Of stories and alternate endings

One of my favorite sites is Maria Popova’s The Marginalian; while I don’t have many words of my own to offer this week, I want to share hers, about the children’s book The Story of Ferdinand. (I strongly recommend clicking through to read her post; there’s so much in it.)

Popova shares the origins of the story, which are rooted in war and fascism and friendship–and a real-life bull who became famous for his gentle nature. In this time that feels increasingly dangerous and bleak, I appreciated learning the story of this book that I have encountered many times but never read. I appreciate Popova’s insistence on the importance of art to help us imagine alternative endings.

I suppose some might consider Leaf’s ending of the story, which is far more happy than the ending of the bull’s life upon which it is based, sentimental. Perhaps they would consider it a lesser work for its lack of realism. Perhaps they might even deem it dangerous, for perpetuating a false idea of how things are likely to go in this world. Perhaps I would do so myself; there have been so many times in recent years that I’ve bemoaned an earlier idealism (naivety?) in myself that I blame for my previous lack of understanding of how so many things really are. I’ve attributed that idealism to beliefs instilled in me when I was young.

But Popova provides a different evaluative lens, one that I find useful in this time, with her claims that “We have always survived history’s dark patches by making our own light and meeting brutality with beauty,” and that “All the art we make — the picture-books and the poems, the paintings and the songs — is our act of resistance to the blade between the horns that menaces us with its unpardonable promise from the moment we are born.” She quotes Kathleen Lonsdale, who wrote that “‘those people who see clearly the necessity of changed thinking… must persuade others to do so'” and makes a case for the importance of art as a tool for such persuasion.

Leaf’s alternate ending isn’t a true one, in the sense of non-fiction’s truth, but it is a possible one. It puts into the world a story that could be true, and isn’t being able to imagine alternate endings the first, crucial step to making them happen?

As I’ve been writing these words, a variety of critters have come into my front yard, which I’ve seen through the window I’m sitting in front of. This past week, we’ve discovered a new inhabitant:

grainy photo of small rabbit in lawn of clover
We are used to squirrels and crows, and last summer we hosted a most unwelcome infestation of rats. We have occasionally seen rabbits in the neighborhood before, but usually only at dusk, and always in small groups. Never on our street, which is only two away from a busy, ugly one full of car exhaust, chain establishments of various kinds, and people struggling to survive in our city.

This rabbit comes into our yard at all times of day, as now, and we’ve never seen any companion rabbits. The first time was in the middle of a scorching day (high 90s last week), and at first we worried that it was disoriented by the heat. Two days ago I mistook it for a squirrel because it is small as a squirrel and moves in a squirrel-like fashion, and we joked that perhaps it is some kind of new, hybrid species, a squibbit.

This morning, I like that it is nibbling on the clover we are encouraging (in our clumsy, new-to-this ways) to take over the grass. I don’t know why it is here, or what it means, or what it might mean or could be a metaphor for. I don’t have a story about the rabbit, at least not yet. But I see in it the seed of a story, one that hints at alternate endings to the grim tales that too often play in my head these days.

14 thoughts on “Of stories and alternate endings

  1. TD says:

    I think that your new resident is attracted to your new ways of yardcare with encouraging healthy delicious tender clover, Rita! I look forward to reading a potential story of your imagination.

    The quote “All the art we make — the picture-books and the poems, the paintings and the songs — is our act of resistance…” seems to me to be re-emerging as newsworthy although not truly new. As I watched CBS this morning, this topic was present. And in my daily recent reading the subject appears.

    I think that your review of this book is beautifully written and very grounded in ways humans struggle to find comfort and meaning out of surviving nature. And I believe humans are part of nature.

    I enjoy the relationship drawn between your story of the book and of the rabbit.

  2. Kate says:

    Oh, rabbits love clover! I’m sure you’ll have a few more before summer is out. I’d gladly give you mine if I could. I’m a bit Mr. McGregor about rabbits. Or I would be if the thought of eating a city rabbit didn’t completely gross me out.

    Ferdinand was one of Jesse’s favorite stories growing up. I don’t remember it from my childhood but I read it to my kids quite a bit. I never knew it was based on a true story and much prefer the alternate ending (perhaps more incomplete than alternate) and the statement it makes.

    Thank you for sharing Popova’s post with us. Past versions of me might agree with the you who would find the ending too romanticized, but the idea of not losing the parts of us that are loving and peaceful in the face of violence and aggression feels almost subversive to me now. I’m drawn to it. I think that’s because I used to think that people who were light were either willfully ignorant, but I’m beginning to see those things are necessarily mutually exclusive.

    As always, I appreciate our conversations here.

        • Rita says:

          I spent more than a few minutes really thinking about whether or not they are mutually exclusive, and convinced myself that maybe they are. 🙂 I really don’t know, and maybe the important thing is that those categories aren’t important? For myself, I’m trying to find a way to both be realistic/pragmatic AND live from a place of hope/belief in my fellow humans. I don’t want to be stupid AND I don’t want to be harmed because I’ve been ignorant/naive. I am really really wanting to live in the both/and.

          I’ve been thinking a lot about Anne Frank’s famous words about believing, in spite of everything, that people are basically good. Both she and the real-life Ferdinand perished, so there was no alternative ending for them. They both died because of humans who were cruel and the opposite of good. That’s real, and in recent years I’ve lost a lot of the faith I once had in humans. I think most of us are basically good (meaning, I suppose, kind and empathetic) in the right circumstances. When we’re not acting from a place of fear. Too many of us are now living without what we need, and we’re behaving in ways that are sadly and tragically predictable. I tend to think this is all by the design of those who seek more power and resources than they’ll ever need, so I agree with you that hanging onto peace and love in the face of violence and aggression IS subversive. And I’m here for it.

  3. Marian says:

    I read Maria Popover’s post this morning, via her Sunday newsletter, and found it moving too. Clicking on it again, now, sent me down several rabbit holes. (Her posts are like that; perhaps that’s the connection to your bunny?) One of the phrases that stood out to me in my tunnelling was “moral courage,” and what struck me was that the phrase feels dated. I used to think that most people strove to be “good”—that even if we sometimes fell short, we all aimed to be like the woman who called for mercy for the bull—but as the years have progressed it’s become more and more impossible to believe that.

    As for alternate endings and your question—”isn’t being able to imagine alternate endings the first, crucial step to making them happen?”—you’re the second person in as many days (that I’ve read anyway) who’s talked about this. I completely agree, even though I actually find it quite difficult to put reality to the side.

    • Rita says:

      I feel as if moral courage was an idea/ideal I grew up with; people around me valued moral courage and “doing good/right” for their own sake. Such things were spoken of with straight faces and no irony. I think there’s been a cultural shift in the US, and that’s no longer the case. Or, maybe our ideas of what’s good/right are shifting. I see in younger people that they have some vastly different ideas than I have/have had in this area, but it’s not because they don’t think it’s important to do good. How they define “good” is different. Example: Work ethic was drilled into me, and foundational to that was not cheating my employer in any way. Some young people question that if the employer is an unethical corporation. And I get that.

      As for the thinking about alternate endings vs. reality, I shared some thinking about that in reply to Kate. I certainly share the difficulty you name. I’m having to work hard not to live in despair. I think a lot about work around critical hope–here’s a definition from the abstract of a research paper on that: “We defined critical hope, in this
      study, as the optimistic way of viewing and acting on the world from a critically historically conscious,
      socially and culturally situated perspective with a personal belief that inevitable change will inspire a
      sense of community, advocacy, liberation, and justice (Strikwerda, 2019). This rich definition incorporates
      the elements of hope deduced from existing related foundational and empirical research literature (Freire,
      1970; Freire, 1994; Freire, 1997, bell hooks, 2004; Edwards et al., 2007; Giroux, 2011; Noddings, 2017;
      Stitzlein, 2018; Massey, Vaughn, & Herbert, 2021).” (https://scholarworks.lib.csusb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1097&context=wie) Here’s a more accessible article that talks about in the context of eduction: https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/51206/why-critical-hope-may-be-the-resource-kids-need-most-from-their-teachers

      I really appreciate the distinction between critical hope and false hope. Critical hope is grounded in reality and the obstacles to ending all kinds of oppressions. I’m trying to cultivate critical hope in myself.

      • Marian says:

        Thank you for sharing those links to critical hope, Rita. I read the abstract of the scholarly one, and the entirety of the more accessible one, and much of it hit close to home. As a layperson, I’m always curious as to how teachers go about implementing something like critical hope. (i.e., what are the the concrete things they do? You don’t have to answer that, btw; that’s just a general wondering on my part.) I know teachers are human beings who are stretched to their max in their work (and who also have personal lives that may or may not be affecting their ability to do their work), but I hope that whatever they’re doing is applied evenly, across the entire student population. I’ve feared for a very long time that there would be a vicious backlash to what people are calling wokeism, and this is indeed what is happening. I’m not saying those articles are “woke” (not at all) but they did make me think about the fact that trauma isn’t confined to any particular demographic, and that teachers can’t tell by looking at someone—or their school performance—what their home life is like. Some kids do well in school because they’re too terrified not to.

        I agree that there’s been a cultural shift surrounding moral courage. It seems to me that moral courage is outward and collective, and the US has gone completely inward. Nowadays, if you dare to share what helpful or collectively-good things you’re doing, you’re more likely than not to be accused of virtue-signalling. It feels at times as though we’re on a race to the bottom, and having fun is the only thing anyone wants to talk about. I do, though, also agree with your thinking that there’s a generational shift going on too. My kids also have different ideas about work (and corporations) than I did growing up. I think they learned earlier than I did not to be naive.

        • Rita says:

          Oh, I’m sure those articles would be labeled “woke” by many. There are many who do not want to acknowledge the real barriers that many face because of aspects of their identities. I can’t speak for all teachers (we are absolutely not a monolith), but I can tell you that last year, when I was once again a classroom teacher, I assumed all students had barriers/trauma. As we were all living through an on-going pandemic and had all experienced lockdown–not to mention our political instability and some natural disasters–that seemed like a realistic assumption. As I changed some practices in response to this, I realized that there was 1) little good reason for some traditional practices; and 2) no reason to apply new practices to some students and not others. As you note, we can’t always know. Also, so many of our ideas about why some should get accommodations and not others are rooted in harmful/discriminatory cultural values/practices. (For example, that some reasons for being late are OK but others aren’t.)

          I found that my students appreciated open acknowledgement of challenges/hardships. We talked about systems/situations outside of our classroom that put different kinds of pressures on all of us in it, and we regularly talked about strategies for managing them and taking care of ourselves. I think this is an important part of cultivating critical hope: being truthful about the contexts in which we are living, and growing our abilities to set and meet our goals within those contexts, dire as they may be. Sometimes I feel sad that my children have such a bleaker view of the world/their future than I did at their age, but I have hope that it will better serve them than my view served me. In spite of everything.

          • Marian says:

            I can see why your students said they would miss you, Rita. The thing that really strikes me as being different from my experiences growing up is the truthful acknowledgment of contexts and challenges. This is something that was just not done in my home, and not in the schools I attended either. I agree that although the worldview of young people is bleaker today, it will at least serve them better.

          • Rita says:

            Thanks, Marian. This is all new learning for me; I think my growing up experiences were much like yours. There are so many things I just accepted as “natural” or “the way things just are” that it didn’t occur to me that some could be wrong or different. I have to say, that letting go of some school practices was so freeing for me as a teacher. One example: I used to spend so much energy dealing with the difference between excused and unexcused absences/tardies. Not caring about that–assuming that there was a valid reason someone was gone–gave me more time/energy for things that felt much more valuable than applying some kind of negative consequence for missing school. I want to think about how to apply this learning to other areas of my life. I do appreciate that younger generations are less accepting than I was, even though sometimes it creates discomfort for me. It helps me grow.

  4. Kari says:

    I’ve read the book Ferdinand many times. I read the article, and even though it was heartbreaking, this last sentence:

    “All the art we make — the picture-books and the poems, the paintings and the songs — is our act of resistance to the blade between the horns that menaces us with its unpardonable promise from the moment we are born.”


    By the way, I love the hybrid Squibbit. I wish to see one in real life now…
    Kari recently posted…Sacred SpaceMy Profile

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