The Writing of Branta and Other Affections (Part 4 of 4)

Conclusion:  Grasshoppers

Our son, Matthew, at six and seven years old dreamed horrible dreams.  He would start from sleep, fly from his bedroom down the hall, then bullet his little body into our bed, eyes as wide as boiled eggs.

We could smell the fear on him, it caused his sweat to sour.

“What, Matthew?”  “What is it?” his mother would ask.

And he:  “Grasshoppers!”

It was a recurring nightmare:  grasshoppers lurked at the bottom of a hole in his pillow.  Insects huger than himself.  They bit, he said, “Sideways,” and clacked when they chewed.  They were waiting for the time he would fall down the shaft to their lair, where they would tear him apart for supper.

Three choices presented themselves to us, his parents.

But I had too strong a memory of my own childhood to make my mother’s choice.  No one would say to our son, “Oh, Matthew, don’t be silly.  There are no grasshoppers anywhere near your pillow.”

On the other hand, I was probably still enough of the child myself to be stuck with the second choice:  in a sense, I believed him.

Well, I began to dream my own dream, in which Matthew and I are walking over an endless field of grass, bright green, too perfectly green to be safe.  Matthew worms his hand out of mine and dashes ahead.  “Wait!” I cry.  “Matthew, wait!”  I cry with a deep parental dread of the dangers ahead of him.  And sure enough, all at once he vanishes from my sight.  He has fallen into the hole of his dream.  I rush forward.  I find the hole.  I see him falling—and I see, at the bottom, the grasshoppers of the Apocalypse waiting to eat him, and now I am in unspeakable anguish for my son.  Should I jump after him?  Should I return for help? I wake up.

My wife made the third choice, the still more excellent way.

One night, having calmed him down, Thanne took her son’s hand and walked back to his bed.  She sat beside him on the bed and asked for the details of those grasshoppers again.  Matthew recounted them, whispering, terrified to mention them in their own hearing.

When he was done, Thanne said, “Is this the pillow?”—touching the one he slept with.

“Yesssss……..”

“Ah,” she said, nodding in solemn agreement.  “But,” she said, “Matthew, did you know that grasshoppers, they are finicky?”

“Nooooo……..”

“Yes.  Grasshoppers live in only one kind of pillow.  This kind of pillow,” she said, taking his from the bed.  “Come with me,” she said and again she took his hand.  She led him to a large garbage can in the kitchen, and there she stuffed the pillow good and gone forever.

Next, she got him a different sort of pillow, in which, she assured him, grasshoppers wouldn’t be caught dead living.

Also, taking advantage of the opportunity, she removed all the toys he took with him to bed.

You see?  Thanne companioned him into his story.  She accepted its premises, but not its present ending.  She assumed the role of the storyteller and thereby led her son through the terrible (and terribly true) terrain of the tale even unto a marvelous ending.  Thanne uttered the whole of the name of the spirit that had come to wrestle my son night after night, to wrestle him in his solitude.  So Matthew learned the spirit’s name as well.  He took power over the demon.

And he never dreamed of grasshoppers again.

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The Writing of Branta and Other Affections (Part 3 of 4)

Three: A Local Habitation and a Name

In the book of Genesis, chapter thirty-two, the patriarch Jacob returns to the land of his birth afraid to meet his older brother Esau, from whom he had usurped both his birthright and his father’s blessing.  Twenty years before, Esau had sworn to kill him.  Now Jacob seeks to appease his powerful brother by sending ahead of himself all his goods in waves and waves as gifts for Esau.  (Look how rich he has become!  And look how generous!)  Over the deep gorge of the Jabbok, Jacob sends all his cattle, all his serving people—even his wives and his children.  And now it is night.  And now the man named Jacob, the “Trickster,” the “Usurper,” is alone.

No, not altogether alone.  “And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.”

A man: much more than a man.

That wrestling match must have been titanic, because the patriarchs of Genesis were considered to have been both mighty and massive.  (For didn’t Jacob use a stone as his pillow once?  And wasn’t that stone still there for people to see—a monument immovable?)

“Let me go,” that figure says, “for the day is breaking.”

Such seeming fear of the daylight makes Jacob think he’s wrestling a night spirit—some sort of divinity, one powerful enough to have put Jacob’s hip out of joint.  Therefore, at one point Jacob makes a most telling request:

“Tell me, I pray, your name.”

Why the name, particularly?

Well, in those day it was believed that numinous beings surrounded human beings invisibly, with extraordinary powers to determine their lives, but from whom the humans could not by their own strength free themselves.  (This is not unlike all the forces that children believe to exist in their worlds, the Sendakian “Wild Things” over which, when yet unstoried, the children have no power, but which affect them personally and specifically.)  Now, if one of these spirit beings became visible, became tangible in the visible sphere of life, where humans themselves lived; and if the human who encountered it could learn its name, then (1) that human learned also the spirit’s nature and its intent; and (2) that human could, by uttering the name, summon it, obligate it, command it.

In fact, Jacob is wrong.  This is no mere spirit of the night.  This is the Lord God (with remarkable love paying attention to a single human), who does not permit his mystery or his freedom to be touched.  Therefore Jacob’s opponent deflects his request with a rhetorical question: “Why is it that you ask my name?” and refuses to give the name till much, much later.

But I tell that story here for the value of Jacob’s presumption: even as he might have reversed his relationship with a spiritual (bodiless, powerful, amorphous) being by learning its name and thereby taking command, so children can (truly!) reverse their relationships with the powers which they believe to surround them by learning the names of these powers; by learning the name of the experience of one’s encounter with these powers.

And stories are such names!  The stories whole, I mean.  And not the mute words printed upon a page, but the experience of the child who enters the tale and lives it: this is, altogether, in all its parts, the name.

Oh, and there’s one other element I want to take from Jacob’s tale.  God (for God it is that wrestles him), also asks Jacob for his name, and Jacob complies: “My name is Jacob, the Trickster, the Usurper.”  Then God the Creator, God the Wrestler, changes Jacob’s name, thereby giving Jacob a whole new identity—and making the man also intensely aware of his identity: “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”  Israel: a pun, one who strives “with” God—both against God, and beside God, on his side.

My point is this: that the child who engages as fully and as personally with a story as Jacob here engages with the deity at the edge of the Jabbok (both wrestling and answering questions, talking, dialoguing) may, like Jacob, discover a piece of her own identity, and call her own self by name.  To identify well with a major character in a story is to identify oneself.


Having established the paradigm of story as a name and a naming, let me offer a more particular explanation of how it works for the child.  I’ll develop this paradigm by further reference to the book of Genesis and the Hebrew notions of language implied in the creation narratives of chapters one, two and three.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” . . . by speaking them.  God spoke heaven and earth into being.  Recognize an element simplicity in this Hebraic record of creation: the divine utterance (“Let there be light”) did not command, as if the light itself were a separate entity capable of obedience; nor did the divine word design light or else manufacture it (in which case God’s word and the light would be separate things, one the subject, the other its object).  No: the word was the light!  They were one and the same thing, “Light” and the light.  So if, for example, a child were asked what the act of creating must have looked like, she might picture the holy mouth of God opening wide, then issuing forth a beam of universal light exactly as a song might go forth from the mouth of God into all the universe.

But the language of stark creation was only on of the languages which the Creator used.  There are two kinds of divine talk remembered in Genesis, for what God had made, he also named.  Light and its temporal period he called “day.”  Its dimming and the period of its absence he called “night.”  The firmament he called “heaven,” the dry land “earth,” the gathered waters “seas,” and so forth.

Now, it is of crucial importance to understand that this naming did more than associate a particular sound with a particular thing (though modern societies use names as pointers merely, signs not much different from highway signs; Chicago, 120 miles.  The highway sign isn’t actually Chicago, of course: it says, “Chicago is that-a-way.”)  God’s naming did more than produce the “word” by which speakers could refer to the object represented by that name.  For the Hebrews, language was always an action.  To speak was to accomplish.  And to name a thing was actually to affect the thing named: it finished its creation, as it were, in three distinct ways.

  1.  The thing which is, but isn’t named, cannot be known.  If you can’t talk about it, neither can you think about it or consider it or mediate upon it—nor, in consequence, can you know it at all!  For the Hebrews, language is the stuff of knowing.  Only when the created thing takes its place in language does it fully enter the realm of human awareness.

To name a thing, therefore, is to clothe it in visibility.  To name a thing is to make it knowable, to grant its place in the human conception of the world.  It seems suddenly to appear, that which had in fact existed before its appearing.

(But this concept is not restricted to the Hebrews.  Most primitive cultures took time and tremendous pains to discover the true name of a child in order to present that child truly to the world—and to itself!

2.    That which is granted a name is thereby joined to the whole “grammar” of existence.  As words are joined to words in the structure of a sentence, so any single thing named stands in a living and relational union—stands in a sweet kinship—with every other named thing in the universe.  And as one word may enjoy an infinite variety of grammatical relationships, sentence to sentence, speech to speech; as the changings of relationship indicate the healthy flow of its life, so the thing named (or the person named) may enjoy the development of countless relationships to the grand creation of God.

3.    And, finally, the name of a thing also contains the purpose and the value of that thing.  It offers continually a why, a reason for this thing’s participation in the fullness of creation.  (Recall Jacob’s new name, “Israel,” and its effect on the man himself, changing his character, announcing his new purpose as a “Striver with God.”  “Israel” next became the name of a nation, God’s chosen, holy nation: “A kingdom of priests to me,” says the naming God in Exodus 19:6.)  If the second effect of naming was to place it into the space of the world, this third effect places it into the time of the world, making it active, defining characteristic goals to be accomplished in the future.  The named things is an esteemed thing, for that it serves the whole.

And when God had created everything; and when the Lord God had assessed all things as “Good, very good”; and when humankind, in the image of the Creator, had been set as steward in the midst of all good things, then God granted unto us . . .not the first and primal tongue, to create out of nothing, but rather the second significant tongue: to name!  And in naming to accomplish all three of the above effects upon the things and the people named.

So Adam was invited to name the animals, bringing them fully into his own knowing, establishing relationships with them and for them, discovering and applying purpose to them: that is to say, domesticating them.

But the highest thing the human could ever name was . . .another human.  And so Adam and Eve did in the naming come to “know” each other, weave complex relationships with each other, affirm purpose and worth one upon the other:

Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh;

She shall be call ishshah [woman]

because she was taken out of ish. [man]

The Hebrew words ishshah and ish make the same sort of pun that the English words woman and man do: one word acts as a root for the other, longer word; while the shorter word needs the longer one for fulfillment.  Man and Wo-Man need each other, both the names—the bare words—and the objects named.

Now, then, the application of my paradigm:

It is precisely this sort of naming that the story is and accomplishes for the feelings of children.  The whole story—its full experience from “Once upon a time” to “happily ever after”—becomes the name of some previously nameless and shapeless trouble truly encountered in children’s lives, a scary thought or mood discovered even within themselves, the fear suffered at natural transitions such as leaving home or going to school or finding a new baby in their houses or fearing abandonment by their parents. .  . .

The story helps children know what otherwise would lurk in the unknowable regions of their dark souls, or of the dark world.  (This is what the “robber” story accomplished for me, giving my personal encounters with evil in the abstract a local habitation and a name.)

The story establishes effective, useful, healthy relationships with things now given shape.  (Remember the rules young Wally understood to exist between himself and the robber—as well as the important relationships he, as the eldest, experienced with his family.)

Now, therefore, what should we not tell stories about?  What should we, therefore, not name for the sake of the children?  Should we skip departures temporal?  Departures mortal?  Should Maurice Sendak not have given a name and a shape to the Wild Things of the child’s perfervid imagination?  And if he had not, what would that child have missed?  Should “Branta and the Golden Stone” completely compromise this business of evil actions in beloved people (her father’s selfish misuse of the Golden Stone)?  Should Branta ignore the dyings that make us sad—and also, then, the sacrifice of love that makes us glad and good again?

The stories that contain badness are not bad stories.  Rather, they are among some of the best.  Because the storyteller who loves the children and gives the whole of his or her self to them by means of the tale—inviting at the same time the whole of the children’s selves—is of all people the best able to confront true and truly terrible things with the children.  The storyteller takes their hands and companions them into the future framed within the story, into the future awaiting them outside the story.

The storyteller who can name otherwise amorphous fears, does at the same time name the children!  Knows them.  Helps them to know their selves.  Gives them place in the whole wide world.  Persuades them of their value and purpose and strength and goodness and glory.  Each may be, you see, a little Israel, if only the name has once become their experience.

So I wrote “Branta and the Golden Stone” with the hope of causing in children a love for Branta herself, by which love to identify with her—to dwell within her.

Branta should carrry both bad and good into the children’s experience; should name bad as bad, and good as good, and every child as loving of many things and filled with remarkable powers.

Branta knows loneliness in the extreme.  So do children.

She has been dying, and she has encountered the consequences of sin and greed and pride.  A hard life?  Yes, but no harder than the nightmares and the apprehensions of little children.  And also as hard as life shall surely be for them.

But this is fantasy.  This is the way children already think.  And children distinguish between the experience of “playing at” something and the experience that forces itself upon them.  They have control over fantasy!  They can enter it just as far as they are prepared to experience it, and no farther.  It is only as “real” as their hearts want to engage reality; otherwise, it’s only a story. And the crossing of these boundaries is made possible and powerful when a loving, trusted adult journeys with them, arms around them, telling the tale or else reading the tale together.