Artist Series: The Wide-Awake Princess

by Karen Bjork Kubin

There are certain things I expect from spring. Robins. The finally-some-color relief of forsythia, crabapple, and lilac. The way trees get the tenderest bits of green at their branch tips before exploding into that brief, first-green luminosity I love so much. The ramping-up of school activities and counting-down of school days. And for the really momentous years, graduation—along with the daunting task of figuring out What Happens Next.

I sort of know what to expect from graduation itself, but apparently it is something like childbirth in that I had forgotten the attendant discomforts of thinking about and planning for what comes after graduation. Maybe I blocked out the pain. As my oldest child prepared for graduation from high school, however, this spring brought a lot of talk about the future to our household. In theory I expected this. But in practice “talk” turned out to mean discussion, worrying, dreaming, arguments, sleeplessness, hope-lost-and-regained, and a fair dose of wonderment. And I wasn’t really prepared for that. Decision Day—which I did not realize was a thing until recently—passed without a decision, and What Happens Next was way up in the air for way too long. The issue, in our case, is how parents who work in the arts and arts education can help their own children pursue careers in the arts. My husband and I have always managed to make our finances stretch, for the most part. Our work is meaningful. But the cost of college has gotten to be an alarming thing and suddenly, at this critical moment in our son’s life, it seems we have very little to offer him.

The dissonance has shaken me deeply, left me questioning just about everything. Have I made every possible wrong decision? Going into music, working part-time when I became a mother, agreeing to be the tagalong spouse to a town where there is pretty much no chance of working full-time in my field? What, exactly, do my skills amount to at this point in life? Pretty much every combination I come up with leads me back to the arts. Is this the best I can do by my family?

In the middle of all this, I keep thinking of one of my favorite read-alouds from when my kids were young, The Wide-Awake Princess by Katherine Paterson. It is the story of Miranda, a long-awaited child whose birth to the king and queen goes virtually unnoticed—the poor are too busy working to stay alive, and the nobility are too busy leading selfish lives. When her fairy godmother arrives late to the celebration of Miranda’s birth she finds the entire castle asleep and decides to give the child the gift of being awake all her waking hours. Miranda grows up virtually alone, awake in contrast to those around her, wandering the castle grounds and wondering at all she sees. When her parents die and three nobles take over the kingdom, claiming she is not fit to be queen, Miranda decides to go out into the kingdom to see if she can learn to be queen. Every day she leaves the castle and travels through the land without telling people who she is, working alongside the peasants in exchange for food, and listening to what they have to say. She discovers that they are overworked and overtaxed, lacking in medical care and basic resources. They feel as powerless to produce change as she does. When she befriends one artistic family, however, she is inspired to work with them to empower the people: the mother uses her weaving to teach the history of their kingdom, the son teaches others to read and write so they can produce change in their lives, and the grandfather helps other families to make musical instruments so they can create their own beauty. And over the course of several years, the people grow stronger, ready to bring about change. The book ends with the peasants marching to the castle in revolt. Miranda, who is back at the castle, lets the three nobles acknowledge her finally as queen–they are afraid to face the mob themselves–and rides out to meet her people.

My children believe themselves past picture books now, but I hope they will change their minds some day when they are reading to the small people in their lives. The right picture book will speak as much to the adult reader as to the child. Thankfully The Wide-Awake Princess is still speaking to me. It feels old and new at the same time, satisfies my taste for fairy tales, and is hands down my favorite take on the whole princess thing, ever. But it also crystalizes for me the important role of the arts in changing people’s hearts and minds, and I can’t shake the way it inspires me.

First of all, there is the encouragement I keep finding within these pages: that there is much wandering, wondering, and listening to be done, and that these things are excellent teachers; that kindness and generosity must be practiced over and over, and when in doubt should probably be doubled; that leadership happens outside the castle; that change takes time; that sometimes what you do on the peripheries amounts to everything.

Second, I love this book because it is a portrayal of the artist not as a superstar but a regular person, and the artist’s work as work done in the trenches, in the everyday, among the people it seeks to reach. This quieter form must survive alongside the art in galleries and theaters and concert halls. We need it desperately: art-in-education, art-in-community, art-in-everyday-life. The books we read to children, the things we make with our hands, the way we use our spare time. The things with which we fill our homes, churches, schools, businesses, and public spaces. The light and beauty we pour into the world. How else are we going to wake up? How else are we going to stay awake?

I realize now that I have been asking the wrong questions. Are the arts valued in this culture, in this day and age? Sadly, no—not the way they should be, not in a way that sustains working artists. I’ve always known this. Are the arts valuable? Yes—immensely. I’ve always known this, too. My new mission, I’ve decided, is Find a way. Find a way to speak, to create, to write. If this means shifting tactics to survive, then so be it, but Find a way. Hold on. Keep working to say what needs to be said, and maybe my work will always be done at the edges of the day, or at the edges of society, but maybe that’s okay, because it all comes back to the peripheries. What we do at the edges means everything. Our work there forms an outline: it tells us where we’re going, where we’ve been, what it all means. This is how we begin to understand. This is how we will move forward.

A violinist by training, Karen Bjork Kubin works as a free-lance musician, teacher, and conductor in a small Midwestern city. Her poems and essays have appeared in Rock & Sling, Whale Road Review, the Main Street Rag Anthology Of Burgers and Barrooms, How to Pack for Church Camp, and American Suzuki Journal, among other publications. More of her writing as well as links can be found at www.kbkubin.blogspot.com

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