My husband and I have a system worked out with our daughter, who is in grade two. Each day, one of us either bicycles or walks the six kilometres from our home to her French immersion elementary school.
Six kilometres twice a day, when you’re seven years old, that is a pretty fair amount of hoofing it. Except for the fact that it’s not actually uphill both ways, it begins to sound like the sort of stories that parents tell their kids about how rough they had it in their youth. But, although we’ve been doing this for about a year and a half now, we haven’t heard a single word of complaint from her. Nearly always, she would rather walk than ride. In fact, a couple of weeks ago when we overslept and had to take the bus instead of walking, she felt cheated out of her daily ritual.
Yes, in case you’re wondering, she is in fact an earthling child, and no she’s not on any mind-altering medications. That she’s okay with this particular daily grind can be attributed to the magical power of storytelling. The deal is that whichever of us is taking her to and from school has to tell her three stories while we’re walking. Then, she has to tell three stories in return. Sometimes these stories are made-up adventures, often involving pirates, dragons, lost travellers, trips to outer space, and talking animals. Sometimes they are traditional folktales and fairytales, such as Stone Soup, Baba Yaga, Aladdin, etc.
Most frequent, though, are the stories of real-life incidents and memories. These are the ones that truly hold her fascination. She hangs on our every word as we tell her about being followed by a grizzly bear down a stream bed in Yoho National Park, or watching the northern lights when our car had broken down in Alaska. She belly laughs whenever she hears the story about her father upsetting a banquet display of Cornish game hens at the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver, or stepping into a wastepaper basket on his way out of a job interview. She never tires of hearing about my dress falling off during grade seven graduation, or the time cream soda came pouring out of my nose on a date.
One of the unexpected benefits of this anecdotal storytelling is that it rekindles old, barely remembered stories in my own mind. Searching for something interesting to talk about has caused me to recall stories that my own mother and father had told me when I was growing up, such as tales about my father’s adventures while he was stationed in Trinidad during the second World War, or my mother’s life growing up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. It is also a pleasure to listen to my daughter improvising a story about treasure-hunting squirrels, or recounting funny and embarrassing moments from the school yard.
I once read something to the effect that we are all made up of stories, and I couldn’t agree more. It is the stories of our lives, and the lives of our friends and relatives, that give us some insight into our own selves. They entertain us, educate us, connect us to the past, to all the significant and insignificant events that have shaped us, and give a sense of context to our lives. Six kilometres goes by, just like that.