My Very Own Lighthouse, by Francisco Cunha, and strange dreams

Our city’s main public library, just down the street from our house, has a shop where they sell books, so I picked this one up for little E.  It has the feeling of a book from another place.  I think it’s from Portugal.

Lately my daughter has a strange reaction to stories with certain kinds of conflicts.  For one, she’s starting to read more books that have conflicts.  Early on, books with narrative usually just wound up toward bedtime or successful potty.  The closest was Hug by Jez Alborough, where the child gorilla noticed that every other animal hugged its parental figure but his own was missing, until they help him find her and Mommy gorilla and Bobo gorilla embrace, and all the animals join in a big hug.

My daughter has started to listen to these stories with a knitted brow.  Dotty (by Opal) has trouble crossing the little river, and when she tries to fly like a bird, she falls down.  My daughter is troubled, and frowns, and avoids the book next time until we clarify for her that everything turns out okay, and it’s okay to run into a little trouble crossing the river, if you just keep at it and find a way.

And in the stories that I tell her (they usually feature Linus from Peanuts, for some reason her favorite narrative protagonist), I’ve started having conflicts… conflicts of loss, of defeat, of loneliness, or struggle.  She knits her brow, looks up at me, wonders why I would lead Linus into this wilderness.  And she’s started to like Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go!, a gift from my professor Laura Sterponi, and she points at the creatures on the darker pages when triumph is not at hand and there are Seussian monsters and pugnacious adversaries littering the page.

Cunha’s book features a young girl, staring out the window at the boats beside her house and having nightmares about her fisherman father facing dangers at sea.  Assuaging her fears, her mother shows her a book of lighthouses, and she is inspired to make one (with the assistance of her toys) of her own.  She reaches up for the brightest star, a close personal acquaintance, to hold on her lap to light her very own lighthouse so that her father’s ship can find its way home.  No reunion completes the story, but it ends with the same waiting, the same harbor of expectation, that inspired the dreams in the first place.

The book is devastating for we fathers who throw ourselves into oceans of labor.  But it’s mostly beautiful for children’s patchwork hopes, for the reminder that they cannot imagine any real reason, not seas or the distance to stars or the darkness of waiting, why they and you cannot be together again.  It is my duty as a father sometimes to see that distance, to recognize that I have to get away to work, to fish, to provide.  It is also my duty sometimes to be just as blind, to see no other beacon lights than the one she seizes for me.

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Giggly wiggly precious pearl, I’m so glad that you’re my girl

Girl of Mine by Jabari Asim

One of our friends, an educator, gave us this book at our baby shower, which she picked up at Hicklebee’s (among other nice titles I will probably post about in the future).  I forgot this, but I guess we knew it was a girl and I guess we told everyone by that point.  I liked a lot of the books that I could thumb through and imagine reading to the baby taking shape in my wife’s womb, but this one immediately became my favorite.  I did extensive research (wikipedia) on Jabari Asim, the author, and imagined a professor publishing textbooks on black literature and books for popular audiences about the significance of Obama, and then also writing these books inspired by his five children, by each of them sitting on his lap when they’re little and wanting to read something to them filled with a father’s affection, playfulness, and wonder.

From the first months of her life, when we started reading to her and trying to institute a bedtime routine to try to ease her way into night sleep, Girl of Mine was a constant, the last book I would read to her before we started trying to get her to sleep.  The book’s thread has the parent (father?  I think so, but could be a mother) finding the titular daughter at play and playfully scooping her into his arms, narrating his delight in her, and then singing her an adapted “Rock-a-Bye-Baby” (less grim, more dream-like) before settling her into bed with her teddy bear.  I read that book so much that its words are like a lyric of the first year-and-a-half, emblazoned on my consciousness.

I might as well say now a few things: our baby has got me wrapped all around my finger, is all kinds of amazing just the way that a couple of very sentimental and overprotective parents would think of their little girl.  She also has completely consumed our attention and taken over our lives, like in the ways that make loved ones encourage you to go to therapy and work on your attachment issues.  Whether our affection and over-attention created a high maintenance baby, or whether she would have been one even if we were negligent or laid back, we will never be able to answer.  But there it is: she seemed to need a whole lot of attention, still does, and we are all too eager to give it, as costly as it is to our balance and sanity.

So my Girl of Mine reading has always had a twist of irony.  She loved it for a while, loved it since her eyes began to focus on images, loved it when her fingers began to grasp pages and precociously turn them, loved it because it meant those intimate moments before sleep.  Except that they weren’t the last moments before we’d put her down for an easy rest.  Our baby, God bless her beautiful soul, was and maybe is the toughest sleep resistor you could imagine.  Her daycare provider, a thirty year veteran of the baby-care trade, has never seen one like this.  My wife and I amazon-ed a library of sleep books, read them all like holy grail questers pouring over every clue and detail about how to get this girl to fall asleep at last, and still no Sears, Ferber, or Weisbluth could crack this nut.  Every night of bedtime routine was a calm and peaceful entrance into restfulness, ending with a sweet reading of Girl of Mine and then lullabies sung and gentle rocking and the most delicate touchdown you can imagine into the crib… and then WAAAAAA!… FOR HOURS!

I have since soured on books whose story arcs seemed essentially manipulations into sleepiness, and especially ones that do it not very artfully (isn’t that the enduring appeal of Goodnight Moon, how artfully it lulls?).  But Girl of Mine will always represent all the bittersweetness of the early months, the first year, the hard struggle over sleep and the pangs of pain at watching her cry and putting her down, all the attachment and emotion, all the desperation at 3am, sitting on a yoga ball for an hour trying to soothe her to sleep… Girl of Mine is a for me a reminder of how sad it was when she didn’t sleep, how sad I was that I didn’t sleep, and then how sad it was when she finally did, and she didn’t need us quite so much anymore.

And then, a few weeks into the heart-wrenching process of sleep training, she started to know what that book meant, and she started to resist it.  I would pull it out and she would cry, bat it away, call out for another book.  It was a prelude to her great struggle to be as alive and awake as her vivacious spirit wanted to be, her parents’ insistence on the 7pm bedtime be damned.  I was so sad that our book, our favorite, the one I hoped to pick up again and again for the rest of her childhood, came to signify such a painful process.

So for a while, we put it away, didn’t pull it out, just like we stopped saying the word “sleep” or “nap” to her, just like we learned to turn down the volume on that monitor before her screams crushed our souls.

She did learn to sleep, eventually, and when she did she slept like a champ.  More consistent than our friends’ kids, even though it still never got easy.  Recently, not I but mom started picking up Girl of Mine again, and now, at eighteen months, our girl looks a lot more like the one on the cover.  She stacks blocks.  She’s always had “dazzling and bright” eyes, but now they are so expressive and perceptive, they detect our joy and disappointment.  She points out stars and holds a bear to sleep and smiles her way to dreamland sometimes.  So the book is beautiful to me for the tender ideal it depicts, far as it was from our reality, as it narrated for us the affection and hope that she came to grow into.