What Color is Your Pain? Magic for Pregnant Aches

Originally posted on Pagan Families, 7/5/11. Midway through the second trimester, my ribs started hurting around the bra line, like something was cutting into them.  It wasn’t my bra’s fault, though, because taking it off didn’t help, and changing bras didn’t help.  It messed with my ability to exercise and cook dinner, and after a few weeks I was sick of it.  I was even more sick of hearing myself talk about it.

So many of the ways we describe pain are boring.  If I describe exactly where my ribs hurt, how much does that really tell you about my experience?  Does rating my pain on a scale from one to ten make it easier for me to connect with you?  That kind of information may be useful to doctors or at the start of a conversation, but surely, I thought, there’s a better way to describe and relate to what I’m feeling here.

Taking a medical view of our bodies turns pregnancy into a series of symptoms with no particular significance.  The emotional openness many women feel becomes nothing but hormones, and all the aches and nausea become just another thing to go through for the sake of your baby.  But our bodies’ stories’ are richer than this.  Sometimes aches curl around secret parts of ourselves waiting to be born, and sometimes they summon us to grow into new lives.  Sometimes pain isn’t a point of disconnection, so much as it’s a path of connection to the divine.  The following exercise changed how I understood the pain in my ribs and helped me identify better ways of interacting with it.

What Color Is Your Pain?

During everyday life, I mostly keep my attention located in my head.  Pain from distant body parts may colonize my consciousness, but when I experience that discomfort from in my head, I usually find myself in an adversarial relationship with it.  I think most of us work that way.

Take a moment to get in touch with the point where your consciousness is right now, and then move it toward the part of your body that hurts.  Drop down into your pain and take a look around.  What color is your pain?   What does it look like?  Or if you prefer, does it have a scent?  What does it sound like?  Does it have a message for you?

When I do this exercise, I usually get a few initial flashes of color, and if I stay there and watch them move around, I start to see more concrete images.  Those images give me the clues I need to nurture myself through my pain.  However, if you’re not a visual person, you may prefer to approach it with your other senses.

If you start this exercise and feel like your answers are still coming from inside your head, try asking your pain more specific questions.  For example, imagine a vibrant purple filling up the ache.  What does the ache look like and feel like, now that it’s glowing purple?  Slowly start moving through the colors–what does the ache feel like if it’s blue? green? yellow?–until something takes off.

What I found when I moved down into my chest was bread-white ribs washed with blood like wine:   I saw my own body celebrating the Eucharist.  Now, this may not seem like a pagan thing to say, but inside my chest Yahweh was working.  Ultimately it’s not such a strange place to meet the lord who lives in broken things and unfolds himself through history (in this case, through the permanent, you-can-never-go-back experience of becoming a mother).  Whenever my ribs hurt after that, I prayed to open up the space around my heart, so that there would be room for both the baby and myself.  The sensation that something was cutting into my chest began to feel more like something stretching, and the feeling stopped bothering me.

Other pains may call for other measures, of course.  I haven’t tried this approach for nausea or for sudden, sporadic pains, so I’m not sure where its limits are or how it might be adapted to other circumstances.  If you try “What color is your pain?” and don’t mind talking about it, drop me a comment.  I’m curious to hear what other people do with this magic.

Self-Excavation Tour 2007: The Elephant in the Room

Originally posted 8/29/07. Three years ago, I couldn’t talk about my religious life. I mean, literally, I couldn’t. I’d try to open my mouth, and a lot of times I wouldn’t even be able to get words out.

We didn’t really talk about religion in the first person when I was a kid. What I knew was that my dad was a flaming atheist. He left home at fifteen or sixteen, heading off to college without graduating from high school, in order to get away from his father, who was a Methodist minister. Mom said he didn’t like the role of preacher’s kid, but the older I got, the more I suspected that it was more complicated than that. So while I was in Detroit in July, I screwed up my pluck and asked my dad’s sister what religion was like in their house growing up.

Aunt Joyce’s answer told me something more about what makes religion complicated in our family, but just as interestingly, it turns out to be part of another puzzle that I hadn’t realized I was still missing pieces for, the one about why I have trouble talking comfortably about religion and why I needed pluck in the first place.

I.  I grew up a smug atheist. I remember that in seventh grade I wrote a science fiction story about psychically linked twin sisters who worked as spies and hated each other. One was religious and the other wasn’t. The Mary Sue character—the one who went into all the dangerous situations while her sister stayed behind to relay information back and forth–thought that her sister’s religiosity was just a crutch because she was too weak to face reality, ala Freud. There was also something about how all the weaklings who needed religion had been segregated onto their own planet away from everyone else. Yeah. Now I’m sure that whatever my dad thought must’ve been more sophisticated than that, because I had some pretty good philosophical conversations with him by the time I was in eleventh and twelfth grade. On the other hand, I’m also pretty sure that my contempt for religion must’ve had something to do with him at some point.

Nevertheless, we spent a lot of time at church, because even as a Unitarian Universalist, my mom still went to church like a good Catholic. By dint of sheer competence at everything but saying no, she almost accidentally took over the church’s main fundraiser and became the “interim” supervisor of its religious education program. We were always stopping by church to set things up, drop things off, copy things, you know.

Thing is, in our church people didn’t talk about their own religion, either. In effect, they taught us that spirituality was a safari for us brains on sticks. You gawked at the inspiring majesty of other people’s religions and then mounted them on your wall. Meanwhile we congratulated ourselves for thinking deeply on Sunday mornings and defined ourselves by whatever dogmas we’d escaped. Eventually I started to feel like they’d taught me to feel hungry but not how to eat. Of course, even if you know what would feed you, it’s hard to eat when you can’t open your mouth.

When I first got internet access in my last two years of high school, I frequented the Theological Questions chat room on AOL with the same ardor that many of my contemporaries must’ve had for talking about sex, then became co-moderator of its mailing list spin-off. In college, I took all the anthropology classes about religion and sat in on maybe a dozen more classes on topics like Jewish mysticism or sixteenth century Protestant spirituality. I played faithful Christians in roleplaying games and fell in love with Chicago as we learned or made up bits of the city’s occult backstory. Then I left to go to grad school in Religious Studies.

My major sticking point was belief. I was completely embarrassed by the thought that someone might suppose I believed something. A couple years ago, after I had finally become a practicing pagan, I wrote in my journal, “Thinking that people are going to be surprised and think I’m stupid if I declare an interest in religion is silly. I am a religious studies grad student. People know that I am interested in religion.”  You can see, as could I, that my worry about whether I was being credulous and irrational was more a concern about how I imagined my social identity than how I imagined the universe.

But I know who I am as a scholar, and as a scholar, I’d rather look at the implications and patterns of people’s religious lives than go searching for some objective truth behind them. Likewise, I’d rather treat people as authorities about their own experiences than constantly question whether their lived experience adequately fits someone else’s model of the world. Eventually I got it through my head to apply that to myself, too.

I figure that if I spend long enough pretending that I can talk comfortably about my religious life and that I’m not tossing around lit dynamite, eventually the damn dynamite will stop exploding. I still dodge the question of what I believe, but that’s because I gave up on that question as toxic and unhelpful to me, and as relying on a poorly defined concept full of assumptions I don’t like. Fortunately paganism isn’t premised on belief quite the way Protestantism tends to be, and so, oddly enough, paganism has also made Christianity more accessible to me.

II. Despite the volatile nature of religion, I thought that I’d gotten over everything but the awkwardness in talking about it. But now that I’m paying attention again, I’ve noticed at least three times in the last month when this sense of shame has stopped me from doing things I wanted to do or having conversations I wanted to have. So, dammit, still a problem.

And maybe part of the reason it’s still a problem is because there are more reasons than my atheist background why religion is hard for me to talk about. When we visited my mom’s family, we — except for my dad — pretended to be Catholic. We hadn’t been Catholics since I was five, but my mom was afraid her father’d never speak to us again if he found out. We kids kept getting older and never made our first communions, but even if everyone secretly knew we’d left the Church, that didn’t make it any less dangerous to talk about. Clearly some of the Catholic stuck with me, though, because sometime in college I noticed that I had a whole genre of wish-fulfillment dreams about the Eucharist.

Now, I mentioned in the last entry that my aunt and uncle on my dad’s side were medical missionaries, so you might think that they’d also be prone to making people feel awkward with their religious talk. Nope. They’re not that kind of missionary.

Since the late nineteenth century, liberal Protestant missionaries from the US have been increasingly aware that members of other religions aren’t really benighted devil-worshippers, and so they became less interested in converting people outright and more interested in humanitarian missions, spreading Western civilization, and showing God’s love for the world. Besides, citing the number of sick people treated or the number of students educated was more satisfying and better for fundraising than pointing to chronically piddling numbers of converts.  However, by the time my relatives went to Nigeria, humanitarian missionary work was less about being “a moral equivalent to imperialism” and more concerned with cultural sensitivity. In terms of logistics, they’d work for Nigerian state hospitals and the public health department, but their salaries went back to the mission.

But most of what I think I know about religion on the Methodist side of my family is book-learning and conjecture, which is to say I’ve managed to find out virtually nothing about their personal religiosity, even when I’ve asked questions where that would’ve been an appropriate response. But oddly enough, you know that they are Christians by their love, just like the song. Case in point: a lot of Aunt Joyce’s stories follow a narrative structure wherein someone acting wrongly / stupidly learns better and is redeemed. You can tell she dislikes speaking ill of others, so as soon as she starts talking about how screwed up a particular situation was, you suspect that you’ve stumbled into a story about redemption on one scale or another. Another awesome thing about Aunt Joyce is that she regularly gets dramatic tension out of this structure.

So I asked about religion in their family when she was a kid, and what I found out is that they didn’t discuss religion much with their father. “Oh,” I said, “So he discussed it at you rather than with you?” No. They heard his sermons, sure, but they didn’t talk about them. If anyone disagreed with him, he didn’t really want to know — but once he suspected, he had a way of worming things out of you. They disagreed about the Civil Rights movement, and whether or not “those people” should stay home and mind their own business. But, Aunt Joyce was quick to add, he changed a lot in later years and she was proud of him.

So the redemptive ending there was simply time, but it’s funny, that doesn’t make it any less real. My grandpa was a warm, kind man with a lively sense of humor. His thick white hair was cut very short, which I think was a relic of his time as an Army chaplain during and after World War II. Maybe it could’ve seemed austere at one point, but it was the softest hair any of us had ever felt. My brother and sister and I all called him fuzzy-head grandpa. Loved puns, read Roald Dahl to us, jet-skied at 80, and was always eating peanuts.

From things my mom’s said, my dad’s father was a domineering man, an untreated manic depressive and not very good to live with. But when I hear people talk about what he was like, I never think they’re talking about the same person as my grandpa. Partly it’s because there’s no rancor in their voices, as if they were reporting the goings-on of other people, nor did I ever see my dad behave uncivilly toward his father. I don’t know if forgiveness came easy or hard or how it happened, but I believe it did. Except that’s conjecture, and we still don’t talk about religion.

So I told my aunt and uncle one of my hypotheses about Grandpa Bottoms: When I was a kid, I’d heard from my mom that he really didn’t like to spend money. But then I grew up and went off to college and learned about religion. I read in Weber and elsewhere that John Wesley (Methodism’s founder) had encouraged Christians “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Wait, I said — he wasn’t pathologically stingy, he was just a Methodist!

I’m willing to bet that his unwillingness to spend money was inseparably both pathological and religious, and probably some other things besides. But my folks seemed to enjoy the story anyway. As they should, since I’d swear that the impulse behind it fits Aunt Joyce’s ethos — but then my uncle broke in and noted that sometimes Grandpa would get it into his head that he wanted something, and then he’d just buy it, even if something he didn’t need, like a new car.

So what I found out was that the relationship between my grandfather and his kids was even more fraught than I’d realized, and that even his children who remained devout Methodists weren’t exactly following his lead. I have two reactions to that: first, it makes me wonder about other people in the family who may have been better role models than Fuzzy-head Grandpa was, and secondly, I can’t help but admire my aunt even more than I did before. I also found out that my dad’s mother’s brother was a Baptist missionary to the Cherokees. That’s not surprising at all, since these things tend to run in families.

I found out that their arguments and the words they swallowed are still stuck in my throat. And I’m still stalking the elephant in the room.

Sibby Baby

It’s funny to think, but what I knew about Sibyl a year ago was that she had lots of dark hair and a vigorous sucking reflex. We didn’t even know her name. Now it seems like she was born for people, language, and music–maybe three faces of one Mystery?–maybe the fruitful void she’ll spin her life around? Okay, but it’s audacious to ask a question like that in public, stick to what you know:

I know that she dances to anything, bouncing up and down on her knees or head-banging like a rocker–even if it’s just to my singing.  And I know that music can solve many of her problems.

I know she turns to sunshine when she sees people coming. Everyone at school says she’s such a happy baby. “I guess,” I tell them, “But I think she’s more happy to see you.”

I know she said thank you–“fanks oo”–when I picked her up from the changing table last Saturday, because she talks enough that I believe what I hear now. For months, I wasn’t quite so sure. She tends to use a word exactly once, so that I half-wonder if I’m crazy to have heard it–when I checked her diaper in the middle of the night and she said “diaper,” when I was picking up change from Rebecca’s cash register and she said “coins,” when I pulled down my bra and she said “oh boy,” just the way Tom does when he’s looking at something good to eat. When she sang “h, i, j, k, p, p, p” while she was playing with her sister’s refrigerator letters. I know she says “yeah” a lot, “yes” occasionally, and “no” even more rarely. The first time I ever heard “no” for sure was two months ago, when I asked her if she’d enjoyed her breakfast. “No!” And she threw up half an hour later.

I know more about Rebecca in contrast to Sibyl, too, because now I know that some babies do prefer toys to the recycling, and that not every 11-month old wants to feed her mother penne with a sharp-tined fork. From the time she was around 4 months old–about the time Sibyl started glowing at people and having long conversations with them–Rebecca insisted that I help her stand up like I did, peed when I did, and so on. She focused on following our models and learning proper procedures, which is why Rebecca communicated best via objects for a long time, and also why she had better knife skills than any other two year old I’ve met. Sibyl interacts more directly and doesn’t imitate schemas the same way. It makes her seem younger than Rebecca did at this age.  Or maybe it’s just that she’s my baby..

Place at the Table

Normally my ancestors’ stories sit just below the surface of everyday life, and the rhetorical whitecaps show you where. For example, when I was pregnant, Rebecca objected to the idea that the baby would use her old high chair. She used to stand on its flat wooden seat to reach the counter and cook, but she’d been too tall to do that for almost a year. “Rebecca,” I reminded her, “Your great great grandma used this chair with her three children. All of her grandchildren sat in it. My brother and sister and I and her other great grandchildren sat in it when we visited her. People sat in this high chair before you, and people will sit in it after you.” It’s not the first time Rebecca’s heard this kind of argument, since half of our toys belonged to someone else in the family before her. I suppose it doesn’t do much to acknowledge her feelings and desire for control, but it sure feels good to say.

This Samhaintide, I’ve been trying to tell Rebecca more stories about the things in our house, so that she hears them as her heritage and not just deployed against her. One time I was trying to come up with a story about the highchair and asked myself if I could remember sitting in it. Suddenly, yes, I knew I had. I’d requested salmon for dinner, since I’d heard that’s the most delicious fish there is, and I was sitting in the high chair at Great Grandma DePauw’s waiting for it. Can you imagine how disappointed I was when I got a plate of funny-smelling brown blobs instead? I screamed that I wanted salmon. My mom looked pained and explained to me that this was salmon, and to her grandma that she’d never made salmon except in patties, so she didn’t know what I was talking about. Actually, I was thinking of the baked white fish with almonds that my mom made. I couldn’t imagine any fish more delicious than that, so I’d concluded it must be salmon. I didn’t know what else to call it, and when I found out what salmon really was, I was so disappointed–-it was just shattering. I refused to eat the salmon patties, and for the rest of my childhood, my mother never made them again.

Now, how many times have I read threads on BabyCenter complaining that someone’s kid asked for food and then changed her mind and had a tantrum? Apparently I did that, too, and that’s worth remembering. Especially because lately I’ve been fretting over parenting advice that’s forgotten the long perspective and the child’s perspective together. I can analyze it to death, but when I start remembering and telling stories, that’s when I know in my gut that much of what I’ve read about limits and managing kids’ desires is off base, and that’s when I know that worrying too much about how my parenting looks is silly.

Other things about the high chair I remember less clearly. At first I tried telling just the facts I know: Rebecca’s Great Great Grandpa Charles DePauw carried it home from “downtown” Kewanee, Illinois, in 1925, when his first daughter was a year old. That didn’t grab Rebecca. You need to feed your ancestors’ stories, put some flesh on their bones, if you don’t want them to sit around your table looking like dead things. The way I tell the high chair story now, it was an impulse gift. They could’ve made due without it, but it was high time for Baby Marie to sit at the table and be a regular part of the family. So when Grandpa DePauw saw our white high chair in the window of the new department store, he decided to buy it then and there. He didn’t even have his milk wagon with him to carry the high chair home, so he had to lug it all the way back himself. But it was worth it for the surprise.

The process of telling stories may give them details they never had before–living things do grow and change–but the image I prefer is of Odysseus offering fresh blood to the shades so that they can speak. I mentally tried out a couple different versions of the high chair story before settling on the one above, and when I first said that the high chair was an impulse gift, I was trying to make something up. But marvelously, as I said it and pictured how it might’ve been, I started to hear my mother trying to remember the same thing, and the pictures in my mind were things I think I first imagined long ago, when I was talking with her. Has my creativity tricked me here? It seems more likely that the creative process draws impressions from deeper parts of my memory, and that maybe this is where I’m porous to my ancestors’ voices.

The more I keep my eyes peeled for stories, the more our house and bodies read like an acrostic about people who’ve come before us, and the more I see our continuity and humanity. Rebecca, on the other hand, likes new things. She likes the romance of presents and excess packaging and knowing that something is just hers, fully hers. I mean, she’s four. So this year as we took down the collection of bric-a-brac and heirlooms from our Samhain altar, I started something new. I gave Rebecca part of the altar: the glass deer that her Great Grandpa Schirra had bought in Italy while he was in the Navy. It’s high time for Rebecca to start receiving part of her heritage as a gift, so that she can control it and feel out its stories for herself. These things belonged to people before me, and they will belong to others after me.

(It was a hit. Rebecca adores deer.)

The Space Between Worlds

Several of you asked me how I was doing after Sibyl was born, and here, almost six months later, is an answer.  It’s a bunch of things I wrote in the first two months postpartum, all stitched together and edited.  It probably has a harsher slant than it would’ve if we’d talked in person, since I’m more likely to write when I’m feeling overwhelmed.  I mean, people I knew in person kept asking why I looked so well-rested.

You need to relearn your physical routines when you get a new baby.  So many things to mull over in the middle of the night: how to transfer her to the other boob, which body parts need to go where so that all the parts are supported, how to make it smooth enough that you don’t wake up Rebecca.  How quietly can you open a Luna bar in the dark?  Things like applying lanolin to sore-ish nipples take fifth place when you’re having to operate your whole body thoughtfully instead of by reflex. The only thing that’s the same is my conversations with Rebecca as we sit on the couch, swirling around over Sibby’s head.

I’ve been feeling like I’m not quite inside myself lately, more like I’m a cloud or a set of processes and concerns that drift around and aren’t limited by the edges of my body the way they usually are.  I can see that we’re a diffuse system, working together, rather than individuals. Rebecca is very concerned right now that our bodies be in sync, especially that we pee together.  There seems to be a thought that this will keep everything under control. Meanwhile, I’m an incarnate to-do list. I know what needs done, and I can even prioritize to some extent, but all of these to-dos are pretty basic stuff. I can tell you what’s going on in my life, but I have little idea what I think about it. I worry for myself when my insides feel a little too much like jelly and there’s a soreness low at the base of my belly and my blood turns bright red again. But I’m also trying so hard to keep track of what Rebecca and Sibyl might be feeling, trying to imagine their point of view, that I’ve become multiple, hardly attached to the needs of one body in particular. The other way I know I’m not in my own body is that have no idea which pants I can wear. The very pregnant me is so far away.

But I do know that the vague sadness of being pregnant in the midst of everything, not really being able to slow down and enjoy it–that sadness isn’t likely to go anywhere soon. I want to give Sibyl more than I can. (I want to give Rebecca more than I can, too.) I want to do nice things to make up for the moments I’m not holding her or don’t respond as immediately as I’d like. I know it won’t hurt her, but maybe it does hurt me. On the other hand, I have a lot of experience putting off a whining kiddo now, and that makes some of the cries seem a little less urgent. Melancholia, that’s where I am.

Baby blues? Yes, maybe, and I think it’s okay. I’ve been telling myself that our hearts are supposed to be broken open right now, and our lives are supposed to be torn open and remade. Your perspective on that is going to vary depending on your spiritual tradition, but I absolutely do see it as a spiritual process, not just a mundane adjustment process and not just hormones. And how is that not going to hurt a little? People ask me how I am, and normal words just won’t suffice.  Categorizing the ups and downs seems silly, and secular narratives about the postpartum period, with their preoccupation on postpartum depression, get it wrong in the same way that secular narratives miss the softening transformational work of pregnancy and birth.

So I want to come open, to let go and come out of my skin and be given over wholly over to my beloved. That’s what I did during pregnancy and the early days with Rebecca, and that’s not what I’m doing this time, as much as I want to. These days I feel like I need to hold it together instead, not make this a time out of time, keep to my routines–they say that’s good for helping your older kids through the transition–and figure out new solutions quickly. Trying to avoid Rebecca’s distress means trying to avoid my own, though, not really diving into its holiness, more holding on tight–same as during this pregnancy.

A couple months ago I was worried that I’d been holding on to everything so tightly that I wouldn’t know how to open up and let Sibyl be born. Then I realized that even though I’ve gotten less flexible as a parent–like I used to let Rebecca try more potentially messy ideas back when it was easier to clean them up–nevertheless, most of my parenting has focused on being flexible and open to the unexpected. And that’s how I labored with Sibyl, more consciously flexible than swept away. It worked just fine.

Still, I’m caught in the tension between wanting to contemplate the moment and needing to attend to the practical. All these processes happen at the same time. But the basic burdensome things like eating, well, aren’t those processes just as much a part of a holy cycle as our births and deaths are–just repeating on a much shorter interval? They don’t feel holy to me, though, they feel like I’m starting to get sick of putting together meals from the freezer. And I’m trying too hard to hold it together.

I started writing a blog post about this past year with Sibby asleep in my lap. It’s been hard. Rebecca had a rocky transition into preschool and I was really worried about her, but I couldn’t talk to my friends about it most of the time, because Rebecca was still stuck to me and listening carefully. I was tired at night and Rebecca’s co-op preschool absorbed more energy than I could afford to give it, without seeming at the time like it would pay it back.

But now that I’m sitting down to write about it, the post about my harrowing year isn’t coming. I feel content. I’m contented at the stuff I put together for the preschool and contented about all the dinosaur crafts Rebecca and I did, and contented about the things I learned. I wouldn’t want to trade this year in or take it back. So, I’m less ambivalent than I thought. After all, I got a baby out of it, and that makes pregnancy seem pretty worthwhile. I am missing some things I want in my life. But surprise!–that’s okay, for now. They’ll come in their season.

It’s magic how a new baby can do this, giving shape to what you worked toward, so that suddenly you have a synthesis, you can see your energy went to something living breathing beyond little you. And all your angst about the things you were worried about seems so far away, like you’ve traveled home for Christmas.

I’ve settled on the answer “discombobulated” for when people ask me how I am, but of course having a ready answer means that I’ve figured things out and that “discombobulated” is already starting to be less true. Indeed, focusing on all our needs nudges me back inside myself. If I was ever inclined toward maternal self-sacrifice, I’m not any more. It’s utterly clear that I should meet my own needs when they come up in the cue, because I need to eat drink write pee to take care of these two little people, even if they’re crying and protesting it. My job is prioritizer.

Though I’m coming back into my body now, I still haven’t landed back in normal secular time. It’s like when my mom died or Rebecca was born: at beginnings and endings, you have a perspective over the whole thing, not just the parts you usually see. There’s a whole life here, and it will be full with all kinds of things. I’m immersed in Rebecca’s infancy now, too, when I first became a mother. I’m wondering about my mom’s experiences when Si was born, and about my experiences meeting a new brother–except it’s less like ordinary remembering or wondering, and more like the amusement park ride where centrifugal motion keeps you pressed against the wall when the ground drops away. I’m living in circles, living in multiple times simultaneously. In haunted time.

What’s been making my experience so strange and vivid lately–aside from hormones–is that living with a new baby has all the elements of an initiation.  Ahem, I mean that disrupting your most basic physical habits is a widely used ritual technology for creating religious experiences and a new sense of self.   All those mundane physical worries that seem to distract me from contemplating my experience?  They’re actually an integral part of that experience.   And seeing the mundane and sacred as purely opposed is bunk.

Fingers, What Are You Doing?

This is a game for when your creative energy’s running dry. Rebecca invented it at the beginning of the summer when it became obvious that I didn’t want to hear “Tell me a story” any more, especially first thing in the morning. Instead, she asks, “Pinky, what are you doing?” Then she asks each of the other four (anthropomorphic) fingers in turn what they’re doing. On the first iteration through my hand, the fingers are involved mostly in separate activities–whatever pops into my head. Then we go back through the hand and ask each finger what s/he’s up to again. Two or three iterations is usually good. Sounds simple, right? But it’s a wonderful vehicle for emergent stories.

The fingers’ activities don’t remain separate for long. That’s the nature of creativity; it’s easier to come up with an answer related to what the other fingers are doing than it is to think up new answers whole cloth. Subsequent answers can complicate previous answers:

Birdie: I’m opening a beer, a tub of ice cream, and a package of powerberries.
Pointer: I’m really upset about the fight Birdie and I just had.

Or cast light on them:

Pinky: I’m splashing in a waterfall. Wheee!
Ringman: The sink’s overflowing! I’m turning off the water and trying to clean up the puddles, but Pinky keeps splashing me.

It works best if the fingers can’t talk to each other. Rebecca loves to read between the lines to figure out what’s going on, then convey urgent information between the fingers:

Rebecca: Thumbkin, you’re eating Pinky!
Thumbkin: What? I thought it was a sausage.
Rebecca: No, Pinky was sleeping in the sausage drawer!
Thumbkin: OH NO! Quick, tell Ringman to get the vacuum!

Thumbkin, the mom, is nearsighted and part ogre, so she eats Pinky by mistake fairly often. Then Ringman has to vacuum Pinky out of her stomach. I haven’t seen many stories about bumbling moms, but we’ve both really enjoyed playing Thumbkin that way, with Ringman as the responsible, competent dad. I’m feeling stretched to keep up with both kids at the same time, so poking fun at Thumbkin and her inability to keep track of Pinky feels good.

Once we’d played that game for a while, Rebecca started expecting the fingers’ activities to be secretly related, so sometimes she suggests things that don’t really fit with the story (“Ringman, that’s not a maraca! You’re shaking Pinky!”). I usually go with it anyway, because she seems to have more fun that way than in figuring out whatever I was thinking.

Does seeing the fingers’ lives as interlocking parts help Rebecca think of our lives as interlocking parts, too? I like to think so, but she’s still early in that process. She’s fascinated by how different people can have different takes on the same thing or different approaches to a problem. Lately much of our pretend play involves Rebecca asking me to switch through a lengthy list of characters from Winnie the Pooh or My Little Pony, so that she can see how each one is going to react. After about a month of that, she’s starting to shift her own character more readily and to come up with appropriate activities for that character, though she still has major trouble figuring out how to react in character. It’ll come.

Book Review (Lengthy): Healing Stories For Challenging Behaviour

In Healing Stories For Challenging Behaviour (Stroud, UK: Hawthorne Press, 2008), Susan Perrow writes about the success she’s had using stories to inspire a shift in children’s behavior, in the contexts of parenting and Waldorf education.   Healing Stories gives advice for creating your own stories, as well as fifty plus stories that Perrow’s used.  The book is premised on the insight that stories speak to young children (per the book’s focus, roughly 3-8 years old) more effectively than straight logic does.  That makes stories a valuable resource for transforming all sorts of situations: from passing time on a car ride, to encouraging tidiness and other values, to dealing with situations ranging from a disappointing birthday present to divorce.

Now, I’m not quite the audience that Perrow imagines for her book.  She didn’t need to spend pages convincing me that stories are an effective tool for inner transformation or that I can write them myself, because improvising stories is already one of my main parenting tools for difficult situations.  I bought Healing Stories because my experience with transformational storytelling comes from indie roleplaying–think collaborative improvisational storytelling, not Dungeons and Dragons–with other adults, and I’m interested in how people from other backgrounds might approach it, and in trying to figure out which grown-up practices need to be altered for children.  In particular, one of the key principles when you’re telling stories with other adults is to avoid turning your story into a message about how you think they should handle a situation or change themselves.  The same principle becomes a creative block when I’m thinking about children’s stories, even though it’s more appropriate to moralize to your kids than it is your friends.  At the same time, you can’t leave a story’s thematic statement up to your kid the same way you could leave it up to grown-up gamers, because kids have less of an active role in co-telling stories.  So how does transformative storytelling work for a younger audience?  

Perrow’s first step in crafting a story for challenging behavior is describing the behavior in its situational context and clearly envisioning the situation you want instead.  Then you choose a metaphor for the situation, and that metaphor becomes the core of a story–for example, a crab for a child who’s pinching friends.  As the story proceeds, its protagonist journeys out of an uncomfortable situation and toward wholeness or a more balanced situation.  The use of metaphor here is an important part of what makes a story effective, since metaphor lifts the audience out of its immediate context.  That move helps diffuse the power dynamics involved in an adult telling a child to act differently, but more importantly, the imaginative work that the audience does to connect their own lives to the story lets them learn the story’s new perspective.  (Perrow doesn’t explain this as thoroughly as she might, but her advice follows the pedagogical point that people learn by thinking through things themselves, not by having learning somehow poured into them.)  Telling the same story several times helps it sink in, and Perrow often ties the story to real world “props”–really, talismans–that help integrate a motif from the story into the child’s life.  For example, one mother made a bravery-inspiring crown to accompany a story about an injured prince whose crown had lost its shine when he decided to stay in the dark all the time.                                                      

I was relieved to find that Perrow shares my dislike of moralistic stories–kids aren’t keen on having stories told at them any more than adults are–but she shows that transformative stories don’t need to moralize.  In Perrow’s stories, the storyteller, audience, and protagonist are all on the same side, and the parent isn’t telling the child what to do so much as she’s showing her a path out of an uncomfortable situation.  So I tried to make up a story with that in mind… and I came right up against the same awkwardness I’d had with moralizing.  After reading more sample stories, I realized that the problem might be that I tend to use “every day the same thing happened… until one day…” as my story structure.  That structure creates stories where a challenging behavior suddenly has consequences that must be resolved.  It tends to sound like dressed up version of a lecture about consequences, and its focus is on the consequences as separate from and secondary to the basic behavior.  It’s unlikely to be effective for a child who’s still more focused on process than product, nor does its use of extrinsic threat represent the kind of morality I’d like to teach.  By contrast, many of Perrow’s sample stories take a view point that depicts the challenging behavior as inherently unpleasant to someone, not merely unpleasant in its consequences.  To that end, Perrow frequently tells stories from the point of view of inanimate objects, like boots who miss their partners when they’re not paired together.  She also loses the lecture-like quality by using exaggeration to make stories lighter and gentler.  

The major difference between my stories and Perrow’s is that most of our stories are made up on the fly, since Rebecca requests them non-stop when we’re at difficult junctures in our lives.  When Sibyl was born, I told semi-nonsensical wish-fulfillment stories with little narrative structure aside from repetition.  I don’t remember most of them, but the one we told most often started out with scarcity–both Pinky and the Tooth fairy wanted to collect all the teeth–and ended with a sense of wonder and plenty when Pinky realized that the Tooth fairy was actually doing something cool (planting the teeth so that they could grow into trees bearing the child’s sweetest dreams) and decided she’d go back to fairyland to help her.  The story’s message was that there was enough to go around, and I think it was as important for me to hear that as it was for Rebecca.

However, improvising also means that some stories slip through that aren’t as sanitized and wholesome as in Perrow’s examples.  Rebecca’s approach to stories is “tell me another story about…” over and over, and that structure virtually guarantees that eventually the storyteller is going to get past safe wholesome stories on the topic, and start creating stories that reflect other impulses.  I don’t think I’ve told Rebecca anything terrible, but I have told stories that I wouldn’t have chosen to tell, and I’ve noticed that my stories involve more guns when I’m annoyed.  Now, I know that talking until you get past your internal censor is one of the dynamics that makes storytelling potentially therapeutic for the teller, and indie roleplaying wisdom tells me that emotional authenticity makes a story more compelling for its audience as well.  But how should you alter those dynamics when the audience is a child?  If Rebecca keeps asking for more stories on the same topic, is it possible that’s she’s pushing because she finds that territory powerful, too? 

Healing Stories doesn’t offer much help on those issues, but its section on telling age-appropriate stories freaked me out.  As far as I can tell, Perrow gives standard Waldorf advice on the developmental fit of stories, but she doesn’t discuss what it’s based on, which makes it unclear what’s at stake in modifying it.  Since I’m already convinced that stories are powerful, I worry that telling the wrong stories could do harm instead of good.  They could become Antisocial Stories if Rebecca misunderstands their genre or applicability, or else entrench unhealthy lenses for viewing the world.  I think that happened last fall, when Rebecca described everyone else at school as a meat-eating dinosaur and herself as a plant-eating dinosaur, and I suddenly realized that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to constantly play out a division between meat-eaters and plant-eaters, even if Rebecca kept asking for it.

On the other hand, my approach to storytelling differs from Perrow’s in a couple ways that suggest I may not need to worry about telling the wrong story by mistake.  Perrow’s stories are designed to be repeated, but obviously I don’t need to repeat a story I don’t like.  The other important difference is that, as with roleplaying, my stories are interruptible and Rebecca can steer them out of territory she doesn’t like.  For example, after Sibyl was born, Rebecca requested a lot of stories about Pinky and her baby sister Ixsy.   The only one I remember is this one, which must’ve been the tenth in its series, and it was getting into personally relevant material, as I remembered how angry I used to get when my sister tried to imitate me.  But I only remember the story because Rebecca interrupted it:

Pinky’s baby sister Ixsy liked to imitate everything Pinky did, [there were examples here] and Pinky was getting tired of it.  So one day she decided to play a trick on Ixsy. Pinky put a bunch of plain spaghetti noodles on her own head, and said, “Look!  I have blonde hair!”  Then she gave Ixsy a bowl of spaghetti with spaghetti sauce all over it, so that Ixsy could do the same thing and have red hair.  If Ixsy put that on her head, she’d get spaghetti sauce all over her hair!  She’d have to take a shower!  And Ixsy was too small to close her eyes, so she was going to get water in her eyes!  But Ixsy picked up the spaghetti–

At that point Rebecca interrupted.  Her voice was fluttering, not her usual hyped up storytelling voice:  “And Rebecca sucked the sauce all off so none of it would drip.”  She saved Ixsy!  I was so proud.    Rebecca hadn’t been participating in the story up until that moment, and I’d almost forgotten that she was the audience.  It touched me that she’d care enough about the baby to jump into the story and save her, and it also helped me step back from superimposing my memories of having a baby sister onto Rebecca’s experience.  Meanwhile, Rebecca got to try on the role of helpful big sister. 

If a story’s transformative work is based on how its listener internalizes it and applies it to herself, then letting the listener actually insert herself in the story can facilitate that.  Or else it can make it feel harder to tell a transformative story, if your audience keeps interrupting or disputing your wholesome synthesis.  In some cases, that may be a sign that the story isn’t working anyway.  Perrow seems to suggest that the child’s enjoyment of the story is part of the transformative process, which means that telling a story that the child simply didn’t enjoy or that didn’t make sense to her isn’t going to work, and interruptions can help identify where that’s happening.  On the other hand, interruptions can also be a sign of enjoyment and engagement.  The issue here is that sometimes I’d rather have Rebecca enjoy whatever solution I’ve come up with, instead of solving the problem by trampling everything. (Railroading GM annoyed by players’ empowerment fantasies, story at eleven.) A storygame might have rules about narrative autority and start pulling out dice here, but since our stories tend toward repetition, I figure we can just tell both versions and maybe discuss what we like about them. 

Ultimately, I got what I came for with Healing Stories–namely, a better and more explicit approach to representing challenging behavior in story form, as well as some new narrative and storytelling tricks: using props, making heavier use of rhymes and repetition, etc.  I’ve watched storytelling work as a positive force in Rebecca’s life even while I’ve been writing out my concerns about the kinds of stories I’m telling or not telling.  For much of May, Rebecca kept co-telling stories about a magic metal box she had at preschool, which she’d retreat into whenever she needed downtime, and where nobody else could find her or get in.  Then one day, after we’d told the box story, she briefly cried about how things had changed since her sister got here, and then requested a new story based on a toy she’d just gotten.  She wanted to hear about how her dinosaur had been trapped in an egg, and how she rescued it.  I thought of how Perrow personifies objects, and elaborated that Rebecca was the only one who could hear the dinosaur calling for help, because Mom was too busy listening to the food in the refrigerator, which was begging to be cooked for dinner, and Dad was too busy listening to the computers that needed fixed, and then we told a story about how Rebecca rescued the dinosaur all by herself.  What struck me was the transformation of enclosure from a safe place to a trap.  Since then, Rebecca hasn’t told any more stories about running into her box.  She’s become very attached to the baby dinosaur she rescued (“Lemon Drop”), and I get the sense that things have been going well for her at school. 

New Here

Rebecca spent much of the week before Sibyl was born having diarrhea and occasionally throwing up. I spent much of the week cleaning up after Rebecca, having a nasty cold, and thanking my lucky stars that I didn’t have a newborn yet. Then a day and a half before my due date, my cold turned into stomach flu. Rebecca and I spent the next day in bed, sleeping a lot to try to keep the food down. I woke up with my life flashing before my eyes, reflected that I’d had a good run, and finally relaxed about everything. (What I should’ve done, though, was take a minute to write down why I’d had a good run; all I remember is that the selection of life scenes surprised me. Let this be a lesson if it ever happens to you.)

That evening I woke up with cramps. Then I noticed they were happening about 10 minutes apart. So they were contractions. From dehydration or time to meet my baby, or both? One of my midwives had said that women don’t go into labor when we’re sick, that our bodies generally wait until we can handle it. I told my body to snap out of it, that I hadn’t eaten normally for days and wouldn’t have the resources to make it through a long labor. I wasn’t supposed to be in labor right now. But my contractions kept coming anyway, and over the phone, the midwife on call said, “Sometimes you just need to trust these things.” Twenty minutes later, my contractions were less than four minutes apart, and she came over to rehydrate me via IV and check that the baby’s head had moved back down. It had, because throwing up helps with that.

I labored on all fours in the living room and watched light puddle in the tupperware I’d been throwing up in earlier that day. It was beautiful–why don’t more birth stories talk about how suddenly beautiful everything is?–until I got self-conscious about it, so I switched to staring at our Persian rug and golden maple floor. This moment, when we were about to welcome our baby, was going to be embedded in the rug and the wood floor forever, the same way as the scratches from when Rebecca pretended to ice skate or tried on Shayna’s high-heel shoes.

Voices around me were setting up the birth pool, putting the good sheets on the couch–let it go, I told myself, blood usually washes out–and I was at the navel of the earth. I chanted a little, We are the flow and we are the ebb, we are the weavers, we are the web, but my nose was too snotty for it to gain much momentum. Mostly I listened to myself moan through contractions, watching the sounds change like echoes of my changing womb. Now I was in the sounds as much as I was in my body. When I was in labor with Rebecca, I’d listened to the contractions the same way, idly wondering if maybe some could pass as pleasure sounds, even though I could feel them and I knew full well they weren’t pleasure.

Three and a half years ago, the central mystery of Rebecca’s birth was how normal it felt. I mean, I already knew that unmedicated birth is a normal, natural thing for a woman’s body to do–otherwise we wouldn’t have opted for a home birth–but on some level I didn’t believe it. I had expected labor to be something new, something that would push me to my limits. But then when the time came, it felt neither like the hardest physical work I’d ever done, nor like the first time I’d done it.  

Rebecca’s birth wasn’t the first time I’d been trancing, at least. One of the things I’ve learned as a pagan is how to notice small shifts in consciousness and accentuate them, so that’s what I did.  I sent Ted off to nap and let labor steal me down, down, and down into the earth. I’d like to remember that as a beautiful spiritual thing, except the only vision I recall dealt with children’s cereal characters like Captain Crunch. But regardless of where the contractions took me, they took Rebecca down lower and lower, closer to being born.

I knew as I was laboring with Sibyl that I wasn’t as deep as I’d been with Rebecca. There were more people around, for one thing. Their voices mostly felt nice, as long as they weren’t talking to me. I liked thinking that I was the center of this hurricane. Enter my now three-and-a-half year old baby, who had trouble watching quietly. I gently reiterated that it wasn’t a good time to talk–and felt just a little decadent saying that–and I sent her off with Shayna.

Some of my contractions got so flimsy then, and each time I hit a flimsy contraction, I worried my labor was petering out. Now, the flimsy contractions were alternating haphazardly with contractions that could sweep you away, but that seemed irrelevant whenever the flimsy ones came. Then I noticed that the moaning didn’t seem to be stopping at the end of a contraction anymore, because the baby’s head was pressing down the whole time, and also that I was shivering.

The birth pool was as useful as a narrative guidepost as it was for the warm water, because it meant I always knew what the next step would be. When “what’s next?” got a desperate little edge and I needed to change things up, I knew what I’d do: I’d get in the birth pool. And I figured the next step after that would be having a baby.

When Rebecca was born, I was so deeply into it that six hours of labor felt like two hours tops, and from time to time I forgot there was going to be a baby at the end. My first words to Rebecca were something like, “Look at you! Where did you come from?” followed rapturously by, “Oh, you angry drunken dwarf!” That was a spontaneous allusion to Hank, the angry drunken dwarf who’d been voted People’s Most Beautiful Person of the Year in an online poll sometime in the late ’90s. What did I know about newborns then, anyway? Just book knowledge, which would’ve been a distraction. I had at best a foggy idea of what to do if I met one, so it’s just as well I forgot that I was pushing out a baby and trusted myself instead.

This time I didn’t forget there was a baby. I looked forward to seeing her every time things got hard. I noticed when my body started tensing against the contractions and downward pressure, and I relaxed it. Let the pressure come, let the baby come. After a couple more contractions in the tub, I realized that I was pushing. I felt my body squeezing around something soft–“I think I’m pooping! Get ready to catch it!”–because I didn’t want to be swimming in the toilet longer than necessary. Then I realized that the push wasn’t stopping. Then it really wasn’t stopping: one huge push moving through me. Things were going too quickly, but when you’ve spent all of labor opening up and saying yes, when you’ve been telling your muscles to loosen whenever they started tensing against contractions, so that you could meet your baby–after all of that, how do you start saying “slow down” at push time? Some people can do it, but apparently not me.

I held on tight to the tub. Pop went my water, then the warm prickly stretching of her head, then a tiny pause and the same warm prickling as her body came through. I reached down and caught my baby. She had dark hair like we predicted, but I didn’t recognize her face. Who had I been expecting? “My baby,” I said, “My baby, my baby.” Just mine.

And where was everyone else, anyway? It wasn’t quite how any of us would’ve planned it. Rebecca was watching Dinosaur Train with Shayna. Ted had been heading to the other room to get Rebecca when he realized I was seriously pushing, saw the water change color, and started to come back. Our midwife was texting the second midwife to tell her I’d started pushing. I have no idea where the apprentice midwife was. So there I was with just my baby, who wouldn’t have a name for another week.

It took longer to push out the placenta than the child. I’d moved to the couch and my midwife told me to push. I tried; nothing happened. “This is going to sound stupid,” I said, “But I don’t think I know how to push.” Eventually I got the hang of it, though, and once the placenta was out I could move my short-umbilicalled baby up to nurse, which she was super enthusiastic about. I had a bagel and we found out that our new daughter measured eight pounds and five ounces, 20.5 inches. Afterward the midwife stitched me up. I hadn’t torn as much as with Rebecca, but the stitches felt worse this time. (and incidentally, it was the first time this pregnancy that any of the midwives had touched my crotch. I did my own GBS swab.) Then Ted put the house to bed while I went to bed with Rebecca and the new baby, but I waited until Ted was with us to fall asleep. It was six hours since I’d woken up with contractions; labor itself had taken three and a half hours from start to finish, which was just long enough for our baby to be born on her due date.

Staying up late into the night for Sibyl’s birth weakened Ted’s immune system, and he caught the same GI bug that Rebecca and I had had. I couldn’t take care of him and he couldn’t take care of me, so thank goodness for our housemates. Ted and I alternated sleeping for days, like lovers who only meet at dawn and dusk, and when we saw each other, we talked about what to name our baby. We tried out several different options, and eventually settled on Sibyl Allaria, after her grandfathers Sid (d. 1996) and Bill (d. 2011), and after the Greek sibyls, who spoke for the gods, and the middle name after her Grandpa Bill’s beloved boat. Sometimes I catch myself calling Sibyl my middle child, though–not because we’re planning on any more kids, but because she was born into the middle of things.

Making Up Stories

Rebecca and I make up stories in secret. I hear we’re not the only parents and children who do that, but how would I know? Joining a practice without much personal precedent is an eerie feeling. When you first start, you’re waiting for someone to catch you and tell you you’re doing it wrong, and at the same time you’re like two teenagers who’ve just reinvented the kiss. Then, seven or eight months later, it’s become a normal part of life and you write a blog post about how it works. If you’ve done much tabletop roleplaying, you can probably see echoes of those creative processes in how I tell stories to Rebecca, since that’s my background, too. If you come at storytelling from a different direction, tell me about it in the comments!

1. Getting Started With Toys. If you want to make up stories with your toddler or preschooler and don’t know where to start, try finger puppets or other toy props. They provide a visual focus, but even more useful, they give the storyteller a set of characters to work with. Finger puppets tend to be iconic little critters, which means they tap into a set of stereotyped dramatic characters–for instance, a bear might be grumbly or a parrot loudmouthed. Let the characters start talking to each other and you’ll find that one of them wants something or has a problem, ideally a problem or desire that’s familiar to your child from her or his own life. From there the story virtually tells itself.

It might also be fun to walk finger puppets through the background of your favorite books. What catches their interest? With the right book, sometimes you can spin another tale alongside the main story. Or let the finger puppets read the book alongside you and see what they say about it. For example, our friend Bear is primarily interested in spotting other bears in a book, and he’s constantly misidentifying non-bears as his distant relatives. Both these activities scaffold perspective-taking and empathy.

2. What Now? If you’re telling a story and you don’t know what happens next, declare, “And then something happened!”–or “Something horrible happened!” or “Something wonderful happened!” Ask your child what it was. Or else, if you’re not enjoying the story because it feels too dry and obvious, try briefly switching into rhyme or meter. Finding rhymes helps add unexpected elements to the story.

3. Go For the Good Stuff. Tell stories that reflect what’s interesting or important to you. Our favorite story seeds come from family history, culinary history (“A long time ago there were no potatoes in Europe…”), and religion. These are stories where you already know the central facts, so you can concentrate on tailoring the details and emphasis to your audience. The best part for me is watching Rebecca make these stories her own and draw on them in play. For example, after she heard the Easter story, she built a cave over a dead bee in the garden and rolled a plastic strawberry over the cave door.

4. For Your Child in Distress. Stories can help with emotional processing when your child’s upset. (This is something I know first-hand, because I used to do the same thing with indie tabletop roleplaying.)

A few months ago, some friends came by to pick up our housemates for a fancy dinner, and Rebecca was devastated that she couldn’t go with them. I held her and talked about how she felt, and she cried and cried. She seemed to be feeling worse through the crying instead of better, though. So I held up two fingers and started telling her a story about how Ringman and Birdie went out to a nice dinner without Pinky. Rebecca got very quiet, and I continued: At the restaurant everyone was wearing fancy clothes and having grown-up conversations. There were little candles on the tables and waiters walking around with plates of bread for anyone who wanted it. But when Ringman looked around the room, there were no children there, and Ringman missed Pinky so much that he ran home to see her and hugged her all up. When I finished, I told the story again in more detail. After a couple iterations, Ringman still felt sad and missed Pinky, but now he was taking pictures of all the food so that he could show them to Pinky when he got home. In another version, he took Pinky with him and tried to hide her under the table–and so on, getting more and more lighthearted until Rebecca felt alright again.

Think of this as telling the story of a friend who’s been in a situation similar to your child’s, not as a direct analog for your child or how your child should act. It’s harder for emotional processing to happen if the story is transparently identical to your child’s situation–then there’s no space to step back and get perspective–or if there’s a strong message about how emotions should be handled. When you’re co-telling sensitive stories with adults, the key is being respectful, and I think the same thing applies to children’s stories. I include lots of dramatic details about how the characters are feeling, and try not to rush into a happy ending. Sometimes I run a couple endings past Rebecca and see which one is right.

Let me note, if you use this technique successfully, your child will very quickly become attached to your fingers or whatever other characters you use.

5. For Your @*$!@ Recalcitrant Child. It’s easy to get manipulative with these stories. The first time I did that was when we were travelling. I really needed Rebecca to pee, and she wasn’t inclined to, so I told a 3 minute long story whose punchline was that Pinky wanted to swim in yellow water. She thought for a second, and climbed on the toilet. (Pinky didn’t really get to swim in the yellow water though–that part was just pretend.) I felt mad with rhetorical power, but of course the reason it worked was that it also empowered Rebecca. A good manipulative story reframes the power dynamics of a situation, so that your preschooler can fantasize that she’s acted independently, gotten the upper hand, foiled someone’s nefarious plan, or moved higher on the social totem pole, all by doing what you want. It helps kids save face instead of getting into a power struggle. Not as good as giving kids more autonomy for real, but in situations where there really isn’t a choice, this can help smooth things over.

6. How to Make Repeat Stories More Interesting. Don’t worry about getting the story “right” the first time or even the third time; you just need it to resonate with your child. If you do that, you’ll have plenty more opportunities to get the details down later.

Thinking about children’s storytelling as a genre, the key feature is that a compelling story will be requested more than once. You might start out by thinking of your stories as being like stories in a book, with a discreet repeatable narrative. But when you start to treat iterations of a story as a stream or process–not mere repetition–it opens up a different set of experiences for the storyteller and audience. A slow shift in details can give the story a dreamlike feeling. A circular story can get funnier and more exuberant each time you tell it. If there’s a particular story or type of story your child likes, it can be entertaining to keep thinking up pretexts for it to happen again, or to transpose it to other settings (the Good Samaritan with trains, anyone?). I’m also starting to work on migrating descriptive motifs back and forth between personal stories to religious stories. I’m hoping to cultivate a sense that these stories are intertwined, and that our ancestors and the divine are present in the rhythms of our lives. In any case, meaning and emotional impact happen by juxtaposing iterations of the story as much as they happen within the story itself. That makes this kind of storytelling different than other mediums I’ve worked with.

7. Get Your Child Involved. Make storytelling interactive. Encourage your child to ask questions when they want more details. Or when your child makes a suggestion, say yes to the idea and run with it. This is something else I learned from indie tabletop roleplaying: the process of creative collaboration with lots of “yes!” builds closeness, increases creative confidence, gives you insight into your collaborators, and usually results in something more quirky and interesting than you would’ve come up with by yourself. But beyond that, I’m trying to help Rebecca develop her own storytelling abilities, because telling stories well is one of the most important social skills you can have, for entertaining other people, building empathy, and transmitting your experiences. I really hope Rebecca is better at it than I am.

8. What About You? So, who else here improvises stories with little kids? Can you tell me what it looks like? What kinds of stories, and has that changed over time? How much child input do you get, and at what points in the story? Do you have any tricks for coming up with story ideas or jumpstarting your creativity?

When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth

The museum’s animatronic Tyrannosaurus has spider webs between its teeth. I just noticed them yesterday. They’re hard to see unless you’re at the right angle.

Beckybean met Tyrannosaurus Rex last Friday. Her Gaga reports that Rebecca was so scared they had to detour around the dinosaur, but that afterward she wanted to go back and look.

Monday was day 34 of my cycle, the last day my period could come before I could say it was definitively late. I’d been exhausted all week and queasy off and on for the last two weeks. Everything smelled too strong and my abdomen and leg joints felt funny. Then on Monday I started spotting.

Whenever we get close to the Tyrannosaurus, I hold Rebecca cheek to cheek. I think she’s still a little bit afraid it might attack. On Tuesday afternoon the spotting turned to bright red bleeding, and from there it turned into a normal period.

Rebecca wore her new dinosaur shirt to the museum on Tuesday, and I said that maybe the Tyrannosaurus would think she’s its baby. On Wednesday she wore her fancy purple dress–the one she wore to my cousin’s wedding–and informed me that Tyrannosaurus Rex wears lots of dresses, too, because Tyrannosaurus Rex usually goes to a lot of weddings. I can only imagine.

By Thursday, Rebecca is running to the museum entrance while pretending that she’s running away from the Tyrannosaurus. I notice that one of the animatronic baby Triceratops has started clicking as it moves. My pregnancy symptoms finally go away.

This week we’ve made innumerable playdough dinosaur eggs, 6 jello dinosaur eggs, two volcanoes in a cup, one paper mache dinosaur egg, and several dinosaur habitats, including a dinosaur hotel room on wheels. We’ve bought one dinosaur shirt, two plastic dinosaur eggs, 12 small carnivorous dinosaurs, one book about Tyrannosaurus Rex, one bigger T-rex whose mouth can open and close, and we’ve lost one ball of cells that couldn’t quite turn into a baby.

It turns out that I buy more than usual when I’m exhausted and sick. New toys buy me time, after all, or at least a break from playing surgery or groceries over and over. I feel like I’m supposed to say no, but my no’s are all busy on other things. “Will it bother you that the Tyrannosaurus can’t stand up?” I ask as Rebecca carries it toward the cash register, gently discouraging, “What will you do with it?”

“Take care of it,” she says.