Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Maurice Sendak

Aaron Renier, Herman, the big man, and myself. Photo by Lynn Caponera.

When I last visited Maurice Sendak, we took his big German Shepard, Herman for a walk, sat on a bench in the woods, and for over two hours discussed how elusive happiness is for an artist, the difficulty in waking our muses, the impossibility of not continuing to always create and express ourselves, the challenge and imperative of being truthful to kids, loss, death, life, beauty. The whole of our love for life and creating.

Maurice talked about the new book he was working on. “It’s about a nose,” he said. 

We both felt the idea of dropping dead at our drawing boards to be a pretty acceptable way to go.

And now he is gone.

At a time in my life when I am exploring new ways of communicating, and seeking deeper, more worthy things to communicate, Maurice was to me a shining example of courage and depth and intelligence. I’ve never met anyone more brilliant and intuitive about creating children’s books. As his long time editor Ursula Nordstrom wrote to him: “You have a vast and beautiful genius.”

On that last visit, I presented him with my book PETUNIA GOES WILD, about a little girl frustrated with the limitations and rules that come with being a human child. Petunia decides that being a wild animal would be a more satisfactory way to live and attempts to ship herself somewhere wild and free. Of course, upon reflection, she eventually chooses the certainty and comfort of home and mom, but does manage to create for herself a place where she can express her soul safely.

Maurice read through the book, chuckling in the right places, appreciating this drawing, that phrase. But when he came to the end, he closed the book, looked at me and said only three words: “She didn’t capitulate.”

Typically, Maurice had gone right to the essence of my intention for the book. Instantly and concisely he had unearthed the core. As a book creator, I have had no more deeply satisfying moment than that.

Many of you have seen Stephen Colbert’s interview with Maurice. Yes, Maurice could be delightfully wicked and sharply funny. But he was also a deeply serious, sensitive and generous man. As another Sendak Fellow Antoinette Portis so beautifully described him: “Maurice is the most endearing combination of grouch and Love-bomb.”

Not long ago I talked with Maurice on the phone. He was feeling pretty down, as he had had cataract surgery some days before, and wasn’t healing as quickly as he hoped. But with his wry sense of humor intact, he grumbled to me his plans to sit in a chair in front of his house holding a tin can, asking for change from passers by because he couldn’t see to work.

Dang you, Maurice. How am I to see through these tears?