I love it when my kids rediscover long forgotten books from my own early childhood. I don’t mean childhood favorites. I mean books I last saw before I was able to read myself. These are books of which I had no adult recollection whatsoever until accidentally re-reading them to my own kids dredged up visceral memories of a picture…
…or a key phrase.
It is simply amazing what reading locks away in the pre-literate mind. Encountering these books again unlocks more than the stories themselves. It unlocks the world in which they were read: the living room of my first childhood home, the color of the sofa, what was on the coffee table, my first room when I was an only child, the record player in the corner. The stories unlock memories, which in turn secure continuity.
One forgotten book that has emerged as a new standard in our house is the lesser known Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? by Dr. Seuss. This is the good doctor’s treatment of onomatopoeia, or words that act as sound effects. Mr. Brown had completely faded into my unconscious until I rediscovered it with my sons. Whether in print, or on Ocean House Media’s iPad app, rarely does a day begin without the familiar refrain:
Oh, the wonderful things
Mr. Brown can do!
He can go like a cow.
He can go Moo! Moo!
Mr. Brown can do it.
How about you?
The fun of the book is the escalating absurdity of each sound effect (my favorite: the gum-chewing hippopotamus – “Grum! Grum! Grum! Grum! Grum! Grum! Grum!”) as they combine in typically Seussian rhyme schemes. It has been especially fun to read to my son between the age of one year and eighteen months. As he develops the capacity for speech, the book is becoming an active call and response, with him offering up his own cute little version of each sound effect as we turn the pages.
Me: He can go like a cow. He can go…
Him: Moooooo! [with extra pursy little toddler lips]
It is a lot of fun for both of us.
Recently, he visited the Little Farm at the Bay Area’s terrific regional Tilden Park and got up close and personal with livestock that had until then been confined to the printed page. Sitting in his stroller, he pointed and called out noises while big brother fed them celery. The sheep (“Me-eeeeehhh!”) and pigs (we’re still working on that one) were a delight. But the cow was something else entirely. It must have seemed monstrous: a massive head poking over a towering fence to gobble up the feed my older son held out, its deep, lowing “MooooooAAAAh!” completely unlike the cartoonish Mr. Brown’s. Suffice it to say, he was startled and, as a result, now imbues the word “Moo!” with rich layers of personal meaning.
When I got home from work, and learned about his day from my wife, we were all amused to hear him regale us with his own version of the outing. Lacking sentences, he still excitedly joined in the conversation, holding his hands over his head and straining for words to encapsulate the shock and awe of it all: “Mu… dat… dah… MOOOOO!” [eyes wide] It was all he could talk about for days. In fact, it became an ongoing litany expressing… well not terror, but cautious excitement. Now each day, well beyond the events of the farm, he uses it in new contexts, whenever he encounters something that is both unsettling and amazing in his eyes: tall strangers, the stuffed lion in the library, big dogs all elicit a babbled sentence ending in a wide-eyed “Moo!” It is no longer about a cow, but an experience the cow opened him to. Perhaps the closest emotional analogue is the biblical concept of “fear” as in “fear of the LORD,” a reverential approach to a trusted yet dangerous presence surpassing all human capacities.
As human beings, we approach the unfamiliar through the familiar. From stories we build stories, and from those we build the ideas which become communities and futures. According to Biblical scholar and Dead Sea Scrolls translator James A. Sanders, in fact, that’s what story (specifically the religious variety) is for.
In graduate school, long before I worked in technology public relations, I had the distinct pleasure of studying briefly under Sanders. Among his many distinctions (discovering a new psalm while preserving and translating the Dead Sea Scrolls notwithstanding), he stands out among most professors of Christian Biblical literature for having earned his doctorate at Hebrew Union College. A charming, funny and brilliant man, his lectures are laced with humor and he succeeds in slim academic volumes where others need whole tomes to fail. In his classic work of canonical criticism, Torah and Canon, Sanders observes that the essential nature of Torah is not legal text, but story:
Basically the word Torah means “instruction.” It is derived from a Semitic root meaning to cast or throw… Neither the ancient Hebrew nor Greek Old Testament manuscript traditions use the word Torah (Greek, nomos) to designate the Pentateuch… Within Old Testament usage it denotes bodies of instruction or teachings of priests, prophets and sages and even of parental advice to children.
Its essential concern is not moral regulation, but survival:
Judah was made aware of her ancient Mosaic heritage and identity in a manner so persuasive and pervasive that when the Babylonian threat to her existence materialized… her very survival was predicated on nothing more substantial than a memory, a story she carried with her to prison: “A wandering [or perishing] Aramean was my father…” (Deut. 26:5). There remained no Temple to bolster her spirits, no Jerusalem to encourage her trust, no political or social institution to which to rally.
But there was a story…
Apparently the story was quite elastic, able to include as many details as the particular occasion required but reduceable to three indispensable pivotal points – the exodus from Egypt, the wandering in the desert, and the conquest of the land.
In a mere 100 pages, he documents the many expanded recitals of this Torah meme that make up the Hebrew Bible, illustrating how it results in a final received text that functions effectively to preserve the identity of a people in periods of exile and radical discontinuity: both for Judaism, and later for its younger sibling Christianity.
My mooing son is telling me just such a story, at least as best he can with his Mr. Brown vocabulary. Unable to describe fully what he means, he resorts to telling a story instead, one that recreates his own experience so he can share it with me. Granted, his tale is comprised of just one word, but it is enough. It is his Torah recital. With identity and language still in formation, he seeks the power of “Moo!” to create continuity out of discontinuity and to collect his family in the shared experience. We should all be so clever.
A little child can do it.
How about you?
To help you contemplate the fine art of personal torah, here are my top five favorite films in which story-telling is the key to survival.
People telling stories are at the heart of every John Sayles films, but few use onscreen storytelling to create such a palpable sense of dread and anticipation as “Limbo,” his 1999 film about uncertainty and survival in a small Alaskan town. For family viewing, I also recommend his dreamy classic “The Secret of Roan Inish,” where stories unearth Irish family secrets about a lost brother taken by sea fairies.
4) The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
I explored in an earlier post how the strength of Tolkien’s writing is his world-building. The Lord of the Rings comes fully alive in each new reading because the characters depend entirely on a set of shared stories, epic poems and folk histories to navigate their way through the impossible… stories that the author created separately (in fictional ancient languages, no less!) to give his characters a shared culture.
3) The Usual Suspects
Stories, within stories, within lies, within the truth. One of the few thrillers that is not spoiled on repeat viewings by knowing the secret of the big reveal at the end. Granted, it is a master criminal telling the stories for his own personal survival, so it is sort of the exception that proves the rule of this post. Still, as a movie about people telling false stories about each other, it remains the greatest movie about deception ever made. Runner up: Kurosawa’s Rashomon.
2) Star Trek: The Next Generation – Darmok
Come on. Hobbits already made the list, so you knew Star Trek had to pop up eventually, right? In all seriousness, even non-Trekkies should be moved by this all-time classic episode. The captain of the Enterprise is trapped alone on a dangerous planet with a commander from an unknown race whose entire language is comprised of nothing but folk tales. But without a common culture to recognize one another’s story references, how can they ever communicate and survive? Featuring a stellar guest performance by the late Paul Winchell, this one earns bonus points for rescuing the “Epic of Gilgamesh” from freshman year reading lists.
1) A Charlie Brown Christmas
Never was there a more poignant moment of storytelling put to film. Ever. Think about it: a cartoon character is reading the King James Bible on network television without even the benefit of a soundtrack. Yet the sheer, unadorned simplicity and innocence of Linus’ moment brings millions of people to tears every year, be they believers, the unconvinced or those otherwise spoken for. Greatest story ever told.
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