Updated: Apr 29, 2020
The other night I watched Monkey Business, the story of the creators of Curious George. You know part of the story: the curious, kind-hearted monkey who was always getting into trouble, and yet always having narrow escapes. You remember your favorite pages of the picture books, like George escaping a jail cell by climbing out the window and walking across telephone wires. Maybe you know the story behind the story. But in case you don’t, here it is.
H. A. and Margret Rey created George across continents. The idea was born in their native Germany, developed in Brazil where H.A. was travelling in the jungles and where Margret met him to form their advertising agency, and in Paris where they honeymooned. By then it was 1940. H.A. had already served in World War I. In fact, his drawings from this time would become his book Drawing the Stars. The couple had to leave Paris quickly and decided by bicycle would be the easiest way. H.A. went to a bike shop but all they had left was a tandem. The Reys tried it out and quickly realized they were not a tandem kind of couple. So H.A. went back to the store and bought the parts to build two bicycles. He worked through the night and by the next morning, as the Nazis marched into the city, the Reys cycled out of Paris. They pedaled almost 400 miles to the south of France, sleeping in barns with animals and fed by strangers. From Bayonne they took a train to Portugal, a boat to Rio, and eventually journeyed up to America where they settled in New York for years. This is the story behind Curious George. Did you know it?
To hear this story is to have a glimpse of light in the dark of war. It couldn’t have been easy for the Reys to pedal out of Paris during World War II with only their dreams and drawings of a monkey. But in the movie Margret said when cycling out of Paris she had never felt so free. Neighbors said the couple told their story not as if they were living through a war. They said the Reys told it playfully, as if it were for children, until eventually it was.
I like the book Curious George Takes a Job. I like how he knows he needs to work and hits the pavement. I like how he stumbles into a restaurant and gorges on pasta and pays for his supper by happily washing dishes with both hands and feet. I like how he takes a job washing windows and peeks into the tiny worlds of New York like a lighthearted Jimmy Stewart in a children’s Rear Window. And I especially like how he saw the literal blank canvas of an apartment that was about to be painted, climbed inside, and turned it into a colorful jungle. When George sees white walls, he creates.
What are your walls filled with? Has your work-from-home job taken away your serene space? Are your children yelling underfoot? Complaining about school? Are you on a constant Zoom cycle? Booking back-to-backs and wondering how you’ve been trapped in your apartment for days but have somehow had no time for yourself? Is your relationship, both with yourself and your partner, evolving or driving you crazy? Are you healthy and well? Are you ok?
I’ve been lucky. Lucky to have had a job and then easily transition to being laid off from that job. I was doing yoga when my boss called. I knew it was “the call.” I paused the YouTube yoga. After we hung up, I clicked play and went back to doing yoga while the texts and g-chats from coworkers came in. Because the story of dropping right back into yoga, not the story of panic, was the story I wanted to tell.
I’ve wanted to tell a few stories. One would be called “The Day the Libraries Closed.” On Friday, March 13th, I went to the library an hour and a half before it closed and packed as many books as I could carry in my backpack and on my bicycle. As I walked out I caught a clerk’s attention and, because I was too choked up to speak, mouthed the words “thank you.” I wanted to tell the story that when you take away a space of curiosity and community, you take away something very important.
I wanted to tell a story called “Pink Moon” about the night a man told me to go look at this rare moon. How I almost didn’t go out at 10 pm in my pajamas on a Tuesday but then realized I had no obligations for the foreseeable future and went outside. How I stood alone in the darkness looking at the moon that wasn’t at all pink, but a great white circle somehow filled with hope. This story would be about fleeting, collective beauty. That we’re all looking up at the same moon. Sort of a Fievel from American Tail “Somewhere Out There” moment. But that felt a little trite. And the “we’re all in this together” story has also been told.
A lot of it feels a little trite, my levity in darkness. But the truth is, I’m—as Elizabeth Gilbert said of herself in this time—“not someone you need to worry about.” I start each day with yoga as the coffee brews. I then receive a writing prompt and free write for 15 minutes. I walk beneath the snowing pink petals. I run, pausing at little free libraries. I bicycle to parks on empty roads and lie in the middle of vast lawns reading books from my childhood. I’ve created a quarantune playlist and am making up dance routines. I’ve gone on virtual Disney rides, “toured” Frank Lloyd Wright homes, and attended online screenings by Northwest Film Forum. I go to friends’ Facebook concerts, filling the screen with heart emojis and comments. I’m taking online classes on content strategy. At the slightest wondering of what to do, I pick up a sudoku or coloring book. I’ve discovered jazz. I’m mastering Vietnamese cooking. As of today, I haven’t gone to the grocery store in three weeks (more on this to come!), yet I’ve made some of the most delicious, inventive meals. For the introverted creative—and I say this to simply state my truth—it has been a beautiful, restorative time. Like George, I have a blank canvas I’m turning into a jungle.
I’m also in the middle of the story, which is why I waited this long to blog. We’re all in the middle of our stories. Some will tell their story as a war. Those stories need to be told. Others may be more like the Reys, able to escape into their imaginations and create something wild and hopeful out of tragedy and constraints. The Reys didn’t know their story at first either. They only had drawings of a monkey. They couldn’t begin to know the adventures he would go on, the narrow escapes he—like they—would have. Me, I’m the monkey. Peering in windows, playing in nature, eating pots of pasta, and turning to whatever makes me curious.