Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Origin of Magical Creatures?

One of the things that I really like (or at least appreciate) about being a parent is that it gives you a whole new perspective on the world. I'm not talking about the perspective that comes when you realize, while gazing at your tiny, helpless infant, how fragile and precious life is. I'm not talking about the perspective you get as your body slowly and painfully adjusts to perpetual sleep deprivation. I'm not talking about the perspective you get as you rub your bleary, blood-shot eyes, look at the alarm clock and wonder if its a.m. or p.m. - is it that early? - and decide that you really can do this. You really can get up and take care of your screaming infant, allowing your wife to (for once!) keep sleeping.

Those are great perspectives. They teach you about yourself, the fundamental nature of life, and where you fit in to the whole "big picture." That's great. Lessons learned and all that. But here I'm being a bit more literal.

Parenting literally provides you with a new perspective, a new set of eyes from which to view the world, a new set of phenomenological experiences to try to interpret, and a whole new mode of interpreting those experiences. Parenting draws you into the experiential world of your child, allowing you to see through their eyes, hear through their ears, smell through their nose (and, my, what lovely smells!), and interpret with their young mind.

When I look at Adam I am more than myself. That is because he draws me in to his way of seeing, his way of thinking, his way of being. Of course I keep my far too jaded and analytical self, but I also add his self to my self, as I kind of counterweight. His perspective challenges my perspective, and supplements my perspective.

Among other things this has given me a whole new perspective on myth.

As a culture, in many ways, we have lost the value of myth. We are a very literal society, a very logical (if not quite rational) society, a very historically minded society. This, of course, shows in our approach to religion. The fastest growing religious movement in our country is a kind of literalistic fundamentalism which imposes our logical/historical mode of thinking on an ancient text. But I've beaten that horse enough.

This approach causes us to devalue myth. That devaluing is obvious in our language. We have a popular show called Mythbusters which exposes and destroys various popular "myths" which are really just false statements about the natural world. Conversationally we place "myth" against "fact," as though one were true and the other false, one bad and the other good.

But fundamentally a myth is not a lie, it is a story. A story which explains something non-literally, non-historically, and non-rationally, and in doing so provides meaning to our shared experiences.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with parenting? Simply this, children precede our rationality, or historical-mindedness, our need to divide the world into truths and falsehoods. Children have mythological eyes, and can, if we are willing to let them, lend those eyes to us.

We have two cats, and Adam loves those cats. Of course, the cats don't know or respect this, because they've actually met the boy. Worse, they've seen what he does to the dog, and they'll be damned (perhaps literally, eternally damned - hell hath no fury like a toddler's affection) before they let that happen to them. Adam, you see, like any child his age, has no concept of "gentle," no notion of finesse.

When Adam loves something, and desperately wants to communicate that love, he pulls its hair, yanks its tail, twists its ear, smacks its nose, or even chews on its face. No amount of parental chastising can solve this. He simply, motivated by pure, wholesome love and affection, torments our animals.

Cats are first and foremost survivors. They know the art of self preservation. Fortunately for Adam (and the cats) their "fight-or-flight" reflex is stuck on "flight." Whenever they sense him near they disappear. This morning I had the fantastic opportunity to see this event from Adam's perspective.

The cats love sunning themselves on our bed. If they could they would spend their whole lives sprawled out on the comforter basking in the warm rays of sunlight. In fact, cats may have invented the tanning bed (but that's a myth for another time). Alas, they live in the house with a maniacal one-year-old, so no such luck.

This morning the cats were in their usual positions on the bed, when Adam waddled into the room. He's learned how to climb, which is very exciting. He'll climb on anything. The other day I saw him in the living room with his feel on the base of the windows, his hands clutching their top, his teeth gripping the middle, holding on while testing his anti-gravity devise, trying to climb even higher. How he got their I'll never know, but I'll also never leave him alone near a stair case and a window.

Given his climbing prowess, no bed can stand between him and the furry objects of his affection. He grabbed a handful of the comforter and proceeded to climb Mt. Momma-and-Daddy's-bed. While Adam was focusing on the tough climb ahead, the cats, with an eye to their survival, frantically leaped out of the bed and scurried out of the room, unnoticed by the boy, who was fixated on his own task. When Adam finally made it onto the bed, he started looking for the cats.

His eyes darted from one corner of the bed to the other. They were just up here, his puzzled face seemed to say. Where could they have gone? In his world they had not simply jumped off the bed while he was not looking. They had vanished! Without a trace, as if by some sort of ancient magic, the cats, his cats, had dematerialized. Poof! They were gone, without some much as a cloud of dust left behind.

Watching Adam try to understand what had happened, the mythological wheels in my head were spinning. This must be where we get magical creatures!

We've all had experiences which defy rational explanation, and we've all invented stories to try to explain and give meaning to those experiences. This is the root of mythology. But how do we come up with the myths which we share? What experiences stay with us - on an unconscious level - demanding to be made into stories? And why do some of those stories resonate with such a wide variety of people?

Some of our most common myths, some of our most common stories, involve apparently normal animals endowed with some sort of mysterious magic. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Steven R. Donaldson, Ursula K. LeGuin, Lewis Carroll, Lloyd Alexander, George MacDonald and of course Madeleine L'Engle and J.K. Rawlings, all wrote stories involving magical animals. These stories captured our collective imaginations, drawing us into mystical, magical realms of wonder. They did so because they understood the inner child, the creature of wonder, the maker of myth, and in doing so reminded us that we were all once children, and - if the myths are true - shall all be children again.

It has been - for all of talk of myth and story - a very long time since I've just sat down with a good yarn and been swept away into a magical, fanciful place. Somehow, without my knowledge or consent, I became an adult, a creature of habit and a master of logic. But inside this adult there is a child, a product of myth and story. Nay, even a creator of myth and story!

My own child is drawing this child out of me. Perhaps we two children will, as soon as he emerges from his nap, tell each other a few magical stories involving disappearing/reappearing cats and the boy (or girl) who happened to cross one on just the wrong day and found himself all alone in a magical forest.


Anonymous said...

I get it! That's why Adam says "cat" so emphatically when he sees the cat again. The cat has suddenly rematerialized!

Tom said...

Adam's starting to sound like a real Baker boy. Run kitties, run!

goddess_rl said...

I will admit I was amazed when my friends cat did not run from Jenny. Her son is not doing his job. But he has dogs to draw his attention away. My cats have learned how to jump over and around Jenny, but they also have lots of places she can't get, yet.

L'engle actually dicussed myth in her book A Circle of Quiet. she is very annoyed at the literaly world and the loss of myth. (And this was in the 70's.)

Sandalstraps said...

Until Adam can get on top of the fridge the cats will have at least one safe haven.

Nice point about L'Engle. She was my favortie writer as a child (I read her even before Lewis, and you shoud remember my CS Lewis infatuation in high school), and has clearly rubbed oof on me.

I'm starting to think that at least some of us are best understood as a product of the books we've read. Maybe I should read more fiction.