One of the many benefits of having a child is that I’m able to read and watch good stories on a regular basis. These stories are often short, and involve bees, monkeys, elephants, frogs, fairies, spaghetti, stars, birds, and dinosaurs. Sometimes they contain no conflict whatsoever: just a man walking his dog, or a bear who sees a duck who sees a cat who sees a black sheep who sees a teacher who sees, etc. Others are an endless cycle of ageless conflict between species, as one animal does not just see another, but pursues it in a predatory manner, as in the classic where the bee flees from the frog who flees from the snake who flees from the mongoose and so on until the lion flees from the hunter, and the hunter flees from the bee, and the circle of life continues.
These stories, after reading them for the fifth, sixth, or seventh time in a row on any given night, introduce a kind of trance state. I have to resist it, so that I can continue to read as if the story is entirely new, because for my daughter, it is, and I admire that. I can tell how sad, angry, ungrateful, exhausted, and/or distracted I’m feeling on any given day based on the level of commitment with which I narrate the adventures of Mirabelle, the adventurous Boston Terrier and her fastidious owner Mr. Mueller, or the Hippopotamus excluded from outings with the cat and the rat and the dog and the frog (who “cavort in the bog”; yes, this is from memory), or the increasingly multitudinous monkeys who drum on drums with their thumbs and strum banjos and hum.
Most days, it isn’t too difficult to get into character though, because these readings remind me that we humans grow with stories. Each night, I can see my daughter notice more and more on each page: one night she suddenly points out the tiny chipmunk that follows Alfie Bear everywhere, the next she imitates the drumming monkeys by tapping the page with her thumbs, making monkey sounds, laughing with me at the funny parts.
Sometimes the stories I share with my daughter are very familiar to me. The other day I threw on a made-for-TV version of A Wrinkle in Time, and was impressed all over again by the strong bones of the story: the disappeared father, the boy who won’t talk to anyone outside the family, the appearance of other-worldly creatures who create a sense of possibility, hope, and danger ahead. As a child, the dystopian suburban world of Camazotz was the first such representation I had ever read or seen that I can remember, and I loved the way that it depicted something seemingly unreal while at the same time capturing reality itself.
In Wrinkle, the characters travel through the tesseract, which folds space-time to collapse the distance between two points. What would have taken years, or even light years, to traverse, can be leapt across in nearly an instant. This is perhaps the most fantastic of features in this story, and perhaps the truest. The time between nightly readings sometimes seems this way, when the endless hour of teething and screaming in the middle of the night stretches out in the blackness of the nursery, and I wonder if I’ll ever make it back across the galaxy to return to my bed. And then, as if through a jump cut or time-lapse, I’m in the chair reading again, and the lamp is on, and the white noise machine is imitating a vacuum and wind and wind chimes, and Mirabelle is chasing her bouncy red ball, and my daughter’s eyes are like planets growing rain forests and civilizations, opening and filling and noticing more and more each night as she grows up into these stories, and I grow down, which is always good for a grown-up.
While I try to stay in the moment, every so often I glance at the shelf and grow excited about all the books with paper pages instead of cardboard, paper pages which, she, at this point, enjoys most when tearing them out. The Little Prince, The Alchemist, The Polar Express….worlds through which she’ll one day take me on a tour. I wonder if The Little Prince will feel strangely familiar when she reads it, if she’ll remember how every night I read it to her before bed, in the ancient days when she lived in a world of water, before she had perfect and occasional teeth and wide open eyes, before she learned to read with her hands, before she taught me time travel.