When I first received Room by Emma Donahue, a selection of the online book club, From Left to Write, I flipped open the dust jacket and found myself crying as I read the synopsis. Room is the fictional account of a five-year-old, born in captivity to a young woman who had been kidnapped and imprisoned in an 11x11 foot shed for seven years.
I put down the book, afraid to read it. My imagination is morbid enough without feeding it new horrifying possibilities. Now, finished, I am so glad I scaved it (inside joke, read the book). Though the subject of the novel was dark, there was so much to draw inspiration from: 1) the intensity of MotherLove that enables one do things that would otherwise seem impossible; 2) the utterly remarkable resilience of children, even under the most dire of situations; 3) that which is necessary to be an effective parent and that which is superfluous; 4) how children construct a concept of the world around them; 5) the process of separating and individuating both as child, and as parent… (I hope I’m tempting you to read the book); and what I choose to write about: 6) how limited conditions can inspire boundless creativity.
Puppets from socks; bowling from vitamin bottles; pencil rubbings of common objects, a labyrinth out of toilet paper rolls. The mother of Room engages, teaches and entertains her child with discarded objects, memory, and fancy.
It’s a familiar scenario: We’ve all been trapped in a situation with our children, maybe not a kidnapper’s shed, but something not easily escaped …a delayed flight, an interminable dinner out, a car repair shop…stranded without the necessary tools of distraction (books, puzzles, crayons, etc.) and we have to get creative. Desperation necessitates invention: we tell stories; we mold snakes out of straw wrappers that come alive when we drip water on them, we whip out a sewing kit and a medicine dropper and perform a delicate surgery on our child’s worn stuffed snake (with our child joyfully administering the anesthesiology via the medicine dropper). And, it turns out, these are the activities that delight our children the most, that really get their juices flowing.
But we need not be desperate to invent games “from scratch.” We can set aside the toys, turn off the television, save the amusement park for another day.
Inspiration is everywhere.
My mother tells me to give Sophia a paintbrush and a bucket of water and let her paint the sidewalk. She’s enthralled. My friend Nancy sets up several tubs of water in the backyard and let the kids throw in objects to see if they sink or float. They keep at it for hours. My father (who doesn’t have a single toy in his house) sits and willingly eats a meal of stones, served to him on a set of bongos on his front porch. She cries when it’s time to go. My husband reclines and opens his mouth wide as our daughter examines his teeth with a spoon. Shortly after, I’m called in for a check-up as well.
I love hearing about what other parents come up with to amuse their children. I’ve stolen idea after idea, much to Sophia’s delight. In a world, surrounded by conspicuous consumption, I believe it is possible to do a lot with a little.
So, in yet another breech of the wall between author and reader, I invite you to share the homegrown activities, the homemade toys, the made-up stories and games and things you do with your kids that we can all learn from and come to enjoy.
As a member of the online book club From Left to Write, I received Room from the publisher free of charge. I was not paid to write this essay. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.