Javier is a father trying to teach his children important lessons – stripped of the religion that framed his childhood.
When my son was brewing inside my girlfriend’s belly I worried about how I would teach him the important things in life. She worried if she had enough onesies and bottles. Those types of things never bothered me much. I had a decent job and knew that he would be provided for in material objects by myself and by the families in our lives. How to teach him the lessons that I’ve learned along the way, that was tough. Beyond all the simple things that I was sure would come with time, like crawling or drawing a picture I needed to show him things that were critical to my development. I wanted to give him tools for becoming a good man. This is more a sign of how much I already loved him than my opinion of myself – though I’ll be the first to admit it is quite high.
The woman who gave me a son will be giving me a daughter in a few weeks and I am flooded with similar thoughts. My wife again seems to be focusing on the crib sheets and the children’s room while I have lengthy internal debates on whether spanking is an appropriate method of discipline for a girl. There are a few other gender-specific differences I’m worried about, none of the anatomical variety, which most people seem to assume, but mostly about how I show her how to be a good woman through being a good man. My problem is that a vast majority of the lessons I know are centered on my family’s faith. I passed through a season in my life I affectionately call my REM stage, because that was me in the corner, that was me in the spotlight, losing my religion. I can’t tell you another song by the popular group but I’m sure you can infer from the lyrics what I experienced and the melody suited my emotions well enough.
Grace, Forgiveness, Temperance, Charity, these are things that were communicated to me in parables – stories for the secular readers – at a very young age and repeated or re-told with a twist over and over again so that I would recognize good behavior and distinguish it from actions that do not promote a healthy individual or society. These in particular lack decent secular alternatives. A friend in my university years told me I had martyr syndrome because I worked too hard studying my lessons and because nobody needed to work 40+ hours a week to afford tuition, rent, and living expenses when FAFSA existed specifically to ensure those who were intelligent and ambitious had a means to support themselves. She understood the difference between grants and loans but confused the meaning of ambitious in her pursuit of funding higher education. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t drink to excess or become overly friendly with the female acquaintances that she introduced. When she pointed this out I didn’t have a good answer for why I didn’t behave as others did if I no longer felt a sense of religious conviction holding me back. I realized that absent religious aspects the stories still formed the foundation for how I viewed the world.
The movie Frozen reminded me of stories I used to write. Stories to explain valuable lessons that get stuck in your mind and churned over the way parables did for me well into my adulthood. Unfortunately, I lost the journal that documented those thoughts. This must be one of the stages in life that Rudyard Kipling warned ‘I would need to stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools.’
So, here is a story re-told. The original can be found in Chinua Achebe’s haunting Things Fall Apart. I hope some readers recognize it. I sincerely hope no readers remember the flamingo strut or other ridiculous gesticulations enacted in your local library by a curious young man using a child audience in an attempt to overcome his fear of public speaking.
There was a dry land suffering from a drought that had lasted two human generations – forty years! The lack of water made the ground look old and cracked. Flowers no longer grew and only the most rugged weeds dared to sprout between the cracks. Trees had few brown and red leaves that could barely shield the birds from the sun as they sat perched on branches. The animals that lived there were skinny and grumpy from lack of food. One day the birds that lived in Over-Sky decided that they ought to treat their cousins to a healthy meal because no bird deserved to go hungry for so long. They planned a great banquet and sent an invitation to the birds of the Earth that said, “You are cordially invited to fly up here and enjoy a warm meal, all birds welcome!” They were very excited and began to prepare for the day dressing in their finest coats. Blue Jay plumped his plumage, Scarlet Finch spruced her mantle, and Peacock fanned his feathers.
The moral of the story could be that a friendly invitation lifts heavy hearts.
Tortoise saw all of this activity and asked what was going on. An excited Seagull told him that the birds had been invited to a feast. Being of a cunning nature and an empty belly Tortoise eloquently asked if he could join. He told them that he was very resourceful and a great speaker who could help them with conversation at the festivities. Communication is central to any bird-civilization so the birds discussed it among themselves. Mocking Jay pointed out that they all had beautiful songs to sing and need not rely on a sly tortoise who spoke from a hungry body that rattled in a hollow shell. Sparrow and Crow wanted to bring Tortoise, after all this was a very fancy party and while Tortoise had been known for his trickery in the past surely he was a changed man. Being in a pleasant mood the birds finally agreed to bring Tortoise. They each brought a feather to glue to his shell to form wings to help him fly. Eagle swooped in and contributed a long brown feather, Flamingo strutted in with her long legs and delicately gave him a pink feather, Ostrich smacked her husband for admiring Flamingo’s tail feathers and refused to donate anything – but every other bird gave something so that not one of the birds were burdened too heavily.
The moral of the story could be that teamwork solves problems that individuals cannot.
On the day of the feast they got together at the meeting place and began together on the flight to Over-Sky. Tortoise flew the easiest because of his many different types of feathers. As they neared the destination Tortoise told his fellow guests that a party like this required each bird to take a new name – much the same as Earth celebrations sometimes are masquerade balls and attendees wear a disguise. They all felt reassured in their decision to bring Tortoise because they never would have known this without him. Cardinal announced he shall be known as Cinnamon, Parakeet hurriedly chose the name Bob before anyone else had a chance to take it, and Swallow chose Flies with Horses. After everyone finished Tortoise said, “what fine names you have chosen, I cannot think of anything nearly as creative as any of you so I will just go by ‘All of You’, in honor of all your selections.” The birds were quite pleased by his compliment. Upon arrival the hosts saw that Tortoise must be the leader of the birds since he flew in front and had a coat of many colors, unique among all the birds. They gave him a seat of honor as the food was brought out. There was delicious pizza, celery sticks with peanut butter, cups filled to the brim with horchata, not to mention the soups, salads, fish, and cheese. The hosts of Over-Sky said with a grand smile, “this is for all of you”, Tortoise looked surprised and turned to his bird-friends to say, “it must be the custom here to feed the guest of honor first.” Not wanting to cause a fuss the birds sat patiently as Tortoise gorged himself on all the food. He nearly swallowed an entire pizza whole and left nothing but crumbs of the cheese. By the time he was finished there was nothing edible left on the table. The Over-Sky hosts were confused but didn’t want to go against the customs of the Earth birds who obviously were allowing their leader to eat first. The birds were furious with Tortoise who had thought of himself and didn’t share with the birds who had helped him. One by one they came and snatched back the feather they had given to Tortoise until he had no wings at all. The hosts of Over-Sky told him he must leave because he is not a bird at all. Tortoise quickly begged Parrot to deliver a message to his wife to set out all the soft things by his house so that he could land safely. Parrot was still hurt from the betrayal and delivered a message to Tortoise’s wife saying her husband wanted her to clear out all the hard things from the house so that he could see them from the sky.
The moral of the story could be that pain gives way to pain and only love can right a wrong.
Tortoise was so high up he could barely see his wife moving objects near his house. He assumed they were pillows and blankets and mattresses, but actually she was moving out frying pans and hammers and toilet bowls, even a kitchen sink. When all motion stopped he finally jumped. The hosts of Over-Sky had turned their backs on him due to his bad behavior. Nobody saw what he was jumping onto. He fell and fell and fell until he couldn’t yell anymore because he was out of breath – and then he fell some more. BOOM! He crashed!
The moral of the story could be that all actions have consequences, whether good or whether bad.
Tortoise was hurt very bad that day but he did not die. His wife fetched a great medicine man traveling through that land who instructed her to gather up his broken shell. Once all the pieces were together the man worked for weeks gluing the shell back into one piece. Tortoise vowed to always treat everyone the way that he wished he would be treated – much how his wife and the medicine man had.
And that is why tortoise does not have a smooth shell to this day.
—Photo UNE Photos/Flickr
—Photo Dawn Huczek/Flickr
—Photo Derrick Coetzee/Flickr
—Photo Bart Everson/Flickr