Thursday, January 21, 2021

Storytelling - Walla & Barky

With three granddaughters closing in on seven, three, and two come February when they all have birthdays, I have, over the course of their young lives, often put them down for naps or to bed for the night.  My success rate is such that I’ve titled myself “The Baby Whisperer”, able to shepherd even the most resistant child into a gentle slumber. My resources are familiar:  cuddling, singing, rocking - both standing and sitting, back rubs, playing music, and a patient, stubborn determination to outlast even the most strong-willed and stubborn sleep defying child.  And my ace in the hole, storytelling.


One of the last things I did in 2020 was to put almost three-year-old 

Willa down for the night.  She’d napped in the late afternoon, so bedtime was postponed well past the normal hour. We went upstairs to put her down so her grandmother and I could enjoy an uninterrupted late New Year’s Eve meal together.  Willa, who defies with a disarming smile and the most beautiful blue eyes, has her own bag of tricks come bedtime: suddenly needing something to eat or drink, locating the single most important doll or toy to bring to bed, arranging the pillows and covers, instructing me on where and how to lie down, adjusting the lighting, are a few that come to mind.

Each maneuver may have multiple attempts. 


Willa’s clever tactics gobbled up waning 2020 time while my dinner cooled off in the kitchen below us. I knew we’d reached the turning point, however, when Willa finally asked for a “Walla & Barky” story.


Walla and Barky are thinly disguised versions of Willa and her family dog, Archie.  They share adventures together.  Willa gets to experience trouble, apprehension, mystery, conflict, magic, and more. These stories may be unique in detail, but not in structure.  This storyteller sticks to a simple and ancient structure, structure that may indeed be hard-wired into us as a species. Certainly, stories and storytelling are intrinsic to us as a species, as Jonathan Gottschall makes clear in his book, The Storytelling Animal – How Stories Make Us Human.


“One day…”, “Once upon a time…” Walla and Barky go into the woods, or cross a river, or follow a trail, or get left behind.  No matter how the story begins they enter an imaginary world, a Greenworld, a Neverland.  The basic structure is predictable, as John Woods tells us in his “journey into story” – Into the Woods


I state a proposition.  For example, what happens when Barky chases a deer too far into the woods and Walla follows?


The proposition gets explored.  A problem has been created.  Who or what has the resources to solve it?  Are there lessons to be learned?


The story has a conclusion.  A rescue, a safe return home. A revelation. 


By the conclusion of the story, Walla and Barky have emerged from the imaginary world, from the woods, from Neverland.  If I’ve done my job well, sprinkling in details, Willa has had the opportunity to enhance the story I’ve told with her imagination.  I’ve written the melody.  She gets to imagine the harmony, the enriching orchestration.  Perhaps she even incorporates it into her upcoming dreamworld. 


As I tell the story, we lie next to each other, her soft curls spilling onto my pillow.  I usually keep a calming, comforting hand on her throughout the story.  We are safe with each other.  Every so often she turns to look at me. She calms down as she listens, nearing sleep, or at least ready for soothing music.  Her breathing becomes softer and relaxed.  A deep sigh tells the Baby Whisperer his task is almost done.


Storytelling stirs our imagination.  I sometimes ask Willa to suggest a story component.  Barky crossed the river and ran into the woods.

“Why did he go into the woods?”, I ask. 

“To chase an animal.”

“What kind of an animal?”

“A pig.”

And so, we explore how it came to be that a pig was roaming the woods.  Not some feral boar in this case.   Just an escapee from Farmer Adams’ pigpen. 


As you’ve read along you’ve doubtless used your imagination.  Think back.  What was New Year’s Eve dinner?  What does Willa’s bedroom look like?  What sort of dog is Barky?  How wide is the river? What became of the pig?  We are immersed in the story whether we’re always aware of it or not. Stories draw us closer to one another.  They make us human. Imagination connects us. 


2021 began with Willa climbing into our bed first thing in the morning.  “Granddad, tell a Walla & Barky story.” 

“What about?”

“Getting lost in the woods.”

“One day, Walla and Barky…”

A new year, a new decade, a new story.  An old story.


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