One day when I was in grade two, my teacher showed us a sketch of a bear in a nightcap standing in the mouth of his cave, scratching his head as he gazed blearily at dozens of small animals who were gathered gazing back at him.
“Write a story,” Mrs. Wasylenko told us, “in response to this picture.”
Here is what I wrote.
Once a bear was sleeping when suddenly he woke up. He heard a strange noise, so he hid under the covers. The next night he heard it again, so he hid in the closet. But the next night when he heard the noise, he looked outside and all he saw were some animals. The moral of this story is that when you are scared, see what you are scared of.
At around the same time, my mother gave me a little cream-coloured book with blank pages. On the cover, in gold caps, it said AUTOGRAPHS, but on the endpapers Mum printed A book for Maggie to copy special things into – your own poems and stories perhaps. And that is what I did. I show that little book often when I go into schools because it contains the first poem I ever wrote, entitled “My Cat’s Washcloth.” I share that odd little poem with children all the time, but I don’t tend to tell them the story about the bear. I’m not sure why, because I like it a lot. I like the fact that I imagined my way into the time before the image. And I love that I came up with that moral, even though I spend a lot of time telling people not to impose morals on children’s stories.
The bear story speaks to me now, and I’m sharing it with you, because I am working at being more open, more myself, at letting others take what they will from that, instead of pouring energy into fashioning different selves for the various groups of people in my life. And it occurred to me that way back in grade two, I gave myself the perfect advice. “When you are scared see what you are scared of.” Apparently, I’ve had that wisdom for forty-five years, but it has taken me until now to pay attention.
I’m peeking out of the cave. Every time I hear a strange noise, though, I turn tail, and next thing I know I’m huddled in my closet or under my bed (or more accurately in front of the television or the refrigerator). I have to coax myself out again, a little closer to the mouth of the cave. What’s out there? What am I so afraid of? I have a hunch that I’m not afraid of what’s out there exactly; I fear the consequences of letting myself be seen, of stepping out into full view with no regard for who’s looking on. Yikes!
Side note: I’ve written another story about a bear. Fraser Bear: a Cub’s Life, illustrated by Renné Benoit, begins with two bear cubs in a cave with their mother. Until I started writing this post, it had not occurred to me that Fraser was my second bear story!