In the mid 1970’s, in my early days of orange shag carpets, Brownie crafts and Barbie campers, Dennis Lee was trying to redefine Canadian children’s poetry with his books Nicholas Knock and Other People and Alligator Pie. Fortunately or unfortunately, I missed out on most of it at the time, except maybe for the poem “Alligator Pie,” which immediately became popular with schoolteachers because its silly rhymes were easy for students to riff on. And that brings us almost to the point, but I have to go around a bit to get there.
Do you know what an Ookpik is? You can look it up, but basically it’s an Inuit handcrafted owl, popular as a souvenir in the 1960’s and ’70’s. Dennis Lee included four poems about Ookpik in those books, and Jean Little quoted one of them, “A Song for Ookpik,” in her novel Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird. These are the first and last stanzas:
A SONG FOR OOKPIK
I’ve always been intrigued by the lines “Help us / Live in / Our own / Space” (although I’m ambivalent about addressing them to a furry toy). In many ways, they encapsulate what Ourselves is about. We need the compassion, sympathy, generosity, and benevolence that allows us to see that any given person—even the most irritating, selfish person we know—that that someone inhabits a certain space, not our space, but it’s their space nevertheless, and they’re still figuring out how to live in it. As are we. Recognizing that changes the way we interact with others. And beginning to understand that each of us ourselves also inhabits a space—our own space—is also a bit mind-blowing. Some of us grew up with boundaries that were a little less understood, with people who made a habit of stepping in our space or suggesting we should live in someone else’s better version. We learn that we don’t all have to lay down orange shag carpet, or copy Dennis Lee’s poetry.
But in Charlotte Mason’s terms, we also all inhabit a common human space. We are born persons, and education is the science of relations. Ourselves is about “my own self,” but it is also about “all our selves.” That also is a lesson to be learned slowly, “till our lives go luminous.”
Coming soon: a new book project!