Yesterday, my daughter left her favorite pair of shoes near the shoreline and didn’t realize it until after high tide had carried them away.
To help her work through her sadness, we began to imagine a new life for the shoes: as a shell for a hermit crab, as an unexpected catch for a lobsterman. We imagined one day, years from now, walking along the shore and finding her tie-dyed Crocs and laughing that they had finally come home.
Today, we found the shoes. Washed up, covered in seaweed. Her brother and I cheered. She shrugged. After a few minutes, she whispered.
“I’m kind of sad we found them. I liked the stories more than the shoes.”
I like stories more than the shoes, too. Sometimes more than food. In Shaped by Stories: The Ethical Power of Narratives, Marshall Gregory writes: “For human beings, the pull of stories is primal. What oxygen is to the body, stories are to our emotions and imagination.”
I’m not a fiction writer. I write about education and parenting and child development. But all the same, I keep this yellow sticky note beside my desk:
About a year ago — many years after adopting it as my professional mantra — I suddenly realized why this phrase was lodged in me, where I had heard it before.
Let me back up. As a kid, I plowed through stacks of books, like oxygen for my growing spirit. And one of my favorite authors was Katherine Paterson: Jacob I Have Loved, Bridge to Terebithia, Great Gilly Hopkins. More. Her books were part of my emotional education.
When I was in college studying education, I devoured her masterful book, A Sense of Wonder: On Reading and Writing for Children. The book is out of print now, and I cannot find my copy nor record of the following quote online — but luckily I transcribed these words in my college notebooks from 20 years ago. And I recently dug them out again:
“People ask me why I write for children. I don’t write for children, I say, I write for myself . . .
But it’s not true that I simply write for myself. I do write for children. For my own four children and for others who are faced with the question of whether they dare to become adult, responsible for their own lives and their lives of others.
They remind me of the Biblical children of Israel, trembling on the bank of the Jordan. You’ll remember that Moses sent spies ahead, who came back to tell of the richness of the land. But ten of the spies advised the Israelites to turn back. The cities are fortified, they said, and the people are giants. It would be better to return to slavery in Egypt or to wander aimlessly in the desert.
I want to become a spy like Joshua and Caleb. I have crossed the river and tangled with a few giants, but I want to go back and say to those who are hesitating, Don’t be afraid to cross over. The promised land is worth possessing, and we are not alone.
I want to be a spy for hope.”
Without intending it, “tell the story of hope” has become my parenting mantra, too. I want to offer my children hope for the lost shoes and for the lost moments that the pandemic has stolen away. Hope in their strength and goodness and in the beauty and wonder of the world. When I don’t know what to say, I tell my kids a story or I remind them of their own stories. “Do you remember when you thought you’d never learn how to ride a bike? Do you remember what happened next?”
Tonight, I read stories before tucking them into bed, something I do every night, no matter how late. It’s the only truly sacrosanct parenting ritual I have. Because though I make a lot of mistakes as a mom, I figure that if I fill them up with stories, I will fill them up with hope.