Lessons from Frederick

That Damn Mouse

I kept thinking about Frederick.

To be honest, I tried to write another article, but it was boring. And that damn mouse kept creeping into my head and clamoring for attention – insisting he had something to say to the house-bound about leadership and beauty and poetry.

Frederick is a classic children’s book about a “chatty family of field mice” preparing for winter. When my kids were young, it was one of many books we would share at bedtime before they finally settled down and went to sleep. In the years since, we’ve given away most of our children’s library, so I was surprised to find the slightly dog-eared little book sitting on my bookshelf. I guess you could say Frederick was waiting for me.

I was curious: Where did Frederick come from? The book was written in 1967 by Leo Lionni. Born in Amsterdam, Lionni learned to draw by making sketches at the iconic Rijksmuseum, home to great masters like Rembrandt, van Gogh, and Vermeer. In his lifetime he became a world-famous illustrator and the author of more than 30 children’s books (Heller, 1999).

As it happens, I’m well acquainted with the Rijksmuseum: My family spent four magical years living in Amsterdam, a few blocks from there. Today my son lives a short walk from that famous landmark. Writing this brings back a flood of treasured memories. For instance, I remember my first trip to Amsterdam – Easter 2000 – two years before our move. It was a quiet sunny morning and, feeling disoriented, jetlagged, and far from home, I took a walk. Rounding a corner, I suddenly found myself facing the majestic, castlelike Rijksmuseum, sitting back on a lush green lawn, sparkling in the sunlight. It was a breathtaking, unforgettable image.

Which is a good segue because, you see, Frederick is all about the power of images.

Here’s a quick synopsis: Frederick is a member of a family of field mice. Anticipating winter, the family does what mice do: They all “gather corn and nuts and wheat and straw.” All, that is, except Frederick. When the other mice ask Frederick why he isn’t working, he says, “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days,” or “I gather colors . . . for winter is gray,” or “I am gathering words, for the winter days are long and many, and we’ll run out of things to say.”

Eventually the mice go into their winter hideaway in the rocks. At first they have lots to eat and lots of funny stories to tell. But as the temperature drops and the food begins to run out, they fall silent. That’s when Frederick climbs up on a large rock. “Close your eyes,” he says. “Now I send you the rays of the sun.” Imagining the sun, they feel warmer. Then he tells them about the blue periwinkles, the red poppies, the yellow wheat, the green leaves, and the berry bush, and they see “the colors as clearly as if they had been painted in their minds.” There’s even a drawing  showing the mice imagining blotches of blue, red, yellow, green, and purple. At the end, when Frederick recites a poem, they applaud. “But Frederick,” they exclaim, “you are a poet!”

Nourishing the Spirit in Exile

So why has Frederick been whispering in my ear these past few weeks? Because, I suppose, like Frederick and his family, we’ve all entered a winter of sorts, forced into our hideaways amid our own metaphorical rocks.

Of course those who are sick or have lost loved ones or are on the front lines are certainly facing the terrible darkness of the pandemic. However, many like me are not. In Boston, where I live with my husband, spring is arriving, the days are getting longer and brighter, and the daffodils in our front lawn are blooming. Each day, much like the last, is not unpleasant. And yet, I notice, the sheer banality of existence – the sameness of my day-to-day routines, the illusion that work continues unchanged (albeit online) – numbs me to the reality of my exile from the world beyond our home. Without conscious thought, I’ve begun to shrink myself, my expectations, and my aspirations, all to fit inside this smaller life.  

Poets like Frederick understand these dangers. Meg Wheatley reminds us that exile historically has been used to punish and to break the human spirit. Similarly, says David Whyte, those deprived of community or meaning or a life “based on the soul’s desires, have empty larders, and no fire in the hearth; they will starve if they are not fed something more nourishing” (1994, p. 239). 

Poets are also masters at imagery. They know that our capacity to hold an internal image is not a simple exercise in memory. It’s a practice as vital to human flourishing as food and water . To illustrate, Whyte tells the story of a Jewish concert pianist who, locked by the Nazis in a confined space with dozens of others, “survived by playing mentally through her entire repertoire of Chopin while everyone died in a standing position around her” (1994, p. 239). Though less dramatic, Frederick’s images of the “sun rays and colors and words” are equally profound. 

And what of my images, my blotches of blue, red, yellow, green, and purple? It takes little effort to summon them: Like Frederick, I’ve been gathering them all my life. There are arresting images of a rushing waterfall in Glacier National Park and the majestic snow-topped Grand Tetons. There are beautiful images of the yellow-green-red Tuscan landscape and the sun glinting on a Caribbean beach. There are spiritual images of the haunting plains of South Dakota and serene and silent Squam Lake in New Hampshire. There are also intimate and tactile images: wrapping my arms around my children and grandchildren, stroking the ears of a beloved dog, feeling the soft papery skin of my aging mother’s hand. Each image has its own story, meaning, and magic. And each awakens and breathes new life into me.

Follow the Poets

But what about words? Frederick gathers words as diligently as he gathers sun rays and colors. He knows that “the winter days are long and we’ll run out of things to say.” He knows that words, in the hands of a poet, convey images as powerful as a painting or a photograph. He knows that his choice of words can create apathy or excitement, despair or hope. And he knows that the most potent words remind us who we are in the middle of the most terrible of times.  

I’m glad to have my own stockpile of words, for the days of quarantine are long, and I’ve exhausted things to say about on-line shopping, virtual meetings, and disinfection routines. So, following Frederick’s gentle guidance, I pause and consider how my life has gone from logging airline miles to this unexpected homecoming. And in that moment, the opening lines of “Love After Love,” a favorite poem by Derek Walcott (1976), come to me: 

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.

The poem continues: “You will love again the stranger who was your self” – the one “who knows you by heart,” the one “you ignored.” Slow down, remember, forgive, rejoice. The poem concludes: “Sit. Feast on your life.” 

What could be more perfect in this time of solitude than to joyfully greet myself at my door and then spend time reflecting on my life? Which is why I say, “Follow the poets.” They will always lead you back to yourself. 

As we step forward into an unknowable future, there will inevitably be dark days that threaten to crush our spirit, days when we will be called on as leaders to summon images of hope and humanity, and the words to help us remember who we are and what we stand for. 

On those days, think of Frederick, climbing up on the rock, sending rays of sun and sharing the warmth of his imagination. 


Heller, S. (1999, October 17). Leo Lionni, 89, dies, versatile creator of children’s books. New York Times. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/1999/10/17/nyregion/leo-lionni-89-dies-versatile-creator-of-children-s-books.html  

Lionni, L. (1967). Frederick. New York: Pantheon.

Walcott, D. (1976). Love after love. In Sea grapes. New York: Farrar Straus

Giroux. Available at http://www.phys.unm.edu/~tw/fas/yits/archive/walcott_loveafterlove.html 

Wheatley, M., e-mail to author, April 17, 2020.

Whyte, D. (1994). The heart aroused: Poetry and the preservation of the soul in corporate America. New York: Currency Doubleday.