Bear Party

By Shlomit Auciello | Aug 06, 2020

Until I got married, my last name was Baer. It came to me from my father's side of the family and was the butt of a few rather cruel jokes from my peers early on.

We were outsiders, a fatherless family, Jews with strong matriarch at the helm. The blow of otherness was softened by the six or seven other Jewish families in a rural New England town dominated by about 10,000 Catholics and Protestants. An uncle and aunt and three cousins lived about 10 houses away.

We weren't alone in our difference, at least not as a loosely-knit group. We lived in a neighborhood of baby-boom housing, one of many developments that cropped up after World War II, to shelter all of us peace dividends in a comfortable facsimile of the base housing many of our parents recently left.

My parents were alike in temperament. Any annoying characteristics I have probably came from both of them. Many of their good traits, too, are part of my nature. The nurture all came from Mom and the network of family and friends she built for me and my brother.

What I got from Dad was his absence at a time when his presence led to unresolvable acrimony between them. He left when I was five and we got back in touch when I was 13.

Before he left, and maybe for a while when I was little, I got books from him, children's books with clever stories and great illustrations. I still have “Lion” by William Pène Du Bois. Some titles featured another spelling of my last name, Baer, in the title: “Mr. Bear Goes to Boston” by Marion Flood French and “Bear Party” also by Du Bois, among them.

“Bear Party” takes place high in the eucalyptus trees of Koala Park, an actual sanctuary built in Australia in the 1920s. The rest of the story is delightful invention. The bears of Koala Park are tired of looking at each other, bored with their similarity, have nothing polite to say and are generally grumpy.

Before the situation can move from sullenness to something meaner, the Wise Old Bear in the top of the tallest eucalyptus tree suggests they all throw a party.

Now, you need to visualize Du Bois' koalas which, in their natural state, look pretty uniform to human eyes. The Wise Old Bear's idea was to throw a costume party, and it went well. Bears were dancing and chatting with one another; the baker and the sea captain, the ballerina and the farmer. But then they went home and hung up the costumes and went back to being grumpy.

I always thought this was a story about conformity and self expression, and I accepted the premise that we get along better when we can see each other's differences and not suppress our inner sea captain or baker. I won't give away the ending, but if you read it and have an opinion, please share it with me.

At least on the surface, today's situation is the opposite of the one facing the Du Bois' bears. In the 21st century culture I live in, individuality is not only recognized, it is deified. Few would question a driver's right to turn up the bass, no matter how it shakes nearby windows; it feels good to the driver. I join most of you in expressing my uniqueness, sometimes a bit loudly, in what I say, the way I dress, the signs on my lawn. Uniformity is not the problem we humans face.

There are other ways Koala Park's fictional story differs from our own reality. First, we're way past getting the attention of the Wise Old Bear in the top of the tallest eucalyptus tree, and far from agreeing on whom that might be. While the bears, quietly munching amid the branches all looking and acting the same, struggled to recognize each other, we quarrel about the inconvenience of a respiratory brassiere.

There's some of that snark I inherited from my parents.

A week ago, someone in a Facebook comment thread asked me why I was afraid of microbes and suggested my concerns could be answered by replacing my own face covering with a stronger mask. They asked me what I was really afraid of. I found myself feeling defensive and stepped out of the conversation.

But I've been thinking about it, and now I have an answer. I am afraid of living in a society where people would rather be angry than care about those they don't know or understand.

It's a hard task, patient compassion. Knowing there are things in this world, people in this world, I may never understand helps me see that one good way to get through this life-as-we-know-it is to embrace the stuff I don't know.

Who we are, the essence of our characters, is not a costume we put on or take off at will. We define ourselves through our actions. Lately, I'm finding it easier to understand the expressions in people's eyes. Not relying on the easy smile or sudden grimace, one has to look deeper for the pain, joy, empathy or fear.

Recently, a friend asked me if I'd thought much about the difference between a reaction and a response. What I see now is that the bears in Koala Park, frustrated and grumpy, were reacting in ways that made it harder to get along. The Wise Old Bear's response gave them a chance to move forward together.

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992

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