Saturday, January 05, 2013

Heroes of the Coast

If you are still casting around for a good piece of advice for the new year, I'll recycle some of C.S. Lewis's advice: read old books. There's no substitute for it. It's helpful, yes, to read modern books by people from different perspectives, but they're still coming from the same set of assumptions, addressing the same set of issues. A good book from a different era has the power of cracking your head open in a way that a modern book never could.

And there's no excuse about availability: almost every book that is in someone's library somewhere and is more than a hundred years old is available for free online somewhere. Whatever might slightly interest you is out there, and you can download it to your e-reader and read it in bed.

One book I came across recently is a collection of legends from the tribes of the Northwest coast. It's called Legends of Vancouver, which is a bit to the north, but the cultures were very similar up and down the coast before the Americans and English decided to draw the line somewhere. This is the world my great-grandparents invaded, looked at from the other side.

The author was one of those people uniquely positioned at a conjunction of cultures. Pauline Johnson, or Tekahionwake, was the daughter of a chief of the Six Nations in eastern Canada and a woman from England. She grew up on tribal lands reading the classics of English literature, traveled widely lecturing, including to England, and settled down in British Columbia in the early 1900s, becoming close friends with the local tribal leaders. This book is of the stories they told her.

Nothing tells on the values and goals of a culture like its legends. Not just what behavior is rewarded, but what the rewards are. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about these legends is that the most exemplary persons are rewarded with being turned into stone and forming one of the numerous coastal rock formations. Imagine that happening in a European fairy tale. The typical rewards of a European fairy tale--wealth, power, and sex--are notoriously hard to enjoy in a petrified state. However, once you realize that the reward is meant to be never being forgotten, it translates a little better.

As for the behavior being examined, it is, strangely to us, nearly all about parenting. Chief Joe Capilano, the teller of most of the tales, begins the first legend by explaining their custom of throwing a feast for a girl upon reaching womanhood: "During these days of rejoicing the girl is placed in a high seat, an exalted position, for is she not marriageable? And does not marriage mean motherhood? And does not motherhood mean a vaster nation of brave sons and of gentle daughters, who, in their turn, will give us sons and daughters of their own?"

And most of the stories turn on this theme: the young father-to-be so concerned with following the purification rites before the birth of his child that he won't even get out of the way of God's canoe. The tribe foolish enough to ask for a boy-child for their chief's first offspring, instead of welcoming a girl and the accompanying good salmon runs that would secure the future of the tribe. The father who devotes himself to ten years of solitary confinement to guard against an evil omen that may come on his tribe from the birth of twins. And most beautifully and sadly, the deluge story in which the adults place only the children of the tribe in the great canoe together with one young mother and one brave to look after them.

The thing that strikes me as so very different about these tales is how parenting is treated as the execution of the noblest service to the tribe. Imagine telling Chief Capilano about surveys attempting to determine whether people are more or less happy after having children. He would not see how the question could even be asked. What is more noble than securing the future of the tribe? And what greater happiness is there than in doing what is noble?

Compared to that, moderns of every persuasion treat parenting as a high-end hobby, and one that comes at a high cost in the things our society does value as rewards: achievement, wealth, sex. Something to be evaluated on the basis of personal fulfillment. Something to be tolerated in other people if it doesn't get in the way. Or, alternatively, something to be promoted rabidly as justification for the vast amount of personal investment it has taken.

Mothers and fathers are recognized as doing something valuable for their children but not for everyone. Yet, even though we do not face the fear of extinction as a culture as they did, what is more important for the future we must grow old in than that children have, before they have schools or streets or social programs, parents who love them?

This, I think, is the root of the "Mommy Wars." We feel the need to imbue with significance a task whose cost is vastly out of proportion to its shrinking returns. And so we add to the labor, stake out our own territories and proselytize our various approaches. Parenting is personal and therefore competitive.

When perhaps if we listened to Chief Capilano we could recognize that we are already heroes. Everyone who brings a child into the world, everyone who feeds them and rocks them and gives them a roof to sleep under and tells them stories is serving all of us. And maybe we could face our tasks with more calm and courage if we knew we were performing, not a personal act, but a public service.


Silvia said...

What a lovely picture you have. I like the new look of your blog.

I have enjoyed your post. Funny, it was exactly what I needed to know as parenting these past days has been very difficult.

You write so well. I like your style.

Happy New Year!

Diary of an Autodidact said...

Great review, and I always love the quality of your writing. I think I should stick this book on my list for the future, although at the rate I am going, it might be a decade before I get there...