Bedtime Rituals & NarrativesApril 8th, 2009 at 14:00
Our son Eric always had trouble getting to sleep at night. And starting at age three when he had to get up early to go off to pre-school and later regular school, the issue of getting him to bed and from there to sleep was always a daily challenge. His mind would race and he would resist letting go of the day. His sister Emma, three years younger but with just as active a mind, was right there with him, and in need of some sort of serious transition to get to sleep at night.
It seemed that Eric would do anything and everything he could think of to draw out the bedtime period before he and his sister got kissed good night and their mom or (more often) I left the room. He would always negotiate as best he could for more and I would negotiate on the other side to make the bedtime ritual more finite. Based on my own youth and my remembrance of bedtime with my dad (not usually my mom) he used to sing us songs (often with us singing along) mostly, but also read us stories at times.
So as our son Eric got to be two or three, my opening gambit at bedtime was to read him a story and sing a couple songs. I can remember reading him the hypnotic “Goodnight Moon” (hoping it would work its clandestine somnambulistic magic) and some Disney books about Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck related to letters and numbers. Songs I remember were the Beatles “I Will” and other Beatle songs, “I Want to Go Back to Michigan” from my Dad’s bedtime repertoire, and the old Mickey Mouse Club show theme (“Who’s the leader of the club…” etc.) To inject some more gender equity into the story lines, I even changed the lyric in the Beatle’s “Yellow Submarine” to, “In the town where I was born lived a woman who sailed the seas…”
This routine often did the trick at first, but as Eric got a little older and his mind became more and more active and harder to calm, and his language facility increased, he began to ask for more. So he would ask for a third song beyond the two I was already singing to him, and then for a fourth. I got him to agree to a limit of three songs, but then he also wanted the opportunity at bedtime to share something he was thinking about with me. So how could I say no to that? I said okay, and he would go on sometimes for ten minutes telling me about some dream he had had, often the same dream over and over again about what seemed like a past life he recalled as a girl living in Las Vegas of all places. He would also tell me about his friends at pre-school or some cartoon or movie that he had watched on the VCR. So again, as this category of bedtime interaction grew, I eventually negotiated that he could tell me three things, along with the three songs.
But in the course of the three things he would want to ask me questions, particularly clarifications about some of the more complicated or compelling plot points in the movie he had watched for the umpteenth time on the VCR, whether “Wizard of Oz”, “Never Ending Story” or something else. Sometimes he would ask me essentially the same question night after night. “So daddy, why the blackness was coming in Never Ending Story?” Eventually we negotiated that he could ask three questions along with the three songs and the three things he would tell me. This of course was all on top of a bedtime story, which started out as a short kid’s book but soon evolved to a chapter from a more older-youth type book like one of the “Redwall” series or “Lord of the Rings”.
Then once his sister Emma got old enough to get into the act, she demanded that she get every privilege I extended to her brother, so I was reading two stories, singing six songs, answering six questions, etc. For some time they were in the same room (even though we had enough rooms for them to have separate bedrooms) because they preferred that to falling asleep alone. So I generally read Emma’s story first, maybe a chapter from one of the “Little House on the Prairie” or “Redwall” books, and then to her older brother “Lord of the Rings” or even “Dune”. Years later, Emma shared with me that the readings from “Dune” about the giant sandworms freaked her out as a kid of seven, half asleep but still listening to the story directed more toward her brother.
With all this, the bedtime routine grew to well over an hour at its apex, but since I really also really enjoyed (most) aspects of it myself, and they really needed to get themselves to sleep for that early morning to come; I did my best to keep it up.
They both developed their favorite songs that, to this day, remind me of them when I hear them. “Eric’s song” was the Beatles “I Will”. “Emma’s song” was the Rolling Stones “Ruby Tuesday”. As my dad had done when singing to my brother and I as kids, we would change the lyrics sometimes to make them silly. For example, in “Ruby Tuesday”, we changed “No one knows… she comes and goes” to “No one knows… she picks her nose” and all giggled as we continued to sing. Other favorites were a bunch of 1960’s pop classics, including “Windy”, “Downtown”, “Hazy Shade of Winter”, “Happy Together”, and of course many selection from the Beatles, including “Yellow Submarine”, “All My Loving”, “Fixing a Hole”, and the more adult-themed “Rocky Raccoon”.
Eric found that last song and its story particularly compelling and memorized the lyrics and would sing the song all on his own. He (and quickly his sister too) enjoyed the more complex and adult themes in the narrative of love, betrayal, revenge and redemption. Another more adult song they really hooked into a few years later was Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” with its three stories (murder, gambling and lust) of vice, addiction and not learning from one’s mistakes. This, while at the same time, loving a good rendition of “Happy Together” and belting out with me, “No matter how they toss the dice it has to be!”
I guess it should have been no surprise that later on in their teens, they would both emerge as writers and story weavers, who as best as their literary skill could deliver, were writing stories of their own characters wrestling with some darker themes at times. In her Internet role-play gaming and forums, Emma wrote of roguish thieves and pirates. Her brother wove tales of other worlds populated by deities who lived in the gray area between good and evil.
What has seemed to emerge from all those bedtime hours of compelling stories, provocative questions, and lyrically sophisticated songs, was their embrace with the concept of compelling narratives, real or fantasy. They have both conceived of interesting fantasy stories within fantasy worlds as well as lived interesting real-world adventures themselves. Eric at age 16 crossed the country by train with his dementia-impacted grandma Jane. Emma at about the same age sojourned with her friend to work on a farm in Quebec. They both were rife for these adventures and all the complexities that arose from them. More on that elsewhere.