I’ve always believed in the power of storytelling with children. Reading books side by side is of course a priceless and transcendent kind of bonding. But it can’t replace the story, told face to face, round eyes to round eyes, over a big mug of warm milk or snuggled together under blankets. Storytelling, unmitigated by books and pages and the right amount of light, has a magic all its own.
The first time I really internalized the enchantment of stories was during the Kenyan rainy season when my two oldest daughters were still toddlers. The girls and I, spoiled by 350 days of sunshine and a playground across the lawn didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves when the rains came. We all became bored pretty quickly, which of course degenerated within minutes to grouchy and whiny. Our house was cold and damp and grey and we all slunk around like soggy alley cats in an abandoned warehouse. It wasn’t till the third day that I remembered to light a candle. It’s amazing what one small candle can do to bring some warmth and humanity to a house that’s feeling like a medieval dungeon. I brewed a bit of watery peppermint tea for us, sat us down around that candle and stared at those two shivering creatures across from me. Without really thinking, I announced that I would tell them a story. At which point I panicked, because who can actually come up with a brilliant- or even barely intelligible- story on the spur of the moment? I think it’s this moment of panic that keeps most parents from ever telling stories in the first place, imagining that all the other parents in the world have an internal Rolodex of fairytales and baseball yarns to flip through whenever the occasion might arise.
But they don’t. At least I’ve never met one. I’ve read books by people who insist they tell homemade fairytales to their children every night that they later go on to publish into best selling collections, illustrated by their gifted and imaginative children. But I tend not to believe those kind of parents. And probably wouldn’t like them very much if I met them. Most of my friends, who are smart and funny and caring, are terrified at the thought of having to come up with a story, even if it is just for their sleepy two year old who wouldn’t notice if the story was Mary Had a Little Lamb told in Pig Latin. The only difference between the parents who do tell stories and the ones who don’t is their response to the panic moment. You either give in to the fear and chuckle a little as you pull a book off the shelf and tell your children how their Uncle Charlie is a really good storyteller, so they should ask him for a story next Thanksgiving. Or you close your eyes and say a prayer that your children will never remember or repeat whatever it is you’re about to say, and begin.
I tend to include a time-buying step before this point. I tell my girls that I need to listen to my heart for a moment to see if I can hear a story that it might be whispering to me. I think I stole this from one of my hippy parenting books, but don’t remember exactly what the wording was supposed to be. Regardless, it buys me some time while the girls sit quietly, not wanting to accidentally drown out the story whispers. And, truthfully, in my own panicked way, I really am listening. I sometimes have to wait longer than other times, and sometimes I forget that I’m supposed to be listening and instead just wallow in all that silence, but inevitably M will whisper, “Have you heard anything yet?” and I’ll remember that it’s a story I’m after. Of course the whole story with a fascinating hook, suspenseful plot build-up and multi-dimensional characters never pops into my head like I’m channelling Hans Christian. But at least I can usually remember something we saw that day- a slug maybe, or a bird’s nest- and that’s enough to pull me past the panic and into “Once upon a time….” at which point I may not be home free exactly, but I’m in the river, and can at least hope to stay afloat while it pulls us all along for a while.