A Child Tells A Story

Oy, that title alone makes me cringe. It’s kinda so awful, I have to leave it.

Anyway, my three year old and I have both been sick for the past three days. My three year old is sick every three weeks so it’s nothing new to him, but I haven’t been sick in a very long time. It’s also strange – when you calculate your toddler’s temperature and anything under 103 isn’t all that dramatic, but when your temp as an adult goes over 101, you really do get aphasic.

So, we’re both on the mend, and I took over my Dadly duties today (after being bailed out all morning by my mom and sister), and the little guy was very happy to have his dad back. Now, he’s been sleeping horribly. He has the croup, which means his cough is based squarely in his throat, and no amount of coughing gives him comfort. So he’s been waking up every two or three hours, coughing to the point of gagging. It’s terrifying for him, I’m sure, and very often he has trouble even inhaling when he’s going through one of these attacks.

But today, although he’s exhausted from a week’s worth of bad sleep, he’s been in mostly a very good mood, and really happy to be with me. One of the things we do, about ten times a day, is tell stories to each other. Don’t get me wrong, we probably watch more TV than your average 21st Century Hover-Parent, but we also read a bit and tell stories and make up songs and all that other treacley shit that makes you roll your eyes when other people tell you about it. I have found, though, that the storytelling he do is the easiest way to get him from a bad mood to a good mood.

At one point, he was sitting on my chest while I was lying on the couch, and we were telling a familiar story about painting two bicycles and going for a ride, when he suddenly started crying. I tried to interrupt him, because I’m an idiot, but after two or three minutes, I realized he needed to take over the story. In his story, Barnaby and Daddy went to the bagel store, but then Daddy left him there by himself. He wandered out into the street and walked around, but there was nothing but strangers there. At one point, he said, “and Barnaby walked down the street with his hands in his pockets, and there wasn’t even a mouse to be Barnaby’s friend”

(One time, Barnaby said to my mom, “We should make me some pancakes!” and my mom said, in one of her weird Mormon-pioneer-jokes, “What do you mean ‘we’, do you have a mouse in your pocket?” and Barnaby broke into a huge smile and slowly reached into his pants pocket to try to find the mouse living there. Ever since, he’s had a pretend mouse in his pocket that keeps him company.)

Barnaby’s story got me thinking about how incredible our chosen lives are. There are a fair number of artists, particularly instrumental musicians and modern visual artists, who’s work is largely emotive and allusiory, where they tell a story that hits your hindbrain first, without any narrative. And there are certainly some avant garde theater groups that do the same. But for a majority of us, we’re simply telling stories that upset or inform or entertain us in some way. And when we are feeling sad, or tired, or out of sorts, we really DON’T WANT a feel good story. When you’re depressed, you want to listen to a complicated sad song, you don’t want “Roll To Me”.

And Barnaby, at three, has already caught on to this. Not because he’s particularly smart, I have no evidence that he’s any smarter than any other three year old. But he was sad, he was feeling abandoned, and he wanted a story that he could relate to. When you have tracheal bronchitis, you don’t even really get antibiotics or anything, you just have to work it out. Barnaby has simply been abandoned with this disease, and in the middle of the night, when he wakes up alone and gagging, there is nobody there. He wanted a story that spoke to him.

But the imagery is amazing. Walking the New York city streets, surrounded by strangers, with your hands in your pockets… It’s as if he’s already seen the famous James Dean poster and didn’t tell me.

It was a wonderful reminder that we can continue to be successful if we tell the stories that mean the most to us. I know that right now the MFA programs are focusing on the “quirk” in playwriting, that every play should have a character with a third arm, or a talking piggy bank, or a guy who can’t touch pennies or something, but without telling stories that reflect the human condition, we’re not gonna be important. We just aren’t. In a perfect word, our plays would be well made, commercial AND human, but I think we need to focus on the humanity *first*.

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