A landscape of collapsed barns, pastures overgrown with purple-tipped burdock and farm equipment rusted solid is an ideal setting to reflect on the passing of Maurice Sendak, author and artist, who most famously wrote Where the Wild Things Are, published in 1963.
His death did not entirely surprise me. In 2011, Sendak gave an interview with Terry Gross on National Public Radio in which he talked openly about his failing health. As if archiving himself before the library permanently closed, he read through scattered pages of his life so as to say goodbye. The radio format was strangely inadequate for his farewell, but also perfect. His crying and chuckling filled my dining room, as did his rambles and silences. At the close of the interview he said, "There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready."
In other interviews, Sendak spoke about his fondness for the poet Emily Dickinson. She was his salvation. Written while listening to birdly sermons in an apple orchard, Dickinson's poems guided him through life's dark thickets. "Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul ... And sore must be the storm/ That could abash the little bird/ That kept so many warm."
Sendak built shadowy and sometimes stormy worlds that his young protagonists had to courageously encounter. "Be still," Max says to the wild things who "gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes."
In 1963, librarians banned Where the Wild Things Are because it was "too frightening." One wrote, "This is not a book you leave in the presence of sensitive children to find in the twilight." Psychologists condemned it as "too dark."
Sendak's children were not innocent or sanitized; they were Freud's children full of need, fear and curiosity. With an almost enchanted quality, his children drew close to their monsters, turning toward "their terrible roars" and looking into "their terrible eyes." In one such alarmingly sweet scene, the wild things threaten to eat Max as he sails back home. Smiling, Max kindly waves goodbye. This quality, most of all, enthralled me as child. With Sendak's help, I thought I too could softly face fear.
Growing up on a Vermont farm provided ample opportunity to stare into fright. The Vermont I knew was neither a ski resort nor a bucolic landscape of never-changing reds and oranges. Rural Vermont of the early '80s was gothic. Dairy farms had begun to fall into ruin, along with their large farmhouses. Pastures were pockmarked with trailers: Unable to afford the upkeep, farmers moved into smaller, more manageable homes. Though not the American ideal of small family farms, they were still magical, if also scary, places to grow up.
My sister and I spent most of our childhood on Great Aunt Harriet and Uncle Norman's farm up on Turkey Hill. They had three older children, 60 dairy cows, two horses, one mule, pigs, three dogs, a hayloft full of cats and a few dozen chickens and turkeys. Sendak once said, "We're animals. We're violent. We're criminal." And so too this crowding of farm life fueled many "wild rumpuses"—the sort Max started—that were bloody and smelly and occasionally loving.
Phillip, one of my cousins, grabbed a blue speckled robin egg I had found. Yelling, "It's dead!" he hurled it against an old diesel pump. The yolky insides splattered and rivered down the rusted metal. It was a horrible and gorgeous thing, that color and ruination.
More terrifyingly, my sister and I had to help with the slaughter of chickens. Heads with blinking eyes were swept off a stained block: wings, bodies and claws jerked in a final dance. Before I was able to scream, the ground and barn walls were covered in their red music. "Cutting heads off is the easy part," Aunt Harriet said, her teeth crooked as roots. We plunged the headless bodies into buckets of boiled water and pulled feathers by the handfuls.
It wasn't always so cruel. When a calf was born I was full of questions: Where did that calf come from? How did the mother hold it up inside her body, and then lift her head high, mouth open, rough tongue licking air, and slide like syrup onto the blackened concrete a sack made of pink, wet silk filled with kicking, thin legs?
There was also something like friendship between Uncle Norman and the cows. Even though he couldn't read, he spoke a language only cows knew. "KaBoss!" KaBoss!" he would holler. I had no idea what this meant, but when he gnashed these words through brown juices and bony gums, cows pounded across hoof-pitted earth as if to embrace a long-lost relative.
The farm was also a place of witches and ghosts who peered from every corner, waiting to steal our attention or more. Believe it or not, oracle wasps had written the name "Frances" with tiny holes on their nest of dry paper in a crabapple tree. My cousin Dotty said, "It's the spirit of Old Man Thompson, who died of rabies before the vaccine, tied to the bed in the little room upstairs where you sleep." In the night my uncle and his sons set the swollen hive of "little witches" on fire—one magic against another.
It was also a sacred place, and God ruled wrathfully for this evangelical family. My sister and I did our part by carefully burying the dead. One morning we played church with a dead rat fattened with black beetles. We dug a shallow grave, laid it out and hand-smoothed a dirt mound. We prayed for this little soul to find heaven. But worried that we hadn't done it right, we did it a second time, a curious and careful resurrection.
Now, after 30 years, the farm is empty. Because she didn't have health insurance, Harriet died of an infection. Norman is mostly deaf and lives with Phillip in a trailer by the frog pond. All of the cows are gone, and the barn cats have taken over what was surely theirs all along. Following the porch's demise, the farmhouse's roof groans toward the ground. My life seems far away, but this farmyard was my first classroom, with all its affection and violent bullying.
During the NPR interview, Sendak was asked about his last book. He said: "When I did Bumble-ardy, I was so intensely aware of death. Eugene, my friend and partner, was dying here in the house when I did Bumble-ardy. I did Bumble-ardy to save myself ... Bumble-ardy was a combination of the deepest pain and the wondrous feeling of coming into my own."
A combination of sorrow and wonder to become more than oneself: I think facing your shadows with caring courage is surviving well. Courage isn't always possible, fickle as it is. But the crosshatched murkiness of farm life instructed me on economic, spiritual, emotional and corporeal survival. There is nothing particularly special about this kind of survival, as Sendak shows us; it happens everywhere. What matters is illustrated by Max's emphatic "No" and kindly wave goodbye to the threatening wild things.
A gentle, sure-footed gesture in the face of terribleness may seem naïve these days, but there remains something essential—especially for the children we remain to be—about living courageously at the crossroads of sometimes awful contradiction. We won't always have the nerve to confront our snaggle-toothed demons, but knowing we could changes the scale of things.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Living courageously."