Garden Road Submersion

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In Bone Creek, a tractor crushed by a tree during the Nebraska floods. / Photo by Dan Moore

My wife wants me to find the positive in the time change—not to dwell upon how those without sleep disorders, children, common sense or critical thinking or reading skills attempt to manipulate us near the end of each winter. Jennifer is my editor, so I suppose I should take her advice. She also did not create the disease of Daylight Saving Time. For her sake, DST will stand henceforth more for Don’t Stop Trying.

Before I move on, though, I’ll mention how the Standard Time Act became effective March 19, 1918. The Great Flu began soon afterward. Coincidence? Probably.

Then, on April 8, 1966, Easter Sunday, my father lit in Vietnam. Five days later, with him safely out of the country, the Uniform Time Act went into effect. It was extended a few weeks, for some reason, in 2007, and nationwide electrical savings hit 0.03 percent.

With that out of the way, as a result of Wayne Elementary’s One School One Book initiative, we have been reading Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. By page one, the author already uses the French term ennui—a paralyzing boredom I learned about in college.

My son Grant, age kindergarten, was reading along politely until he reached this word that does not follow the rules of the King’s English.

The main character, a china rabbit, is cast down into the unconsciousness of the sea. At first, he wonders if he will drown. Instead, he lands on the ocean floor and sits in that darkness for 297 days, which is around the same length as human gestation. The younger readers and listeners in the room do not realize Edward has been on The Hero’s Journey of mythologist Joseph Campbell.

Later, after Edward’s death by water and his resurrection, a fisherman’s wife dresses him as a girl. Since he cannot speak, he does not complain. The old woman, Nellie, holds Edward as a substitute for her five-year-old son who died of pneumonia. She can still imagine, cannot help touching the pain—both her son’s and her own—of her child drowning. Such a contrast to Edward deep under the ocean, the young human dying without ever hitting the water:

“‘He drowned inside of himself,’ said Nellie. ‘It is a horrible, terrible thing, the worst thing, to watch someone you love die right in front of you and not being able to do nothing about it. I dream about him most nights.’”

Each evening, in sleep, Nellie descends below the surface of that ocean.

Another writer, not for children, the French poet Charles Baudelaire, wrote of ennui. The opposite of good is not evil, but indifference; the opposite of beauty is not ugliness, but indifference… the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said. Ennui is deeper than the English word for boredom. It is the inability to act. Baudelaire described it as swallowing the entire world in a yawn. The French authorities suppressed his work and fined him for creating ‘an offense against public morals,’ as famine and disease committed much more indecent acts against the most innocent.

During the Great Flu, pneumonia did most of the killing. Or rather, the immune system overreacted to the virus. Exactly 100 years ago in the Spring of 1919, it was mercifully coming to an end.

Jennifer is recovering from pneumonia right now. Grant had pneumonia when he was four years old. If she has nightmares after reading Edward Tulane’s journey, it is understandable. She does not like to hear me talk about the Great Flu, which blackened the earth at the end of World War I—not a coincidence—and swept away entire families far from any frontline.

Though my brother and my father had cancer, pneumonia was the killer. But Campbell announces the good news: “You are not your son that died.” The ocean is deep, but our submersion is necessary for transformation, whether it is a snake sloughing off its skin, rebirth, or a pupa broken through, allowing metamorphosis from crawling to flight.