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On May 8, 2012, it was announced that Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are and countless other books, had passed away.
As I got on the train to work that morning, browsing through Twitter on my phone and reading news reports about Sendak, his life and his art, I stumbled upon a link in which National Public Radio re-posted their final interview with him at age eighty-three, done by Terry Gross just a few months prior. Nineteen minutes later, at the end of the interview, I stepped off the train fighting back tears and trying not to make a blubbering spectacle of myself. What I had heard was a story and testimony all at once extremely beautiful, extremely sad, full of mystery, and, quite unexpectedly, a testament to God’s faithfulness. I was hearing for the first time the longings of an artist who I only knew in a relatively small manner, but who I discovered meant more to me than I fully realized.
I knew of him mostly through Where the Wild Things Are, one of my favorite books from childhood, plus some fond memories of seeing the films and books for Really Rosie and The Nutshell Library in elementary school. When I was young, I appreciated Wild Things in particular as a good story with fascinating pictures. Even in high school it stayed with me as I painted a famous scene from the book on the back of my denim jacket. When I started reading the book out loud to my own kids as an adult, I fell in love with it in a whole new way, marveling just as much at how it sounds as how it looks. I also look at this story as having similarities to the parable of the Prodigal Son: the boy Max lashes out at his mother and goes off on a wild rumpus adventure with the wild things, only to long for returning home, where he smells good things to eat and finds his supper still waiting for him. And it is still hot.
I have since become a serious student of Sendak, collecting more of his books, sharing them with my kids, digging up interviews, and implementing his influence into my own unfolding work as a writer and illustrator of children’s stories. Observing the work of Maurice Sendak becomes all the more significant when learning more about his life and how it impacted his art. In previous NPR interviews over the years (collected here), he talks about how much of his life was spent looking out of a window while sick in bed, watching life in his Brooklyn neighborhood as it happened outside. (A great deal of this influence is evident in his first books Kenny’s Window and The Sign on Rosie’s Door.) Sendak even tells a riveting tale of his own childhood memory seeing an angel out his window, and describes it in full detail.
I don't believe in an afterlife, but I still fully expect to see my brother again.Maurice Sendak
Another story, told by Wicked author Gregory Maguire (also on NPR here), tells us about him giving Maurice a gift in the hospital before he died: a photograph of Lewis Carroll sitting on the edge of his window, with his feet hanging outside. These repeated symbolic images of windows are interesting: the world that Sendak saw beyond his own window, and then finally, near his life’s end, a symbolic image of another author he had admired, sitting on the edge of a window as if ready to venture into another world—a world, to borrow from another one of Sendak’s book titles, Outside Over There.
What is profound about Maurice Sendak’s final NPR interview in particular is how he wrestles, through real tears, with his adamant disbelief in God and the visions which call to him from “outside over there” anyway.
The interview begins with Terry Gross talking to Maurice about his latest book, which would turn out to be his final one, called Bumble Ardy, about a rebellious orphaned pig who is not allowed to have fun. When he turns nine he throws a birthday party for himself with a bunch of grubby swine, only to be disciplined by his aunt when she gets home, so Bumble Ardy promises “I’ll never turn ten.”
Maurice and Terry talk about the mystery of that line, “I’ll never turn ten,” and Sendak says, “I won’t pretend that I know exactly what it means. I only know it touches me deeply, and when I thought of it, I was so happy I thought of it. It came to me, which is what the creative act is all about. Things come to you without you necessarily knowing what they mean.”
He relates this to his unhappy childhood; growing up in a Jewish family in the shadow of the Holocaust, the evil and pain that event caused his family played a big part in his giving up on God and not believing in His goodness. But he also talks about the people who are taking care of him later in life, his life-long friend and neighbor Lynn and her mother, who in his words, was “a saint in the best sense of that word, the best sense of what I imagine Christianity is all about.”
He talks about his older brother Jack Sendak, whom he says “made my childhood bearable. More importantly to my life, he saved my life. He drew me away from the lack of comprehension that existed between me and my parents, and he took his time with me to draw pictures and read stories and live a kind of fantastical life.” His brother Jack would pass away in 1995.
He talks a great deal about other people who have passed away, as he finds he is out-living many who he has loved so dearly. He talks about the death of his partner Eugene who he lived with for fifty years, and describes the central bond of their companionship, which was to travel together, read books together, and most importantly, to listen to music. He talks again about Bumble-Ardy and how he was writing it as Eugene was in the house dying of cancer, and how writing the book became an expression of his pain and loss.
Part of the reason that Terry Gross is able to dig this deep into this many personal stories with Maurice is that they had a long history of interviews which went back several years. There is a level of trust, friendship and love that exists between these two people having this conversation, and it’s in this context of trust that Gross is able to explore the following questions with him, in this excerpt from the interview transcript:
GROSS: We’ve talked before about how, you know, you’re Jewish but you’re very secular. You don’t believe in God. You don’t…
SENDAK: No, I don’t.
GROSS: Yeah. And I think having friends who die, getting older, getting closer toward the end of life tests people’s faith and it also tests people’s atheism. It sounds like your atheism is staying strong.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SENDAK: Is what?
GROSS: Staying strong.
SENDAK: Yes. I’m not unhappy about becoming old. I’m not unhappy about what must be. It makes me cry only when I see my friends go before me and life is emptied. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I still fully expect to see my brother again. And it’s like a dream life. I am reading a biography of Samuel Palmer, which is written by a woman in England. I can’t remember her name. And it’s sort of how I feel now, when he was just beginning to gain his strength as a creative man and beginning to see nature. But he believed in God, you see, and in heaven, and he believed in hell. Goodness gracious, that must have made life much easier. It’s harder for us non-believers.
But, you know, there’s something I’m finding out as I’m aging – that I am in love with the world. And I look right now, as we speak together, out my window in my studio and I see my trees and my beautiful, beautiful maples that are hundreds of years old, they’re beautiful. And you see I can see how beautiful they are. I can take time to see how beautiful they are. It is a blessing to get old. It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music. You know, I don’t think I’m rationalizing anything. I really don’t. This is all inevitable and I have no control over it. “Bumble-ardy” was a combination of the deepest pain and the wondrous feeling of coming into my own and it took a long time. It took a very long time, but it’s genuine. Unless I’m crazy. I could be crazy and you could be talking to a crazy person.
GROSS: I don’t think so.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SENDAK: I don’t know anymore and I don’t care.
GROSS: Well, I’m so glad you have a new book. I’m really glad we had a chance to talk.
SENDAK: I am too.
GROSS: And I wish you all good things.
SENDAK: I wish you all good things. Live your life, live your life, live your life.
I won’t pretend I know exactly what was going on in Maurice’s head or his heart as he spoke, but what I heard that morning on the train was a reminder that no matter how adamant we are, how stubborn we are, how much we want to deny God or disbelieve in Him, or the idea of Him, God is faithful and he keeps moving.
He doesn’t force Himself upon us, but He doesn’t give up either. He speaks to us by any means possible: through the kindness of others, through music, books, and art (even works of art which are not considered “religious”), through hundred-year-old maple trees, and through the beautiful world He has made. From any perspective, art and beauty can give us a glimpse past the windows of our lives, and in the worst of circumstances, can give us hope. Despite all of the sorrow and tragedy we create or receive, even if our hearts are willfully closed to God we may still surrender to beauty, and when the Holy Spirit takes us to the edge of ourselves, we may surrender to Him as well.
Among the wild things in our lives that threaten to eat us up, stories from artists like Maurice Sendak can awaken us to a possibility: that we may see an angel through our window, or that we may smell good things to eat, and find our supper is still waiting for us. And it is still hot.
I've studied film & animation at University of Michigan School of Art & Design and VanArts, and now live near Vancouver Canada. Over the years I have worked on several animated short films for Scholastic/Weston Woods at BigFott Studios, written two books about stop-motion animation, and taught animation online for Academy of Art University. By day I am Communications Manager at VanArts. By night I write, draw, teach, animate, read to my kids and battle evil (sometimes wearing a cape).