Over the course of the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of babysitting for my niece a handful of times. Harper is going on a year and a half, and while at first I thought that her age would limit the amount of stuff she and I could do together, I quickly found out that there are, in fact, tons of different activities to fill our time with.
We draw. We build things out of big, pink and purple Legos (and then, occasionally, one of us tries to chew on the corners of the things we’ve built). We look at pictures (Harper loves to identify herself and anyone or anything else she knows). We aggravate the dog. We watch for birds. We play with our food and, sometimes, also eat it. We sing. We dance. We listen to the same CD of Elmo singing nursery rhymes and pop songs over and over again so many times that, days later, apropos of nothing, while you’re jotting down a grocery list or walking to work, you catch yourself humming the furry, big-mouthed puppet’s rendition of the Beatles’ “Drive My Car” or banging out the beat of “Elmo’s Rap Alphabet.”
Also, we read. Every hour or so, it seems – usually about half a second after the Elmo CD ends – Harper says, “Book!” This, I’ve learned, means that she wants to sit down in your lap and have you read to her. Of all the activities Harper and I manage to cram into a single day, this one might be my favorite (sorry, Elmo).
The last time I babysat for Harper, she wanted to read Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle’s classic, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? You probably know how it goes: the brown bear sees a redbird, who sees a yellow duck, who sees a blue horse, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, until a black sheep sees a goldfish, who sees a teacher, who sees a group of children. End of story.
I already knew how it went, of course. I’d been through the book dozens of times during my life. But what really amazed me? Harper already knew how it went, too. Before I turned the page on the grinning green frog, Harper made a meowing sound. And sure enough, waiting for us there on the next page was a purple cat. Before we got to the white dog she said, “Baxter” (which is the name of her dog). She sucked in her cheeks and pursed her lips as I flipped from the black sheep to the goldfish. She said, “Teacher,” before we got to her and, before we reached the array of children’s faces spread across the book’s final pages, she said, “Babies.”
Now, I could spend the rest of this post reflecting on how brilliant and advanced my niece is – a fact, by the way, that’s been backed up by a pair of prominent child psychologists (who, full disclosure, also happen to be Harper’s grandparents).
But I won’t.
Instead I’ll focus on how incredible it is that a one-year-old mind is capable of setting an entire story to memory (something any parent and most uncles, aunts, and veteran babysitters are no doubt familiar with). Sure, it helps that Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? is basic, repetitive, and written in rhyme (the big, bright illustrations probably don’t hurt, either). It helps, in other words, that the book contains a strong, straightforward, coherent narrative.
But rather than detract from an infant’s accomplishment, I think this fact – that it’s a story they can so easily remember – makes it all the more miraculous.
Reading with Harper has made me see just how fundamental stories and storytelling truly are to us as human beings. Because they’re more than merely ways to pass the time. Stories help us understand ourselves and the world around us, then help us make a place for ourselves in that world. We read and write (on paper or computers, orally or in our heads) and share stories in order to learn, remember, change, stay the same, explain, discover, connect – they’re a global currency, an interface that helps us better be in the world, and also sort of like the stepping stones we stand on in order to avoid getting swept away by the immense, raging, chaotic river of everyday life.
I’d take these ideas even further and say that we – you and me, our families and our countries – are stories. Literally. Because aren’t our ideas of who we are both based on and made up of stories? Take a second to consider how important certain stories are to your sense of self.
For example, the members of my family constantly tell a story of which I have no real memory (though after all these years, I do have a vague, imagined one). I was very young, and evidently very annoyed that my dad and sister were spending the evening together at a Daddy/Daughter Dance. I wanted to go, too. But I was told I wasn’t allowed. I was a son, not a daughter. So I stomped upstairs, threw on one of my sister’s dresses and a wig from an old Halloween costume, stomped back downstairs and announced, “Okay. I’m a daughter now. Let’s go.”
More than two decades later, I’m not sure exactly what, if anything, this story says about me. But I do know that the story has become a part of me – an entry in my own personal mythology. I know that it has affected the way I conceive of myself. And it has certainly affected the way my parents and siblings – and the legions of people they’re so quick to share this story with – conceive of me. (Which, of course, influences and reinforces the way the story further affects me.)
You can think of your identity as a sprawling collection of vignettes, anecdotes, and short stories – which, stitched together, unified by the fact that the main character is always you, form a larger, grander narrative that is the story of your life, the one you’re living/writing every second of every day.
Okay. I’ll settle down.
And I’ll leave you with this thought, which is the one I kept coming back around to that day on the couch with my niece and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? in my lap. If Harper is so drawn to and taken by stories now, at the age of one, then imagine how momentous it’ll be when she first encounters Charlotte’s Web, The Phantom Tollbooth, Matilda, Great Expectations, Slaughterhouse-Five, Romeo and Juliet, 1984 – and, what’s more, when she begins to tell the world her own story, the one that is herself.