On Sunday evening, I was driving home from a student's house, and I turned on the radio. Krista Tippett was intervening Maria Tatar. I read Dr. Tatar's work on fairy tales in college when I was working on a semester-long project on Baba Yaga in Russian folklore. When I heard her talking as I steered the car down the cold freeway towards home, I heard a voice that was speaking to all I hold to be true about our need for stories.
Not so long ago in our human evolution, the day's work had to end at the end of day. True, there were tasks that could, and would, be done in the flickering dimness of firelight, but there was an acceptance that night was the time to gather closely around the fire, to share warmth and food, and, if you weren't entirely exhausted, conversation. In winter, when that twilit dimness extended for hours into the daytime, evening brought time for longer, more emotional tales-- "A sad tale's best for winter; I have one of sprites and goblins," says the doomed child of Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. Young and old alike took in these stories.
When I read and tell fairy tales, both traditional tales and well-crafted modern ones, I feel the thread connecting me to the women and men and children who heard these stories years and years ago. I feel the tug in my heart and my mind, to open to the journey of the story, which is the journey of humanity, the journey of life. In each moment, I find myself within the tale. Sometimes, I am not the heroine. Sometimes, I am the wise woman, or the weary king, or the magic horse. At a storytelling performance last September, the wild poet Martin Shaw stopped in the telling of "Tatterhood" and asked us who we were in the story, where were we? Everyone nodded. We knew we were there, we were in that moment. The story was living n the room with us, and we were living there, in the forest, in the castle, at the edge of the wood.
In my second year of college, I was going through the kind of soul-searching, identity-seeking journey of most young people. As I envisioned my conference project-- a year-long independent study on an aspect of my coursework-- for Russian language and literature, I felt my love for folklore and stories rising to the forefront of my mind. Together with my professor, Melissa Frazer, I envisioned a two-part project: a paper on the role of Baba
Yaga as both villain and fairy godmother, and a storytelling performance. The paper was adequate; reading it now, I see how much deeper I might have taken my research. The storytelling performance was more than adequate.
It was a chilly spring evening when my friends and classmates, and their friends and classmates, packed into the campus Teahaus, a tiny building in the center of the lawn. It had once been Joseph Campbell's office. Perhaps his spirit's echo was with us that night. I don't remember which tales I told. Probably, the evening included Vasilisa the Beautiful and Marya
Morevna. What I do remember, is the rapt attention of the students in the room, the quiet breath, the startled laughter and gasps of dismay. These were not children, really, these college students in their sweatshirts and jeans, living on coffee and cigarettes and Postmodernism. But they were desperately hungry for these stories. They talked to me about that evening through my senior year. Some recalled it to me at our reunion years later. It was not me they remembered, though. It was the stories, or more, it was the talisman within the stories, the gift of a moment out of time, and the satiation of a hunger carried from childhood.
Eugene Schwartz has written about how college students who are starved for childhood stories and play as children, seek it out in college, buying themselves stuffed animals and Lego sets, but those who had their wells of experiences filled with real, living stories and true heroes when they were little, decorated their rooms with modern art. Can it be, that by allowing children the kind of stories they need when they are small, we are equipping them to be real heroes as adults? Not the kind with capes and crowns, but the kind that sees the need and suffering in the world, and seeks to assuage it, and the kind that quests after the grails of justice and truth?
I don't know the answer to that question. All I know, is that I need stories, and I suspect you do, too. And if I need them now, as an adult, then I am sure in every fiber of my being, that my child needs them. I don't always have the strength or energy to find them within me, or even to retell "Sweet Porridge" or "The Little Red Hen", for the hundred thousandth time, but I seek out books with real stories in them, and I can read those aloud in the moments when I need to be fed on stories, too.
Spring is supposedly here, though Minnesota is laughing at that idea. Getting Boyo to bed early becomes more and more difficult as the days get longer. Stories help lure him towards sleep. Dreams are a kind of storytelling, too, and perhaps the dreamlike imagery of fairytales helps us to make the transition from the waking world to the world of symbol and memory we visit in our dreams.
Dr. Tatar talked about bedtime stories, and about the importance of that time of day for creating connections with children. I am at work on a resource for you, on creating a magical, comforting bedtime for your child, built around the gifts of ritual and story. There will be snack and story ideas, recordings of stories for you to learn and retell, tips for creating a cozy environment for sleep, and more! Not every evening will be sparking with twinkly stars and sweet, sleepy smiles, but the more often they happen, the more possible they feel.
All I can really tell you, over and over, is this: stories matter, and they are food for human development and growth. Like food, the kind of stories matters, too. Let's feed our children the best we can, without becoming so orthorexic that we cannot allow a little fluff now and then, too. Even the most awful drivel can contain a pearl.
Sara is a storyteller, writer, artist, teacher, wife, mother, and singer living in Minnesota. I write about storytelling, and about living a life with stories.