Beauty and the Dose of Adversity

Looking back, on stressful days of building our house, has given me a different prospective on life. It was a time when life felt like a big chess game. Every move I made impacted the next. Often, several small moves had to be made to get to the final goal. And other moves didn’t seem to make any difference at all.

It was a Thursday afternoon. There was nothing significant about the day except our daughter would be coming home for a visit that weekend. She’d been working in the Peace Corps in Guatemala for the past two and a half years.

Progress on the house had come to a complete standstill. And even though the delay was frustrating, I was thankful to get a chance to join my husband at work and take my mind off building the house. My husband and I had worked together for years.  However, “The divide and conquer theory” seemed to be the only way to get our house built in the middle of no place where help was nearly impossible to find. And so, during the day, he kept the business running while I hung Sheetrock, sanded logs, and picked rock to build our fireplace. In the evenings we worked together on the house, until late into the night.

I remember how good it felt, walking across the runway in order to check everything was operating properly and giving pilots correct information to land in bad weather. After fighting the cold blustery winds all morning, we jumped back into our old 1976 airplane. Listening to one of the engines grind slower and slower, we realized, it wasn’t going to start. While my husband toiled over the engine, I did some bloodletting onto this page:

After months of being without the comforts of modern conveniences, there are times when it feels good to just sit alone and cry. Thinking of all that needs to be done before I can sit and do nothing, wears me to a frazzle. But if this house is ever going to be, –I can’t quit.

Things like hardwood floorboards were delivered premature, and yet, here we sit for weeks, waiting for our tile delivery. The first tiles arrived damaged! One of the palettes looked as though it had been dropped. Over forty tiles had been broken. Hoping for a speedy delivery of replacement tiles, is turning out to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

Wish as we may, none of the flooring is going to be laid before our daughter arrives. Rather than standing around the house thinking, how nice it would have been to give her the dream she was expecting, I went to work with my husband and found myself sitting in a cold airplane that wouldn’t start. I learned long ago to view traffic jams, long lines, and delays building the house, as a time to reflect.  –However, that’s easier said than done! So, I’m going to dig out the lunchbox and try to enjoy a quiet lunch with my husband.

–As always, the bad times don’t last forever. My husband got the plane started and we flew home. –It isn’t a perfect house, but it’s what we call home!

Looking back, I realize, these old words are far from dry and meaningless to me. But I do understand the big picture of life much better now. Even though our daughter had mentioned how nice it would be to have a finished bedroom and bathroom to use after living in a very minimalistic lifestyle in the Peace Corps, it wasn’t a bad thing that the house wasn’t done in time for her visit. Things worked out for the better. I had always tried to make everything perfect for my kids. And I guess, I was still trying to be that perfect mom for my daughter. But, we couldn’t produce that wonderfully finished bedroom and bathroom for her. –We did something better! We kept life real.

A trinket from that experience, I may find useful when writing children’s stories, is not to protect young people. Don’t make life look as though things come easily or automatically. Living in an abundance of the latest greatest items won’t bring joy or compassion. On the contrary, grace grows more beautiful with a dose of adversity.

www.leannembenson.com

A Piece of Humble Pie

I’ve always enjoyed the old song lyrics, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” But I feel that lately, the words have changed to, “Let there be outrage on earth, and let it begin with me.”  We’re bombard us every day by shocking news headlines. If there were feel good stories about humanity would we choose to share them over opinions of stories on cruelty, corruption, and injustices?

Which beliefs are important and which issues will be let go, may never be defined! Checking our bag of politics, finance, and religious topics at the door, before we arrive at the Thanksgiving table might keep those argumentative, condemnatory attitudes from souring the feast. Let’s not be fooled into thinking it’s acceptable to be rude and uncaring if it’s for the right cause. It’s never okay to be nasty!

The meaning of Thanksgiving for me, is putting aside our differences, celebrating our accomplishments and knowledge we’ve learned over the past year. It’s a time to be selfless, to pour out generosity on others without any expectations of receiving anything in return. It is the start to the season of giving. And the New Year will ring as if it were the final bell at the end of a boxing match. That’s when we can relax, feel good that we’ve fought a good fight against racism, and social or religious injustices.

At a time when The Cold War was still fresh in the minds of Americans, my father brought home three Russians for Thanksgiving dinner. While most people thought of the Russians as the devil incarnate, my father worked hard to dissuade racial prejudices.

It really wasn’t clear to me why these men came to our house. Thanksgiving means nothing to anyone other than people in the United States. I remember wondering, “Don’t they have any place better to go?” The thought wasn’t because they weren’t welcome, rather it was because, I grew up in a tiny house and having guests over for the holidays made it seem even smaller. However, my mother always set an elaborate, bountiful holiday table. It didn’t matter how much we had, there was always enough to go around.

The gentleman seated next to me, must have felt it was proper to serve the ladies. A mountain of mashed potatoes he had piled onto my plate left little room for my favorite dishes, candied sweet potatoes, dark turkey meat and cranberry dressing. We still laugh at the memories, try as I might, I could only eat half of what he put on my plate.

My father always tried to teach us to be slow to judge people and things you don’t understand. By sharing what we had with these three travelers, we received so much more in return. We learned people are just people. There are good and bad Russians, just as there are good and bad Americans. I don’t know why these Russians chose to come to our house over any place else they could have dined that Thanksgiving Day. Maybe, they didn’t have any place else to go!

When it’s time to sit down at the Thanksgiving table, I’m going to look at what I’ve served to others throughout this past year. Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful for the lessons I’ve learned and successes I’ve been given. It’s a time to reevaluate and ask, “Have I been gracious to others?” And if I’ve done something distasteful, it may be advantageous to eat a piece of humble pie and dish out some sweet apologies.

Here’s a trinket that may be useful to me when writing children’s stories with life lessons. — It’s not easy to put down our biases, and show respect for all living things, even if we don’t agree with them. So, I’m going to put my energy into trying to create fun and exciting children’s stories and let the life lessons fall where they may. After all, maybe the message of love and forgiveness comes more from the connection children get while snuggling up and reading with a loved one. –Could the next generation become more accepting, kind and compassionate? Maybe my answer to that question, is in the original lyrics, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

Happy Thanksgiving EVERYONE!

www.leannembenson.com

 

Why has Halloween become the favorite holiday?

It’s fun creating costumes and impersonating a character, spending time pretending to be something you’re not, and laughing at the absurdity of it all.

I was one of those mothers that wouldn’t just buy my children a costume they happened to see in an advertisement. Instead, I would try to motivate them to create their own costumes. As they got older, they began to love the excitement of deciding on a costume and then constructing the image. We had hours of fun coming up with just the right look and even more fun acting the part of our characters. And they never ran into their double on Halloween night.

Creating mysterious Halloween images has always been exciting for me. And yet, for some reason I always wait until the last minute to come up with a costume. This year was no different. It was Tuesday morning, and I had barely started to put a costume together for a Writers Halloween party on Friday. Everyone was asked to dressed-up as their favorite character from a story they had written. I decided to be The Lion of Tupungato, as he appeared in the pansy flower at the end of my story.

Rummaging through my clothes, I found an olive-green skirt, shirt, and jacket that would make for a perfect pansy plant. My lion’s mane and tail had just arrived in the mail. With only two days to put this outfit together, I quickly dug through my art closet and found a few yards of old packing material. It was white, soft to the touch and yet stiff enough to keep the petals from drooping. With a few brush strokes to add color and a few tucks to add depth, it was a flower.

One of the most fun times I’d ever had creating costumes happened only a few years back. My Husband and I had been invited to attend a Pirate Bon Voyage party at the end of a trip we had been planning to the Bahamas. “All attending must dress as a pirate or wench,” the invitation stated. And so, we began working on the appropriate pirate attire.

A well-dressed young man came around the Good Will sales rack, just as I had grabbed a large brimmed lavender bridesmaids’ hat and plopped it on my husband’s head. Raising his eyebrows, he joked with my husband, “Nice Hat!” Ninety-nine- cents, some black spray paint, and three tucks later we had a pirate’s hat.

My husband is not a scary looking guy. Trying to give him an evil pirate appearance, wasn’t working! Eye liner only added intrigue, rather than the sinister look I was hoping for. Each attempt at making him into a scary pirate, only made me laugh harder.

Wrapping a bandana around his forehead with a long wig attached didn’t create that villainous look. On the contrary, it looked more like my mother wearing a bandana with bangs sewn in the front during the 1960s. Each time I looked at my husband, I couldn’t help but see this image of my mother in this scarf with fake hair attached. And the more I thought about it, the harder I laughed. Smiling, he stood quietly. Once I regained my composure, he would return to his silly pirate improvisations. Ar-r-r!

Digging around the house for my costume, I found an old leather vest, a blousy shirt, some black Capris, and a western leather hat. Making the three tucks in the hat, I was done! There was only one problem. I looked more like Paul Revere than a pirate. Our costumes were far from perfect, but we had fun and that’s worth more to us than any prize offered.

At the end of the ten-day island-hopping journey, it was time to say good-bye to this wonderful travel group. My husband and I walked into the party room, where all the other travelers stood dripping with expensive pirate costumes.  It was a bittersweet ending. Just when disappointment of leaving the beautiful Bahama islands was brought up, they announced the winners of the best couple’s costume. My husband and I had won a free night stay at three different resorts.

Has Halloween become America’s favorite holiday? And if so, might it be because, Halloween doesn’t come with all the baggage the sales industry has made around Christmas? Halloween isn’t about defining and separating us, from others who believe differently.  It isn’t about gifts or hosting a wonderful dinner or spending time with loved ones.  Halloween is a time to hang out incognito with a bunch of others. Leave our cares and worries about the world, behind, –if only for one night. We don’t need to plan. Just enjoy the spontaneity of it all.

The trinket I may use from these experiences to write children’s stories is this: It’s okay to pretend to be someone you’re not, for one night. However, all that time spent running around to please a few special people in your life and giving them your love, —is worth all the groundwork when life gets tough.

www.leannembenson.com

P.S. There were lots of great costumes at this party.  Thanks ladies, for being a few of the brave one to pose for this picture. I won most creative costume.

 

Making a House into a Home for the Holidays

Building a house, remodeling, or just sprucing it up for the holiday season can be difficult. Sifting through boxes for dishes, clothing, make-up, spoons, paperwork scattered among the sawdust and color samples during the construction process can become more than most of us bargained for. Is it worth the hassle?

We typically remember, special events and holidays in life. But we try to forget what it took to make those precious times happen. Those accomplishments, along with our pleasant memories such as gathering for a birthday or another Thanksgiving, makes a house a home. Humans are visual creatures. We like nice things and surroundings. That doesn’t mean we need to sit at a table with linen tablecloths or fine china and crystal goblets. But something as simple as the home decor or a well-maintained house can make the event more festive.

I’m proud of the house we built. And I’ve come to the conclusion; the joys far outweigh the challenges faced creating it. Recalling one of those crazy construction times in my life, I now chuckle.

It was Friday afternoon, when the dust from the carpet installers truck had settled down on our gravel driveway. At that time, we had been building this house for more than three years. I was excited to finally get a beautiful bedroom to sleep in rather than a construction zone. Thoughts of how we got to where we were, swirled in my head as my husband and I stood in the bedroom doorway admiring our new carpet.

Remembering a time when there was no water and sewer, no electricity, no house, there wasn’t even a road or driveway leading to this weathered rocky bluff. Electricity was the first thing to come down the driveway. After months of camping and hauling water in from miles away, the cold weather forced us inside. It was hardly what you would call a house when we moved. There was a shower curtain for a door to the only bathroom in the house. Dishes were washed in the bathtub, and laundry was washed at my sister’s house ten miles down the road. The bedroom had been temporarily set up in the basement until walls could block out the shrapnel in the great room where the mason chipped stones for months to make the twenty-one-foot-high fireplace.

The house was far from finished, but I was happy to have the bedroom carpeted. Putting things back together took most of the evening. The dressers were carried in and the drawers reinstalled. The paintings hung and the bed remade. With a quick bit to eat and a relaxing soak in the hot tub with a drink, we were ready for a good night sleep.

Exhausted, we both plopped into bed! Tossing and turning restlessly, led to little sleep that night. I was uncomfortable. My hips were going to sleep with the pressure of an overly firm mattress. It was so strange; my sleep number bed had been set at forty-five now was at twenty-five. The lower number seemed to command the mattress to expand. It was nearly three in the morning when I felt my husband sit up in bed. I looked at him with the sleep number controller in his hand.

Well, you’ve probably already figured out. Our controllers were swapped. However, it wasn’t until that moment, that we both came to that same awareness. He lay awkwardly in a hammock while I perched on top of an overinflated balloon. His setting went from seventy up to one hundred. You would think at that point we would dial the appropriate numbers on each side, turn over and finally get some sleep. That was not the case. For the next hour, we laughed. And about the time we started to drift off to sleep, one of us would start laughing again.

Remembering all the funny little stories that happened to us while building this house is just as important as the big holiday get togethers. Our muddled messes are just as precious as those accomplishments. Those everyday blunders help create the magic that turns a house into a HOME. The trinket from this experience, that I may find useful when writing children’s stories, isn’t that we made a mistake by being in too big of a hurry. The trinket is more about creating pearls in our lives. Just like an oyster, people need hard times to make that beautiful shiny gem of a pearl. Lives that are littered with mistakes, adversities, and annoyances have a much better chance of creating a sparkling, fun, and exciting life.

www.leannembenson.com

Ridin’ The Storm Out

Do you ever find it difficult to sleep after reading a disturbing news article?  If so, you may relate with this story. Last night I was plagued with thoughts of the homeless and hurting in the path of Hurricane Dorian and the Typhoon hitting Japan. Trying to concentrate on my breathing and then counting sheep just wasn’t working. I finally drifted off to sleep, only to wake a short time later thinking of a voyage we made across the Atlantic. It was a world cruise ship facing its last leg of a long journey, when my husband and I boarded in Venice.

It was a small cruise ship serving only eight-hundred guests. Touring many countries through the Mediterranean for the past week, we had now begun chasing the setting sun across the Atlantic Ocean. From our stateroom I watched the African coastline fade into the distance. Getting upgraded to the stateroom on the back of the ship sounded great until we realized the last room on the ship gets all the smoke from burning garbage each night and it’s a rougher ride!

While sipping coffee in bed early the next morning, the captain announced over the ship’s intercom we would be changing our original course in order to avoid a storm out at sea. We enjoyed a slice of sun on our deck throughout that entire day. It was the last sunset we saw from our balcony once the ship turned west.

 

Whitecaps waved a warning to those daring to cross the Atlantic. Over the next few days, I would not set my cup down without splashing coffee into the saucer. Coffee out of a covered paper cup was wasteful, but safer. While climbing the stairs to the restaurant for breakfast, we realized taking the elevator might have been a better idea. For as the ship began to rise, the next step up felt like a sandbag had been set upon my shoulders. It didn’t take many flights of stairs to figure out, if you waited to climb until the ship was descending it gave a sensation a bit like floating up the staircase.

This was not a glamorous trip with high heels and dazzling fashions. Forget about looking graceful. Hanging onto the rails, guests staggered down the halls to dine and be entertained.  The dining tables and countertops were wrapped in cellophane to keep dishes from sliding onto the floor.

The seas had grown more violent the second night. While a group of us were enjoying a game of Truth or Dare on the top deck, loud crashing waves splashed against the windows. Tired of fighting to stand up or even hear the questions and answers, we went to bed. My husband, the data junky pulled an inclinometer out of his suitcase. It was measuring our bed rising twenty feet up and falling twenty feet down.

The ship pitched madly throughout the night. As I stumbled in the dark from the bathroom back to bed, the floor was abruptly yanked from beneath my feet. “Lunge for the bed!” was my first thought. The farther the ship plunged downward the farther I fell. Remaining airborne long enough to think, “maybe lunging wasn’t such a great idea,” I finally landed safely! That night brought new meaning to the phrase, “a rough night.” Everything that was not secured into place, was on the floor the next morning.

 

Looking back on this trip, the wonderful qualities far outweighed a few days of rough water. We enjoyed many comfortable hours on board with excellent staff and a great group of friends. Some of them have remained in touch.

The title of this blog is an old song title by REO Speedwagon. And so, it’s seems fitting to use a verse from a Rolling Stones song to sum up the trinket I took from this journey that I may find useful when writing children’s stories. “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes, you might find you get what you need.” No matter our age, gender, social status, faith, or political preference, life is more fun when everyone gets what they want. I got to visit a few places I’ve always wanted to see. My husband got the exciting voyage of crossing the Atlantic Ocean he wanted. It wasn’t the private forty-five-foot boat he had dreamed of taking. But if riding this storm out on board a larger vessel quenched some of that need for my husband, it made this trip worth every one of my bumps and bruises.

www.leannembenons.com

 

The “Bigger” Your Life, The Smaller and Less Important Those Sensationalized News Stories Become.

Flipping through those disturbing headlines can sometimes squelch our dreams. Fires blaze in Brazil. A tropical storm drenches Puerto Rico. Protests arise in Hong Kong. Is there any place safe for travel?

As autumn leaves fall, the awareness of another season ending raises questions. “Is life big enough? Is life too complicated?  As comfort levels change with each passing year, finding that middle ground between risk and fun can be challenging.

Thinking back to a morning more than a decade ago, to the biggest risk I’d ever taken, a smile arose within me.  Bouncing around in a Land Cruiser, headed for a safari in Ruaha River Camp on the way to our honeymoon was one of the most exciting times in my life. Even knowing all the risks, –if I had the chance, I’d do it all over again.

Our travel group had been in Africa for a couple of weeks. From the shores of Dar Salam to the mountains of Idunda, we hadn’t seen a single large wild animal, only a few extremely skinny dogs. Everyone was excited to experience the wildlife reserve in Tanzania.

Wide eyed dik-diks seemed amused with the automobile as we entered the park. Monkeys seemed untroubled by our presence. A couple of giraffes tangled with one another. Large hippos soaking in the river appeared harmless, until our guide informed us, those seemingly soft, slow looking creatures are more vicious than lions. A herd of zebras ran into the distance as our jeep came within thirty feet of a lion gnawing on dinner. A few miles down the road a mother elephant reared her head to protect her baby. Our guide whispered to freeze and then pleaded to be quiet as a woman started to whine.  But nothing had frightened me more than when the man I had just married walked within a few feet of a hippopotamus.

Throughout the safari it had been obvious, the park reserve was home to these animals that roamed free from fear of humans. Escorted to our sleeping quarters that first night, the guide warned, “Under no circumstance should you leave the protection of your Banda, the stone huts!”

It was getting dark. Minutes before the power to our bandas would be turned off, one of the women in our group screamed for help. With only sandals to protect his feet, my husband ran a few hundred yards through the long field grasses to their stone hut. Opening the door, a scorpion the size of my hand scurried across the floor in front of him. Surprise being his only defense, he quickly stomped on the venomous creature! Checking around the ladies cabin, he found what they labeled a “hamburger” spider, because of its size. Reassuring them there weren’t anymore… he said goodnight.

I was a nervous wreck as my husband walked back through the chest high grasses and into our banda. A rustling came from the bushes outside our window, interrupting his soothing words. There stood an enormous hippo. Slowly, we moved away from the window and laid quietly in bed. My heart had quit pounding in my throat, when my eyes fixed on an elephant. His trunk appeared in one window. His body mostly hidden behind the door as his tail swished between the bars of the other window. Exhausted with concerns, I became unconscious. Sleep consumed my night.

We woke to a brilliant array of colors painting the early morning sky. Peaking our heads out for the first time since our enormous friends had visited, we stood motionless and wide-eyed.  A large chunk from the edge of the roof was gone.

Even in the confines of a stone banda with barred windows, and in a jeep with the protection of an educated guide, there were still risks involved in that trip. However, I know there will always be risks in life. The trick for me is to gauge the fear factor versus the enjoyment and knowledge gained from the experience. Here’s a trinket from this safari experience, that I may find useful when writing children’s stories. Reach for dreams and you just may find, the “bigger” your life the smaller and the less important those sensationalized news stories become.

www.leannembenson.com

 

 

An Attempt to Find Logic in Something that Made No Sense at All

The book The Lion of Tupungato did not start out as a story. It began as a lump of clay. A strange pairing of a lion’s face in a flower appeared in the clay. My first thought was to throw this sculpture back in the bag of wet clay. It could be put to much better use as a pot. But something stopped me from squishing it!

Driven to figure out why this little guy had come to life, I began to write. The lion’s story blossomed as fingers flew over the keys and words appeared on the computer screen. Most writers make outlines and research their subject. But in my wildest dreams, I couldn’t imagine this becoming a book. It was a naïve attempt to make something that made no sense at all, seem logical.

This fable is about a lion and a young girl. They meet in a snowstorm. The lion restores faith to this girl and to a dysfunctional town. In the end, the lion is remembered in a very special way. After I finished jotting down most of the story line, I learned of some uncanny similarities between what I’d written and reality. Pansies can withstand a light snow or frost, they have medicinal qualities, and the French word pansie means remembrance. Did all these serendipitous connections just happen, or was this a legendary story just waiting to be told?

After finishing this heartfelt story, I decided to make one hundred of these little lion figures. Working on them when possible, has caused me to sculpt in the most unusual places. One of the clay pieces was brought to life in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. My husband was working on other business as I conjured up another expressive lion.

While forming the clay, it occurred to me that this one was going to be the forty-second sculpture. I was halfway to my goal. Numbers swimming around in my head had become more important than the lion I was creating. Noticing the clay was becoming contorted and unruly, I realized, my way of thinking had to change.

Looking at the blob of clay, I dreamed of a grandparent giving this lion figure to their grandchild. Imagining the joy it would bring as they sat together reading about the lion’s adventure, changed my way of thinking. A glimmer of hope warmed my heart. At that point, I wasn’t sure if sculpting became easier or if I just became more patient. Once I concentrated on the meaning behind this project, it seemed I was guided to work the clay and discover the hidden lion.

I have always enjoyed creating things and haven’t stop with this lion.

* The Lion of Tupungato is a very heartfelt story.
* Pansy, the Lion figure is pretty darn cute.
*Together, they’re an awesome gift set!

The trinket I took from this experience that may be useful when writing children’s stories, is that winning isn’t about the task of doing something for the sake of saying you did it. Nor is success simply about getting a “rock” in the “box” or chasing the “all-mighty” dollar. There will always be more boxes to fill and want of money. Time and time again I’ve found that one of the ways to happiness…is not to think about myself. But rather, think about the needs of others.
www.leannembenson.com

An Alternate Ending: …TAKE TWO

How many times have you finished a project only to start over? Like for those of you that fish; when you’ve waited all day for that big walleye, and as you pull it into the boat, you lose it, and recast your line. Or, if you’re a gardener; who has planted seeds that rain has washed away, you replant. And then there are those of you that like to sew; that have ripped out a seem on a dress that is too tight and resew it to fit.  Writing has been like that for me.

First draft, second draft, third, fourth, and fifth draft. I lost track of the number of times I rewrote The Lion of Tupungato story-line . It was hard for me to “scrape off” what I thought were great chapters, that in fact, were nothing more than muddy build-up; in order to create an interesting and passionate story. Taking a step back to study what I had created, and then carefully placing just the right steppingstone into the readers path, was backbreaking.

Let me show you an example of one chapter that was taken out of the book. I can’t give away the highlight of The Lion of Tupungato story. However, at one point something miraculous happened, to help this young girl gains strength. This chapter called, Bully Schmully, was simply too preachy and didn’t move the storyline along in the right direction, and so it was deleted.

That night, Isabel tossed and turned, thinking and worrying about Max and his terrible behavior. Remembering all that Pansy had taught her, Isabel got an idea, “Together, our class is much stronger than Max. We’ve got to stick together.” With her great plan to stop Max, Isabel had an extra spring in her step as she hopped into the school bus the next morning. She smiled at Lucia and Elisa who sat in the bench behind Max. Isabel whispered to each of the girls.

Max turned around, glaring. Gradually a squint appeared, and a grin arose. It was an awkward moment for the three girls. And then he began to laugh, “Listen to the three of you going on and on about that senseless Fiesta. It’s over, and you’re like three baboons, still chattering about it. In fact, the total sum of brainpower sitting on that bench right now is dumber than a baboon. I’ll bet you don’t even know what a baboon is.”

 

The girls looked at each other. Smirking, they paid no attention to him, as they turned their eye to the passing hillside.

Max soon moved his attention to the boys. Picking on Jose for sitting with Julio, and then poking fun at Julio. Max spared no one from his hurtful words. “Ho-o-liO…what a girly name,” Max chanted. Look at your skinny girly neck and hands. As Max was about to repeat his chant of Ho-o-liO, Isabel gently nudged Lucia and winked. The three girls started to sing a very popular little song about the cockroach. It goes like this, “The cockroach, the cockroach. He cannot walk anymore. Because it’s missing, because it does not have a little foot to walk.” They sang, “La cucaracha, la cucaracha…” over and over. Soon the boys had joined in singing. And before Max could say any more, all the kids were singing and laughing—and more importantly, ignoring him.

Max’s snide comments continued, on the ballfield, in the library, the lunchroom, and especially on the bus. Whenever someone with authority wasn’t around, Max took advantage of the tender ones that bruised easily. Even Jose and Julio didn’t hang around with Max anymore. 

During a stormy ride home, the bus went off the road. Everyone huddled together. They spread warm jackets and coats over each other. Snuggling in shoulder to shoulder, Isabel unwrapped her left-over sandwich from lunch. Admitting to herself, “I’m so hungry I could eat two sandwiches.” She didn’t take a single bite. Holding out her hand she offered some to Jose, Julio, Elisa, and Lucia. Isabel confessed “I know one bite wouldn’t fill anyone stomach, but maybe it’ll fill a tiny hole in our hearts.”

Max Smith sat alone at the back of the bus, frightened, hungry and cold. Watching the other children, he started to cry. “I miss my old friends back in Saint Paul. They’re nicer than these kids.”

 

Isabel had only one bite left. She licked her lips, as the food came to her mouth. Looking up, Isabel saw Max crying. Knowing what it felt like to be isolated, she walked to the back of the bus and handed Max the last bite. Unhurriedly, he savored the jabali, and mixed vegetables, tucked in between the chewy dark-grained bread. He paused, swallowed his mouthful, and then cleared his throat. “I… I’m sorry for picking on you. Thanks for sharing your sandwich with a cranky, big bully.”

Isabel said, “Max you need to learn what I figured out from Pansy.” Facing him she softly said, “I know you’d rather be back home in Minnesota, but you’re not! And you can make the best of it here with us or you can make yourself miserable. Either way, you’re stuck here.”

Max reflected, “Ya well, you guys have been, friends all your lives. I’m an outsider. None of you ever really liked me. You all think I’m a big nasty rich kid that doesn’t belong here. You never include me in your jokes. When I try to say something to make others laugh, you turn away.”

Isabel gleaned a hint of innocence in Max’s eyes that she had never seen before. Very carefully, Isabel approached a tender subject, “Max, I’m not sure if you realize how much you hurt people.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was just teasing you guys.” Max started to guard his feelings.

“Maybe you could work on being more careful, not to make jokes about someone you really don’t know. And when you think you’re being funny, make sure the one your teasing is laughing. Because if they don’t think it’s funny, –it’s not!”   Let me show you from a different prospective. You made fun of our local celebration. That’s a huge National Independence Day Fiesta. You weren’t only making fun of Lucia, Elisa, and me; you were making fun of our heritage, who we are, and what we believe in.

“Gee, wiz, I felt left out, because I wasn’t invited. It sounds like I was the only one that wasn’t at the celebrations, and so I didn’t want to sit and listen to all the fun you guys had without me. I guess that’s not your fault. I’d better go apologize to Lucia and Elisa.”

“There’s one more thing I think you need to know, Max. “Julio is skinny. And you might think it’s good to be lean, so you pick on him to make sure he doesn’t think he’s better than you. When in reality; Julio is skinny because his mom can’t afford food. Julio doesn’t eat breakfast. Have you ever taken the time to notice, most of his lunches are usually a stale piece of bread?

“Boy, I really feel bad about saying those things to Julio.”

What it really comes down to Max, is that it doesn’t matter if you’re big or little, male or female, or even if you’re a lion or a baboon. All living things need to be treated with respect. And if you show them respect and understanding, you’ll probably get the same from them.

“Wow, I never thought of it that way. I thought you guys were picking on me. I guess I’d better go say I’m sorry to everyone. Hey, Isabel, don’t take this wrong. I always thought you didn’t talk to people because you were stuck-up, but you’re really nice.”

That night every single child, even Max, huddled together waiting for the bus driver to return with help. Isabel wiped fog from the window with her sleeve. Peering out into the distance she saw a glimmer of light. “It must be getting close to morning,” she thought. As the glow began to grow rapidly, two beams of light came over the hill. Help had arrived! Isabel woke the others. Joyfully, they ran to meet the oncoming bus.

The trinket I took from this experience, that I may find useful when writing my next children’s story was not to underestimate the power of young people. They are smarter and more capable than some of us adults give them credit for. I learned, allowing the reader to find their own answers, brought a deeper meaning, and more authentic feeling in the ending.

www.leannembenson.com