I’m flying out to California next week for a writers’ workshop at Big Sur, so I may go a week without a post. But before I go, I’ll share my re-telling of a Native American teaching story that is one of my favorites:
Little Brown Mouse lived in a mouse village close enough to a river that you could sometimes hear the sound of water running over the rocks. He was a very curious mouse, so he asked his parents, “What’s that sound I hear off in the distance, beyond The Meadow?” “It’s something the elders call a river.” “What’s a river?” “We don’t know, just something having to do with a lot of water. But don’t bother yourself about it. Our tribe never leaves The Meadow, and we have all the water we need right here.” Still curious, Little Brown Mouse asked some of the elders what a river was. But none of them had ever seen it, and it had nothing to do with The Meadow, so nobody seemed to care what a river was.
Except for Little Brown Mouse. One day he left the village and set out in the direction of the sound – which got louder as he ventured further and further away from home. He was almost to the edge of The Meadow when he came across a raccoon. After they introduced themselves, the raccoon asked him, “What are you doing so far away from your village?” “I want to find out for myself what a river is.” “You are one curious mouse. Come on, I’ll take you there. I go there all the time.” So the two of them went through a wooded area and emerged onto the bank of a river. Little Brown Mouse was amazed! He had never imagined this much water in his life. “It’s beautiful!”
Cousin raccoon spotted someone he knew, and waved to him. It was a frog, perched on a log. This was no ordinary frog, but a powerful shaman. The raccoon turned to the mouse and said, “I have to go now, but first I’ll introduce you to my friend, Prince of Waters. He can answer your questions.” He introduced his new friend to his old friend, and left. “What are you doing so far from your village?” asked the frog. “I wanted to see for myself what a river is.” “And are you glad you came?” “Oh, yes! I didn’t know there was this much water in the whole world!” “So now you know for yourself what a river is. Have you ever heard about mountains?” “Only in stories. The Center of the World is in the mountains, I think.” “Do you want to see mountains for yourself?” “Oh, yes!” “Sometimes you have to give of yourself before you get what you want. If you do what I tell you, to the very best of your ability, you’ll catch a glimpse of mountains.” “I’ll do whatever you tell me!” “All right. You can’t see the mountains now because you’re so small, and you can’t see over the scrub on the other side of the river. But if you jump high enough, you’ll see for yourself what mountains look like. Are you ready?” Little Brown Mouse hunkered down and tensed his jumping muscles. The frog said, “Then jump!”
And the mouse jumped as high as he could. Sure enough, at the apex of his leap, he caught a glimpse of rocky mountain peaks in the distance. But without meaning to, he’d jumped slightly forward as well as up, and fell just past the lip of the riverbank, into the water. He managed to mouse-paddle to shore and clamber back up onto the riverbank. Wet from head to tail, he shook himself and spoke angrily to Prince of Waters: “I could have drowned!” “But you didn’t. Did you see the mountains?” All traces of anger suddenly gone, the wet mouse said, “Yes, and they’re so beautiful! But I want to see them up close, like I see the river now.” Prince of Waters laughed. “You have courage and curiosity. You have passed a test and acquired a new understanding. It’s time for you to have a new name. You are no longer Little Brown Mouse. Your new name is Jumping Mouse.”
Jumping Mouse thanked him, but he knew it was time to go home. He had a feeling he’d be seeing him again someday. He was still wet when he got to the village. He was excited, eager to tell everyone about his adventure; but nobody seemed to care about what he’d seen. All they saw was a wet tribe member – when nobody else was wet – telling them something about having a new name. He began to feel like he didn’t belong in his tribe anymore, and resolved to go on a vision quest to the nearby mountains, to search for the Center of the World.
Jumping Mouse explained to his parents that he had to go on a vision quest, but promised that he’d return. He set out early one morning, and found a place where he could cross the river by jumping from rock to rock. On the far side was a wide expanse of prairie grassland, stretching to the not-so-distant mountain range. He was afraid, because the prairie was open land, often with no place to hide from hawks and eagles. Mice have poor long-range vision, and an eagle in the sky would just be a moving blur – until it struck! But despite his fear, he set out in the direction of the mountains. He found nuts and berries to eat, and drank from puddles, or streams that he had to cross. He spent his first night sleeping under a bush, where he felt safe.
Next: Jumping Mouse’s adventure continues.