The One and Only Ivan and a Measure of Peace


Ivan look alikeI know I once saw Ivan the gorilla at the B&I shopping mall on South Tacoma Way. My mother used to love to shop for art supplies at the sister store near that funky little mall and we went inside the bigger mall for relief after what seemed like hours of tedious waiting on mom’s browsing.

I can’t fully remember seeing him. My sister remembers clearly as she often does, but I only remember a deep sadness in looking at his ‘domain.’ I never did like to see critters in cages, and I felt guilty he was stuck in there. I thought I should do something though I don’t know what my 9 year old self could have done to change his world.

As I started to read The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish it. I checked online to see that the ending would be good. Since it is, I pressed on. The writing is spare and poetic as I imagine Ivan would be if he could narrate a story. Applegate uses white space to break up brief paragraphs or lines of dialog. She has small headers in italics that give hints of what each scene will be about.

I fell in love with all of Ivan’s fictional friends from the janitor’s daughter to the baby elephant who arrives after the book begins. I felt their sadness at leaving each other even though they got a measure of freedom by going to a zoo.

In the book, Ivan has a need to use art to express himself. He uses these words to describe an incident with cake and a refrigerator door during his time living in a home with the mall owner:

“The frosting wasn’t as easy to work with as jungle mud. It was stickier and, of course, more tempting to eat.”

I also appreciated that the mall owner was not a total villain. Mack is complex enough that I felt I understood him even though he keeps Ivan in a cage for 27 years.

Animal stories are often difficult for me in the same way that working at an animal shelter pushed me to breaking. It’s not the animals who wound me but rather what happens when humans and animals connect. For all that we love them and adore going to zoos to see them, we also hurt them in ways intentional and unintentional.

Not too long ago, I went to  the B&I again with my sons. They ran around and looked at the toys, rode the aging carousel, and took in the knick knacks at the various booths. Ivan was no where in sight. His absence was good for him and good for all of us humans, too.

The One and Only Ivan does an excellent job of telling a story that hurts and yet finds ways to redeem. I think Katherine Applegate did the best we could do for Ivan the gorilla.  She gave him a voice and let him play a part in his own fate  —  at least in fiction.

To those who helped Ivan leave to find a home with other gorillas, I am also very grateful. I’m glad they also did the best we could do for Ivan. As Stella the elephant said: “A good zoo is how humans make amends.”

And if you’d like to see the Ivan from my blurred memories, you can find photos of the real one and only Ivan here:

When No One Knows Your Heroine


IMG_1955“Look!” I said when my contributor’s copies of the Alive Now Creativity issue landed in my mailbox. “I’m in the same book as Madeleine L’Engle!”

My husband looked at me and said, “Who’s that?”

A few hours later my son said, “Uh, I don’t know what that is, but I’m guessing it’s a famous author.”

My coworker said L’Engle’s name sounded familiar. Everyone thought her book A Wrinkle in Time might be something they’d read. Maybe. But they couldn’t quite remember.

I suppose I’m writing this post in hopes that someone out there does know one of the authors I most admire. I’m hoping others can appreciate the thrill of seeing her name on a devotional with my poem inside. And even if no one else knows of A Wrinkle in Time, I do. I also know of her non-fiction works that filled me with inspiration like A Circle of Quiet.

I love my husband and son. Sometimes it astounds me that our worlds are so different even though we live intertwined. But I suppose Madeleine L’Engle would say that she didn’t need everyone to know her in order to feel complete.  She was wise like that.

I’ll just keep on being happy knowing that her name is on the cover of that Creativity issue. I think she’d be okay with that.

Money where the Language Mouth Is


IMG_0101This past week I decided that to become a better teacher, I needed to commit to a language again. This has been on the back of my mind for some time. I’ve had several excellent excuses for not working on my own language learning, including an infant who was not fond of sleeping or letting his mother sleep.

He’s three now. He sleeps. And last summer a speaker at the state ABE/ESL conference in Yakima, WA let me practice my rusty German with her. Heide Spruck-Wrigley (link this) always gives a wonderful presentation that I would recommend seeing if you are in the language business and get the opportunity. She backs her words with solid research and sprinkles in hilarious stories like this video of a poor guy learning English:

Heide is also is a native German speaker. I pulled up my courage and told her in a small group session that I once spoke German and she gently shifted our conversation into her first language to let me practice. The experience of trying to decode another language while frantically trying to remember the vocabulary and structure I needed to respond in something like a conversational time frame stuck with me.

“Ah!” I thought. “This is what my poor students feel like everyday! No wonder they aren’t so chatty with me before class.”

Of course, I know this when I use my native language with them. But experiencing it myself gave me such a powerful feeling of empathy. I wondered what else I could get from learning another language alongside my students.

I said something along these lines to the Russian speaking administrative assistant Inna who works in the office where I go to make copies before class.

She nodded and said she tells new learners: “Nothing works. Not books or any special program. Just practice.”

“Hmm,” I thought. Sounds a lot like writing and anything else worthwhile.

So I asked my patient coworker if she’d help me by practicing with me in Russian. She agreed with a smile and a nod.

It’s not like I haven’t walked this path before. A part of me is screaming: “You’ve done this! You’re just going to find another excuse and make a mouthful of mistakes again!”

I’ve learned Russian in fits and starts for as many years as I’ve had Russian speaking students. One of my other Russian speaking coworkers shakes her head at me when I bring students in to her for interpreting.

“You should know Russian by now,” she says. She’s right. If I’d kept at it from the start I would.

Life pulls me away, I get busy and, because it’s not vital to my everyday existence, it’s easy for me to let it slide. So far this first week of practicing I’ve worked on a few phrases with Inna, found a free program on the Internet and cracked open a few of the books on the language section of my office library at home.

I suppose I’m hoping that writing about it here will keep me going through the embarrassment and drudgery that learning a new language brings because, since I started Russian on my own in (gasp) 1997, I have managed to learn a few things. And not just words to use with my Russian speaking students but also experiences to share with those who speak a multitude of other languages in my classes.

Besides. Something indescribable happens when I speak another language — something about the practice opens new worlds and novel ways of seeing the world I’m in right now.

Do wish me luck.