Author and illustrator Irene Luxbacher writes about the deeply personal inspiration of her new picture book, Once I Was a Bear.
Once…When I was little, I remember my dad telling me that when he was growing up, he had wanted to be a forest ranger. I imagined him alone in a crow’s-nest cabin, surveying a vast expanse of wilderness among the tall trees…there was a river nearby and mountains in the distance. A stoic figure content in his solitude, my dad quietly kept his wild and cherished domain protected and safe even amongst the reality of his bustling city life and his measured, predictably patterned existence. Like many new immigrants from the ‘60’s, he was a person carrying the invisible wounds of the traumatic childhood he experience in wartime Europe, but the immense size and majestic landscape of his new country offered him the space he needed to find peace, and he was profoundly grateful.
Once…when my son was 2 and a half, (after slowly seeing more and more of the heart sinking tell–tale developmental issues we ascribe—for lack of a better term or understanding—to Autism), I noticed that despite my boy’s difficulty in making consistent eye contact with others, his focus was intense and laser sharp when it came to birds flying overhead, or the ebb and flow of distant waves on our great lake’s horizon. How could being on a barefoot woodland hike draw out his ability to speak more typically and fidget less intensely? How could I help my little Bear (as his dad and I started to call him), find the same kind of calm and focus in his pre-school class, when his overloaded sensory systems were struggling to process an invisible and terrifying hurricane of sights, sounds and feelings?
My son’s diagnosis came at the same time my dad received a diagnosis of Corticobasal degeneration—which having lived through his symptoms, is best described as a combination of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Watching loved ones struggle and being responsible for their care can be an overwhelming experience. Here was another invisible force of feelings and struggle, this time keeping ME separate and detached and painfully out of reach from a “typical” life. A life where birthday parties, play-dates, family dinners and simple, connective conversations seemed like restorative pleasures beyond my reach. I have found that the feelings of aloneness that come with fear and trauma are at times as painful as the disease that triggers those feelings in the first place….
But, once…during a late night of working in my sketchbook, I began to find escape and comfort through my art. With a pencil and nightlight, curled up in my cozy den, I could let my mind and heart fly to imaginings of a joyful existence. Like my dad and my beautiful boy, images of the natural world became my needed respite and led me to a frame of mind where I could face and explore what was happening to my loved ones and my life…and I was never afraid. Soaring on waves of inspiration and light… Connecting me to places and people again…Giving me something to focus on and keep me steady…Making me feel connected to a larger world where the possibility of growth and health and happiness was possible. The vigorous, unsentimental and restorative nature of the arts is immeasurable, and as vast and wild as the earth herself.
I would never say that I am grateful for the painful experiences that have defined my life in recent years, but what I am grateful for is the (self) knowledge that has come from having lived through them. I hope that the readers who find comfort and pleasure in my art feel ready to shed their fur and like me and my son, find a way to laugh and hop and skip and soar, knowing they are not alone. There truly are others out there just like us and we are all creatures of great power and sensitivity…after all, Once, we were a Bear… or a Tiger…or a Fox…or a Swan…or a….
More about Once I Was a Bear:
Oh, to be a bear in the forest! To rest and play, day after day, always feeling safe and at home. But when change fills the air, and it's time to journey into a different kind of wilderness, will it ever feel the same?
Once I was a Bear is a beautiful, beguiling tale about adapting to change and finding your place, and is especially comforting during this time of social distancing and uncertainty about the future.