Mother May I

Because I tend to write in the mornings and play with my daughters in the evenings, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between children's games and the writing process.

Most of the time, the link is a bit of a stretch.

Hide and seek has potential to offer some common ground – writing, after all, is a process of discovery – but there are only a few good hiding spots in our condo, and my three-year-old is content to hide in the exact same spot ten times in a row.

Charades, too, has potential – but neither my daughter nor I are skilled enough actors to portray anything that interesting and always just end up jumping around the room with a paper towel roll on our heads saying, rhymes with municorn.

Red Light, Green Light has too clear a goal, too straight a path.

But there’s something about Mother May I – our game of choice as of late – that reminds me of writing.

Unlike Hello Kitty Café, (her second favorite game, my least) Mother May I offers us a little resistance – requires us to ask permission before we move forward, reminds us to proceed with humility and grace.

And even if Mother says no, it’s never a strict repudiation –No, you may not take twelve penguin waddles, but you may take three froggy hops. No you may not take six snake slithers, but you may take two donkey rides.

(Note: This is only true, though, if you have a gracious Mother. When my daughter is in charge, she often abuses her authority, says no before I even finish asking to take two bunny hops, and sentences me to three ballerina steps sideways just so she can see me pirouette into the couch.)

I love the cadences of the game, the repetitions and variation, like one of Whitman’s catalogs.

And I love the dramatic tension. There is a goal – we must get from one side of the room to the other, satisfying Plato’s notion that a story should have a beginning, middle and end – so that when I tell my daughter that no, she may not take six turtle steps forward, she must crabwalk sideways, it thickens the plot, provides a little conflict and tension, some falling action before her climactic dive for my feet.

But mostly I love the balance between structure and freedom – constraints that free the imagination.

Yes, the hope is to reach the other side of the room, but the real pleasure is in coming up with ridiculous ways to move about the carpet – flopping like an otter, jumping over the moon like a cow.

And after all those Sisyphean afternoons – watching her dump and fill, dump and fill, dump and fill – what a pleasure to play with her in such imaginative ways.

May I take three princess steps forward, she asks in her sweetest voice.

No, I say. You may run in place like a hamster, you may chase your tail like a confused puppy, you many hover by that lamp like a moth.

And we keep playing and inventing until it’s late and we’re both tired and agree that it’s finally time to brush our teeth and hibernate like bears.

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About the Author

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.

See other articles by Ben Berman
by Ben Berman



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