Friday, September 5, 2008

Postcards from Exile

A Story for Children

Note: I wanted to write a story for children that would be about and also offer intelligent pleasures, pleasures rooted in learning and knowledge. I wanted to write a story that would recognize some of the real world complexity that children live with, such as family members who do not always get along and sometimes live apart. I imagined that each item below would be treated as an individual page, with some pages illustrated with colorful drawings, while other pages showed only text. (I wrote this copyrighted story, Postcards from Exile, in year 2001, and sent it to a wide range of illustrators, editors and publishers, but no one pursued the project; and, later, there was an animated children's television program with a similar scenario--and I wondered if that was a coincidence or if someone I shared my story with had given it to others...)

1. I sometimes get postcards, notes, and letters from my uncle, my father’s brother, who lives in New York and travels on planes, boats, and trains…

2. He sent me a postcard from France of the Eiffel Tower.

3. He sent me a postcard from India of the Taj Mahal.

4. I live in Louisiana, a state in the southern part of the United States. I live in a house with my father, my mother, and my older brother.

5. My uncle wrote me a note that says, “Home is where you feel free to breathe deep and laugh loud. Home is where you feel free to wear old clothes or walk without shoes. Home is where you feel free to be alone or invite friends. Home is where you feel free to do or not do—almost anything.”

6. He wrote, “Even though you feel free at home, if you make a mess at home, or in another place, you still have to clean it up, or else you will have nothing but messes and won’t be able to move or do anything.” That’s what my father and mother say too. I try to clean up whatever mess I make.

7. In our house, we have a playroom, but I play in other parts of the house too. We all have to try to take care of the house. This is where we live, where we eat and bathe and sleep, where we talk and play and sometimes work.

8. In Louisiana, people grow cane to make sugar and syrup, and grow pepper to make hot sauce, and there are also salt mines and oil fields. We say we’re the sweetest and spiciest state in the union, in the United States.

9. The places my uncle visits are different from where I live. His postcards show unusual things, a painting of people in old timey clothes, a man on a camel, a woman weaving a basket, a large waterfall, weird buildings and other things I do not see where I live.

10. One of his postcards is of a jaguar sitting on a bunch of leaves in South America. It looks like a tiger to me.

11. He sent me a postcard of pretty water high on a rocky hill. The postcard said it was one of five Amir Lakes in north Afghanistan. A-f-g-h-a-n-i-s-t-a-n. I can write Afghanistan but it’s hard for me to say it. My mother can say it.

12. My uncle wrote in a letter, “A postcard is a picture of a place or thing that anyone might visit. If there’s a person on the postcard of a strange place, someone you don’t know, he just seems part of the place, a place you might visit one day.” I know that. Well, I know that now. He also wrote, “A personal photograph is a picture of a place where I have been, and it shows me in it, where I was, how I looked, and what I was doing. When you know the person in a photograph, you notice him first, and then you notice where he was when the photograph was taken. A postcard is about the present and future, about what is and what might be. A personal photograph is about yesterday, about what used to be.” This is the way he writes and talks. He’s always trying to teach me something. I like learning but not all the time.

13. My father has a wife and children but my uncle does not. My uncle has friends and a special lady friend.

14. My uncle and his friends get together for laughs and games and talks, just like my friends and me. They go to different places together to eat and see shows and hear music, and sometimes his friends go to his home and other times he goes to theirs.

15. My uncle went to Switzerland with his friend Bob. He sent me a photograph of the two of them dressed in big, thick shiny clothes with hats and big glasses called goggles on their faces, standing on skis on a lot of clean white snow. (It hardly ever snows in Louisiana.)

16. In a letter from a while ago, my uncle wrote, “Bob and I met in college. He was nice and smart and funny and I chose him as my friend. We studied together, talked about books together, went bicycling and hiking and to movies together, and we talked about girls together. We loaned each other money, and jackets and ties, for important dates. We were friends, and we were often together. Even though we work in different places now, we still get together.” College is school for big kids, for big people.

17. My uncle says that letters are for when you have a lot to say. His letters are sometimes long but they are interesting to me.

18. My uncle went to Italy with his special lady friend, Sandra, and sent me a photograph of them in a small boat, a gondola, in the city of Venice. G-o-n-d-o-l-a.

19. He wrote in a letter, “Sandra and I met at work and talked about what we did there and also what we did during our weekends. I liked her and chose her as a friend. We had dinners together. She finds joy almost everywhere she looks. I chose her as a special friend. We cook for each other, give each other gifts of books and clothing, and we walk and talk in the park together, see plays together, shop together for paintings by young artists, play basketball together, and together go to hear people play music. We learned to speak Italian together. I like the careful way she treats people, and I like the way she looks. We might choose to be together always.”

20. He told me that he had a lot of good times traveling while alone and with his friends. He said he had good times at his home in New York too, but he thought maybe childhood, being my age, might be the best time of all. I don’t know if that’s true. He gets to do whatever he wants, or almost everything.

21. I do some of the things I want and things my mother and father tell me, like my homework and cleaning my room and saying “Thank you” and “Please,” even when I don’t want to say that.

22. My uncle went to Africa. He sent me a postcard of people dressed in clothes with these tiny squares of colors on them, yellow, green, orange, and other colors. The people were dancing. That looked like fun, but I remember my uncle wrote that childhood is “maybe like a Saturday afternoon. Good things happen but you don’t always think about how good they are until it’s no longer Saturday. Maybe childhood is like an ice cream cone. You have to enjoy it while it lasts. Maybe childhood is like a furry bear or a broken toy or a cheery song. Maybe I don’t recall very well what childhood is like and you have to tell me.”

23. I write to my uncle sometimes but my letters are not like his. I tell him what I did at school and that I played jump rope or dolls or checkers or dress-up with my friends but there’s not much I have to teach him. Except about childhood. I guess I teach him about that.

24. My father has a wife and a son and a daughter. My uncle, his brother, does not have a wife or children. He has friends. My father lives in Louisiana, in the country. My uncle lives in New York, in the city. My father does not like to travel. My uncle does. They are different and they do not always agree. My father likes to eat meat and my uncle likes fruits and vegetables. My father doesn’t like to read a lot and my uncle always carries a book when he visits. They sometimes argue about who should lead the United States, sounding like boys arguing about who should be baseball team captain. My father and his brother are different, but my uncle and his friends are more like each other.

25. My uncle says that a mother and father choose to have children but the children don’t choose each other. Brothers and sisters don’t choose to be brothers and sisters but friends choose to be friends. I did not choose my brother, but I like him most of the time. The best time my father and his brother have is when they listen to old timey music, music from when they were as small as I am. They try to dance. They laugh and hug then. My uncle does not visit often.

26. My mother says my uncle lives in exile. I asked if that was a place in New York but my mother said no. My mother said exile is a feeling. Exile is when you are in a new place because the old place where you used to be is not a good place for you to be any more. It is like having happiness and underneath the happiness is sadness—you are smiling but there’s a frown near the corner of your mouth. The frown comes out when you go back to the place where you don’t want to be. My mother says there aren’t as many things for my uncle to see and do where we live as there are where he lives. I know that.

27. I have not been to New York, where my uncle lives. In New York, there is the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, big baseball stadiums, and places where there are lots of drawings and statues, and an ice skating rink. There are horses with carriages in a park, and a lot of tall buildings and a lot of people. People from all over the world live in New York.

28. When my uncle calls, he speaks to my mother longer than he speaks to my father. My father and my uncle talk about the weather and work and the next time my uncle will visit. When my mother talks to my uncle, her voice goes low and they talk about his friends and where he is and she asks him if he’s taking care of himself.

29. One of my uncle’s postcards was of a pyramid in Egypt. It looks like a big triangle made of bricks. My mother says Egypt is one place she’d like to go.

30. Another postcard was of a big rock in a park in this country, in California. The rock is called Halfdome and the park Yosemite. Y-o-s-e-m-i-t-e.

31. I would like to travel sometime, but my father says we will wait until I’m older.

32. I would like to travel with my father, my mother, and my brother. Maybe we could go to one of the places where my uncle travels to when he’s there. Maybe India, maybe Italy.

33. I have a postcard from him of the leaning tower of Pisa in Italy.

34. My uncle’s postcards are special to me, because he shows me places I have not been, places where I might go when I get bigger.

35. One of my favorites is of a waterfall near trees. The sun is shining and there’s a rainbow in the sky. It’s a picture of Victoria Falls in Africa.

36. A yellow and blue fish, called a queen angelfish, which lives in the waters off a Caribbean island, is very pretty on a card he sent. C-a-r-i-b-b-e-a-n. My father said that when we travel we might go to an island. Maybe we’ll travel after I learn to say all these names with no trouble.

37. I like giraffes too. There are a lot of giraffes in Africa. I have a postcard with giraffes on it.

38. I don’t think that I would like seeing a lion, but I have a postcard of one lying down some place in Africa.

39. I have a photograph of my uncle with some of his friends in an eating place in Spain. He said that there weren’t a lot of other people in the picture because a lot of people sleep in the afternoon there. He said that sometimes he slept in the afternoon too. I wouldn’t travel just to sleep somewhere else.

40. Sometimes, I think of my uncle before going to sleep in my bed, and I dream of some of those places he has told me about. I dream.

(DG, November 2001)