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Rules for Anchorites

Letters from Proxima Thule

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I Am the Walrus

You never know what a school visit will be like. If the kids will have read your book or not, if they will be engaged and interested or bored and distant. If they will open up to you or shy away, since you are a stranger and an adult and that oh-so-mysterious thing, a writer.

And then sometimes they spin you right around and show you the slice of the universe they carry around in their backpacks.

After my talk in South Portland a couple of weeks ago, the kids were milling around the library and two kids started playing an odd game with a long row of identical powder blue books. Each book was about an individual animal, with that animal’s name and a photograph emblazoned on the front in bright colors and large print. The boys stood on chairs behind the shelf so they could pull out books without looking at them.

One, who wore glasses, looked up and yelled “Miss Cat! come over here! We’re playing a game!”

I did, and the boy in glasses told me to stand still and they would pick for me. With a little theatrical flourish, he closed his eyes and pulled one of the books at random.

“This is what he is,” he said, gesturing at the other boy, who had blond spiky hair. He turned the book around and held it straight out with both arms. On the cover was a crocodile.

The blond boy yanked out another one. “Oh yeah?” he said to the boy in glasses. “Well, this is what you are.” He flipped the book to reveal a toucan.

“And this is what you are!” the boy in glasses turned back to me triumphantly, and selected another book.

On the cover was a moose. I laughed. “I can be a moose,” I said. “They’re big and strong and stubborn and they make funny noises, just like me.”

This went on for awhile, grabbing books with closed eyes and trumpeting: this is what he is, this is what you are, oh yeah, well you’re both of these put together, I’m gonna pick three and all of them are Miss Cat. Well, if I were a MAD SCIENTIST I would make one animal out of THESE ONES and it would be a MONSTER and that would be YOU.

I was, variously, a moose, a wolf, a muskox, a flamingo, a grizzly bear, and a walrus. The blond boy was a butterfly, a shark, a mountain lion, a mosquito, a swan, and a kangaroo. The boy in glasses was a dolphin, a hummingbird, a lion, a zebra, a whale, and a rabbit. I was also a whaleantelopebee, and they were an elephantfrogmanatee and a peacocktigerkoala.

And I couldn’t help but marvel at them, the very primal and human moment when theyse children learned how to make metaphors. Not I am like a swan, you are like a wolf, but I am a swan. You are a wolf. He is a shark. I am a rabbit.

And it’s more than metaphors–it’s divination. It’s folklore. If I close my eyes and reach out into this collection of randomly-ordered images, whatever my fingers find will say something essential about me, or my friend who wears glasses, or the lady with black hair and the red book who came to talk to our class today. It will not say what they’re like, it will say what they are, deep down inside. So If I choose a worm for myself, I will be sad, because it means I am a worm and I have this whole set of ideas about what worms are. If I choose a tiger, I will be happy, because I also have ideas about what tigers are and in the world I live in it’s better to be a tiger than a worm. What animal I am tells a story about what kind of person I am, and what my life will be like when I grow up.

It’s this incredibly basic thing, somewhere between magic and storytelling, and you can see exactly where fairy tales come from in these boys grabbing blue books like Tarot cards, like runes. Where totems come from, and fetishes, and half the shamanic toolbox–oh, no Miss Cat, we’ll draw for you. If you draw your own it doesn’t count. Those are the rules.

No one taught them to do it. No one taught them those rules–though certainly there are cultural narratives at play in their reactions to drawing The Rhinoceros versus The Kitten. Though I found it wonderful that with the exception of the flamingo, all of my animals were the sort usually masculinized–big and strong and somewhat dangerous–and they didn’t question it at all. The draw has spoken. Nor did they express particular dismay at being butterflies or swans. It wasn’t about what kind of animals they liked. It was a deeper magic, as a certain lion would say.

What they were doing was very real. Paleolithic human wizardry. We still do it as adults, of course, as a million usernames and pagan names and Halloween costumes and D&D characters and cosplayers attest. The marriage of image and soul fuels story and our conceptions of self, all the more so in the world of the internet where we can use images that are not our actual selves to represent that self–macros and userpics and icons. We are always making ourselves into metaphors. We are deciding with endless online quizzes what animals or fairies or vampires we “are”–in hopes, I have always thought, of borrowing some of the power of those characters and images for ourselves and our actual non-fairy lives. We want those images to mean something more, to say something fundamental, and once we decide they do, they do–that’s how some kinds of magic work.

In play, we show our best selves, the people we dream to be, long to be. And we pantomime acts and narratives that once upon a time were seen as holy, as the very keystones of faith–because they are instinct, they are beautiful, and they are true often enough.

I spent an afternoon with two small shamans and they told me I was a moose. I was a wolf. A muskox, a flamingo, a bear and a walrus. We did a good trade. I brought my magic to them in the form of a red book, and they brought theirs to me in blue books. We wizards know a bargain when we see it.

We shook hands when it was over. That’s how colleagues say good-bye.

Mirrored from cmv.com. Also appearing on @LJ and @DW. Read anywhere, comment anywhere.

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I don't have anything to add. I just think this is a gorgeous post, and those boys are awesome, and I love that they've found magic so young.

What a beautiful sacred thing. I wish to play this game. I would be all sorts of animals and they would all be magic, even the worm and the walrus.

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I don't respond often but I always read what you post here and I loved this. Thank you.

Ah, The Naming. An ancient rite and one full of, as you say, nodding of heads and sagely advice. I am amused at the combinatorial aspects -- sort of a cross of drawing three cards and trying to find the union of their meaning or of the "ancient" D&D preparation where you roll three characters and decide which ones will survive to play the game.

And if you picked your own, you would never know if you "had a hand" in your own choosing... (grin)


Dr. Phil

So basically someone handed these kids a furry fandom starter kit.

I'm okay with that! :D

I don't get it, really I don't. We are what we are, and we are that at all times - no mystic archetypes required. I want the Truth of what we are. Exactly what is, no more - and certainly no less.

(purely artistic purposes excepted, of course).

But I know I am a bit imagination-deficient, and for me there is Reality and Fiction and allowing any confusion is dangerous ground - maybe it works differently for everyone else.

(and we have unreliable senses and brains and minds and emotions, so in a sense it is all Fiction... oh yes I know...)

A possibility to consider: our models of ourselves are incomplete, so taking on a role might get us to explore possibilities which are part of ourselves which we usually don't see.

I think that's a really sad way of looking at it. Why can't metaphors be true? We've been making them up as long as we've been recognizably human, so it has to be some part of the Truth of what we are. To deny it is very strange to me. It denies more or less all of literature, folklore, religion (I know that many don't feel religion has worth, but that is also a Thing Humans Do), and art as some how Not True.

This kind of think is a value add to being alive on planet earth. It helps us understand ourselves in a way just saying: I am a girl or I am human does not. Otherwise why give yourself a bird name as a username--an animal name no less--instead of the legal name on your birth certificate?

I don't want to live in a world where metaphor is decried as something superfluous and clouding of reality. The fact is, no two people can agree upon the nature of reality. This kind of stuff helps us bridge the gap.

Also mixing reality and fiction is kind of where I live. And I don't want to move. My neighborhood is full of poets and artists and tiny child shamans. It's the best.

Edited at 2012-03-26 05:09 pm (UTC)

I very much agree with this response. I've encountered perspectives similar to channelpenguin's before, and while I understand to a certain extent where they're coming from, I can't help but feeling that they're missing out a certain dimension and depth of human experience.

Which I suppose is another way of saying that I live in your "neighbourhood" too, and I like it there.

We are bipedal primates with unusual hair distribution patterns and complex communications structures, who are also able to envision ourselves as beings other than what we materially are.

That's a rare gift.

Oh, I'm only describing how my mind works and sees the world (and I was in a particularly hard-assed mood at the time). I suspect how I am is why I am not even faintly religious.

I am human - and that IS an animal, and I am very very aware of that - more so than most by what I see, and I think/feel most people would be better off acknowledging that straight off and accepting it wholeheartedly rather than hedging it with mystic totems.

Art (to me) is exaggeration for effect, to tell a story - stories are memorable and a story told is to teach *something*.

I do see people suffer in their lives (even me!) when they confuse their hopes/wishes/dreams/fantasies with reality - yes they are needed as drivers, as inspiration - but they need action to be real, to materially affect life(lives). I think it's sad that people settle for the half-built fantasy of something rather than daring to make their reality - or at least try. Not all can be made real.

OK, examples of why I don't like the confusions....I have had people say "Oh I have this great song" when what they have is about a verse of confused lyric that does not scan and a vauge idea of a melody, or a few chords that they can't actually hum/sing/play when asked. In their head, it's awesome - and it might well be - but not til it's actually DONE, til it's out of their head and being played/recorded. But in their head it's complete and so they never go any further and WE never hear it....

Ditto for software (my other art, with which I have a dysfunctional love-hate relationship).

I do actually like working with people to get this stuff 'out' - but too many are seemingly happy with it just 'in their heads' and seem to think that's real enough. That's never real enough for me....

But I can also envy them their dreams that seem so real, their memories that can be revisited....

The bird? Just what I used to call guillemots on sailing trips in the English Channel (cos they look, to me, like penguins that can only just about fly). I was doing a lot of sailing at the time and it was the first thing that came to mind when I switched from having an actual LJ of my own (which was under my name) to being more anonymous. I'd be kind of annoyed/mildly offended/amused/exasperated if anyone thought it said anything about me and it was certainly never meant to!

I'm curious as to what the series of books they were using happened to be--obviously, some small books for grade schoolers on animals/biology, but still...bibliotherian sortilege for the win! ;)

I heart this entry so hard. :)

(P.S. I'm a hideous koala-seal-raccoon-landshark-airdale terrier-hello kitty-britney spears hybrid. In case you're wondering.)

This made me smile so, so much.

Miss R, firebirdsfather's daughter, drew me a picture the other day. "Shawna's Fox", it read. "Status: Angel". She then drew one for herself. "[Miss R's) Wolf", it read. "Status: Devil". Though I remain uncertain of the exact meaning of her chosen format and term set, I find myself in constant awe of the creativity and worldbuilding of children.

Kids are fantastic. There's so much magic in them. What a great end to your school visit!

Was this the South Portland Public Library, or a school library in town? (I'm kind of hoping the former, as I was getting a kick out of imagining this happening feet away from my wife's desk.)

b.t.dubs - we need to get together for coffee or dinner or whatever!

We do. Hope you don't mind imaginative four-year-old girls who get quiet and observant around strange adults.

While I don't like being around kids in the flesh, this is why I like them at a distance, through story—they're the future, and I care about them as people, and it's so good to see that there's still magic. That sort of thing makes me hopeful and happy. Thanks for sharing this story!

This is absolutely marvelous!

Wonderful, wonderful post (also the best explanation I've ever grokked for a metaphor).

This is beautiful - and reminds me a lot of this post I made a while back, about my 4-year-old son's habit of casting me and himself into various animal guises. When he decided I was his butterfly-mama, that of course reminded me of Habitation of the Blessed...


I often feel like I am a metaphor. Or maybe a story I tell myself. Perhaps that is why I like when people describe me to me. They are telling me more stories.

Scion has a dozen metaphors and stories that he likes me to tell about him. It used to be animals, is now rpg based, but it's still the same metaphor in new clothing.

"us people are just poems
we're 90% metaphor
with a leanness of meaning
approaching hyper-distillation" - ani, "self-evident"

In this context, I think the flamingo denotes queerness.

Actually, they do in most contexts, in my experience.

That sounds like an amazing and powerful time and I entirely agree with your observations about it.

I am less certain about one bit though -

No one taught them to do it. No one taught them those rules

That's certainly possible, and it's definitely true that no adult taught them. However, they may have learned this odd bit of divination from other children, and for all any of us know, children have been using those books in that fashion for decades and teaching it to those younger than themselves.

As someone who grew up an only child of only children and in a military (ie moving regularly) family, I had little personal contact with the culture of children, but from what I've read it can be strange and remarkably enduring.

This made me tear up a bit, I have to admit. I'm not really sure why, but imaging you in the library with these young boys making magic with books and metaphors made me a waterfall.

I so rarely have the opportunity to interact with children, and it's easy to forget how simultaneously magical and grounding of an experience it is. Thank you for the reminder.

It sounds like you had a really special experience, thank you for sharing it.

:) This made me deeply happy


What an excellent experience and subsequent entry!

Thank you for sharing this post. I read it and smiled. It brought back very vividly what the imagination of a child feels like.

This whole story is great but pretty much the best part of it is that they called you Miss Cat.

That is a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing. I hope your soul was nourished by interacting with those kids. You've seemed a bit frayed lately and I wish you were soothed.

I love this. So much. Thank you.

Magical, happy goodness

So when you changed your user name, all the "recent" posts came flooding through my newsfeed all over again. And I reread this one. And it reminded me there's wonder alive in the world.

Speaking as one who reads your blog and loves your books but rarely comments, Thank you, "Miss Cat" for sharing, not just this one story but your heart and your mind with all of us.

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