The Magic of Story
By Polly Pagenhart on April 08, 2009
In the title essay of her collection Small Wonder, Barbara Kingsolver tells a story – a true story – about a lost child, and a bear, and an act of inter-species grace. (The essay appeared first in Orion Magazine in 2002, and is archived online at http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/113/.) She mulls over the miracle at the core of the story, a parable, really, and then uses the parable in turns as microscope and telescope, a lens through which to see the world – and the self – more clearly.
Kingsolver says, "I believe in parables. I navigate life using stories where I find them, and I hold tight to the ones that tell me new kinds of truth." She may as well have been speaking for my daughter.
At four (going on twenty-four), she dives headlong into stories, which serve as both comfort and compass for her. Her favorite stories are those that tell of exotic places, places far away and yet familiar, in the way that a place is familiar in a dream. She is rapt with attentiveness to the events that unfold, and to the way the characters respond to them -- ways that help teach her about how she might or might not be in the world. Story is the root method of our family's moral catechism.
The stories come from our own lives, from the lives of family members long gone, from the popular imagination, from the fables and myths of the Anglo-European tradition that make up the dominant culture we live in. They include the story of the Christ child, not because we understand him to be the son of God, literally, but because the story is so beautiful, and the vastly shared celebration of his birth provides us an occasion to tell it -- an occasion rich in our own family histories. (GianCarlo Menotti's opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, a story of one night in the Three Kings' journey to Bethlehem, was always a staple in my partner's family home come late December, and is now one of our daughter's very most favorite pieces of music.) When our daughter asks about who this Christ child was, we tell her that we believe him to have been a very kind, very compassionate person who lived long ago and inspires and guides many many people still today; many believe him to be the representative of all that is good on earth.
God is a big concept, but this is a start.
As with so many things, we follow a paradoxical path, conveying to our children our own vivid and deeply-felt beliefs, while acknowledging that others might feel differently. This goes for religion and spirituality, too. Some of the religious pluralism exists under our own roof, since I am a Buddhist (all the way down to the refuge and bodhisattva vows), and my partner, while raised in a strongly Buddhist-inflected household, is more of a pantheist, perhaps maybe even a bit of an animist. Her belief in a larger, organizing power extends far and wide, and guides heractions in a fundamental way. Fortunately, neither of our beliefs is in conflict with the other. Most important, we share in a desire to inspire in our children the same qualities: a sense of wonder, of gratitude, a sense of the very most elevated value – indeed, the holiness – of loving-kindness.
All we have to do is choose our stories well, reflect on them thoroughly, and – most important – point out each object lesson's reappearance in our everyday lives. The Jataka Tales – Buddhist animal wisdom stories for children – provide a rich landscape for us. One favorite of ours is "The Magic of Patience," the story of the buffalo and the monkey. A mischievous monkey incessantly bothers a gentle water buffalo, who is calm and tolerant. A forest sprite comes to the buffalo, and asks why she, so feared by the animals of the forest, doesn't simply trample the monkey, or frighten it away. The buffalo explains that the monkey provides her the opportunity to practice the magic of patience, which is no virtue when practiced without a challenge. Furthermore, the buffalo points out, the monkey has no other friends. The monkey, overhearing this, is moved, and his natural goodness is awakened.
In the recollection of this story, sometimes I depict myself as the patient buffalo to my daughter's pestering; sometimes I encourage her to see the patient buffalo in herself, when she feels put upon by her younger brother. But the story is a tree bearing infinite fruit. And we want our children to wander the whole grove of them, representing beliefs that span the globe, telling stories about compassion and generosity and living life with love.
Otherwise, our practices are fairly camouflaged. We experience a larger spiritual community from time to time at the local Unitarian church a dear friend sings in. The kids are too young yet to sit in meditation, but they do squirm in meditation, usually on my beloved's and my laps, for about five minutes. We're working toward a ten-minute family sit. One day maybe longer. The idea right now is simply to have a time, other than when we hold hands and sing around the family dinner table, in which we are together and attentive. At the outset, the kids take turns striking the small brass meditation bowl. We work hard to keep them still until the sound dies down. After meditation is done, our girlie picks up a small, dog-eared copy of Pema Chödrön's Awakening Loving-Kindness, and mock-reads to us in somber tones. A mini-dharma talk. She may not be reading stories verbatim, but she knows they're in there, and already senses the value they are meant to convey. It's a start.
There may come a time when our kids choose to deepen their exploration of paths we've chosen. They may strike off on other ones of their own. This (I say now, from the comfort of early parenthood) is of less consequence to me than the fact that they believe in something good. I'm the first in my family to practice Buddhism: my mother was a Bible-reading secular humanist, her mother, a kind of a fallen Christian, her mother, an overseas missionary; my father is a life-long spiritual seeker, his father a devout, converted Christian Scientist, his father a circuit-riding minister. I like to think, though, that in spite of sharp differences in application, perhaps, we all of us share the same values.
For now, religion to our daughter is most vividly represented by the warmth of her mama's belly under the touch of her hand. For our son, it's the taste of my pinkie in his mouth. For both, it is: cuddling with the whole family in Mama and Baba's bed in the morning, helping me make and then eating johnny cakes on a long weekend morning. Carefully cradling and gently repatriating a wayward insect outdoors. Trying very hard to treat others how we would like to be treated ourselves. Because it feels right -- because it is right -- right now.
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