I was hanging out with the Spotted Opossum t’other day. She didn’t have school, I got her from her ma early, took her someplace. She was drawing and I was trying to get some more caffeine in me, making conversation. She said she’d had a babysitter the night before so I asked what she and the babysitter did.
“She told me stories.”
“Yeah? Were there little pigs in the stories?”
“No, she told me a story about Nineveh.”
“Is Nineveh a person?” Obviously, I was still not totally awake – or maybe I just couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing.
“No, Nineveh is a city and there was a man named, uh, Jonah…” and at that point I saw the light. I asked a few more questions and, sure as you’re born, the babysitter had regaled the little heathen with many of the charming tales of the Old Testament, including Jonah and the whale, David v. Goliath, Moses parting the Red Sea and leading the Israelites out of Egypt, all of which are great stories and all of which have great and valuable spiritual lessons. Nevertheless, there were bells and sirens going off in my head.
Obviously, I have an abiding appreciation for religion and myth. I want my daughter to grow up with myth. I want her to be familiar with the many ways various peoples have tried to make sense of, or at least have a relationship with the Great Mystery that underlies all that is, was and will be, but that doesn’t mean I want some college girl I don’t know telling her about how some Jewish kid killed a giant with a slingshot and cut off his head. There is a proper time and such for some revelations and there are some myths that I would want framed as “some people believe…” The sprat’s mom and I disagree on many, many things, but we are on the same ecumenical page when it comes to the religiosities we want to present to our daughter. We exchanged a few texts. No damage was done to the girl. The mom said she’d have a talk with the babysitter – ask her to back off a little with the wrath of YHVH bedtime stories or seek part-time employment elsewhere. Problem solved.
Later, over lunch, the Spotted Opossum asked me to tell her the story of Jonah and the whale. She likes to hear stories over and over. I told it to her. It’s a good story and one which I can see myself in. I, too, was called by (insert name of deity) to a certain life. I, too, chose not to heed that call because I was afraid and kinda hoped I could slip away unnoticed. Jonah spent forty days in the belly of a whale - “great fish” according to the KJV – and I spent thirteen years put off, put down, strung out and stoned, but it amounts to the same thing. I do believe that every one of us is “called” to some task, some course of action, and that resisting the call is the same as throwing away one’s life. All mythology is in some wise related to this theme, but Jonah and the whale is a damn fine, and very concise, telling. When I told it, I stressed the importance of the voice of divinity, which speaks to us from inside ourselves, and I made the girl fall over laughing with my impression of a whale spitting a man out. Bleh. She wanted to hear about “David and the giiiiiiant”, so I said “Oh, I know another story about a giant” and gave her “Jack and the Beanstalk” instead, which satisfied.
This whole thing is part of why I started taking her to the Universalist-Unitarian church. I want her to have access to a spiritual community with some rituals, one that was open to all forms of religion and I want her to have something to fall back on when someone else challenges her. We live in the Bible Belt. There’s a guy who stands in front of the court house downtown, preaching Jesus to everybody who walks past. The girl will certainly encounter people who will assail her with whatever their preacher says and when some kid tells her “My church says God hates fags”, I want her to be able to say “My church believes in the inherent value of all human beings and that God loves us all enough to accept us all into Heaven” or words to that effect.
It’s a weird situation. I sometimes wonder if I’m holding back too much. When I tell the girl “Little Red Riding Hood”, I say the wolf wants to eat the cookies Little Red has in her basket. I tend to soft pedal, to smooth out some of the rough edges. Maybe I’m softening things too much. Which would be a really strange thing for me to be doing. I’m usually the one who offends people with my tendency to call a spade a fuckin’ spade and then get pissed off because so many fuckin’ people don’t know the difference between a spade and a shovel, for fuck’s sake. I try to be aware of other people’s sensibilities and I have made considerable progress in that area, but I’m not aspiring to become one of those ultra-sensitive guys who talks about their feelings in a sing-song voice and has to qualify every statement lest someone think they’re being overly aggressive in their request for someone to pass the sea salt. Then, my daughter sits down and wants a story and I find myself avoiding the more gruesome and unseemly passages of “The Three Little Pigs” for fear of shattering her innocence or something. Maybe the babysitter has performed a service for us by opening a can of Mosaic worms which we can now play with and talk about.
Which does not mean I want her to tell the girl the fabulous story of Job. And that business about Sodom and Gomorrah is right off the agenda as well.
The mommy suggested we find a collection of stories from different religions and tell those to the girl, which is a brilliant idea. Actually, I don’t have to find a book – I have shelves full of them. I can think of a half-dozen Inuit stories off the top of my head that would be pretty fun. There’s one where Kuluscap is wandering along looking for adventures and he comes to a village which is populated entirely with cats. The cats are people who have been turned into cats by a witch. Kuluscap turns himself into a cat. He starts to live in the village. All of the cats are trying to survive. They do the best they can, hunting mice and small birds. Kuluscap leaves the village every day and when he is alone he turns himself back into Kuluscap and goes hunting for larger game, deer, elk, bear. When he has killed an animal, he turns himself back into a cat, returns to the village and tells the other cats to follow him. He leads them to the deer or elk or bear or whatever. In this way, Kuluscap the cat proves himself to be a great hunter and a valuable asset to the community. He quickly becomes the chief of the cats. Kuluscap begins to lead hunting expeditions. He leads the cat hunters away from the village, slips away from them and kills some large animal. The cats are doing pretty well.
One day, Kuluscap leads the cat hunters to the river. They get into a canoe and paddle across to an island where there are many ducks’ nests. They want to gather eggs. The witch goes along with them, having changed herself into a cat. When Kuluscap sneaks away from the others, she says “Now, we must all go back to the village” and gets into the canoe. The other cats follow her. They paddle away from the island, leaving Kuluscap stranded. The witch leads the other cats back to the village. After a few days she says “The chief is gone and I am here. I am chief now.”
On the island, Kuluscap begins to sing. He sings a song that has great power. The song goes out of Kuluscap and across the river. The song travels many miles through forests and over mountains until it finds Fox, who is Kuluscap’s friend. Fox hears the song and immediately he follows it back to its source.
“Friend Fox” says Kuluscap “I am trapped here on this island.”
“Hold on to my tail” says Fox. “I will tow you across the water.” Kuluscap holds on to Fox’s tail and Fox swims, towing Kuluscap behind.
There is a huge storm. Kuluscap says “The witch has made this storm.”
Fox says “No, this is just a storm. Keep holding my tail. We will be across soon.” Nevertheless, it takes them all night to get across the river.
When they are across, Kuluscap thanks Fox and goes back to the village of cats. He knows that the witch has made herself chief while he is away and that she will oppose him when he returns so he makes a trap for her in a clearing outside the village. He rubs the trunk of a pine tree and speaks to it so the sap comes out. The whole trunk of the tree is covered with sap. Then he goes to the edge of the village and peaks out from behind bushes. He does this in a way that the cats will see him sneaking around and poking his head up because he wants the witch to see him. After a while, the witch sees him and thinks “There is Kuluscap, sneaking around, trying to figure out how to become chief again.” She picks up an ax and runs after Kuluscap, chases him to the clearing. Kuluscap hides behind some bushes. The witch looks all around, but she can’t find Kuluscap. She thinks “He is hiding around here, getting ready to jump out and attack me” so she backs up against the tree so Kuluscap can’t attack her from behind and she gets stuck in the sap. She is stuck to the tree and can’t get away. Kuluscap returns to the village. All the cats are happy to see him. They don’t know that he is Kuluscap, but they are happy to see him because he is a better chief than the witch. Still, they are afraid that the witch is going to come back and when she does things will be bad.
Kuluscap tells the cats not to worry about the witch. He tells them that he has stuck her to a tree. Later, they hear a chopping sound. Chop, chop, chop. The witch is trying to chop herself loose from the tree. All night long, the chopping goes on. In the morning, when the cats are making their breakfast, the witch comes into the village. She has an ax in her hand and a big piece of wood stuck to her back. She looks disheveled and worn out from chopping all night.
“Look” says Kuluscap “there’s the one you were frightened of”. All the cats start to laugh at the witch. The witch becomes angry and waves her ax around, but the cats just laugh harder. They fall down on the ground and roll around laughing. The witch can’t stand to be laughed at. She throws the ax down and runs away. She runs and runs and runs until she comes to a marshy part of the forest and there she stops. With the witch gone, the spell is broken and all the cats turn back into people. They ask Kuluscap to stay and be their chief again, but he says “No. I don’t like to stay in one place. I like to have adventures. Someone else can be chief”. Kuluscap leaves and goes off looking for more adventures.
Out in the marsh, the witch tries to think of a way to get revenge. She eventually decides to turn herself into mosquitoes. “I’ll be mosquitoes” she says. “I will plague the people forever and they’ll never be able to get rid of me.” So that’s what she did.
Now, that is a fine story even if I did alter it somewhat. I got it from Northern Tales, selected and edited by Howard Norman, a wonderful book which I picked up at the free book stand downtown. The version in the book is a lot more convoluted and has a lot of stuff which probably mattered quite a lot to the Inuit, but which seems superfluous to me. I think the girl will enjoy it. She likes cats.
Parenting is a lot of fun, but there’re these moments when you wonder how you’re doing. Most of the time, I try to just assume that I’m doing okay, that if there’s anything I should deal with someone or Someone will let me know. The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the Great Parent sent the babysitter over with the intention that the grrrl get introduced to the O.T. in order to push me into teaching her about the world’s wonderful faith traditions. Which I can do.
Maybe one day I’ll tell her about how I was swallowed by a whale because I didn't go to Nineveh.
*I believe the spelling has been standardized "Kluskap" or "Glooscap". I went with "Kuluscap" because that's the spelling Norman uses.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.