While working on the Nausicaa Lesson of my myth course this week, I stumbled upon a wonderful example of the practical power of stories.
Princess Nausicaa is that famous teenage hero from the Odyssey, Books 6-8, who saves Odysseus' life. Athena prompts her to go on an outing with a bunch of girlfriends to the mouth of a river, next to the sea, where Odysseus is sleeping, shipwrecked and brine-encrusted. She gives Odysseus food, drink, and directions to her mom's house, where he will find hospitality and a ride home.
In the lesson, I noted that ancient Greek women didn't usually have the freedom to go unaccompanied "far from the city," as Nausicaa and her friends did.
I also asked my students in a sidebar how much freedom they had. Did their parents watch their every move?
Parents are more wary nowadays, to the point that this spring, when a columnist for the New York Sun newspaper allowed her 9-year old son to go home alone on the subway and bus from the Bloomingdale's Department Store, a little blaze of controversy flared up.
Lenore Skenazy sounds like a real pistol on the Talk of the Nation NPR show where they interviewed her. I immediately had a huge crush. She argued that we are doing a disservice to children by sheltering them so thoroughly from the world that they don't have a sense of independence, of striking out into the world on their own.
I happen to agree with Lady Lenore's stance. I wrote a column about it myself when I was a suburban dad print columnist long ago. Baby boomers remember well that the neighborhoods, the buses, and town in general was our oyster, way back when. Parents didn't know where we were, and mostly didn't care.
But all that can be the point of another post. What especially knocked my socks off about the NPR interview was Lenore's contention that when we allow our children freedom, they develop memories of independence that stay with them forever.
One man called in to tell the story of how, when he was nine, he took the train and the subway from Newark, New Jersey, to Brooklyn, to see the 1956 Dodgers play in Ebbets Field.
"I packed myself a lunch," he said, "wrote my mother a note, got on the bus, took the Hudson Tubes, took the Brighton Beach local and got off at the Ebbets Field station with everybody else."
It didn't matter to Lenore Skenazy's thesis that this man's mother freaked out, and "literally called out the National Guard" even though she had told him quite clearly earlier that year that he could go to a game "sometime."
"See?" Lenore shrieked. The value of going to the game by himself was that this man had created a memory that would stay with him the rest of his life, and that he could call with pride to a radio show and recount that memory. His heart must have been full.
"It's better than a Bar Mitzvah," she said about these memories of independence. Neil Conan, the host, was more interested in showcasing his knowledge of New York trivia than in this comment, but it was extremely perceptive.
Bar Mitzvahs are about coming of age, about becoming an adult and joining the adult religious community. Lenore's point is that these moments of independence are also rites of passage, turning points in one's life.
I believe in the power of retelling this type of experience. I believe that we build ourselves up by building up our own history, our worthwhile narratives, the myths, the traditional "good stories" of our lives. I believe that when we suppress the events of our lives and do not recount them, parts of us are destroyed, never to return.
You can always tell a healthy family, for example, by the amount of stories it tells on itself.
So it may be true that we are doing a disservice to our children by not allowing them to go on their Funky Little Adventures (more on that sometime. Very funny story). But more generally, it's very important that we give children the opportunity to have the experiences to create their own good stories.
After all, as any self-trained mythologist knows, the best stories are the ones with a little excitement in them.