Friday, July 3, 2009

Mermaids, metempsychosis and "Ulysses"

For many years now I have had a relationship with James Joyce's novel Ulysses that is best described as mystical. Why this is so would be better communicated over a bartop or on the open road during a long drive, but suffice it to say whenever I am reading the book I am alert for unusual happenings.

Just this afternoon I was puzzling over one of the novel's many riffs on metempsychosis - the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, which permeates my own religion, which I picked up in Lakota country - when my daughter announced, "I am a mermaid".

She was swimming with a friend. I was reading Ulysses poolside.

"I'm a mermaid," she repeated to her friend. "My mom is a mermaid. Her dad is a mermaid."

This speech soon gave way to two children playing mermaid in a swimming pool, a phenomenon that does not require mysticism to understand. After all, both girls grew up with a mermaid movie that has been thoroughly merchanidised and crosspromoted in every medium, including the all-important Happy Meals toy.

But if you know our family story, you would have heard a deep undertone to what the little girl was saying. She was saying her mother is a mermaid, when her mother doesn't even swim. And what is up with her grandfather - a man - being included in the list of mermaids?

Leyla was remembering something her mother onve told her about the vestiges of native religion in her family. My wife Karley grew up in a coastal people whose traditonal areas span the border between what is now Ghana and Togo. Traditional religion has deep roots in the family, with many called to honor the traditional mermaid spirit, now known in rotten English as Mammy Watta.

The family always insisted Karley was called to honor the spirits, but she chose not to answer the call. She wanted to pursue higher education and always felt she belonged in "a white man's country".

Leyla was remembering that she has mermaid spirits in her family that descend from the lineage of her African mother's African father. Not bad for a six year old growing up in the suburbs of the American Midwest.

"Is there a sea in New York, where I was born?" Leyla next asked, jarring me, again, out of meditations on Ulysses and metempsychosis.

I explained yes, she was born in New York City, which borders on the sea.

"I was born of the sea of New York City," Leyla said.

She has no idea just how right she is - but that is another story (in a way, the same story as the mystical Ulysses story) best told over a bartop, or on the open road.


Mermaid drawings by Leyla.

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