“Like children who listen in vain to the sea in plastic seashells they sat bewildered. Like children at the end of a long bedtime story they were suddenly thirsty.”
I’ll confess, I am not going to attempt to properly analyze the above passage from Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers. For one, I’ve not yet finished the book, but even in the context of the passage I’m a little confused (and intrigued). These sentences come at the end of a paragraph in which a French-Canadian missionary attempts to convert a group of Mohawks to Christianity. Unwilling to be swayed, the Mohawks place their fingers in their ears, which Cohen suggests is a means of hearing internal sounds that also connect them to the earth – raspberries growing, trout swimming: life and death and nature. When the missionary presents them with his painting of a vision of them in Hell, however, they are frightened. By removing their fingers from their ears, they lose the connection to the earth and everything they have known and they sit, “bewildered,” no longer understanding or having access to the spiritual knowledge they seek. The plastic seashell suggests that the knowledge the priest will present to them is inherently false or manufactured, but what of the thirst?
I noticed this passage in part because the last sentence is so true of Owen lately. At the end of a series of bedtime stories, he has started to try and delay going to sleep. “Mo’ books? Mo’ books?” he asks, or “Nik [milk]?” Rather than agreeing to go to sleep, he seeks comfort, becomes extra alert, hungry (thirsty) for something he does not need.
I’m a mean mother, because while I might relent and read another story, I’ll almost always deny him the milk, assuming that it’s a ploy to get out of his bedroom and back into the world. Is it barbaric to deny my child a drink at night? I don’t really think so. After he’s brushed his teeth and is minutes away from sleep, Owen’s request is strategy more than thirst. So what we usually do is to sing a song. Owen has two favourites for bedtime. One is the classic, Wynken and Blynken and Nod. I know all the words to that song, more or less, and when I get to the last verse, Owen moves his hands in the dark to point out that:
Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes [points to each eye]
And Nod is a little head [points to his head]
And the wooden shoe that sails through the skies
Is Owen’s little bed [points to himself and to his bed]
His other favourite is probably inappropriate, but it has a lovely tune. I started singing it before Owen really grasped any language, and had no idea it would rise to the top of our repertoire. I learned it in Dublin at the Irish Theatre Summer School of the Gaiety School of Acting. I think we were taught the song because it requires us to use almost the entire range of our voices (at least, it challenges mine. I croak out one or two of the words). Here it is:
A boat, a boat
Come to the ferry
And we shall row
And be quite merry
And quaff some wine
And good brown sherry.
I know, I know. Soon he’ll be asking for wine before bed.
It sounds beautiful in a round, but Owen’s not up to that yet. He does a slightly mangled version that sounds something like this: “A boat, a boat, Caooodaddy, Aeeee wow, a baddy, A wine, A shawwy.” Because of this song, all boats are “a boat, a boat.”
I heard somewhere recently that no matter how badly we think we sing, we should all sing to our children, that something about the warmth of the body and the vibrations caused by the voice are just good for us (of course I forget the details as to why). I was so cautious about singing to Owen when he was small. My voice felt too big and his body too small (to contain the vibrations?) Anyway, the songs were all wrong. I felt like a plastic seashell, false, tacky. But of course at some point Owen became person enough to sing to. His body grew big enough to absorb some of the sound (if you know what I mean) and he decided which songs he liked: “mo a boat a boat” or “no no no stop stop.” So instead of catering to his manufactured thirst, I guess I’m trying to satisfy something deeper.
And he doesn’t even seem to mind that I can’t hit all the notes.