I was raised on magic. My father always had a book at hand. I grew up with words as close as blankets, as nutritious as carrots or spinach or milk. They were necessary things, inviolate. They were pieces of the life, the body, flesh and bone and brain, tied into our being, like ontological truths. Books were who we were and who we could become.
I inherited the rhythms of language like a fisherman’s child inherits the sea. Now, I pass those rhythms to my children. As a child, I loved the mischievous monkeys of Caps for Sale, the mock hysteria of Grover’s Monster at the End of This Book. As a mother, I read those same stories to my daughters, evoking rippled swells of laughter. In adolescence, I spent hours with dragons, bards, and witches, culling every fantastic kingdom from local library shelves. Today, I read aloud from Fablehaven, The Last Unicorn, and Percy Jackson, casting their spells on small, shell-like ears at twilight. At a very young age, I learned the art of bookish transportation, traveling from place to place on vibrant waves of words. My children know this secret well.
For me, for my daughters, stories are a portal to adventure, a way of moving past ourselves. At the same time, they are a vital touchstone, an instant pathway home. They are a form of grounding, an anchorage at sea. My father, my children, and I are links within a chain of stories both unique and universal, personal and shared. Any storyteller is a curator as well, a keeper of a history that begins with the earliest of cave paintings, the hunt and the handprint, the mark of the individual in the vastness of time. Like the old creation myths, stories tell us how we got here and how the world was formed. They are the spaces where we find ourselves. They tell us who we are.
As an adolescent and young adult, I lost myself a dozen times, trapped inside despair or heartache. Books always brought me back. Today, my daughters watch their mama-writer, swimming tides of language, sometimes sinking in an undertow, following the bubbles to the endless rolling surface, the space between horizons – but always coming home. My wish, cast loose, is the same return for them.
To that end, I read them lots of fairy tales. We drink them up like nectar. There’s nothing like a fairy tale for delving at the deepest truths, for hitting at the heart of what it means to rise and fall, to lose and find oneself, to be in the simplest and most intricate of senses. Homecoming is the essence of a fairy tale. They were Einstein’s recipe for intelligence, his key to education.[i]
I have an abiding love for Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” in particular. Kay and Gerda begin with the utter innocence of children in a garden, with faith in the security of friendship, poetry, and roses. But a beginning on its own is not a journey or a story, and Kay loses everything when the splinters from a magic mirror pierce his eye and then his heart. After that, he can only see what is lost or ugly, what is fallen, wrong, and vain. When the Snow Queen comes to claim him, Kay cannot remember the words to the Lord’s Prayer, only the empty cadence of his multiplication tables. He has fallen out of faith, lost his place in language, and at least half of his humanity. The Snow Queen takes the rest.
If it weren’t for Gerda, the story would end there – and it wouldn’t be a fairy tale, with its promise of redemption. Gerda travels all the world to find her missing friend. Each time she meets an obstacle – a witch, the forgetfulness of flowers, a greedy robber princess – her devotion breaks down walls. In the Snow Queen’s bitter palace, Gerda’s tears melt Kay into remembrance. She returns him to his story through its links inside her own, drawing him back through a shared and sacred history. When Kay and Gerda return to the garden, they are no longer children and no longer innocent, but they are keepers of a tale. It is stitched into their very being.
Such is the power of stories. They can return us to who we are through their infinities of history, their depths of spun imagination. If someone else has been there, if someone else has done that, there is a path through tales. My eldest daughter finds companionship and mirroring in Clementine. My youngest sees reflections of her spicy impishness in Fudge and Junie B. I catch my own redemption in Emily Dickinson, Isak Dinesen, Joanne Harris, and others. In stories, we find a thread of light between a darkness of unknowns.
Descartes famously proclaimed, “I think therefore I am.” The proof of existence is the fact of the thinker, thinking. But a beginning is not a journey or a tale. It is not enough to think alone, to be isolated, even inside such a deft equation. Stories always follow, bridging the gap between thinker and community, between existence and humanity. In narrative, we mark our place, our home, like cave painters pressing their inky handprints on unyielding stone. Here we were, here we are, and here, through our generations, we can be again.
[i] Einstein famously said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” I’ve found no better advice than that.