More than once, lawn envy has bested me: looking at my neighbors with perfectly manicured lawns, a single variety of thick blade grass mowed to a uniform height, glistening with morning dew. Tempting, huh? Since we moved into our Iowa home six years ago and began to tend our own landscape, I cannot seem to achieve the supposed lawn perfection, partly because I am uninterested in chemical solutions to the naturally concurring variety in our front and backyard ground cover (because of things like, you know, polluting our water table and children running barefoot through a chemically maintained lawn) but partly because it is just plain hard work! Nature does everything in its power to diversify, and homogeneity is won through incredible force or unfair chemical advantage. One thing I have learned through working with Backyard Abundance on our natural playscape is that the mark of a well established ecosystem is its diversity, and as human participants in our ecosystems, we do everything in our power to eliminate the diversity of our natural spaces. Foolish humans. I am grateful for the landscaping plan Backyard Abundance has drawn up because it embraces the natural penchant towards complexity and diversity and uses it strategically. Plus, I made it clear that low maintenance was critical – like I have time to mow! – so our new landscape will have very (very) little mowing required! Do I hear a halleluiah?
My time as an early childhood educator has cured many a spell of lawn envy. Spring brings dandelions, and the bright yellow flowers that dot the landscape are far too tempting to the 2-5 year old crew to be left unpicked. Fistfuls of sweaty, wilting dandelions are a common springtime gift between friends – given and received with the joy of a thousand velvety roses. As we picked one and examined it closely today, we noticed the incredible complexity of the bud – the numerous protruding petals and the tiny squiggly hairs covering the center (I believe that is their technical name…”tiny squiggly hairs”), and I was offered one as a gift.
Complexity. Like the complexity of the bud, or the complexity of a fully developed ecosystem, I believe complexity is written into the fabric of our beings. Yet the same way we often find it hard to love in others the characteristics that are strongest in ourselves, we similarly work to eliminate complexity, though it is our human hallmark, simplifying life to a set of manicured lawns and denying the essence of who we are. One of my goals for the children in my care is to complicate: complicate simplistic and routine play scripts, complicate notions of good and bad, and complicate their visions of who they can become. Everyone can be kind or mean, depending on if they have what the need or not. I can behave in a mean way to my friend if I am tired, sick, hungry, lonely, restless, bored, or disconnected. And I can even behave in a way that appears mean, but is purely a miscommunication. Perhaps I am a two-year-old toddler, and I am curious about the cause and effect relationship between my foot and a tall tower of blocks that my four-year-old companion just finished building. When we stop to ask the why behind behavior, we find that we honor the embedded needs, and we react in constructive ways to bring about change. I might act mean, but I am not – at my core – a mean person. And the more closely we look? The same is true for most everyone. The closer we look at that dandelion, the less it looks like a plain old weed.
One of my gripes with much of children’s television, movies, and literature is that they ingrain a false simplicity about good and bad by spinning villains or hero(ine)s that are never more complicated than one hundred percent good or through-and-though evil. A friend of Hickory Hill Playschool recently shared an exception with me, a book called The Fire Cat by Esther Averill. The basic plot line is this: a cat is mean to his other cat friends because he is lonely, lacks a suitable home, and suffers from paws that are just too big. When he is on the receiving end of an act of kindness, he discovers that he can be a force for good and is adopted by the local fire department to become their fire cat. Everyone can be kind or mean, depending on if they have what the need or not. At Abundant Life, we spend a great deal of time looking closely at the characters in the books that we read, wondering about the motivators behind the behaviors depicted. We tell stories with with antagonists who behave authentically of their real needs and we work as a crew to craft a storyline that honors the needs of that character in the context of the entire story so that everyone wins in the end.
In the end, honoring the complexity in others makes room for a full spectrum of personal emotions – good and bad – and allows us to name the strong feelings we have while still honoring the needs of others. Honoring the complexity in ourselves makes room for the full spectrum of possibilities – expected and accidental – and allows us to receive our future with confidence. Honoring the complexity of nature makes room for the full spectrum of color – weeds and coveted plant life alike – and allows us to experience the remarkable and necessary diversity to support Abundant Life.
I am always on the lookout for great children’s literature. Do you have great examples of books that open the reader’s eye to complex characters?