Monday, June 14, 2010

Bedtime Stories (12.9.09)

Any parent who has laughed with her kids at the comic work of Mo Willems knows that Easy Readers sometimes contain brilliance. The other night during bedtime reading with my girls, I came across a Frog and Toad story that just about blew my mind.

Arnold Lobel's collections of stories about the devoted friends Frog and Toad have been around since the seventies. Lobel's tales even inspired a hit musical on Broadway in 2003, based on his work. However, the story "The Surprise" from the collection Frog and Toad All Year was new to me until last week. It unreels in 12 brief pages, told in typically simple, declarative sentences. The repetition of the phrases becomes nearly a hypnotic chant and I was close to zoning out as I read the words to my girls. Until I came to the story's twist.

"It was October," begins Lobel.

Frog looks out his window and sees leaves all over his yard. He decides to help out his friend. "I will go to Toad's house...I will rake all the leaves that have fallen on his lawn. Toad will be surprised."

Toad, at his house, has the same idea. They both sneak through the woods. Frog rakes Toad's yard and Toad does the same for Frog. Then they both go home, each thinking that his friend will be happily surprised.

As each walks home, the wind picks up and scatters all the leaves back across the yards. Frog sees his own yard and thinks to himself that he will rake it the next day. Toad does the same. And that night "Frog and Toad were both happy when they each turned out the light and went to bed."

That's it. The whole simple story.

"What's wrong, Mommy?" asked my seven year old as I read the last few lines with a tight throat and tears in my eyes. (Not the first time Frog and Toad have done this to me.)

"Oh, I'm just happy because Frog and Toad are such good friends to each other. Can you think of something nice that you have done for your friend?"

Mia started to tell me about drawing a picture for our neighbor girl. Nora chimed in with a story from preschool, talking over her big sister, who yelled in distress at the rude interruption. By the time I intervened so turns were taken and peace was restored, the girls were ready to move on. They may have picked up the tiniest wisp of an idea about compassion and helping others, but I couldn't shake the power of that image from the story - crumpled leaves strewn all over the grass again, all the hard work undone and the amphibians sleeping peacefully.

There's ironic humor in that image, but there's something larger too. Something about how altruism gives back as much as it gives forward. Perhaps it even gives the giver more. Mary Schmich from the Trib wrote a great column last week about how giving itself is an opportunity and a gift for which the giver should be thankful. I think the Jews call this a mitzvah. I think the Christians call it grace.

Have you ever felt burned by a cool reception to a gift you had given? The advice columnists say you may stop giving gifts when thank you notes don't appear; that seems like a formula for etiquetting your way to estrangement. Every holiday season I have my own Scroogey struggles, battling Expectations Too Great and the Specter of Resentments Past and Future. If I let myself get tied up in tallying who has expressed thanks and who left our gift unacknowledged, I can lose the pure pleasure of giving.

With all the open hands we see during the holidays, it's easy to equivocate and rationalize away the urge to help, to question the background and the motivation of the stranger on the street with his handwritten sign telling a tale of woe. Easy to walk by. Easy to think "No good deed goes unpunished."

Lober's story is a great reminder to pull a Nike and just do it. Even when the leaves have all scattered, even when your work is known to no one but you. Because what is left may be invisible, but what remains is love.

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