Monday, September 5, 2011

Mortimer, Mohammed and Me

This piece appeared in Zadok Perspectives No. 111 (Winter 2011). The Spring edition is out now, with my reflection on praying into the night.


Mortimer, Mohammed and Me

Every Friday, I spend a few hours reading with kids at a local school. I listen to each child read their reader, and then I offer them a choice: they can go back to the classroom activity, or they can have a story read to them, which they choose from the books I bring in. Mostly, they want to listen to a story; and mostly, they choose a little book by Robert Munsch, called Mortimer.

Mortimer can’t sleep, so instead he sings loudly (‘Bang-bang, rattle-ding-bang, Gonna make my noise all day’) and drives his family crazy. Person after person comes upstairs to tell Mortimer to be quiet, but as soon as they reach the bottom of the stairs he starts singing again. Eventually, the family becomes so agitated that they start yelling at each other; and while Mortimer waits for someone else to come up, he falls fast asleep.

As you can imagine, it is a very loud book. I have to sing Mortimer’s song four times; and mimic the sound of lots of people coming upstairs and shouting at him; and evoke the noise of Mortimer’s mother and father and seventeen brothers and sisters and even the police yelling downstairs – this book is a riot.

Meanwhile the listening child sits, spellbound; sings Mortimer’s song along with me; and almost invariably gets the giggles.

I read Mortimer aloud fifteen to twenty times each week; and at times I find myself wanting to rush. They’ve all heard it before, many times. There are very few volunteers and lots of kids, and I would like to read with every child every week – but I can’t. I find myself thinking that if we hurry this story or read less of the reader or maybe even give up reading stories but focus on the readers instead, then I’ll get to one more, and one more, and one more, child.

Yet the whole point is to give these kids, mostly refugees with very few books at home, the opportunity to wallow in stories just as my own children have wallowed. We can’t do that in a rush.

So I work hard to breathe deep; to sit on the class list so it doesn’t catch my eye; to read fast when the story begs to be read fast; to read slow when the story begs to be drawn out; to make room for quiet spaces and expectant pauses; and to look at the face of each child and etch it onto my heart.

One Friday, I was reading Mortimer for perhaps the seventeenth time, as always achingly aware of the kids I wouldn’t get to and wrestling with the impulse to race. I glanced at Mohammed, listening with rapt attention, and I suddenly realised that we were on God’s time.

Between two words, I dropped into that great yawning space, that vast universe where there is more than enough time for love however long it takes; and in this spinning dizzying sense of the infinite I was surrounded by a great rumble of belly laughter, a deep chuckling, love wiping its eyes in hilarity at the story of Mortimer and at all the little boys and girls who drive their parents crazy, and at all the crazy adults who think that love can be scheduled or rushed.

And then I was back at school, where I found myself sitting on the carpet singing ‘Bang-bang, rattle-ding-bang, Gonna make my noise all day’ and beside me Mohammed was now singing, his face aglow, and I started to hoot and he got the giggles and a classmate joined in and another picked up the thread of song, and surrounding us all were the floating filaments, the echoes of heavenly laughter.

(The boy’s name has been changed. Robert Munsch has a fantastic website where you can look at his books and listen to stories; Mortimer is here.)

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