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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Meat of the Tongue

Okay, by now some readers may be ready to give up on me and my fairy tales and legends. “Too late,” they’ll say. “Didn’t do that when the kids were small, and now that they are reading on their own they don’t want to read these things. They’re too old for bedtime stories, even if Einstein thought they should read them.”

Allow me to paraphrase a traditional tale from Kenya, called Meat of the Tongue. A ruler was alarmed because his wife was thin and sickly and weak. Looking around, he saw that a humble tailor had a robust and healthy wife, and asked, what was the secret? “Meat of the tongue,” replied the tailor. So the ruler ordered all manner of tongue meat for his wife – wildebeest tongue, lamb tongue, gazelle tongue, even ostrich tongue – none of it availed. In desperation, the ruler asked the tailor to swap wives for a month, to see if that might bring his wife to better health. Sure enough, the ruler’s wife was soon happy and smiling and putting on weight, while the tailor’s wife was looking sad and tired. “What is it, what is it?” the ruler demanded. “What is this meat of the tongue?”



As you might have figured out by now, meat of the tongue is talk. Meat of the tongue is the nourishment we get from tales told and listened to. The good news about this nutritious dish is it is never too late to thrive on it! If your kids think they are “too old” for fairy tales, try some other kind of story, but tell it. Half the magic is the connection between the teller and the listener, the voice and the ear, the parent and the child. Attachment isn’t only a concept for parents of infants. My voice telling stories was one of the primary tools I used to develop attachment between myself and my daughter, whom I adopted when she was eight.

Picture a teenager, angry, frustrated, grumbling at his computer because a virus is causing havoc among his files. Picture his parent later that day, maybe while walking to the car, maybe while unpacking groceries, taking three minutes to tell the story of the Trojan Horse: After ten fruitless years of siege, the Greeks are ready to go home. But clever Odysseus has a plan: the Greeks build a giant horse, wheel it to the gates of Troy, and then seem to retreat. Hidden inside the horse are Odysseus and his most trusted warriors. The Trojans, rejoicing at their defeat of the Greeks, drag the great offering into their city behind the high walls – and thus the fate of Troy was sealed. In less than three minutes, this teenager can see his predicament connecting him back, over thousands of years, to one of the greatest stories we have. That’s pretty rich meat.  Traditional stories are sometimes referred to as "messages from our ancestors."  For myself, I would like to remain open to those messages, because there is wisdom there that may help me be a better person and a better parent.

Stories are portable and convertible, like those compact suitcases that can grow to twice their size by unzipping a zipper. You can make them short, you can make them long, you can put all sorts of things inside them and carry them around as you travel. On top of that, what matters as much as the content of that narrative suitcase is the structure. The architecture of story is part of the meaning. By becoming familiar with the narrative structure –introduction of conflict, development of conflict, resolution of conflict – we can see a way to give structure to our experience. Intellectual courage gives us the ability to see patterns in our experience and find what is significant.  


“Meaning in a story reflects our belief that there is meaning in the universe, that no matter the disorder that frames our lives, in the center – in the place that reveals who we are – there is order.” These words were spoken by beloved children’s book author, Katherine Paterson, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Hans Christian Andersen Award Winner, Newbery winner, National Book Award winner – winner of too many accolades from around the world to list, so you can take her word for it! It’s never too late to learn that our stories are ours to shape. We are the authors of our own tales, and that connects us to all the other tales of the world.   We are the heroes of own own stories.  Let that give children courage. Let them grow strong on meat of the tongue.

2 comments:

  1. Please DO keep writing about stories! We read lots and lots every day, but I love the reminders about telling stories, and I love being reminded about the stories I loved as a child. I think my six-year-old is getting ready for some myths and legends, and I love your suggestions. Keep them coming! (Also, I appreciated your quotes from Bettelheim, someone I keep meaning to read...)
    Thanks again!

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  2. I sure will, Amy! Thanks for your feedback, and we are so glad you are enjoying the blog.

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