I recently read a tiny line in an article somewhere (that I can’t recall), which mentioned the fact that Paddington, the little bear from the beloved children’s books by Michael Bond, was inspired by children in London train stations who were sent away to safety during the war. I loved the Paddington books as a child, and happen to have two little Paddington stuffed bears, one of which my mother gave me during a tough time in our lives. The little bears sit in their duffle coats on a bookshelf and I look at them every day and they make me smile. But inspired by war refugees? What???
I was so shocked by this news – shocked that the little tag around the bears’ neck (“Please look after this bear”) was something somehow sinister, and shocked that as a child or an adult, I never thought to question why on earth a little bear was being sent off on his own with nothing other than a suitcase and a jar of marmalade. I thought I knew those books inside and out. I’m certain I read them to my children, but even then, the question of who this bear was and where he came from and why he was on his own never came up. I simple read the books as fun little romps about adventures in the big city.
I have been staring at my Paddington bears relentlessly this week, recalibrating the story, and my own sense of myself as an astute reader. I have been Googling articles and interviews about the Paddington books and their creator (here’s one and another) and marveling at how a story can mean one thing at one time in your life and come to mean something entirely different at another, based on a new bit of information, or a new twist of perception.
By complete happenstance this week, I also received a message on Facebook from someone I worked with 15 years ago on a special little book project that Ford Motor Company commissioned me to write. She had stumbled upon a copy of the book on amazon, and pinged me to tell me how fondly she had recalled the project -- “one of the best I’ve ever worked on.”
I hadn’t heard from this person in 15 years and had completely forgotten about that particular project. It was one of the many things I did in the years when I was promoting my breast cancer memoir, The Victoria’s Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming and Other Lessons I Learned From Breast Cancer. Ford was a major sponsor of my book, and we did a variety of initiatives around women’s health and empowerment, including building a website and developing a series of beautiful little books to celebrate survivors.
During those years, I got a masterclass in corporate philanthropy, the advertising business, and what deep pockets can do for creative inspiration. It was one of the best things I’ve ever worked on, too, and it was lovely to be reminded of the good work we did by an old colleague.
This all serves to remind me of the way that good stories impact us again and again, as we change and grow and move through the world. They are not static things, but living things that come to life in the imagination of the reader. It’s a powerful reminder that it’s a wonderful circle to be part of, either on the creating side or the receiving side.