Friday, March 14, 2008

Something from Nothing

As a parent, the first few years of our children's lives are momentous. There are so many balancing acts that you have to achieve. We try to protect them and at the same time push them out into the world to experience it. We try and fill them up with knowledge and wisdom but in doing so sometimes we risk emptying them of wonder and awe.

For a new born child, the whole world is a mystery and every moment is an act of discovery. Acquiring new experiences and knowledge of that world out there beyond our fingertips is an absorbing and exhausting adventure (for parent and child). As a parent we are seeking to fill our children up with knowledge about the world and how to live in it. But every act of knowledge creation is also an act that erodes wonder and we should always seek to balance those processes.

The act of switching on a light is a magical thing in the beginning. One motion and instantly there is illumination where there was only darkness. When we learn about electricity, and wires, and bulbs and filaments and Edison - these are wonderful things too but filling up the bowl of knowledge drains the bowl of magic just a bit. There are two paths that run in parallel with one another, sometimes crossing, sometimes merging, sometimes ahead or behind. You might call these paths, knowledge and belief and the spark of wisdom comes at their intersection. Life is an act of doing and making and creating but it also an act of feeling and believing.

As so often is the case, Sir Winston Churchill has some interesting observations. In this instance, from his My Early Life, he is referencing his sudden deep reading while stationed in India and the upset that that brought to his comfortable religious views.

As it was I passed through a violent and aggressive anti-religious phase, which, had it lasted, might easily have made me a nuisance. My poise was restored during the next few years by frequent contact with danger. I found that whatever I might think and argue, I did not hesitate to ask for special protection when about to come under the fire of the enemy: nor to feel sincerely grateful when I got home safe to tea. I even asked for lesser things than not to be killed too soon, and nearly always in these years, and indeed throughout my life, I got what I wanted. This practice seemed perfectly natural, and just as strong and real as the reasoning process which contradicted it so sharply. Moreover, the practice was comforting and the reasoning led nowhere. I therefore acted in accordance with my feelings without troubling to square such conduct with the conclusions of thought.

It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations. Bartlett's Familiar Quotations is an admirable work, and I studied it intently. The quotations when engraved upon the memory give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more. In this or some other similar book I came across a French saying which seemed singularly apposite. 'Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connait pas.' It seemed to me that it would be very foolish to discard the reasons of the heart for those of the head. Indeed I could not see why I should not enjoy them both. I did not worry about the inconsistency of thinking one way and believing the other. It seemed good to let the mind explore so far as it could the paths of thought and logic, and also good to pray for help and succour, and be thankful when they came. I could not feel that the Supreme Creator who gave us our minds as well as our souls would be offended if they did not always run smoothly together in double harness. After all He must have foreseen this from the beginning and of course he would understand it all."

The journey along these two paths is powered by that one remaining treasure in Pandora's box - Hope. Without hope and from it a commitment to the future, there is little to drive things forward. The material world, the world of science and reason and logic is one of trade-offs and choices. If I spend time reading this book I am not spending time on the soccer field. If use this wood to build a pine wood derby racer, I cannot use that same wood for kindling a fire.

We often tell our children that there is no free lunch, someone always pays. This is completely true in the material world, the logical world. But one's life is more than the sum of materials, it is also how you view things, feel things, believe things. And here the whole is often not the sum of the parts. Sometimes there is something to be had for nothing - it is merely an act of conjuring up a different way of viewing things to arrive at a greater richness.

There are many marvelous children's stories that help children understand that part of the continuing magic of life is our ability to see how sometimes, by changing your focus, you can suddenly have something from nothing. The best examples of this are of the optical illusion variety - for example, the old classic of the image which, depending on how you shift your focus, appears to be either a beautiful young woman turned partly away from you or an old woman facing towards you. There is nothing more to the image than when you started, only how you view it.


So what are the stories that help our children to understand the shifting of perspective and how to achieve something from nothing? There are of course the multitude of optical illusion books of which we include some in the list below. But in terms of stories, perhaps there is none better to start with than Marcia Brown's retelling of the old folk story, Stone Soup in which three hungry and weary soldiers returning from the front come to a village of distrustful villagers who have hidden away all their goods and supplies. The hungry soldiers ask for some food but are told that there is none to be had. They accept this but then ask for just a pot and some water so that they can make stone soup.

The curious villagers produce the pot and water, one of the soldiers produces a "special" stone from his knapsack and places it in the pot. A fire is started with the soldiers sitting around it, talking to another of the wonderful stone soup they are about to have - a dish of which the villagers have never heard and are immensely curious. One soldier remarks to another that it is too bad there are no potatoes because that would make it that much better. One of the curious villagers offers that he might have a few potatoes at the back of an old cupboard and rushes off to fetch them. The soldiers keep on down this path; too bad there are no carrots, too bad there is no pepper, too bad there is no meat. And with each suggestion, a villager rushes off to find that next ingredient that will make the stone soup just that bit more delicious.

Off course by the end of the exercise, the soldiers have incrementally tricked the villagers into providing all the ingredients for the wonderful soup - all ingredients that they had in the first place but had been unwilling to share. And still the villagers don't realize what is going on. They lay out a grand feast and everyone has a marvelous time sharing this wonderful soup, this soup made from a simple stone. And the soldiers, quietly and happily, share a wink with one another, masters of having conjured something from nothing.

There are other stories as well. The Wizard of Oz, famously turns in the end on a change in comprehension on the part of the Lion, the Tinman and Scarecrow. Despite all their adventures, what Dorothy points out to them is that they respectively had all along what they sought; courage, a heart and intelligence.

Similarly, one of the stories in Else Holmelund Minarik's classic Little Bear is Little Bear's Fur Coat. It is cold and wintery outside and Little Bear keeps coming in to ask his mother to add something to make him warmer; gloves, scarf, hat, etc. When he comes in the last time, she takes everything off to reveal that he has a fur coat for the cold.

Another folktale in somewhat similar vein to Stone Soup are the Puss-in-Boots stories. In this instance, there is somewhat greater emphasis on trickery but the outcome is that the boy ends up with wealth and wife because of people's belief in the tales told by his cat.

One of my favorite collections of family stories is Kathryn Forbes's Mama's Bank Account in which the title story is about the mother in this immigrant family always answering a child's request for some new doodad with the question as to whether it is worth taking the money out of the bank account and what else might that money in the bank be better used for. Every one of these conversations ends with the child deciding that it is better not to spend the money now on the doodad. It is only years later that the children discover that there was no bank account in the first place. What they got was the satisfaction of making a good decision based on a non-existent bank account.

There are other classes of something from nothing stories. There are of course the various creation stories, both religious and literary (such as The Magicians Nephew in which Aslan sings the world into existence). Not quite what we are talking about here, but there are plenty of stories where a child receives something for making the right decision: not quite something for nothing but in the vicinity. Beauty and the Beast where Beauty gains love from having kept a promise, The Talking Eggs where the little girl is rewarded with wealth for doing as she is told, etc.

There is, of course, also, the whole category of stories where people create something by investing work to use what already exists to create something better. Stop the Train, The Gardener, Mysterious Island, The Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, and any pioneering story such as Little House on the Prairie, or story of scientific discovery such as Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium.

Finally, there are stories that tell children about the beauty of gift giving where nothing is owed but it is given in the cycle of life. Richard Jorgenson's Reading With Dad is a favorite of mine in this area. All it is, is the story of the bond that is created between a father and his daughter as they read together through her childhood and as she grows. It is a simple story and very touching. Others of this ilk would include Mary on Horseback and another favorite of mine, Silver Packages. This is a good one for also establishing the interconnectedness of life and generosity.

In this story, a wealthy man driving through the Appalachians one winter evening, drives off the road and is rescued and sheltered by one of the poor mountain inhabitants. From that point on, every year just before Christmas, he charters a special train, distributing silver packages to the children of the mountain hamlets. One boy hopes for a particular present every year. Over the years he receives gloves, and shoes and a scarf and some little toys, but never the big thing that he hopes for. He grows-up, shakes off the poverty of his childhood and goes away to university and becomes a doctor. But later, he gives his own gift back by returning to his community to becomes its much needed doctor. Marvelous story.

What are your favorite something from nothing stories?

Picture Books

Stone Soup by Marcia Brown Highly Recommended

Reading With Dad by Richard Jorgensen and illustrated by Warren Hanson Highly Recommended

Puss-in-Boots by Charles Perrault and illustrated by Fred Marcellino Highly Recommended

Silver Packages by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet Highly Recommended

The Talking Eggs by Robert D. San Souci and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney Recommended

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small Highly Recommended

Independent Reader

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum Highly Recommended

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe Highly Recommended

Mama's Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes Highly Recommended

The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis and illustrated by Pauline Baynes Highly Recommended

Stop the Train! by Geraldine McCaughrean Recommended

Something Out Of Nothing by Carla Killough McClafferty Suggested

The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne and illustrated by N.C. Wyeth Highly Recommended

Mary on Horseback by Rosemary Wells and illustrated by Peter McCarty Recommended

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss and illustrated by Lynd Kendall Ward Recommended

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