“After the rest of it had gone”

Our bedtime book, at my house, is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland again. My daughter and I have read it together once before and it’s such a pleasure to reread books like this. We recently finished Charlotte’s Web for the eighth or ninth time. It’s so much fun to get to know the language and the characters of these books so intimately, and to find my own way of reading them out loud–which is not so much a deliberate interpretive choice as just settling into something that becomes comfortable. I love the lack of pressure, really, reading aloud to my four-year-old. I love goofing around to try to make her laugh. I love the voices I’m bad at. It’s fun to try to find a way of voicing a story that will help her to better understand and/or (at least) enjoy a story and syntax that are at times a bit beyond her.

I also love the resonance for me in these novels. I love snuggling in with my daughter at the end of a tiring day–or, when the evenings are a bit too hot for snuggling, as they have been recently, sitting a few inches apart (“You’re hot, and I’m hot,” she says, by way of resistance, when I try to cuddle anyway)–and pulling out the bookmark and wading into that night’s chapter and discovering something that resonates with the day’s questions.

Like this, from tonight’s chapter, which has Alice inquire of the Cheshire cat: ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

I know everyone has different questions that obsess or preoccupy them in a life, but this is certainly one of mine. And I love Carroll’s answer.

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

I love how this bit of fun reminds me (perhaps because I read this post earlier this evening) that the best answers retain their questions, inside of them. An interesting answer retains a kind of reciprocal relationship with its originary question.

I loved riddles as a kid. I even had a little notebook in which I recorded my own riddles, mostly knock-offs on (knock-knock) jokes I found in my mom’s copy of The Last of the Good, Clean Joke Books. I wrote the answers upside down at the bottom of each page to create an opportunity for comic suspense.

All these years later I’m the mom and someone else is the kid and though “where I want to get to” is still not totally clear I do have some answers. I want to finish this novel. I don’t want what I write to be a knock-off. And even though I still enjoy a good laugh I know my punch lines have swerved, they’re right side up, hits and sometimes misses, but not very funny, nobody’s laughing.

Still, I’m starting to think the trick of finishing this novel will be remembering how to enjoy myself, how to be the 12-year-old laughing at her own half-witted jokes, scribbling them down messily with a pencil so she can laugh at them again later. Part of the trick will be remembering how to satisfy myself. That’s really all I have to do right now. That is actually why–at least it’s one of the reasons why–I started writing things down.

Being sufficiently critical of my own work to get better, yes–but also enjoying it enough–and being sufficiently relaxed about the quality–to continue, to keep going.

As the hookah-smoking Caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland says of the mushroom it’s sitting on: ‘One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.’

Right now I can’t help but think of these sides as orientations–negativity/criticism (of the work), positivity/enjoyment (toward the work–or anything else, really). Like Alice, I don’t want to choose one side of the mushroom or the other: I want to fill my pockets, my boots, with bits of both sides and nibble as necessary.

Here’s another part I like: “Alice remained looking thoughtfully at the mushroom for a minute, trying to make out which were the two sides of it; and as it was perfectly round, she found this a very difficult question.”

This amuses me, but that’s not all; it satisfies me, too.

I wish I had a riddle of my own to end this with. I came up with a few while I was nursing H just now but, trust me, they should be written upside down somewhere in some kid’s notebook, not shared here. (My jokes amuse me, but I doubt they’d satisfy you.)

I’ve had little enough sleep lately (between night-nursing a feverish baby, trying to finish up an editing contract on a deadline, and still writing), that this all might well sound like I’ve been smoking a hookah. But all this exhaustion and goofing around reminds me of something I’ve been trying to credit more: ordinary laughter, ordinary leisure. Accomplishing nothing. Letting time pass, spending it, letting it float away. So I’ll leave you with this:

“‘All right,’ said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.”


3 comments to “After the rest of it had gone”

  • I have such lovely memories of reading Alice to Chloe. You reminded me of those. And yes, the secret, I think, is to enjoy the writing. Especially near the end. If not you, who?

  • A thoroughly enjoyable post. I too have lovely memories of reading Alice when I was little, again in my twenties and once again since then. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will always maintain its magic. Love that you closed the post with the Cheshire Cat. This post also reminded me that I turned on the pc to do some writing. Thanks. I’m going to do that right now.

  • Chris, thanks for your note. I’m pleased to have reminded you of your intention to write.

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