How a children's book about a mouse is keeping me motivated in quarantine

When I was a teenager, I worked at the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop in New Haven, Connecticut — which, as far as teenage work went, was pretty formative and fantastic. While the campus is based in Eli Whitney's original factory, the museum itself is more of an experimental learning workshop that uses alternative teaching methods to celebrate and explore the intersections of engineering, design, and innovation. And yes, that man above was my boss, who hopes to enjoy his well-deserved retirement soon, depending on how this pandemic plays out.

On the weekends, we'd host birthday parties at the museum for younger kids, where they'd get to do some hands-on woodworking projects that also introduced them to simple machines or electricity (like a single Christmas light and a battery; we weren't monsters). We had a series of projects loosely based on the books of Leo Lionni, including one very simple project for 5-year olds that was based on the story of Frederick the Mouse. The basic idea of the story is that all the other mice accuse Frederick of being lazy while the rest of them are busy getting ready for the winter. They're all gathering wood and straw and nuts and stone so they can hide away in comfort when it gets cold out — and Frederick just sits there, insisting that he, too, is collecting things like colors and stories and sounds.

This, understandably, irritates all the other hard-working mice. But when the winter finally comes, and they're all trapped in the cave together, going out of their little mouse minds, that's when Frederick finally pulls his weight. Because Frederick is an artist, and he wasn't kidding or lazing around when he said he was collecting colors and stories and sounds. Frederick regales the other mice with tales of the outside world, reminding them of everything they have to look forward to once the spring returns.

We would read this story to the kids, and then let them decorate their own wooden "Frederick" with markers and felt ears and a pipe cleaner tail and so on. The kicker came at the end of the project, when we'd give them all a marble to use as Frederick's "eye." The 5-year-olds were always struck by the way the world looked truly different when viewed through Frederick's "eyes." Maybe it was just general childhood amazement, but I like to think the metaphor really resonated with something primal in their young minds.

I must have taught this class project at least 100 times, so it's always stuck with me. But I've been thinking about it a lot lately as I'm starting to adjust to whatever this new pandemic normal is. I see lots of creative-types alternately saying that you should absolutely be creating during this time, instead of being lazy, and others insisting that you must prioritize your self-care. But I don't really care much for either pedantic approach. Because I think about Frederick. Instead of pressuring myself to create, or to self-care, I'm just trying to remind myself to soak in the colors and the stories and the sounds. It's a way to live in the present while preparing for the future — and also to side-step both the stress of creativity, and the guilt of self-care. Do both; do neither; mix it up from day-to-day. For me, it's more important to remember to look through that fractured prism of a marble eye and let myself see the world from every different angle right now. To make sure I'm observing everything I can, and really soaking it in. Maybe it'll help with what I'm working on tomorrow; maybe it'll help me in the next long winter.

Either way, I think we could all bear to be a little more Frederick.