Inevitably, when it comes time for my 5-year-old to choose a book during story time, he picks one of the two Curious George books we own: Curious George Gets a Medal or Curious George Rides a Bike. My two older boys groan and bewail the choice. “Papa, not George again. We’ve read it a hundred times. Come on, Levin, pick something else!” But Levin is steadfast. He will not be deterred.
Perhaps this will be the time that George does not push the ejector button in the rocket and find himself hurtled beyond Earth’s atmosphere, left to perpetually float and spin in space, like Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Or maybe this time, George will not feed the ostrich the trumpet. He’ll be a good little monkey and listen to the circus manager. Maybe, just maybe!
But of course, George always ejects in time, landing softly back to Earth. And no matter how many times he is given the opportunity to do the right thing the first time, to not let his curiosity get the better of him, he can’t help himself. Trouble finds him.
My boy, of course, is not unique in his capacity to listen in wonder at the same story a dozen, hundred, or thousand times. He shares this trait with many, perhaps most, children his age. For them, GK Chesterton’s example of the miracle of gravity is very real. When I throw this ball up, will it indeed come back down? Or will it ascend, up, up, up and into the stars, like George just before he ejects?
I’m no longer like my son Levin. Try as I might, whenever I go to re-read a book, I’ll get a few chapters, or maybe only a few pages in, and then stop, distracted by another book on my bookshelf I haven’t read before. This is true even of some of my favorite novels. Crime and Punishment. A Tale of Two Cities. The Moviegoer. I’ve tried to re-read each of these novels the past couple of years, trying to recapture something of the wonder and joy I experienced reading them with fresh eyes in the past. Alas, I didn’t make it far with any of them. Why is that? Why this need to consume something new? Why this endless seeking for the next great book?
I wasn’t always like this. I was once like my son Levin. Just this past month, in fact, I was reminded of my own past capacity for repetition. I was at my neighborhood coffee shop with my wife, there to celebrate JPII’s feast day, our family’s chosen patron saint. As I waited for my coffee, I noticed stacks of books on a table; a handwritten sign revealed that they were for the taking. I picked through the books, mostly crime thrillers and teen lit. I was about to turn around and walk out when I saw the familiar green leafy pattern of a book I immediately recognized. But could it really be? Here in this coffee shop; could I have really found that long-out-of-print classic Runaway Marie Louise? I removed the half-a-dozen or so books on top of it, and sure enough, there it was, in near pristine condition.
How many hundreds of times I had made my own mother read me this tale. And though I haven’t read it for decades, it is deeply etched in my memory. I can still hear my older brother quote one of its more memorable lines, somehow twisting it into a putdown for any occasion: “Buzzard eggs in an owl’s nest!” This unforgettable story of a little mongoose girl who runs away from home after being spanked by her mother, hoping to find a better mother, only to realize that every other option—from the turtle, to the duck, to the snake—were all far inferior to her own mother, holds a singular place in my childhood consciousness.
And though I knew the ending of this prodigal daughter tale—that Marie Louise would always return to her waiting mother—I loved to sit in wonder on my mother’s lap, listening to the familiar words, observing the familiar pictures, glad to know there was a happy ending just around the corner.
Christians, too, know the ending. And we know it to be a happy ending. The happiest of all endings. But the temptation, for me at least, is to look for another story. Another path to the end. Another route to the finish line. But the truth is, there is only one way: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me,” says the Lord in John 14:6. And we know what following Jesus entails: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24. The truth of the cross, both Christ’s and ours, is replayed over and over and over again at Mass. This is not because we are locked in an endless and hopeless repetitious cycle—like the Buddhist saṃsāra—or because the one sacrifice was not enough; rather, we humans need to be reminded. Need repetition. Need patterns. Need to ever be retold of our salvation, of our hope, of our joy, and of our final end. The repetition of the Mass, with the continual retelling and reliving of the paschal supper, perhaps is the only thing that can keep us from being engulfed by the boundless cycle and repetition of the modern world, with its endless and false claims about fake messiahs and hoped-for utopias. There is but one story, ultimately, that we need to wed ourselves to, and it is the story of our Savior’s cross, death, and resurrection, which broke the endless cycle of sin and death.
Tonight I’ll let Levin pick a story to read. And inevitably he’ll pick a George book. And though his older brothers will wail and stomp their feet at him, I will smile, and begin to read of that curious monkey that always gets into trouble. I’ll read the familiar words and look at the familiar pictures and be glad of Levin’s choice. Because who needs another story, when the story is this good?
Jeffrey Wald’s work has previously appeared in publications such as Dappled Things, Stinkwaves Magazine, and Shotgun Honey.