Perspectives in Art

We were on a long-ish hike from Fira to Oia in the island of Thera (now known as Santorini) 

It was not a very long one – a 7 mile hike spotted with fantastic views of the surrounding islands, sweeping views of the calm Aegean Sea and vista points of the island of Santorini itself. When done after a full continental breakfast, (the kind given by Santorini hotels), and with an interesting conversation on the side, it is easily done. Around the 3 mile mark, when we had left the busy white buildings on Santorini behind us and were walking gingerly up the slopes towards the narrow cliffs overlooking the Aegean Sea, I asked the daughter her thoughts on art. I continue to be amazed by her artistic abilities, seeing …well how her parents draw. The previous evening, while we had all taken a hundred pictures of a gorgeous sunset, she had sat sketching the area while enjoying the sunset. 

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“So can you really identify the artist based on the stroke of the paintbrush or something like that?” I asked.

“I can identify a few of them – definitely not all of them obviously. “

“Well – yeah! People study art for years and entire lifetimes. “

“The thing is, with art, everybody starts off with learning the techniques of realism, but as they keep growing as artists, they also develop a unique style. That’s what I am working on – developing a style. I don’t yet know mine, but I am trying.” , she said.

I looked at her with a new perspective. This child always doodling in her room was working on developing a style. It humbled me to see that I had not even appreciated or seen most of her work. Sometimes, she showed us. Most times, she did not, for as she claims, she wasn’t proud if it. 

I could understand this, but did want to see more of her work and said so.

She shrugged with her brand of nonchalance , and I recognized the style. She laughed at this.

“See? With writing or language, almost everybody comes with a style. That’s why it is easy to spot plagiarism. Everyone’s perspective is unique. The way we see the world, the way we use our words, the way we laugh, almost all of that has a unique perspective, but it isn’t that easy to develop your unique style in art.” , said she.

I made some agreeable noises at this, but demurred. Was language really that easy to find a style to? “I felt like I had spent years trying to ‘develop my voice’ as famous writers say, and it is still evolving, which is why it is interesting too. For it makes the development of the craft enjoyable. But I don’t think we are each ‘born’ with a style.”

 “True True – Writing does get better with practice and work. “ she said. 

“But okay – let’s try this: we were in Delphi yesterday. If you were to write about your trip to Delphi, what would you write about?”

I thought about the glorious day at Delphi. Nestled in the Parnassus mountains, the home of the muses, this was where the Temple of Apollo was built. Apollo was the Greek God for light, poetry, and the patron of the arts. It was also the place the ancient Greeks went to, in order to have their futures prophesied to them. The Oracles of Delphi spotted literature the world over (Sybil Trelawny of Harry Potter Divination fame was named after a Pythia of Delphi called Sybill). Almost every story from the ancient times had a prophesy to run the show. As our bus left the city of Athens behind and ascended the Parnassus mountains, I wondered whether I would like to know my future. What if I did not like what was foretold in my future? Many did not. But their destinies were met even as they tried hard to fight it. Would I like to be guided by some vague prophesy even if I’d like to know how everything will turn out alright in the end? And what if it didn’t turn out alright? I don’t think I’d want to be miserable about it all. 

“Hmm…many many ways in which I could write it. But I think I would like to go at it from the perspective of how we got to visit the Temple of the God of Light on the winter solstice, on the shortest day of the year. Think about it: It was forecasted to be an intensely cold and rainy day high up in the mountains with limited visibility. I was worried we would not be able to able to enjoy the place as much it is was that cold and rainy. Indoor museums are alright, but high up in the mountains? And yet, it turned out to be a glorious day with ample sunshine. We got to enjoy the Parnassus mountains where the Oracles of Delphi gave out predictions and prophesies in directly opposite conditions from what was predicted. I loved the irony of that. So may be we are lucky and the trip to Delphi itself was a blessing in a way. “

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“Okay see – that’s what I mean.We went to the same place, had the same tour guide explain stuff to us, and enjoyed the same day. But if I write about it, I would write from the perspective of seeing the cats at Delphi. How they roamed among the tourists, came to some of us, and how it all felt magical. There was that woman who made me mad – because she shoo-ed away the cat from me, and then ordered me to take a picture of her. If it were unto me, I would have taken the picture of the cat instead! “ 

I laughed. “Did you take a picture of the cat?” She is entirely capable of that. 

“No! “ she said with some regret, “But, just imagine how it must be from a cat’s point of view seeing so many people.”

“What about you truffle bumps? How would you write about Delphi?” She said pulling her brother into conversation. He was trudging along ahead of us in the mountain path.

I’d write a story about how I was fighting some bad guys who were coming at me. They were there: hidden in the ruins of Delphi, and how I defeated them with the myths of Apollo to help me.”, said the son flexing his arm where there were supposed to be muscles. 

“He and his super villains. Huh Hmm. But do you see what I mean? We already have a unique perspective with our almost identical experiences. So, yes, writing is unique to most people. But since art starts off with classical realism as the basis, we need to work harder at developing that style and perspective I suppose.” 

We were 2/3rd of the way done and we turned around to see the distance covered. This hike is unique that way – it shows us the meandering coastline and the beautiful buildings we passed on the way – all in one panoramic view. We took a few pictures here and the daughter peered out to see how much farther we had to go.

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“Gosh – this is so far away, I left this piece of the jutting island out when I was sketching yesterday!”

“Lighten up! We can have a good coffee and a wonderful meal once we get back.” 

“I wonder what the myths of Santorini are.” I said to break them out of brooding over the remaining distance, and we passed the time discussing myths instead. 

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Philhellenism – the love of Greek culture

After the freezing days of Paris, as we were bundling ourselves up in layers (yet again) , I said somewhat severely to the husband. “I think I’ve had enough of European vacations. After a few museums, a half a dozen cathedrals, and a few hundred pieces of art, I am done.”

The husband smiled one of his crafty smiles and agreed, for he knew that I will be the one craving a European vacation first. He just had to sit by, observe, and make bets with the children on the timing.

So, it was that we boarded our flight to Athens. Athens, the weather app promised us ,would be warmer, but still cold. It was expected to be between 40F & 65F (a difference of almost 15 degrees).

It was like every mile added not just warmth, but a different tinge to the culture. We had no idea on what to expect in Greece. It was our first time. A destination chosen by popular vote since the children are great fans of greek myths and have devoured all the books by Rick Riordan multiple times over. The husband had even booked a mythological tour to surprise them. But apart from this, our idea of Greece was based on A Big Fat Greek Wedding, Greek Myths by DeLaurailes, Gerald Durrell’s Corfu trilogy: My Family and Other Animals, Farther Afield by Miss Read, and all the different tidbits we knew about Greek philosophers, and mathematicians through the ages. 

As you can see, we had no idea, which was marvelous, for we were thoroughly unprepared for what happened next. We fell in love! In love with the city of Athens, the country of Greece, and the Greeks themselves.

After the professional intellectualism of Paris, Athens was like walking into a theme park – here you can have philosophy, art, literature and all the little marvels of the mind, but only if you agree to lighten up, have fun, and stay curious. The gentle humor and warmth with which the Greeks speak to each other and to the tourists is to be seen to be believed. They are a fun-loving, smart, and kind people. It is no wonder that this small country tucked away in the Mediterranean Sea gave us so much of the foundations of Western philosophy and culture. If Democracy had not been chanced upon here, I doubt it would’ve survived or chanced upon at all. As it is, it has so many assaults on it, it is fragile enough that we protect it. Greece is like the Disneyland of Europe. It reminds you of life as it should be: ambitious and lofty in our goals, but reminding us at every turn with their jolly, vivacious myths, of our humanity, our sense of community, and the importance of humility. 

I hung out of the window in the chill morning peering at the Acropolis. Those buildings were from the 5th century BC. Athens (the Greek call their beloved city, Athina after the goddess Athena) has been continuously populated over the past 6000 years. This showed up in little things such as drainage systems, rebuilding efforts and such (we found to our surprise that toilet paper cannot be flushed in Greece, and water bidets are not installed everywhere either).

It is hard to not get up in the morning and think that you are but a butterfly in the passage of time. On the mythological tour, Denai (our mythological tour guide) was informative and thoroughly impressed with the son’s knowledge of the Greek myths. I strutted along ( a proud parent) and learning so much of the mythologies that helped shape our way of the world, that I must say the cold forgot to bother me.

Who cannot be awed by the story of the Temple of Zeus being destroyed multiple times in history and the latest one by lightning? If that was not a sign from Zeus – the god of lightning himself, the Greeks did not know what was.

Or that wonderful story about how the city of Athens got its name. Apparently, it was such a popular place that even the Gods fought for the place. So Zeus tired of this bickering asked Poseidon & Athena to decide via a popular vote. Each had to give a gift to the populace and the people could decide.

  1. Poseidon – the god of the oceans, gave them water, signifying naval power and thus prosperity as a port city. This gift appealed to the men of the land.
  • Athena – the goddess of wisdom and strategy, gave them the olive tree, signifying the change from hunter-gatherer mode to prosperity from the land. The women liked all the different uses from the olive tree (olives, light from the lamps lit using olive oil, the wood etc).

The citizens chose Athena’s gifts – for  according to myth, women outnumbered men at the time of the vote and Athena won. This made Poseidon angry and to mollify him, the temple of Poseidon overlooks the city of Athens, while Athena’s temple overlooks the oceans. It was also why women were not allowed to vote from then on (again a myth, since it was never obvious that women had the vote in Greece. According to wikipedia – women gained the vote in Greece as late as 1952. But it was a crafty way to deny women their voting rights and have a story around it.

In the parliament square, the temple of Athena stood alongside that of Hephaestus, signifying that intellectual work was just as important as physical work. This was the place the philosophers gathered alongside the farmers to decide, debate and vote on the important matters of the day. Both types of people had to be in harmony for a prosperous society.

Thus it went in Greece. Wherever you went, there was a little story, involving the mighty gods, and their follies, all narrated by the populace with gentle humor.

And yet. While the myths are everywhere, there is a surprising and thoroughly lovable lack of reverence to these gods. They are gods – sure. But they have flaws – big ones. Much bigger than our own flaws since they are so much more popular and powerful.

I think it has to do with the complete dissociation of religion from the mythology. Indian mythology is just as broad, diverse and intricate – but since it is intertwined with Hinduism, good luck trying to be flippant about any aspect of it no matter how justified.

“Next time we come to Europe, we must stay longer in Greece, so we can go to the countryside and visit the little villages that dot Greece, maybe visit the island of Crete and Corfu.”, I said at the end of the glorious day in which we had eaten far too much delicious food, enjoyed far too many myths, and been far too enamored by the music and language of the greeks.

“Twenty-four hours!”, said the husband exchanging knowing winks with the children. They all guffawed.

“Amma – you said – No more Europe! Africa calls, and Australia sings and all that, 24 hours ago!”

What was there to say?  That’s how people fall in love with a country. It is no wonder they have a word for it. Philhellenism – a love of Greek culture!

Antheia’s Gifts

April has the whiff of spring about it. Fresh green leaves, and flowers bursting forth everywhere. 

I could not help thinking of William Blake’s ‘heaven in a wild flower’ as we made our way through the trails. Really! I am in awe of poets – how do they think up these things? 

“Who was the Greek god of flowers? Persephone?”

“Nope! Persephone was agriculture, you know when she comes out of the underworld, she brings Spring with her and the world blooms again. She was the one who was abducted by Hades.”

“Ah yes. There should be one for flowers though. Or is it just nymphs?”

She shrugged – “There is a minor goddess. I forget.”

I looked it up as I sat down this morning after sniffing a couple of roses in the garden. Antheia is the greek goddess of flowers.

I was out walking with the daughter on a trail. She was telling me about a fascinating piece of fan fiction she read about the lives of Remus Lupin and Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series. Told from the perspective of Remus Lupin, it was truly amazing. A deer grazed in the river bed now overgrown with shrubbery, while the stream-like river played host to herons and geese. It was fitting setting for the story of The Marauders who first made their appearance in The Prisoner of Azkaban.

I stooped to sneeze. “You know? I think you deserve this!” she said, looking severe. That child has the heart of Minerva McGonagall. Her lips looked thin and her eyes had just a hint of a smile that could not be displayed for wanting to look stern.

“Do you really have to sniff every flower when you know you have allergies?”

“But I do! Just see this my dear. A spider has patiently woven its web within the petals of a narcissi bloom. What is that story of the Ariadne challenging that Greek goddess?”

“You mean Arachne challenging Athena.”

“Yes…really how perfect these spider webs are! As an engineer, I admire the tensile strength, as a artist, I love the clean nature of their work, as a minor creepy crawlie phobe, I want to squeal, and as a clean freak,  I know I clean out cobwebs, but it makes me wonder every time about the nature of work. The constant doing and undoing of it all. It all seems so haphazard, but nature is so intensely productive in its being, no.” I said and then told her about the book I was reading just then.

Titled The Tree, it is part meditation on nature, part autobiographical detailing the relationship with the author and his father, and their differing views of nature. His father was quite the productive fruit producer in his narrow strip of land in the city, while the author’s love for trees bloomed away from the structured fruit producing expectations – in the wilder countryside.

On the walk, in the meanwhile, I pointed out the resourcefulness of the vine that can jump fences and leap between trees, the flowers that think nothing of scenting the world as they go about blooming, the humming bees, and the humming birds darting about all of this with a purpose of their own. “I suppose one could spend all day thinking about these things without any sort of cogency huh?”

“Yep! Like you are doing now? You know this is where some folks really surprise me. I mean, they regularly write and put out a chapter of fan fiction every week, to this brilliant story of Lupin and Sirius I was telling you about. ”

“Yes and look at humankind’s imagination through the ages. All those myths and stories of nymphs turning into rivers, and running through worlds and sprouting off into geysers. ” We walked back in admiration of writers and poets. Oscar Wilde, the daughter’s favorite poet and his life, William Blake, Greek myths, her re-reading of The Song of Achilles, Harry Potter characters all contributed to a magical spring-time saunter.

Imagination and Creativity are always enthralling themes to engage in. How do you cultivate it – are we born with a natural gift that we then need to prune and cultivate like the trees the author’s father looked after or does it thrive and bloom like Antheia’s flowers in the wild?

No fruit for those who do not prune; no fruit for those who question knowledge; no fruit for those who hide in trees untouched by man; no fruit for traitors to the human cause. – John Fowles, The Tree

Spring Fever

“Why do goats looks so stern? I thought they are happy especially now in spring-time. Like lambs in spring-time could also mean like goat-kids in spring-time, no?”

The children exchanged looks. They knew to diagnose my bout of Spring Fever. I am seen scuttling off to sniff the air and marvel at life sitting up and stirring from its sleepy winter state. I head into the house looking flushed and happy. By evening, I am tired, but refuse to reduce the dose of spring bounding. But still this talk of stern looking goats had them worried.

“Ma?! You okay? Why are we talking of goats now?” said the daughter a mock-solicitous look in her eye, and I laughed out loud, and told them the context of the goat-ish tale.

“Well, it all started like this. Do you remember last Friday evening being  particularly beautiful? So, I shut the laptop with a whim, and headed out into the sunset. The hills were alive with the magic of spring. I told myself poetically that I could not bear to be a cell in a spreadsheet anymore. I wanted to be a newly sprouted leaf on a tree, a whimsical flower fluttering away in the mild breeze, or a Finnish fainting goat chewing thoughtfully at that latest blade of grass.

“Not for me the confines of mankind! Get rid of the shackles, and head out! “ I said.

” Uh-hm – someone would think you have a mission you are fighting for. How many times will you take pictures of the cherry blossoms and the clouds, and the sunset, hmm?” said the children but I waved these things away. Days like this are not meant to be wasted indoors arguing about the wisdom or lack thereof of going outdoors.

For a few months of the year, our neck of the woods resembles fairy lands, or the lands of the gods, or maybe heaven itself. The occasional rains, the burst of wildflowers, and the sunsets are all glorious. So much so that I find myself wandering around the countryside apparently lost, but really just finding the inner self. At least it is what I tell myself when that pile of laundry needs washing or that closet needs cleaning. Marie Kondo urges me to better myself, but Early Spring is more inviting. 

The fox squirrels atop the plum blossoms look naughty, while the fainting goat looks stern, the horse in the pastures peaceful, and the sunset glorious.

Where was I? Yes, on the stern looks of Finnish fainting goats. I had often wondered while reading the Three Billy Goats Gruff why the author went in for Gruff, but I see the choice of the word as I stood there admiring the serene setting against which the Finnish Fainting goat stood in its patch of farmland.

“Anyway, ” I said getting back to the point of stern goats, “I suppose if I had foul folks like me boggling at their spot of residence in that manner just because it is Spring, I would be gruff too! But the goat has a manner that is at once endearing, sober and majestic. The clump of fur on its chin growing away like a goatee (Get it? Get it? Goats have goatees!) made it look wise, and the green grass it chomped on made the world look a sweeter place.”

The children moaned not unlike the goat, and said, “Why not just call it a goat, why this fancy Finnish Fainting Goat?”

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“That is easy my dears. Google assures me that the picture I took of the goat is a Finnish Fainting Goat. And in any case, I doubt you would have listened patiently if I said I would tell you a story about a goat. No you would not have. But a Finnish Fainting Goat got your attention, did it not?” I said feeling clever.

“Ma?!” said the daughter, clenching her teeth. “You haven’t told us the story of the goat. You told us about the goat…you know what?! Never mind!”

“Yes…Never mind.” I said using that conciliatory spring-time tone, and said, “I will take you hiking there to see the old fellow. I am sure you all will like him. Looks like a satyr of your Greek myths. There is your story! Percy Jackson stuff on our next hike! ”

I ignored the ensuing groans. The fainting goat satyr and narcissus blooms will help.

The Power of Belief

“Göbekli Tepe!”, I said swirling the name around my tongue for the n-th time. Göbekli Tepe had a nice ring to it. A satisfying crunch right in the middle.
The daughter tutted impatiently.
“What is this Göbekli Tepe?! Going on and on about Göbekli Tepe! ”

“Glad you asked!”, I said and started on an explanation to her loud eye-rolls and dramatic groans.

I was reading a book on the origins of God through Anthropological history: God by Reza Aslan. His theological musings date back to the first homo sapiens. He sets forth theories and tries to piece together the origins of the concept of a soul separate from the body. A consciousness higher than one’s own that probably gave rise to the concept of Gods.

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Reading about the ancient humans trekking to Göbekli Tepe is fascinating. Built over 10,000 years ago, it is the oldest known temple. Shaped to match the shape of the old hunter in the skies, the pillar of Sirius is especially tall. I can imagine not only the lure of the night skies for the hunter gatherers of yore, but also the seemingly curious rhythms of day and night. The location of the constellations themselves shift by season with the movement of the Earth around the Sun, and therefore, deriving any sense of regularity in itself must have felt divine.

 

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The Temple of Göbekli Tepe: Oldest Temple Built to Worship The Dog Star

I said as much to the children as we were hanging about the kitchen doing this and that. “Isn’t the concept of God a leap of faith? Huh! Get it? Leap of Faith! Get it?”

A low moan revealed that she got it, and then she tried to pivot the conversation to areas of interest to her.

“Which of the Greek Gods is your favorite amma?”
The children are ardent fans of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, and they often come up with questions like this. I read some of his books in order to keep up.
I looked at their faces, and said quite truthfully, “I don’t know whether I have any favorites. They all seem to be such jerks, at least in these stories!”
“Amma!”
“Well it is true. Aren’t Gods supposed to let go of their own Egos and all that? I mean they spar so easily. Oh! Oh! Did you say that? Okay! Okay, I am the God of Thunder. Here is a Thunder Bolt to strike down the mountain on whence you stand! – I mean, Come on! What is that even supposed to mean?” I said theatrically throwing hammers Thor-style.

The son laughed raucously. His eyes widened a little at the conversation. I know the little fellow took to the concept of a God without being led to it in any form – a trait we found highly amusing. We are not a religious household by any means, so it was clearly not a case of nurture. The daughter has a more lackadaisical view somewhat akin to my own.

The concept of a God – one or many Gods has always intrigued me. I am an amused, and sometimes annoyed, spectator when it comes to seeing how the religious peg themselves on a pedestal higher than others by virtue of their beliefs.

I am curious how different people take to the concept of a God more easily than others.

I am also humble enough to accept the Power of Belief.

I told them about how the concept is so intertwined into our collective consciousness from so long ago, that one can’t really try to imagine all the ways the concept finds its ways into our thoughts.

“It is everywhere!”, I said, and told them about how I remember the mother telling me as she looked on lovingly at the then newborn baby of mine smiling in her sleep. She said the story is that God came and gave the child a lotus in her dreams. Hence the newborn smile.

“If that were true, how would we know? You certainly weren’t saying it. In fact, you probably contorted your face into a spasm that we thought was a smile.” I said.

I have often wondered what the first thoughts of consciousness are for human-beings. Is it being self-aware, or is it in the feeling that we are one among the great biosphere? Do mosquitoes think that way? Do trees and bees?

What, Why and Where is God to you?

Read also: The Beauty of Questioning

Fox 🦊  & Pan 🐐 ⛰

“You know? Most of my morality comes from Percy Jackson and Harry Potter?” said the teenage daughter one day. 

“Gee! Thanks for that speech on wonderful parenting my dear, No clasping mother and father to heart and tears of joys on helping you navigate a messy world and all that?!”

She had the grace to laugh. 

She had been holed up in her room all morning, and I had hollered to her to come and help me with the chores. She stumped downstairs, unable as a teenager, to let on that she was probably enjoying the interlude of putting away the dishes with music in the background. 

As the dishes clattered, the kitchen was enveloped yet again in a mythological whirl. The daughter was always fond of Rick Riordan’s Greek and Roman mythological tales. The son, who has now started to read the series with gusto is thrilled at being included in the club of discussing these important works of literature with his sister. The warring factions of the Gods Vs the Titans has been analyzed from teenage, pre-teenage and elementary child angles. Myths have an alluring charm and when you find the similarity between Cerberus and Fluffy the three-headed dogs in Percy Jackson and Harry Potter series, it is always worth doing a little dance jig, and discussing with the teenaged sister. 

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The husband and I have been made to read the books too, and I must say they make for entertaining reading. I still prefer the Harry Potter series, but I see the lure of Rick Riordan’s work. He has perfected the rhythm of adventure with the right mix of modernity set against Greek gods in our world. 

“Which God would you be if you had an option?” the daughter asked, and the answers flowed forth. When it came to me, I paused for a moment and said, “Probably a nature god. Who was she? Hera?”

“Nah…You are thinking of Persephone. She is the Goddess of spring – you’ll like her too”, looking like a doctor arriving at a tricky diagnosis, “but I think Pan is more suited to you,” said she.

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“Fine then. I will be Pan. Pan is the strongest God if he is the Nature God right?” I said knowing fully well that my answer would be met with an uproar: 

Zeus is the most powerful. 

The top three are Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. 

“Well you know what happened to Pan?”, and then the pair stopped mid-sentence and exchanged meaningful glances. 

“We must not spoil the suspense for you, Amma, but it is very sad what happened to Pan.” said she.

“What happened?”

“NO! Don’t – let Amma read it!” said the most recent reader of the books.

“Just tell me!”, I said, deftly catching a cup from cracking as I caught it from the dishwasher.

A dramatic sigh followed, and the sad prognosis was delivered.  “Pan is fading Amma. He is no longer a force that he was on Gaia now. It is up to us now to save Earth!”

I looked at their faces and felt a surge of pride, alongside a wave of gratitude to writers like Rick Riordan who so beautifully captured the essence of conservation in a manner that so many young children can relate to. Where would we be without the gifts of imagination and creativity?

I read another short story, Fox 8 , by George Saunders, who captured my attention, in a similar manner. Written from the viewpoint of a fox, Fox 8, it outlines the sad outcome of a mall being developed in Fox View Commons ( an area that was home to many animals, forests and trees). Fox 8 learns how to “speek yuman”, at the window of children being read to by their parents at bedtime. Fox 8 loves the stories, their morals and their imagination. Even though, the stories get things wrong about animals all the time, he is fascinated. Fox 8 is a huge fan of yumans and their ingenuity even when the mall development essentially drives their pack to hunger and death. The story ends on a sad note, with Fox 8 wondering how yumans can be cruel and unfeeling towards fellow beings with life, when their stories promise to teach differently.

I have said this once and I say it again – if only we could learn to live like the stories we weave for our children – with wonder, empathy, bravery and curiosity, wouldn’t our lives be more whole-hearted and content? Maybe our greed could be in check and Pan would not have to fade away so much.

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