What can toys teach us about human existence? Ed Madden reflects on the lessons his favorite childhood toy has taught him as a man.
When I was a little kid, my favorite toy and my favorite Bible story was Noah’s Ark. I remember getting the ark for Christmas one year, a small plastic boat that was a box, the deck a lid that lifted off to reveal all the exotic animals packed inside—zebras and rhinos and giraffes and elephants and anteaters and kangaroos. Everything came in twos, of course, because that’s how the story works. The two zebras looked the same, but not the sheep, not the ram with coiled horns and the ewe with none. Not the rooster and the hen.
So this toy, my favorite toy, was telling me a story, a very particular story about how the world should work. It was telling me that everything comes in twos. It was teaching me that it’s sometimes important to be able to tell the difference between the two things, the rooster and the hen. And it was teaching me that some living things deserve to be saved—and later, as I learned the Bible story in Sunday school, that some do not.
Some lives matter; some don’t.
I’m thinking about Noah’s story as the year ends, not only because I remember it as a favorite Christmas toy, but also because the story resonates for me in difficult ways this year, reminding me that the simple stories we tell and retell may have complex and difficult meanings. The story of Noah is not simply a story about saving the animals. It’s also story bent around ideas of heterosexuality and race and difference, a story about what lives matter.
I remember one day last summer when my writing class broke for lunch, and all the students pulled out their phones. There was the predictable buzz and trill of messages, posts, a few loud exclamations, and then the group erupted into cheers, hugs. A couple of the girls—ninth graders, I think—were crying. They had been writing poems all week in a summer creative writing camp. Earlier in the week, as the heat finally broke and rain fell, and in the wake of the racist slaughter of eight people in Charleston, the governor of South Carolina announced that the Confederate battle flag must be moved. Legislative negotiations proceeded that week, and each day these young writers learned about symbol, about timing, and how and why their own stories mattered.
And on that last day, we were practicing for a final performance for their parents and grandparents. And we broke for lunch. And they erupted in cheers as their phones and Facebook feeds went all rainbow, the Supreme Court having ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage was legal across the land, the decision asserting “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.” (Under the eyes of the law, it must be noted, it not, at times, in the eyes of all your fellow citizens, your community, or even your own family.) Equal dignity. What a resonant and vibrating pair of words that week, as we asked ourselves whose lives, whose relationships, whose stories and voices matter.
I wonder now if for me the point of Noah’s ark was simply the diversity of the natural world, all those fascinating animals. My sense of what the ark could be and do was a capacious one, and my little ark got packed as I collected more and more animals. I wanted to save them all. My parents quickly realized that an easy gift for me was just another set of plastic animals (as well as nature guides and a subscription to Ranger Rick magazine). My little ark with its overflow of animals big and small was soon transferred to a shoebox, and then a boot box. Of course, being a boy with a little brother, inevitably fights were staged, storms blew through, dinosaurs stomped across it all, the animals divided into armies. But oh the joy of it, spilling out that box of creatures onto the floor to begin to play.
Later, I learned a more complicated story, not that the “animals came in the ark, two by two-ey two-ey” (as we sang in vacation Bible school), and not that some deserve to be saved and others do not, but that the world was divided into the clean and the unclean. There were two of every unclean animal on the ark and seven of every clean animal, the irony being, of course, that if you were clean that just meant you were more likely to be killed and eaten.
Some are worth saving, that is, only because they are useful. Then there was the good dove that kept coming back to the ark, and the bad raven that never came back, scavenger, resistor, resilient. In the Sunday School flannelgraph, of course, the dove was white, the raven black.
I remember a conversation with a dear friend about the flag controversy, about the way people use light and dark to symbolize good and evil. Darkness is and always has been a universal symbol for evil, she said. My Irish teacher explains that in Irish, a black man is a blue man, fir gorm, because the Irish for black man, fir dubh, means the devil. I think about the ways we use light and dark, white and black, to mean good and evil, as if this is just the way it is and not a way of thinking, not a set of boxes we put things in.
In April, I was ordained in an online church with no traditional dogma beyond doing what is right. I got my card, my certificate, my clergy parking permit. I did this so that I could legally perform the marriage of a former student. The brides were resplendent on the lawn of one of the city’s historic homes. We signed the form; they started a new story.
As I got older, Noah’s story became even more complicated. The ark lands, the animals get off, God hangs a big party rainbow across the sky, Noah gets drunk and naked, and his son Ham walks in on him—and Ham is cursed. I don’t remember where or how or from whom I learned it, but I learned the old racist myth that Ham’s curse was that his children were dark-skinned and enslaved. This interpretation is, of course, not in the Bible, but it is part of the tradition, part of the story as it was told in some places, some communities, part of what I learned. And there was the unstated creepiness of Ham seeing his dad naked—as if something worse were implied, or as if it’s simply beyond the pale to see your dad’s junk.
If Noah’s ark seems in some simple way an emblem of biological exuberance and ecological wonder, it is also a story about how we divide up our world—into male and female, saved and damned (or drowned), clean and unclean, black and white, loved and unloved, blessed and cursed. Us. Them.
One of my favorite exercises when working with young writers is a retold story poem. Take a story we all know—a myth, a folktale, a Bible story—and retell it from another point of view. Find a position from which to see the tale differently, a lever to pry the thing open and make room for a different kind of story. Maybe a story of reconciliation. Maybe a story that gives voice to the voiceless, dignity to the dispossessed. Maybe a story in which the cop doesn’t shoot. Maybe a story about a family seeking shelter and not, this time, turned away in the cold. Maybe a story in which not some lives, but all lives matter.
Photo Credit: Al_HikesAZ/Flickr