Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Mythology for Four Year Olds

Mia says, “Mommy? Tell me the story of the girl who ate the seeds and her mommy.”

“Okay! Once upon a time there was a girl named Persephone. And she had a mommy who loved her very much. Persephone’s mommy was named Demeter and she had the job of making things grow. Sooooo, uh, one day, Persephone was outside and the god of the underworld saw her and he fell in love. So he grabbed her! And he took her down to his kingdom under the earth.

“Meanwhile! Demeter, Persephone’s mommy, is so sad. She misses her daughter SO much that she can’t do her work. So all the trees turn brown and the grass and the leaves fall down and it gets cold. Does that remind you of some time we have had here? Right! Winter! Not like now, is it?

“Now all the people are hungry and cold cause there’s no food! So they go to Zeus, who is the king of the gods and they say, 'We’re hungry! We’re cold!' So Zeus goes to Demeter and she says, 'Zeus, I want my daughter! Help me bring back Persophone!' So Zeus says, 'Okay, I’ll send a messenger, but if your daughter has eaten ANY food while she was in the underground, she has to stay!'

“So Zeus sent his fastest messenger, The FTD Man. He is a naked guy with wings on his hat and wings on his feet. Mercury! And he flew flew flew really fast.

“But while he’s flying, the god of the underworld is saying to Persephone, 'Come on, just one bite! You’ve got to eat something! Here, try this pomegranate. It’s really yummy.' So Persephone says, 'Okay.' And she eats SIX seeds of the pomegranate. When you eat a pomegranate, all you eat are the seeds. They are tiny little seeds, but they are really beautiful, like little jewels.

“So when Mercury sees this, he goes back to Zeus and Demeter says, 'Come ON! They were only little seeds! Please!' And she’s so sad, and all the people on earth are so hungry that Zeus says, 'Okay. Here’s the deal. Persephone can come back to earth for six months each year,' and Demeter says, 'Yay!' 'But then she has to go back to the underground for six months.' And Demeter is sad and that is why every year we have six months of darkness and cold. The end.”

Mia loves this story and I do too, now that we share it. It is the truest thing I have ever heard.

Is this a myth about contentious custody battles? Yes. Difficult mother-in-laws? Sure. I can see this story resonating for every parent who ever felt chilled to the bone as her baby drove off on a first date with a tattoed, skull-accessoried mumbler in a black t-shirt.

Does it speak to us about the inevitability of grief and loss that come like slow seasons? Absolutely. But for me it is most about mother love and how it is powerful enough to make trees burst into blossom and barren fields explode wild with growth. And today, in the heart of summer, those tiny seeds speak to me about the rosy curve of each precious day, enormous when we are within it, tiny once it falls behind us.

But I still have questions about the myth. Why does Persephone finally eat? Is she ignorant of Zeus’s prohibition and defying her captor on her own? Did she become so hungry she finally could no longer resist? Or does she fall into some kind of Stockholm trance – becoming used to life underground, unaware of the mother’s frantic work to release her?

And why does she eat so little – the seeds would be so delicious and sweet, but hardly satisfying. Is this measured savoring the only way to make worldly pleasures bearable? Perhaps the bursting of the tiny seed between her teeth, the tang of a drop of juice on her tongue filled her with so much sensation, it neared pain.

I am reminded of Rilke’s description of Eurydice, nearly brought back from the dead by her musician lover, Orpheus.

“But now she walked . . . uncertain, gentle, and without impatience. . . . Deep within herself. Being dead/filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit/suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,/she was filled with her vast death, which was so new,/she could not understand that it had happened.”

I dreamt of my sister Nancy last night. We were the size of children, but the time was that seamless mix of the knowing Today and the unconscious reality of Years Ago. Nancy walked out of a school building. She moved slowly, her eyes on the ground before her. I went up to her and hugged and kissed her lips as Mia kisses mine. I knew this dreamtime with her was fleeting, but I was in a hurry - on my way to a date with Walter Thompson, the yummy and nice ninth-grade King of the Katchina Dance. After our hug, I hurried away.


camccune said...

If you ever decide to try audio/podcasting, you should record your version of this story. It's delightful.

I guess I've never really thought of this story in a modern context, such as custody battles or dealing with difficult inlaws and scary boyfriends...but that makes it ring true for me, and gives what was "just another old story" meaning.

By the way, I noticed something else we have in common, besides our first names and having blogs -- I also have a sister named Nancy.

Cindy Fey said...

Cynthia - Thank you so much for your kind words and the great audio idea. I hadn't thought of it before - I might work this into a brief radio piece. Thanks!

My sister Nancy died in August of 1976 when I was eleven and she was nine. But it's funny - I don't feel grief or loss when I dream of her. She's there, with me.