Look for Conflict, and You'll Find it

While I was sitting at my fourth-grade daughter's desk this evening at the Mitchell School open house, her teacher invited parents to look through our children's book journals. In an entry about a recent book, Adella said she liked then ending because "it wasn't perfect but nobody died."

I wondered if she realized she said she liked something because it wasn't perfect--or rather, neither perfect nor tragic but someplace in between where most of us do our living.

This brought to mind a conversation with a friend the other day about conflict-driven stories. These are stories in which the action is driven by conflict and the conclusion comes with a win and a loss. Such stories are embedded with antagonisms and confrontation. They are meant to mirror life, yet few lives look like this on a regular basis. The man-versus-whatever paradigm begs dualistic thinking, judgmental thinking, hostility, and alienation.

I liked my daughter's criterion for a good story because her idea of good is something that affirms life, that captures its essential shape, offers some kind of insight and adventure, and lets us off the ride safe and sound.

Her brief commentary led me to think of that best loved of children's stories, Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown. That little story is an affirmation of a child's place in the world. As the speaker lists off the things in the bedroom, his mind is traveling his universe and coming back to himself and his place in that universe. Who needs more than to know she has a place here, and what's better than a place that is safe and warm and cared for by a loving mother?

Adella's words also brought to mind those famous Robert Frost Poems, "The Road not Taken" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." It has always seemed to me that these poems are celebrations of life, and I've always been aghast to hear people talk about them as expressions of despair and, well, nihilism. In "The Road," the regret is no regret but the realization that life is abundant with choices and the one you take is the best one for you. All the options are wonderful. All options are new if you've never taken them before. In "Stopping," the speaker reflects on impermanence and perhaps the ceaseless flow of life that impels him forward. He's not at odds with anything but happy to be exactly where he is on that snowy night.

These are affirmations of life, beauty, and wonder that become suicide notes in the hands of some literary critics. They become exactly that when a reader looks for despair, conflict, and controversy--circumstances that lead to decisive outcomes with victors and losers--where there is plain and simple joy. Sadly, I think if we imagine the conflict, the problem, the antagonism, we find it. Better to be like a child and imagine the peace, the shared road, the joy, the friendship and find that. Even if it isn't perfect, there really is no need to die in the end.


  1. Sandy,
    I love the way you look at things.

    Thanks for the tree post, right up my alley. Do you remember when they widened the parking lot at Mitchell School and cut down an ancestor of the Charter Oak? They didn't realize it until after, a little late then.

  2. Oh, God! Thank you for this, dear neighbor. I didn't know. The irony is knocking me over.

    Did you ever drive by a lot where trees have recently been cut? The smell is awful. For me it has become the smell of death. The nonchalant attitude of some tree cutters frightens me. I fear they have no respect for the trees.


  4. I am trying to make amends for all the trees I cut down when I worked as a feller for a logging company. Sometimes trees grow in the wrong place and have to be removed but now I am much more reluctant and ruminative before making that call. I hope someday to say I have planted more trees then I have killed. It is getting close and I will be happy when I sure I have reached that goal.

  5. hrist was nailed to a tree

  6. Anonymous9:25 PM

    I think you're right with the life analogy. There's a lot we do that we could apply Adella's philosophy to.

    But we do also get the perfect moments. That's how we know what to look for, how we know what we want and what we need; what we'd like to see happen and what we wouldn't.

  7. stories like that are good indeed to inspire hope yet let's us learn that life is like that sometimes with its own ups & downs

    a child's view really is the best in the world sometimes =)

    ps. the road not taken is one of the best pieces imho


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