Narrative's Building Blocks

My four-year-old is in the living room, playing with magnetic building blocks. She is as focused as I’ve ever seen her, paying as much attention to shapes as to colors, aesthetics as to structure.


But I don’t have a story until I have two stories, wrote Grace Paley, and along comes my two-year-old. It’s as though she’s just finished watching Donnie Darko and is convinced that destruction, too, is a form of creation.


My four-year-old steps between her sister and her work, suggests they engage in parallel play.


But my two-year-old is a post-modernist at heart. She fakes left, jukes right, then swipes a square from the bottom of the tower and watches its collapse. There is no center, she shrieks. The center cannot hold.


My four-year-old should know, by now, that our attachment to the impermanent is at the very root of our suffering, that, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes, the important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention.


But she looks at her once magnificent creation, now lying in a pile of ruins, and starts to cry.


I pick my two-year-old up, bring her to her room and tell her she needs to apologize.


Apologize, she says, apologize for what? For applying Schumpeter’s economic theories on creative destruction to afternoon playtime? For reminding this family that, as Derrida points out, “deconstruction is not an operation that supervenes afterwards, from the outside but is always already at work in the work?” Such is the paradox of progress, she screams from her crib. Kill your darlings.


There’s no use trying to reason with a two-year-old, so I pull down the shades and turn off the lights, close the door and leave.


But she refuses to be punished. She begins rattling her baby Elmo’s head against the bars of her crib to what sounds like the tune of We Shall Overcome.


I go back in and confiscate all her dolls. I want her to understand that vulnerability is at the heart of creativity.  I want her to acknowledge how much courage it takes to create something from nothing.


There is great beauty in wreckage, she says. There is power in knowing that our creations are always on the verge of collapse.


I try to convince her that she is suffering from massive cognitive distortions, but she’s long past listening to me.


She believes in the transformative powers of art and has transformed her crib into a trampoline. She’s jumping wildly now, master of her own private mosh pit, lost in that ecstatic lightness of being.


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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.

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by Ben Berman

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