I’ll apologize in advance if this post is a bit dark. I try to keep this blog positive but I’m not sure how you can write about death and dying without getting at least a little dark.
Maurice Sendak died this week. Rather than wax poetic about the man and his work, I wanted to share a few observations about his life and in particular, some of his thoughts on death and dying. I’ll leave the tributes to others as I am sure there will be many. He was a great man and his work had a lot of influence on many of us.
But more than anything, Sendak was a truth-teller. I didn’t realize this back in the day when I was reading his work to my kids, and I was roaring the terrible roars to the sound of delighted little squeals. Kids love his work but it also has a dark side, a realism that speaks to the fear and frustration that can also be part of childhood. I suspect this may be part of why they like it better than the sugar-coated alternatives. When asked about this, Sendak was once quoted as saying, “I refuse to lie to children.” Apparently he refused to over-simplify too.
On death and dying, he was equally direct. One of the best parts of working from home is that I get to listen to NPR, and yesterday they replayed an interview between Sendak and Terri Gross of Fresh Air. She asked him about what it was like to get older, and he talked about the sorrow of losing his partner of 50 years and a number of friends. In many ways, he was outliving the people he cared about, which is a sad but true story for many in America.
In many ways, Sendak’s life was shadowed by darkness and death from early on. He was the child of Jews who immigrated from Poland in the 1930’s, and on the day of Sendak’s bar mitzvah, his father received the news that his entire family in Poland had been wiped out by the Nazis. I’m sure that was devastating and it certainly was a formative event in his life. His parents did the best that they could, but it could not have been easy, being strangers in a new land trying to raise a child, knowing they could never go home again.
Out of such darkness and difficulty though, often comes the most genius. I’m not suggesting that it was good that any of this happened, but I wonder if the same creative mind would have existed had Sendak grown up a middle-class white kid from a good high school in the suburbs. Perhaps creativity and genius needs a little darkness, a crucible that crystallizes a different vision.
As a Jew, Sendak would not have believed in an afterlife but I hope that he turns out to be wrong on this one minor point. I like to envision him, reunited with his partner and his friends, sitting at a drafting table pen in hand, making up the next wild adventure. Perhaps that’s just a pipe dream on my part, but in the midst of darkness, we must each make our own light – and that’s mine for today.
Live a powerful life, my friends. Speak your own truth like Sendak did. Embrace the darkness when it happens and use it to crystallize your vision. And in the end, stay hopeful as he did, and do your best work right up to the very end.
“There must be more to life than having everything.”
― Maurice Sendak
ETA: If you would like to listen to the whole interview between Terri Gross and Maurice Sendak, you can access it on NPR’s website here: http://www.npr.org/2012/05/08/152248901/fresh-air-remembers-author-maurice-sendak