Thursday, June 12, 2003

A few weeks ago, someone asked me about books that had special meaning for me. A funny thing happened. Although I read a fair amount and I can now think of quite a few books that had a great impact on my life, the only book I could think of while we were talking was Roald Dahl's Matilda. The book automatically flashed into my mind when he asked. Why davka this book? For those unfamiliar with it, it is a children's book about a little girl with exceptional abilities who has a mediocre family, to put it mildly, and has to deal with some difficult situations (again, mildly put), when they put her in an awful school with a particularly sadistic headmistress. As usual with Roald Dahl, everything is greatly exaggerated and hilarious. It is probably the most adorable book ever written. I first read it at the tender age of 35, when I was ill in bed with severe pneumonia. Adult books all seemed so depressing and I had no choice but to raid the girls' bookcases. By the time I had recovered, I had reread most of my childhood favorites. And Matilda, which I read twice. (There is a very cute movie with Danny DeVito and his real life wife whatshername. You know, the one from Cheers).

So what's with this book that touched me so much? Besides it's being pure magic, of course. I think it's that we are all Matilda, every one of us. We are all special and unique and have exceptional powers and abilities. Life is about handling mediocrity and stupidity and poison and tragedy and not letting them overcome us and pull us down.

Yesterday afternoon I posted my cheerful morning jottings and then went to get something from the bedroom. The radio was on and someone was talking about a bus, which looked like it had been blown up. Back in the living room, I put on the TV and checked my mail. There was an e-mail from Barbara, who I have corresponded with occasionally in recent months, telling me that her mother had died. This morning I got to the office late, having enrolled Youngest in her special class for budding Matildas (yes, we were persuaded that it was a good idea), only to hear the sad news about a friend's brother who hanged himself yesterday.

They are all Matildas. They are all stars shining bright in the dark night sky. The poor victims of the bus bomb, the perpetrator, all those killed in Gaza, innocent and guilty, Barbara's mother, my friend's brother. Each special and unique. Every one of them in possession of magical powers and extraordinary abilities.

So why is it that there is no happy ending? How come Matilda only manages to outshine mediocrity, stupidity and evil in a piece of beautifully written children's fiction?

I don't know what I'm talking about any more. It must be this awful cold I've got and this splitting headache that will not allow me to rest.

Someone told me recently that Roald Dahl had held anti-Semitic beliefs.

Update: Dan the Accident Man, in response:
"though i've never read the book, i've heard about it and think you're right
on the money as far as comparing us all, "guilty or innocent" to a
"matilda". i had a few thoughts regarding a "happy ending" and since your
story inspired them, i thought i'd run them by you...

consider an actor, possibly out of work for some time, who one day attends
the best play he's ever seen. never before has he been so affected on so
many levels. never before has he experienced a play that took him through
the full range of his emotions (and even formed new ones). and the
ending...he never would have expected such an ending. he is forever changed.

so here he is, in a state of total elation. he immediatley decides that he
MUST be a part of this production. he must have a part, any part: whether it
be the lead role, hero or villian, or just a small member of the supporting
cast. it doesn't matter to him: the play is the thing, right?

being a talented actor, he naturally gets his part (not important which
part) and as he's performing, the play begins to lose a little of it's
luster on him. now, being behind the scenes, the everyday trudgery of stage
life causes him to forget the wonder he experienced when he first witnessed
this thing. he begins to wonder "this is not what i expected! why did i ever
choose to be a part of this?"

what he is not seeing is that the play is still a great one. and his part is
still a great one. he, as a part of this thing, is having tremendous impacts
on those that witness it. what he is not seeing is that he is doing the
"Great Work" of inspiring, elightening, scaring, shocking, and moving these
audience members to action, introspection and change in their own lives.

it is not until years later, perhaps seeing his play made into a made for tv
movie, that he remembers how much he loves this story. and now that love is
made even greater by knowing that he was a part of it. he helped make it

so don't be too discouraged when you don't see the "happy ending". at some
point, this "play" too will be a memory. and i don't think we'll be as
concerned then with "outcomes" as we will be with the stories that led to
those "outcomes". in any good play/book/film, when a character has, say a
ton of lumber and stones fall on top of them, we don't applaud the lumber
and stones, we applaud when we see that hand come reaching out of the
rubble, refusing to give in to the power of the crap that's fallen on them.
lumber and stones and crap and bombs and hijackings, as well as medicine and
books and churches/temples/synogogues/mosques, are all props...objects. WE
are the subjects. we are the great ones who will use these things to make
the story a great one.

and at the cast party afterwards, villians and heroes will still buy the
drinks for one another. at that point, we know the actor, not just the
character they played. no hard feelings. after all, it was just a play!"

From his mouth to God's ear, as they say.