Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Our Silly Stories

We read stories in school every day, but that’s not the same as telling a story. The Woodland Park oral tradition is largely built upon about a dozen stories, most of which are creations of the master storyteller Robert Munsch, from whom I steal shamelessly.

The main observable difference between telling and reading is where the children’s eyes go. With a picture book, they’re examining the illustrations. With a storyteller, they’re part of a performance. And where the eyes go, so go the brains. In the contest between ink on paper versus a human being, the human always wins. Children sometimes goof off when I read to them, but never when I tell them Stephanie’s Ponytail or Murmel Murmel Murmel. They may interrupt when I forget a part of the story or to interject their own contributions, but it’s always about the narrative at hand, which hardly counts as goofing off.

And like all good preschool stories, ours improve with each re-telling. It’s not the first time through Lizard’s Song that gets us all singing:

Solley Solley Solley
Solley Solley Solley
Rock is my home.

It’s the fifth, sixth and seventh times that stick it like a map pin into the core of our collective being.

I can’t help thinking of our school each Passover as I listen to those ancient Judeo-Christian stories told yet again, connecting us through the ages to Abraham, who is clearly one of the greatest storytellers of all time. (I wonder from whom he shamelessly stole?) And while I’m not Jewish, I have come to understand this religion’s conception of eternal life as literary and rationale: Life is a story. You are a character in that story. Your afterlife is entirely dependent upon the role you play in that story, which will be told and re-told through the ages. (For the novel readers among you, I’m indebted to Thomas Mann’s tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers for these insights.)

I’ve written recently about children wanting to be superheroes and princesses. Even as 3, 4 and 5-year-olds, they demonstrate their desire to create their own magnificent part in the great story of life. It’s as the Kinks sang:

Everyone wants to be big and strong.
Everyone wants to be King Kong.

And while we may want to be King Kong, we daily create our own part in the story by the simple acts of going to work, returning home and eating dinner. We can’t all be Joseph or David or even Herod; at least not all the time. And like it our not, four thousand years from now, most of us will live our eternal life as one of “the multitudes”. You don’t have to accept that, of course, you can still strive to be one of the characters with lines and a name, but the odds are overwhelmingly against you.

So unless you’re determined to be Solomon, it’s probably more reasonable to consider a smaller part in the story: one built upon the less dramatic, but far more satisfying daily joys of contentment, love, and silliness.

The foundational stories of Woodland Park’s oeuvre have that one thing in common: silliness. To me silliness is, at bottom, a state of endless possibilities. There are no rules to silliness, no right and wrong, no official conventions whatsoever. Silliness is freedom. Silliness is joy. Silliness is the state of mind most conducive to learning life’s greatest truth: we’re making up this story as we go along. Let’s have a little fun with it. Some days we’re a hero, a princess, or King Kong. Other days we’re mommy’s sweet patootie.

Just as those ancient stories about Moses and Rebecca are told and retold, we tell our preschool stories, embedding that silliness deeply into our communal soul. And as happens with those old stories, our newer ones evolve with each generational retelling. Our version of Epossumondas, for instance, bears only a passing resemblance to the original because of our editing over the years -- our ongoing attempt to make this old story relevant to our generation.

Woodland Park’s oral tradition of silly stories invites us to open our minds with laughter and delight. As each new generation of families come through our doors we can’t help but make these stories our own. And those changes are passed on through an imperfect institutional memory, like a practical joke, to the next person who takes part in the telling and retelling.

And that’s at least one of the secrets to eternal life.

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