Springtime, the forgetful old woman and the grapevine.

I returned to work in a kindergarten where I had not been since autumn. When I was there in April I had created, in a tall vase,  a display of vibrant red autumnal leaves from an ornamental grape vine. When I returned  in August, with spring in the air, I was disappointed to find the dried grape vine leaves just where I had left them. I was stewing crabbily and judgmentally on my disappointment when I noticed something green among the dusty leaves. I was stunned to see a burst of new life, a fat green bud with tiny grape-looking flowers in its centre.

 

It seemed such a salutary life lesson in some way for myself that I was moved to create a story about a crabby old woman and the change of seasons. So I did. I started by creating the verses which give a story a structure and a rhythm and repetition. They changed as the days passed but finally stabilised. This is the story…

And these are some of the principles that I took notice of when I was creating it. I wanted to include rhythmical memorable lines that I could repeat each day. This way the children would be able to look forward to the accurately repeated  lines each day, and I would not have to learn the entire story word for word.

I incorporated animals and events that were real and alive for me. I chose a pattern of three for the times in which the old woman intended to cut down the tree, and included three animals all of which are familiar to the children, I referred to seasonal changes with which the children are familiar. I tried to use interesting verbs and adjectives to give the story life, and I also tried to include some words which the children don’t hear often.

What else did I do? I recorded myself telling it to see how long it took to tell. I told it out loud to myself in the bath in the morning in the days leading up to the telling. I attempted to keep the pace slow and old woman-ish and slightly dreamy. During the telling I used my hands and body to demonstrate the physicality of the cat and the dog and the ants… When the cat was purring in the old lady’s lap, I stroked the imaginary circular shape of the sleeping, purring cat. When the dog leapt over the fence, I used my arm to indicate how he leapt. When the ants bit the old lady’s leg, I pretended my hand was scurrying around the back of my shin before the old woman slapped her own leg, etc, etc.

I thought about the temperaments... the phlegmatic sleepy, snug cat, the choleric Digalot the dog digging and chasing and refusing to come when called. I appealed to the empathy of the listeners when Suzy, the old dog, died in  her sleep, and again, as they heard each animal respond  to the threat of the axe chopping down the tree, and the urgency with which they knew they needed to act to save the grapevine. And the sanguines love all the adjectives and descriptive words which are in the verses and in the descriptions of the behaviour of the animals…the cholerics also got a moment of adrenaline when the  captain or grandfather of the ants  called on the swiftest, most agile and most courageous of the ants to go into action and fight for the life of the grapevine.

I included references to the senses... the taste of grape jelly, and the sweet raisins,… the smell of …no I did not include smell…  the feel of Greysmoke’s warm fur, the cold winter chill of a winter’s day, the warm relaxation induced by the sun’s rays,  the sound of purring like a miniature well-oiled  tractor, the sound of the old woman trying to whistle, the scuffing sound of Digalot digging For the sense of sight,… the juicy purple grapes, the green bud unfurling, the daffodil bulb that looked  like an onion,… so I did include the senses but not deliberately. If I had thought of them, I might have consciously included a few more… like the texture and taste and smell of well chewed old slippers!… or the texture, smell and feel of the sun-warmed corrugated iron, and so on….

I like the fact that I spoke openly about the fact that pets die and that it is very sad. It felt good to name it, and also soften it with the acquisition of the puppy. One other detail I liked was to include a compassionate view of the new young puppy who never sat when asked to sit, never came when whistled for, etc etc. We have a new child in the class who is intensely like Digalot in this regard, and it felt good to say that the puppy was young and that he was learning and that he did not mean to be naughty. It was simply that he was indeed a young puppy. And to hold the child in my consciousness and even, occasionally, in my gaze, while I described Digalot’s behaviour.

Whatever I did, it certainly held the attention of the children for four days in a row, and one child  even asked ‘Is this story about you?” ( The cat was once mine, the dog that died belonged to a friend of mine…. and my mother was forgetful but never that bad!) I made a felted house for the children to play with and which I used to introduce the story and occasionally I referred to it, tracing the journey Greysmoke took to get to the roof, and the place where Digalot hid the old woman’s slippers so that he could chew them in peace! and so on and so forth. The hanging was left out for  the children to play with and populated with other puppets who were available..I did not have a dog but the kangaroo looked very doggy like or foxy ( as one child commented) if you ignored the joey in her pouch! so we made do!!

It felt like a very healing thing to do to tell a story that somehow made bigger sense of my smaller, rather petty response to the continued presence of the  grapevine. And it was a pleasure each day to reach the point in the story when the old woman sees the wonder of returning spring. Each day it felt alive and powerful and special. On the very first day, no one else in the room had spotted this little miracle so they were all delighted to run over and see it for themselves when the story ended and also to experience the wonderful miracle of the seasons…. and fancy the old woman forgetting all about the cycle of the seasons, and isn’t it wonderful that indeed the seasonal wheel is turning back towards the warmth of summer and fresh growth.

And then I made another house in a toadstool,  with more windows and space! i have embroidered it a little, and added a  door knocker and ‘apples’. I like this one a lot too! And will happily make something similar for you, and you could give me the specifications that you would  like!

 

 

 

 

 

The complexities of Christmas, Halloween and growing up.

This is the conversation  between two boys, one four and one four and a half. I sat outside their arena of play and wrote like crazy because they barely paused for a second. It felt like being at the theatre as the script and the plot unravelled as fast as i could write! Once again, it makes  me appreciate the beauty and complexities of creating and adjusting one’s working theories, not to mention their incredible mental agility and flexibility when it came to accepting ‘offers’ and rolling with them. Here is the whole exchange as well as I could manage it. .There are not many photos as I really did not want to intrude on their play. Their props were absolutely minimal.. just the two jars and some wooden blocks and a plastic dinosaur and elephant. The next day, when I glued the words into their portfolios, the opportunity arose to read it to them. They clearly were surprised but delighted and nodded in agreement at specific points as they listened with great interest. E suggested a replay of the game and I proposed that maybe they could swap roles this time. This they then proceeded to do. I played the role of mother, taking notes under the guise of also writing a shopping list! This time is was G who could (just!) reach the high shelf, and E who asked if he could eat the apple. G gave immediate permission and I howled in protest, ‘Noooooo!’ which delighted them both and E proceeded to ‘gobble’ it down and then asked me to write ‘one million apples’ on my shopping list!

The little red hen and the small blue mouse.

I have never cared for the personality and the life approach of the little red hen, so I rewrote the story. Here it is.

Once upon a time, there was a little red hen who lived in a farm yard along with a dog, and a cat and a duck.

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And a lot more animals lived there besides those four but this story is about them. Well, the little red hen was always very busy, scritching and scratching with her sharp little claws, looking for food, tidying the barn and generally keeping an eye on things. One day she found something very exciting… it was a whole pile of wheat grain that must have slipped out of the farmer’s bucket when she was feeding the other animals.

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The little red hen knew a thing or two and she knew that now, in springtime, was the very best time to plant wheat, and that it would grow tall and every grain would produce a plant and every plant would have twenty or thirty more grains of wheat growing at the top. She decided to plant the grains.

She asked Cat and Dog and Duck if they would like to help her to plant the wheat. Cat was sunbathing and was stretched out in the warm sun. “No, I don’t want to help. I am lying in the sun and it doesn’t sound like fun”. Dog was lying in the sun as well and said,” No, it sounds rather boring and I’d rather lie here snoring” and Duck just floated on the pond and said nothing at all.

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So the little red hen sighed and started to walk to the field with her basket of grain, when she heard a little voice saying “I’ll help!” and she looked round and there was a small blue mouse, with quivering whiskers and bright eyes, and he said’ I like to help and I’ve never planted wheat. I’ll help you”.

And so down to the field they went, carrying the basket together. Little Red Hen dug the rows with her clever little feet, scritch scratch, scritch scratch.. and the blue mouse dropped the grains in one by one till two long rows had been planted. The little red hen scratched the mounds of dirt back over the ditch with the grains lying in it, and they went off to the river for some water to water the grains with. They managed to pull up one bucket of water and carefully spilled a little for each grain of wheat but it only did one row, so they had to go back for more.

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What with all their tugging and pulling and spilling the first time, the bank was quite muddy and slippery and just as they were pulling the bucket out, they both fell in! Splash and splish! Neither of them could swim and they thrashed about in some alarm , wondering if they would get swept out to sea or even if they might drown, when suddenly they hit a big branch that had fallen over the stream and they were able to scramble to the bank and dry off in the sun.

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When they were dry, the Little Red Hen turned to Mouse and said’ You know Mouse, I think that was very scary but it was also a little bit exciting and I think that if I practised every day, I could get quite good at swimming”. And so it was that every day when they watered the wheat, they also had a practice swim. Sometimes, Mouse would swim a little too, but mostly he ran along the bank, shouting encouragement and sometimes he would ride on the little red hen’s back.

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And so, when the summer had passed and autumn was beginning and the autumn leaves were starting to turn rusty gold, the wheat was ready to be harvested and Little Red Hen had learned how to swim.

Now it was time to take the wheat to the miller at the windmill and so Little Red Hen called out to her farmyard companions, Cat and Dog and Duck, to ask if they would like to help. Cat was washing herself in the sun, and said, ‘No, I need to keep myself fresh and clean, I’m too busy, I’m just not keen’ and Dog growled out. ‘ I’ve got a bone to chew and then to bury, I haven’t  got time to carry and ferry”, and Duck just floated on the pond and said nothing at all.

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Little Red Hen was setting off for the windmill with her heavy sack of grain, when she heard a cheerful little voice saying ‘I’ll help. I’ve never been to the windmill, and I’ve never seen wheat being ground into flour. Can I come?’ “ You certainly can’ said the little red hen, “ and thank you”. So off they went, dragging the heavy sack of grain between them.

Well, the mill was very exciting with its big sails whirling around and around. The miller showed them the big stones that lay on top of each other and explained how the wheat was crushed to flour between them.

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Then he offered to show them the big blades of the sails.. and so they climbed up and up the stairs right up the middle of the mill till they came to a little door with a  balcony on which they could stand and see the sails whooshing slowly and grandly past.. whooompf, whoompf… it was a wonderful sight, and then the miller said something truly wonderful. He told them that the had a little abseiling harness just the right size for the mouse and a small basket that could be attached to a sail, and if the mouse would like he could get himself strapped in and see how it felt to fly! Goodness, the mouse’s whiskers were shivering with excitement. ‘I would love to fly!’ and so the miller stopped the blades and the mouse got into his harness, and then they started the sails spinning again, and wheee! around went the mouse. The little red hen stood on the balcony and waved at Mouse as he went by… whooooosh, whoooosh!.. oh me, oh my, you could hear the little shrieks of delight from Mouse every time he sailed past!

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And so eventually the job was done, the grains were ground, and the little red hen and the blue mouse set off home again.

Finally it was time to bake the bread and to do this, they needed heat. Little Red hen planned to use a camp oven to cook her bread, and so they needed to make a big fire and when it had all burned down to hot embers, the bread could go into the camp oven which was like a bit cast iron pot with a lid, and it could rest over the embers on a little grill.

Little Red Hen called out to Cat and Dog and Duck to ask if they would like to help cook the bread and make the fire, but Cat said, ‘Oh no, I have been washing myself all afternoon, I will need to take a nap very very soon. Sorry, no thanks” and Dog said, “ Chasing sticks can be a lot of fun for a dog, but gathering them for a fire sounds like a bit of a slog. Sorry, no thanks.” And Duck just floated on the pond and said nothing at all.

So the little red hen and the blue mouse ( of course! He never liked to miss out on any adventure) gathered dry pine cones, and twigs and larger twigs and small branches and stacked them up like a tepee just so, and then the farmer’s wife came and lit it with a match, and the Little Red Hen and the mouse told stories and sang songs and played with sparklers making patterns in the evening darkness, while they waited for it to die down and then they cooked the bread.

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When it was crusty and brown and done to a turn, the Little Red Hen put it on a picnic cloth and fetched butter and knives and called out to Cat and Dog and Duck, “Who would like to help me to eat the bread?’ and all three of them shouted out,”Me, me, I would , I would like to help you eat the bread, yes please!!”

And the Little Red Hen looked at them and thought how they had not helped at all with all the hard work, and she said, “Well, you old sillies, you missed out on swimming and you missed out on flying and you missed out on bonfires and sparklers! So you had better not miss out on yummy homemade bread. Come on , you lazy scallywags!” and so they all shared the loaf of bread together.

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I like this story much better than the original, and the children adored the flying mouse and the excitement of it, and i like to think that the message of the story is that working together and making fun out of work is an appealing and joyful goal, and less  based on the gooody good puritan work ethic. Community working bees are sometimes the best community times of all, and I could never bring myself to tell the original with her po-faced self righteous approach, eating her bread in solitary priggish splendour! This is more in the spirit of the prodigal son. He probably got the lesson too.