When my kids were little, reading a book (or twelve) before bedtime was the delight of their days. Mostly because it delayed the whole getting into the bed part of bedtime.
Hours were spent in the rocking chair, Golden Books in hand, as my tired voice (or the equally tired one of my husband) read aloud the tales of a talking train and his pals, a talking bunny and his friends, a talking veggie crew. Sidenote here: Why did they all talk so. very. much? Where are the books about quiet fictional characters? When my kiddos were toddling toward the bookshelf to pick out a tome, I'd sent them silent messages with my brain: Please choose Goodnight Moon. Please choose Goodnight Moon. It only has a few words. Kudos to all the children's authors who leave out all that dialogue nonsense. Exhausted parents everywhere rise up and bless your name.
One of my kids' favorite choices was the Sesame Street classic, The Monster at the End of the Book. I supported that choice. How could you not adore "lovable, furry, old Grover?" If it's been a year or eight since you've read it, let me give you a plot summary of this classic:
Grover hears a terrible rumor that there's a monster hiding at the end of the book. He then spends the next several pages trying to convince you, the reader, NOT to turn the page! He ties intricate rope knots! He nails the pages together! He builds brick walls! Alas, nothing works. The mighty reader turns the pages and, spoiler alert, finds the monster at the end of the book, who turns out to be sweet, dear, cuddly Grover. Sigh. The end. Let's all go to bed now.
I hadn't read the tale of Grover's plight in far too long, until recently, when a little preschooler who lives nearby began spending a few hours a week at our house and turned out to be Grover's biggest groupie. As I walked about the kitchen each afternoon, wiping the invisible-to-everyone-but-me crumbs off counters and pondering about the great life mystery that is the plastic container drawer, I overheard my daughter reading and rereading the story to our little pal. And I understood that I, in my Very Adult Life, function exactly like that furry friend Grover.
I walk about my life with an undercurrent of worry. Sure, everyone is healthy now. But it's been awhile since we have had an E.R. visit. There must be something dreadful up ahead in the next few pages of our story!
Two of my kids are of driving age. What if they text when I'm not in the car with them to tell them not to? What if they don't yield when merging onto a highway? Maybe the new drivers don't realize that one little mistake is not a little mistake when you're piloting a passenger-laden vehicle. What if some idiot driver runs a red light? What monster could be waiting to hurt them?
All of my kids spend hours a day online. What if they accidentally reveal too much information to the wrong person? What if someone fools them with charm and the right words their tender teenage hearts need to hear? What monster could be waiting to harm them?
We have enough money to pay our bills and take a family vacation this year. But college looms very closely ahead. Cars are falling apart and need repairs. Medical expenses apparently grow on trees, or at least the ones in my yard. Septic tanks overflow. Wells collapse. Experts (who live in some mysterious perfect world I have never visited) tell me to have three months of income stored up. So I worry. What monster could be waiting to bankrupt my family?
Monsters feel very real. They take the form and shape of hurting people who, in turn, hurt us. They appear as worrying medical diagnoses. They wait in the dark, cloaked as addictions ready to upend our lives. They hide under our beds as relational betrayals we think we will never recover from. They hover in the shadows as pain-shrouded issues our precious kids are struggling mightily against.
I recently read a quote, a gem buried in what I thought was a fun, escapist novel: "In the absence of facts, we tell ourselves stories." There is so much wisdom packed in that little line of dialogue. In the absence of real data, I will spin a horror story of monsters and their encroaching dark figures.
In the absence of facts, I will believe the new path I'm choosing to walk today will have the same old, tired ending it always has.
In the absence of truth, I will believe the lies that snake around my brain and twist and root in until they begin to feel more real than what I know to be true.
In the absence of peace, I will corrupt the power of my brain and my imagination. I will take the dark shapes and make them into something they are not, giving them power over my life. I will allow that undercurrent of fear to become a tumbling, roaring white-water river that will knock away my oars and upend my raft and capsize all who ride with me.
Or I can learn a little lesson from my friend Grover and his adventures in Monsterland: In the upheaval and stress and overwhelming moments and pain of life, I don't need to wait in worry for the monster at the end of the story. I don't need to pull out the hammer and nails and bricks and mortar and rope and attempt construction of some sort of protective barrier around my life and my loved ones. In fact, I can't. I can't possibly protect the ones most dear to me. While that knowledge used to cause panic to rise like bile in my throat, I now am learning the practice of acceptance: That I am not in control. I do not have to wonder if I have prayed the exact right words of a "hedge of protection" around my family. (By the way, that much-called-down "hedge" is a description found in the ancient story of Job when the character of Satan describes Job. Before all the tragedy befalls him.)
I can stop being my own worst monster lying in wait. Instead, I can spend my days embracing the small, beautiful moments and knowing that, yes, the scary and dark times will come, but I will only exhaust my resources ahead of time if I waste them on worry. I can open my heart to the small pleasures of today: of ducks squawking in the pond, of chocolate-studded ice cream treats, of good books and better friends. I can breathe out a prayer, knowing that it does not act like a magic spell cast around my people. Instead, it turns my heart to what is good and right and true.
Thank you, Grover. Who knew you'd turn out to be such a wise teacher to us all. And by the way, forget that usurper Elmo. You've always been my favorite.
(The Monster at the End of the Book, John Stone, Michael Stollin, 1971, Golden Books)
(Quote from Before the Fall, Noah Hawley, 2016, Grand Central Publishing)