Saturday, September 9, 2017

Talking Leaves, Open Book

As I mentioned in my previous post I believed that the main reason my memory of Sequoyah: Young Cherokee Guide was so strong was because of the art on the back cover. A free hand drawing I did of that when I was eight is my first very specific memory of realizing I had some artistic talent, that I could draw. I remembered very little of the actual story, other than Sequoyah created a phonetic alphabet that allowed the Cherokee language to be written down for the first time. I had never really paused to wonder if there was something in the story itself, rather than just the artwork, that made this stand out among all the other volumes of Childhoods of Famous Americans that I read at that time.

After reading it again for the first time in nearly fifty years, the answer is yes. Yes there was.

But, some disclaimers before I go any farther. This entire series of books were written as story-driven narratives and not as accurate historical documents. In my subsequent research I discovered that there are tremendous gaps in what is actually known about Sequoyah. I will say that the author, Dorothea J. Snow, did an admirable job of taking what information was available and creating a story that incorporated actual history. The book is also a product of its time with some of the attendant problems of racist attitudes and the white mans interpretation of what Native Americans were. While it firmly acknowledged the rapaciousness of the European expansion across America and the mistreatment of the Indians, it also seemed that most of Sequoyah’s best qualities were inherited from his absent white father.

But I read this when I was eight, so none of that was part of my prior experience, and I have no interest in tearing apart this artifact of another time in a scathing review. While these are certainly valid complaints, it’s not what I’m here to talk about.

The book begins with Sequoyah being teased by his peers because he has to help his mother with household chores and gardening, something they see as ‟women’s work.” Because he is lame in one leg he is also unable to hunt or to compete in their sports the way the other boys do. This also sets him apart.

I was not lame, and my father was a positive presence in my life, but reading this now, I can see echoes of eight-year-old me. I was, and let’s be honest here, I still am, a Momma’s boy. Mom has always been, in many ways, my best friend and I interacted with her in the house more than a lot of boys do with their mothers. Not so much with the cleaning and housework, but I liked to help her cook. Dad would want her to chase me out of the kitchen because he thought I was in her way. I don’t think it ever crossed his mind back then that we both enjoyed the experience and that I was earning a valuable life skill (I’m not a chef by any means, but I can whip up a mean pan gravy). I still do this when I’m home, and one of my favorite holiday traditions, both Christmas and Thanksgiving, is helping with the spread. I was much more interested in learning how to make homemade noodles than in changing the oil in my car. I resented some of the time Dad would engage me in car maintenance. I am now incredibly grateful for this time spent with him that younger me couldn’t appreciate. Interested in cars or not, the time with Dad was invaluable, and I learned enough about cars to save me a million times on the road. But, back then, I would rather have been reading than changing tires.

Okay, that’s still true.

I was also not very interested in hunting or sports. These are two of the most important manhood rituals where I’m from and I just didn’t care very much for either. Let me say, for all of my friends and family who do engage, I am not opposed to either of these, then or now. Just not my thing. When I was twelve I got my hunting license because I didn’t know how to say no back then. It was just expected. I loved being out in the woods, but I didn’t feel the need to kill anything. I did though: squirrels, and groundhogs, and rabbits in small game season. When I was eighteen I finally accomplished the ultimate cherry-breaking moment of being a hunter and shot my first buck. I was literally sick and haven’t been in the woods with a gun since.

With sports my lack of interest may be because I’ve simply never been any good at them. Or, perhaps the reverse is more likely. I never pushed to be better at sports. Just not competitive enough, I guess. I went to one practice for wrestling in fifth grade and after spending an hour on my back with my opponent’s knee in my nuts I never went back. I played Little League baseball for a year, but that was more to hang out with a friend than from any real interest in playing. I could hit pretty well, but couldn’t field for shit. I was a slow runner.

Which brings me to an anecdote. The boys in my school loved to race. Every recess had boys challenging each other to see who was the fastest. I wasn’t and as a result, got challenged to race a lot. It’s an easy win, right? One day the playground was covered with snow and ice. I was wearing boots with really good tread. Due to traction I won my first race ever, against the guy who always beat me. I won a second one as well. He didn’t want to race anymore and when I asked him why he said it was unfair because I knew I was going to beat him. You know... just like he knew that every other time he challenged me.

Life lessons.

I hated the military posturings of my gym teacher and was actually kind of happy on those occasions when I sprained my ankle or broke my arm and had an excuse not to participate. I got to go to the library and read instead.

And of course, I was teased about all of this. I was teased a lot. Before I get too far into this I do want to say my childhood wasn’t Hell. I was picked on, because of my interests and my red hair, and because I was sensitive and cried easily which made me an easy target. But I was never beat up. I didn’t live in fear. I had friends. My teachers mostly liked me (probably not the gym teacher). I recognize how much of a golden child I was. But I had my tormentors.

And I see little Wayne in these aspects of Sequoyah.

My interest in reading and in books is what prompted this blog and the last one, so it’s no surprise that I share that with Sequoyah as well. The Cherokee did not have a written language. The white man came bearing sheets of paper with strange markings on them. These ‟talking leaves” were treaties and orders from the government that gave them great power. The Cherokee, according to this book, believed they were magic, allowing the white man to communicate over long distances. Sequoyah became fascinated by the talking leaves and became determined to unlock their magic. He spent many years working on this, becoming an outsider to his people. They thought he was queer (in the old sense of the word), and strange, and maybe dangerous. He would become obsessed with his project to the detriment of his other work, his friends and family.

As I pointed out in my last blog, I too became fascinated by the talking leaves when I was very young and learned their magic very early. In my world of sports and hunting and those who simply don’t appreciate books in the same way I do, I too have been considered strange and queer (in both definitions of that word).

These things are not mutually exclusive of course. I have friends who hunt and read. I have friends who are way into sports and read. After living in Pittsburgh for nearly three decades I have learned an appreciation for the Steelers I didn’t believe I would ever have.

But I’m still more interested in books. I still believe that they are magic. Entire worlds are held between their covers. The wisdom of the ages is there for anyone to access. They are time machines, allowing us to hear the thoughts and voices of people long gone. They are portals to imagination and empathy. The story of Sequoyah that so spoke to me when I was eight continued to live as strange lines on aging paper until my now 56-year-old eyes could rediscover it. The words were unchanged in all those decades, but I am a different person so it is now a different book.

But, as this experience teaches me, in many ways I’m still the same book too.

1 comment:

  1. The tenth paragraph is a perfect anecdote by itself. I see your situation as analogous to the Obama administration's travails, or to the struggles of any oppressed people in this country. If it were posted by itself, the perfect title would be, "Race Challenges."