stories are important, thank you Nik
Falling is more Interesting than Talking
by Nikaela Peters
When I fell on the ice under the stroller the toddler and his brother laughed. My elbow and tailbone registered a sharp pain but I joined in the laughter and it felt creative somehow. I asked the older boy if this is something I could write about. Could I describe this winter walk for groceries – the struggle with the outerwear, the cilantro freezing in my coat pocket, the children’s pink cheeks – to have it all culminate in my fall? We were singing when I fell and part of what made the boys laugh is how the melody was thrown upward, turned shrill. The winter sun is beside us, turning our breath into gold smoke. We pass a yard in which someone has collected dog poop in colourful baggies along the side of a snow drift. It’s pretty – the plastic rainbow of scat framed in white. The boy says he thinks I could write about falling “and it would at least be better than that thing you wrote about Dad talking about a musical.” I laugh again.
I feel stirred, excited. I think about narratives within narratives – writing about writing. I think of how my friend says her mother used to talk about which of her children “wore the crown”. She said it would change, which child was temporarily the favourite, head heavy with the prioritizing love of the parent. I imagine my eight-year-old with a crown over his orange toque. His hair is pulled off his forehead. I can’t tell if the radiance in his face is from the cold or his spirited expression. The pain moves up my back, I picture a bruise spreading like paint under my coat. He goes on, “Falling is more interesting than talking. But still not as interesting as adventure. Or fantasy. Why don’t you write fantasy? That’s what I like.” My excitement retreats. I want to write fantasy, I tell him, but I don’t know how. “You know how you’re interested in dragons and pirates and magic and treasure? Well I am interested in you. The things you say and do and what you look like.”
He smiles. “That’s weird.”
This child, at eight years old, is accomplishing a dream I have had for my whole life: He is writing a novel. It is written in smudged pencil on pages of lined paper he gathers up like leaves at the end of the day and piles on top of the piano. He startled me with the first lines: “One evening Jake and Ben were out practicing their magic. Blasts of fire after bolts of lightning. Crackle crackle. Sizzle sizzle. And then the sound of wingbeats behind them. They turned as their dragons Fledge and Sky landed.” He has a sense of pace. He integrates dialogue. His sentences vary and hold the reader’s attention. He has made character studies and drawn maps of the imagined setting. I should only feel astonished and proud but I am honestly distracted by a sense of envy.
When we get home I can’t find my sweater and the boy can’t find a specific piece of lego.
These lost things combine in my mind with the now dull pain in my arm and back. I can’t tell them apart. I franticly search for the sweater while my mind traces the inside of my body, as if looking for the origin of the hurt so I can extinguish it. I make wide circles with my arm. I go through the same drawer over and over thinking this will be the time I find it. He is making shrieking sounds and looking under the couch for the lego. I’m reminded of the Ferrante novel about the lost doll. When you lose an inanimate object, it takes on a certain aliveness. I am aware of the things I cannot lose, as they need my tending. My children. The cats. The sourdough starter. The sweater will be fine without me but you wouldn’t know by watching me hunt for it. The boy and I pursue our missing items with all the drama of a three-act play. He finds his lego in box of hats and mitts. I find my sweater crumpled under a bed. My back still hurts. We relax.
I used to think a lot about being an animal. When I first had children I found the idea necessary and restorative. By projecting episodes of “Planet Earth” onto our life and imagining our family as part of the mammalian universe, I normalized my drives and tensions. By picturing us as wolves or whales or dolphins or polar bears I made narrative sense (drama, plot) out of what felt like chaos. This is of course partially ironic as “Planet Earth” itself imposes human plot arcs on the animal world. What is interesting to me looking back, is that what felt like the opposite of fantasy (reducing us to our animal selves), was in fact a grand fantasy. Just as then it was hard to escape the firstborn’s intense and singular passion for beasts of all types, it is now hard to escape his more recent (still intense, less singular) passions: Star Wars and Robin Hood; adventure and robots and battles and weapons and magic. Where he used to resist anything fiction, now everything is attributed character and motivation: lego people, snow drifts, sticks, pieces of clothing, entire afternoons. The world has taken on a mythological feel.
In present tense, he resumes his novel writing at the dining room table and I run a bath upstairs. Someone has smushed two leftover bits of pink soap into a new bar and it looks like breasts. The water soothes my back. The toddler brings all his toy animals and joins me; we’re crowded. I think about a movie I rewatched a few months ago about a family moving from Ireland to America. The children in the family, two girls, are lively imaginers and the movie itself has a fantastical feel, while remaining starkly, painfully realistic. There is a scene at the end of the film where the dad and older daughter try to convince the younger girl that her dead friend is flying across the moon like ET, waving to her. I found it so emotional to watch the younger girl’s face searching the sky for what she wants to see. At first she sees nothing, her eyes search the sky desperately. But after a minute, it is as if her mind trips and falls, tumbling over into make-believe, she sees her flying friend. She is jubilant, she jumps and waves and calls out goodbye. I sobbed.
The toddler in the bath is playing with the animals. I find it hard to match him in this play of animating the plastic creatures. This type of pretend is a chore for me now. But there is another type of pretend, the type we do to live, that’s easier. The boy stands and sits in the tub. He makes sounds with the water and with his mouth. My legs are banks of land on either side of him. We lose the soap and find it again. His skin slips on mine. The splashing makes the floor wet. George Saunders calls plot “significant action”, which makes it less intimidating.
When the eight-year-old and I compared interests, it sounded to both of us like we were interested in different things (me: my children, him: fantasy and adventure). But I’m not sure we were. He is my fantasy. Not that I create him in any way, but that my desire and drive to know him forces and fosters my imagination. When we were on the snowy sidewalk laughing, disagreeing about what I should write, we were, in fact, in agreement. We agree that stories are important. The most important. And that the desire to read and write them is born out of simple, genuine curiosity. It is like a friend of mine says: your “dream house” is the house you do your dreaming in, not the house you dream about.
words and photos by Nikalea Marie thank you Nikaela and thank YOU all for reading xx