It’s a blustery day across North America, and for this reason, Christopher Robin has crossed my mind.
Our saga begins happily enough…
Winnie the Pooh, one of my all-time favorite book series, was a gift by A.A. Milne to his son, Christopher Robin Milne, who adored a bear at the London zoo named Winnie. He ultimately purchased a stuffed bear he named after him. In 1925, this affection set Papa Milne (writer) and E.H. Shepard (illustrator) on a timeless path to describe Christopher Robin and his growing collection of stuffed animals in a setting they named the 100 Acre Wood (the surrounding area near Milne’s home in Sussex, England).
Fast-forward 71 years…
Christopher Robin passed away in 1996.
And correct me if I’m mistaken, but as I recall, Randy Pausch alluded to both Eeyore and Tigger in his beautiful Last Lecturepresentation. Indeed, some of us are Eeyores, and some of us are Tiggers.
But there’s more.
Let’s review by returning to a profile of Christopher Robin’s stuffed animals:
1. Eeyore = The modest pessimist who’s always losing his tail, his house, and his hope. He’s pleasantly surprised when people remember his birthday.
2. Tigger = The excitable bouncer. Assuredly, "the only one."
3. Winnie = Our beloved protagonist; always searching for "the honeypot" and his friends.
4. Piglet = Though diminutive, Piglet is brave and hopeful. "I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today."
5. Kanga = Roo’s doting mother.
6. Roo = The inquisitive.
7. Gopher & Heffalump = Disney’s newer and posthumous additions to Milne’s work.
And then, of course, there are the ‘real’ characters:
8. Christopher Robin = The inimitable steward of the cast of the 100 Acre Wood, replete with mismatched socks. A true pacifist.
9. Owl = The wise.
10. Rabbit = The organized, linear, and task-focused.
What a beloved and well-rounded cast of characters. (Christopher Robin’s real stuffed animals remain on display in the Children’s Room in New York City’s Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.)
I believe that as any one of us reads about these cute critters, we think of ourselves – or others we know. There are certainly times I feel like Piglet, wondering what exciting things may happen today… and other times when I feel, in turn, like Rabbit, Roo, or Eeyor.
I presume you can say the same.
But alas, returning to the subject of our saga, some unhappy news now…
Christopher Robin’s life was, in his words, "a disappointing affair." He was reared primarily by his nanny, and his parents spent a strikingly limited amount of time with each other and with him. They generally saw one another for short periods just after breakfast, at tea time, and in the evening right before Christopher went to bed. As he grew, he spent more time with his parents, but because of their estrangement, his time was divided between each.
Though he enjoyed the Winnie the Pooh series early in his childhood, it soon became a source of taunting and adolescent difficulty. By adulthood, he and his father had become estranged as well. "It seemed to me almost that my father had got where he was by climbing on my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and left me nothing but empty fame."
Equally disappointing, he did not visit his mother in her final fifteen years of life.
Christopher Robin died an atheist, despite an innocent enough line in one of his father’s works, "Hush! Hush! Whisper? Who dares? Christopher Robin is saying his prayers." Schoolmates teased him ceaselessly about this and other lines from his father’s enormously successful series. (My mind’s eye can imagine such taunts and how their seed was the beginning of adolescent resentment.)
And so, one of the tragic ironies of Christopher Robin is the life he lived at the feet of his parents. The life lived outside the very constellation of creativity and possibility and imagination that swirled within the fertile world of the Winnie the Pooh series. A life surrounded by brilliance but deficient in love and affection.
Here is a case of a timeless band of brothers, set in motion within a palpable, rich environment – the 100 Acre Wood – launched into quaint adventures and odysseys by the kind and curious Christopher Robin. But fast-forward and fade upward; gaze upon the life and times of Christopher Robin and the Milne family, and we see lives undone and bitterness in full bloom.
All the wisdom of Alan Alexander Milne, and yet both his – and his immediate family’s lives were set unalterably on a course of difficulty and disappointment resulting from success. (This is an ageless narrative: sour grapes that are the fruits of the vine of success.) All his life, Christopher Robin sought to distance himself from his parents and Winnie the Pooh, his childhood friend who had originally brought him such joy.
Fade to present...
Today being January 26, 2009, my six-year-old daughter has handed me a flier for the Valentine’s Father-Daughter Dance at what will likely be a local discotheque. In hopes of learning from Papa Milne, I shall make this dance the highlight of my week – and ensure that Lauren knows it. I will pause, turn everything off, unclutter my mind, and carry her in full regalia to what will surely be a special night, despite my dancing (which is only slightly less disturbing than Elaine Benes’s).
Furthermore, I will continually strive to be present in all the tiny moments, and remind my family of their primacy in my life.
Despite our instinctive drive to overwork (the natural reaction to an economy riddled with unemployment, underemployment, and a high Suffering Index), our work must never swallow-up our families as it might have in our "unwiser years."
And I will commit myself anew to reminding each of you the lesson Christopher Robin taught Winnie when he said those ironic words: "Promise me you'll always remember – You are braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."
To which he might have added, "And I love you unendingly."