickness, a reminder of a home I needed to miss. Thank you. You are always a gift, Heidi.