Mindfulness and Alice in Wonderland

Children’s books are often rightly attacked for perpetuating dominant cultural modes: the white families of “Dick, Jane, and Sally,” the world of happy housewives, and countless other stereotypes.

For the many books that attempt to subdue rebellious impulses, there are at least a few that broadcast, whether consciously or unconsciously, subversive messages.

Recently I reread Alice in Wonderland, a favorite of mine in my childhood (mainly because of the cat). In this rereading, I found the book to be highly subversive in a way that I like.

For those who are unfamiliar with or who have forgotten the story, Alice falls asleep one summer afternoon and dreams that she’s in a very strange place with unusual beings of both the human and animal variety. She ultimately becomes involved in a croquet match involving flamingos as mallets, hedgehogs as balls, and playing cards as hoops.

The Queen of Hearts, who changes her mind about what she wants every few minutes, takes a strong dislike for Alice and decides that she must die, shouting, “Off with her head!” In the middle of this dream, Alice comes to awareness and realizes that the Queen’s army is nothing but a pack of playing cards. She knocks them all down and wakes up.

As a kid, I didn’t get the deeper meaning of this. I knew that dreams and waking reality were different. Only with age and some small degree of wisdom have I come to realize that waking reality isn’t all that real.

In our conceptions of our lives, we may have created details as bizarre as Cheshire Cats and Mad Hatters and feel that life is shouting, “Off with her head!”

Imagine a world in which you can be tall and proud when you think about your children and small and weak when you contemplate changing your career. No drugs are required in either situation.

Imagine believing you’re not as good as someone else—or better than someone.

Imagine thinking that you exist for any other reason than to realize your full potential and making a difference in the world.

Imagine waking up to the reality that such beliefs are nothing more than a pack of playing cards.

Another subversive children’s writer, Dr. Seuss, has this to say: “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”

Can you think of one good reason?

The Gift of Being Different

Robert May, a Canadian man, was facing the worst Christmas of his life. Sitting in a small, drafty apartment, with his wife dying of cancer, and his four-year-old daughter crying on his lap, he faced her question: Why couldn’t her mother come home? Why wasn’t she like other mothers?

Bob’s life had always been difficult. As a child, he’d been frequently bullied by other boys. He’d been too small to compete in sports. He was often called terrible names. He was always different. He never seemed to fit in.

After completing college, he found his life greatly improved. He got a job as a copywriter for the T Eaton Stores. He married a woman named Evelyn, and they had a little girl. His brief period of happiness, though, ended with Evelyn’s cancer, which took away their savings.

Now he and his little daughter lived in a two-room apartment in a poor area of Toronto. His wife died days before Christmas in 1938. He couldn’t afford a present for his little girl, but he was determined to give her something. So he made a story book, his autobiography in disguised form.

This was the story of a reindeer who was laughed at by all the other reindeer for his big shiny nose.

Bob finished the story in time to give it to his daughter on Christmas Day.

The general manager of the store where he worked heard about the storybook and gave Bob a nominal fee to buy the rights to print it. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was distributed to children visiting Santa Clause in the T. Eaton stores. By 1946 they’d distributed more than 6 million copies.

A major publisher asked to buy the rights to print an updated version. The CEO of Eaton’s returned all the rights to Bob, and the book became a best seller. Bob, remarried with a growing family became wealthy.

Then his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, made a song adaptation to the story. Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, recorded it, and it was released in 1949. The song sold more records than any Christmas song but “White Christmas.”

Bob, the misfit, who in an act of love, created a gift from his heart for his little girl, found that gift returning to him again and again. And he learned that, just as Rudolph did, that being different can be a blessing.

He shared that lesson with the world. And every one of us can celebrate our differences. Thanks, Bob. Your gift continues to give.