Power of three

The title of this post might have you wondering if it’s about a mnemonic aid or a literary device (also known as “Rule of Three”). Perhaps you envisioned triangles — the strongest geometrical shape in the context of civil engineering and architecture — or the algebraic exponent, as in “to the third power,” i.e., cubed.  Or maybe even the Trinity.

But today I am pondering the power of three as it relates to the human brain, words, and reading.

As inspired by a little person who’s been staying with me each day for a few weeks this summer.

She is three years old.

Her mom and my son, who’s a newcomer in their lives, read to her each night.

So each day, as she settles for a nap, I read to her from an assortment of books I keep in baskets here at home. Some of these I bought just for her. Most are from my personal collection at school, a few are old favorites of my sons, and a couple I salvaged from stacks discarded by teacher colleagues who considered them too outdated (a worthy topic for a later post . . .).

And each day, of her own volition, my new little girl picks the same three books: Curious George Goes to the Hospital, A Bad Case of Stripes, and Green Eggs and Ham.

That is the exact order in which she insists they be read each day.

I think of myriad things while reading this rather motley selection to my rapt little listener. Two of the books have been in print for over half a century. Their illustrations are simple. The the third has elaborate illustrations and a story that might be deemed too strange or “above” a preschooler’s interest and capability to understand. While she examines various books throughout the day, poring over pictures on many pages, it’s always these three books she clutches in her arms as she climbs into bed for nap. I am reminded, yet again, of the inestimable power of reading aloud, rereading, and familiarity. And of choice. 

I also think about the impact of language on a child’s developing brain. It just so happens that a book in the stack of my own summer reading is Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, in which the author (cochlear implant surgeon Dana Suskind) writes: “By the end of age three, the human brain, including its one hundred billion neurons, has completed about 85 percent of its physical growth, a significant part of the foundation for all thinking and learning. The development of that brain, science shows us, is absolutely related to the language development of the young child. This does not mean that the brain stops developing after three years, but it does emphasize that those years are critical” — because the neural pathways for language are being created  only in that window. As a literacy educator, I mull the importance of early phonemic awareness in conjunction with Suskind’s words: “It takes more than the ability to hear sounds for language to develop; it is learning that the sounds have meaning that is critical. And for that a child must live in a world rich with words and words and words.” (Suskind later emphasizes the quality of language in addition to the number of words spoken, the power of affirmations on a growing child’s development. And her first line of her first chapter is “Parent talk is probably the most valuable resource in our world.”)

All of this swirls in my own brain as I reread the same three books every day to this three-year-old entrusted to me, as we converse about her observations and questions:

“What is a tube?” she asks, during the fifth (sixth?) reading of Curious George’s hospital visit. “Like a hose in the garden, only a lot smaller so it can go down George’s throat. Very small,” I say. “Tiny,” she declares with authority, and we go on with our sixth (seventh?) reading of this book.

“What is broke?” — when, in A Bad Case of Stripes, Camilla “broke out in stars.” This is a bit harder to define. “Hmmm. Has your skin ever had a rash, or a lot of tiny spots on it?” She nods hesitantly, and I say, “Then your skin broke out, meaning it suddenly got spots or little bumps on it for a while.” I can tell by her solemn expression that this information is being processed. A minute later: “What is sob?” When I say it means to cry a lot, not just a little, the light of understanding flickers instantly in her wide blue eyes.

I continue this umpteenth reading of Stripes to the page where the old woman who will cure Camilla arrives, just after the visit from the Environmental Therapist who told her to “breathe deeply and become one” with her room. Camilla became one with her room, all right; she melted into the walls where two pictures became her eyes, a dresser morphed into her nose, and her bed turned into her mouth. Totally abstract. Transcendental. Out there. I read in my best kind-old-woman voice: “What we have here is a bad case of stripes. One of the worst I’ve ever seen!” 

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My listener giggles. “It’s not a bad case of stripes. It’s a bed case of stripes.”

A pun so profound that I am at a loss for words.

She’s three.

I make a mental note to tell her mom, who’s clearly laid a magnificent foundation long before now.

This perceptive child notices the letters down the side of the Stripes front cover. She attempts to sound them out, and I let her try for a minute before telling her the words are “Scholastic Bookshelf.” She points to the square between the words and asks, “Why is this one blank?” I am excited: Print concepts! Teachable moments! “That’s a space. They come between words. See, this is a word. Then a space; this is another word . . .” She picks it right up: “And this is a word, this is a word . . .”

Truth is, all moments are teachable moments.

Even though her eyes are growing heavy, she chimes in with the rhyming words in Green Eggs and Ham.  In fact, she takes over reciting portions without my help now, mimicking my expression and cadence, on all the right pages . . .

I leave her to her nap. I wonder if her dreams will be filled with monkeys, phantasmagorical color patterns, rhythms, rhymes, words, words, words. My husband is compelled to check on her after awhile. He whispers his report: “She’s sound asleep.” Obliviously recharging her power of three for the remainder of the day, and for a future brimming with potential.

To the power of infinity and beyond, one might say.

And I believe it.

Beacon

Kerosene lantern

Kerosene lantern. hare 🙂CC BY-SA

In reflecting on my reading and writing life, I am most thankful that my tastes cover a pretty wide spectrum. As a child I devoured everything from Dr. Seuss to Highlights, from cereal boxes to Funk and Wagnalls Medical Encyclopedias (yes, really), from fiction series to biographies, from Reader’s Digest to dictionaries, as I marveled over the many meanings a single word can have. 

None of these were required reading in school.

All of this is what I chose to read, was compelled to read, from an insatiable hunger for the experiences, the ideas, the information, the emotions, the beautiful and the stark way of stringing words together, long before I thought about how hard authors work on hammering those words and phrases into something with just the right impact on readers.

Now, as a writer, my tastes run the gamut as well.

With Lit Bits and Pieces, I am usually reflecting on or exploring meanings of every-day experiences. Creative nonfiction, mostly.

Today I am sharing a short piece of fiction – for, truthfully, fiction is forever beckoning me with a capricious and winsome smile.

This was inspired by a personal challenge, a house I once lived in, and being told a long time ago that when she was a little girl, my maternal grandmother sometimes assisted her midwife mother.

-Enjoy.

Beacon

The captain’s wife was going to die.

Lily and her mother couldn’t save her.

They tried.

Vestal administered tinctures she’d made from leaves and bark as six-year-old Lily rubbed Miss Rebekah’s swollen belly, repeating over and over in her mind like a mantra: Little baby, please get borned . . . your Mama’s trying so hard.

Lily’s arms ached. The odors of sweat, blood, and tincture hung heavy in the close room. Miss Rebekah had chosen the highest, hottest point in the house and she couldn’t be moved now. Lily breathed through her mouth instead of her nose to avoid the metallic taste of blood and salt on her tongue. She kept kneading: Little baby, please, PLEASE get borned . . . .

The hours wore on; the sky darkened and thunder rolled in from the Atlantic.

Storms frightened Lily. Vestal said she mustn’t let it show. “When you live by the ocean, Lily dear, storms are always violent. Become accustomed to it. This is where thunderstorms are born, child.”

The wind moaned like a ghost under the eaves; rain slapped against the windowpanes. Lightning burst and sizzled a split second before the thunderclap shook the house. Lily jumped but she didn’t cry out. She sat trembling while Vestal calmly lit the kerosene lamp on the dresser.

Rebekah, sinking deeper in the feather bed, whispered, “Miss Vestal, would you move that lamp over to the window, please, so Captain Turner can find his way home.”

Captain Turner was at sea. Lily knew he wasn’t due back any time soon. Even if he was, he’d never see this lamp through the storm.

Vestal hesitated.

“Please.” Miss Rebekah’s whisper was barely audible, more air than voice.

Vestal carried the lamp to the sill of the window overlooking the widow’s walk. Beyond her mother’s silhouette, Lily could see the surf illuminated by lightning, billowing, foaming, crashing. Lily thought about the women at the marketplace who dressed only in black, murmuring to one another that this Carolina coast was treacherous even without storms.

Women who had watched for ships that never returned.

Rebekah groaned. Vestal flew back to her. The groan was so deep and prolonged that Lily’s courage finally collapsed. She cowered with her hands over her ears while Rebekah, just nineteen, married less than a year, made one last, valiant push before her life ebbed away. Lily knew it was all over when Miss Rebekah lay silent, her pinched face turned slightly toward the window where the lamplight flickered, then stood still.

Vestal gasped: “Lily!”

Lily scrambled to the foot of the bed. There in her mother’s hands was a tiny, motionless body. In all the births she’d witnessed, Lily had never seen anything like this.

The baby had no face.

“Oh, Mama, what’s wrong with it?”

“She’s a caulbearer! All my life I’ve heard of this! Cauls bring good luck, Lily, and healing powers. Whoever owns one will never drown. We must save it for her Papa.”

Lily watched as Vestal gently peeled the membrane, intact, from the baby’s face. Sweet-smelling fluid trickled from beneath the caul. When the veil lifted and she faced the world at last, the baby shuddered, reddened, flailed at the air; she drew a rasping, croup-like breath, then gave a mighty squall, startling Lily.

Vestal beamed.

Almost instantly, there was another sound: heavy boots pounding up the wooden stairs. Captain Turner burst into the chamber, rivulets of rain and seawater running from his hat and cloak, so out of breath he couldn’t speak. He simply sank to his knees on the floor in the circle of light cast by Rebekah’s lamp.

Lily was little, but she believed in miracles, believed that she was witnessing how many, right now? She eyed that lamp, glowing so serenely through the gloom. She knelt by the struggling captain. With a tentative hand, she dared to pat his arm:

“Welcome home, Captain. Everyone’s made safe harbor now. I think maybe you should call this baby Stormy, sir.”

As if in agreement, the flame in the lamp flared and danced.

******

Note: My original version of “Beacon” ended up placing in a flash fiction competition sponsored by Women on Writing – just one of the ways I’ve tried to push and challenge myself as a writer. Here’s their pretty fun response: The Muffin/Women on Writing Interview.