How to tell bedtime stories in the age of coronavirus

To engage our children, we need stories that feature them as the heroes of their time.

Illustration: Bedtime stories [Jawahir al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

I tell stories for a living. I look at the faces of my audience. I register the silence in a room and then call on the forces that inspire me to tell the stories I have been waiting my whole life to hear. Stories about the old who somehow survive the wars that decimate their young. Stories about farmers who chase mystical chickens into caves, come upon chests of treasures buried long ago. Stories about fatherless boys who become the fathers they imagined for themselves and motherless girls who birth daughters born as mothers. All the stories I love in the lives around me and within. I began professionally telling stories 16 years ago.

Before then …

I was a Hmong child born in the refugee camps of Thailand waiting with my family for life to begin elsewhere. In this place, where my people received food three days a week, where 40,000 of us lived on 162 hectares (400 acres), there was not enough room for all children to go to school. I could not even go, though I turned six in the camp. I spent my days listening to the adults talk.

When the adults talked to each other, they spoke of the war they had lived through – America’s Secret War in Laos. They talked of the people they loved who they lost. They reminisced about the old houses with split bamboo walls, the old mountain streams with the best tasting water, where little fish flickered beneath the sun’s shine. They talked of the bodies along the trails in the jungle on their run towards the Mekong River. They said things like: “When the bombs fall, the boy soldiers all lost their shoe. The US never made shoes for children although they asked them to fight and to die in the wretched war.”

When the adults talked to me, they told me fantastical stories from the country on the other side of the river, the place I had never known but through their words. They showed me a world beyond the fenced compound I knew. They told me about mountains taller than fences and trees. They pointed towards the far distance and described creatures I had never seen: Tigers who walked and talked, stripes running down their backs, wild spirits holding fast to their thick necks. They told me stories about when the Hmong people belonged to a place, built homes meant to last. I was half afraid of the world they had ventured from but mystified by the magic of it.

When I asked about belonging and home, my mother and father carved for me an adventure across the seas, built with their hands in the air tall buildings rising from the ground, then pointed to the stars above us and talked of lights that lit pathways full of cars and trucks across vast landscapes. They whispered of a place where I could go to school. In these stories, decisions were made, and my mother and father registered us for resettlement in the United States.

I became a Hmong refugee girl living with her family in the poorest section of St Paul, Minnesota. My job was to go to school and then come home and take care of my younger siblings so my mother and father could go to work on the night shift at the factory and pay the bills that never stopped coming. My younger brother and three sisters looked to me with large eyes in the fall of night, waiting for my stories to entertain, comfort, and care for them.

I opened the front window. We peeked out. I pointed to the white house across the street on its little hill. The tall street light at the corner illuminated the street we shared. The big tree in our own yard stood still in the shadows of the night but the old lilac bushes that surrounded the house on the hill swayed like a storm was blowing through. I said, “There is a wall that cuts through our street. At night, it comes alive. It keeps the wind away from us …”

From there, I could go anywhere, so long as I ended the story with: “What do you think is going on?” From that question, my younger brother and sisters went everywhere.

The boy sees: “A wizened wizard looking out the side window of the house, holding his staff high, controlling the wind, making sure that the wall holds, that the kids, home without their parents in their little house, remain safe.”

The little girl sees: “A crazy person licking at the invisible wall through the night, tasting the captive wind on its tongue like a lizard.”

We laugh at the image. We are all perplexed by it.

The older girl sees: “The wind is so strong it will carry us all away if the wall falters, if the wall breaks. It is a magical wall created maybe by our ancestors to protect us and keep us safe.”

I left those stories with a shrug of my shoulders and a shake of my head. Any of them could be right. How was it possible that those lilac bushes would dance like that when the big old tree was so still, no movement of leaves in any direction? They knew as much as I did. My job as the storyteller, their big sister, their caretaker was to set up the parameters for their brains to think, to imagine, to resolve, but most especially to wander – much as my own head had all those years ago.

Now, I am a parent. I have three little ones. My daughter is six. My sons are four. They, like my siblings and like me, love stories.

Before the time of the coronavirus, before we all made decisions to cancel plans and situate ourselves in our house with its fenced back yard where they have crawled, walked and ran every inch, we used to tell stories of the past and the present, of incredible people in the world meeting impossibly challenging odds, and doing awesome things. We all marvelled at the child with the sticky hands who could glue any broken toy, any torn dress, any cracking egg together again with a mere touch. Our eyes grew big at the sight of an old witch selling eggrolls on the open streets hoping to turn into a beautiful Eggroll queen, finding she could fly, finding her skin – like the cocoon of a butterfly – could dry up and fall away, unravel and unveil the beauty inside. I told stories to expand the edges of their world, check their impulses and opinions, to garner and grow their language for life.

It is now different. My stories no longer have the same pull. I do not have the same capacity. At day’s end, when we cuddle close for storytime, I find that I am exhausted by the news of what is going on in the world, by the adult heroes (mostly, male) on the news. I am tired of waiting for the good, the smart, the kind, the caring ones to save us, and my children are, too. Their legs tangle under the covers restlessly, their bodies shifting around me, sharp angles digging into soft flesh looking for comfort. I clear my throat. I centre myself. I begin in the place where we are: Three restless children yearning for fun, a quarantine, a big tree reaching for the moon, that fantastical orb listening, loving, wanting to grant wishes. I hear the quiet of their breathing, feel the thud of their hearts with my hands, and then I grant their wishes in my stories, give them powers to have the kind of fun that is not possible in the structures of our lives.

Every night, we tell stories, silly stories of incredible magic. A pair of shoes arrives at our door for my daughter. In the dark of night, she gets up to find that the shoes have grown wings at their heels. Her fingers tremble when she puts them on. The wings are warm to the touch and they flutter a bit but they stand still enough for her to put her feet into the shoes, to lace them up, and with each step, she lifts higher and higher off the ground. A window open to let the coming spring in the house becomes her entry into the currents of the wind and the world.

For one of my boys, who loves hats, one day he finds a long abandoned cap behind the garage. He puts it on and comes out to see if his brother and sister like it. They do not see anything. He sees their thoughts. His sister wants a baby sister more than anything in the world. His brother wants more than anything to be pushed on the swing. His mother comes out to check on the children but she is thinking about the car, worrying that it might be breaking. The father, he needs to fart. He thinks about poop!

The other boy, collector of rocks and sticks and leaves and everything to be found beneath the snow that has melted away, sends a wish to the giant tree in the back yard. The tree lets down a single branch. Where he waves that branch, his most fervent wishes come true. A chocolate cake sits on the patio table. A blue cape is hanging on the clothesline with, of all the letters in the world, a giant T at its back, a T that stands for Thayeng!

The children love the stories. They howl with laughter. Every night, the sagas continue. They save squirrels. They find magical rocks. They touch stars. They make friends where there were none. The children are the entertainers and the problem solvers in this time of the coronavirus.

The children are now the heroes that we do not see on the television screens or the Internet or even in books. They are the ones who make fun possible, who bring laughter and joy, who go on the treacherous adventures that adults are not even thinking about or speaking of in these unfriendly times. They are now centred in the story of their lives, beyond the worries and the fears, the concerns and the cares.

Stories are the bedrock of my life. They have changed with the different places and circumstances of the years. Now more than ever I find that to engage our children, to get at the heart of what we are doing as parents and adults, to untangle all that we are feeling, we need the stories that feature our children as the heroes of their time – in whatever incredible ways we can find to lift up their magic, their yearnings, their hopes.

Source: Al Jazeera