Yeah, my moral foundation includes mice, otters and moles. And some weapons.
So my Systematic Theology professor–who has turned out to be a truly kind and wise man–asked us all to write exactly one page about a major source of our moral outlook, philosophy or personal belief. The catch was, it could not be a person we had met or personally known, it could not reference a major religious texts and when he said one page, that’s what he meant. So in the debris left over from wiping out my other major influences, I remembered a book my aunt gave me in 1988, realized it was full of improbably grouped and even more implausibly dressed animals, mystical swords and idealistic notions, so what would be better for a writing exercise in a very adult sort of class, loaded with mighty minds and grown-up theologians?
When I was ten years old, my mother decided to move us out of Boston to one of the many suburbs I had never heard of. I had no premonition of the changes this move would bring to my life, and no idea of how much I was going to need heroes and guides. I’m not sure I can ever articulate the shock of life in that new town. I came from a world of color and imagination, where of course nine year olds read fairy tales and watched cartoons and imagined places in games. Theater and music were fun. Art was interesting. Suddenly I had arrived in an odd, grey and yellow linoleum world, my new school, where all of those joys were for babies, and where there was no distinction drawn between an unabridged Grimm’s tale and a “board” book of Cinderella for four year olds—being found with either was a risk. Everyone was Catholic. I don’t know if it was my glasses, my inability to enjoy, let alone play soccer or my addiction to books that pinned the bull’s eye on my back but there it was and there it stayed through four years of public school and five years at a small, underfunded girls’ Catholic school in the next town over. And worse, everyone’s parents seemed fine with their children aiming everything from fists, insults, graphic profanity and even seized books at me and anyone else “not like them.” “What did I do?” I would ask sometimes. “You were born,” would come the reply.
The same year that I lost my school, friends and original home from the move, somebody gave me a book called Mossflower by Brian Jacques. Mossflower details the adventures of Martin the Warrior mouse, his friend Gnoff the mousethief, the woodlanders of Mossflower forest and their struggle for independence against the rule of Tsarmina, the tyrannous wildcat who sought to dominate them all from her crumbling stronghold of Kotir. I can alternately describe it as: Arthurian Legend meets The Wind in the Willows. Yes, this was clearly deep and heavy theological, philosophical and morally weighted stuff. And yet…“Story is our wall against the dark,” Jane Yolen once wrote (Here there be Dragons, Harcourt: 1993). Mossflower and the ideas in it were keystones of my wall. The small can overcome the large. The powerless can join together and oppose evil. The poor can stand up to the rich. Bullying, lack of compassion, apathy and politicking deception may not bring someone down, but in the end they reveal a tyrant or a hypocrite’s true self. Martin the Warrior mouse’s code: protect the weak, fight for truth and justice, and build alliances instead of stepping out alone to show off your own magnificence is woven through the other ideas in Mossflower as seamlessly as the lessons of community, love and friendship. Outside of my home and family I did not have this code anywhere else.
As a despised outcast, I lived a lonely nine years in the new town with my dog my only friend until nearly my last year of high school. I certainly never developed the grace and coordination of the fighting mice, otters and badgers, nor the dexterity of the squirrel archers in my favorite book. But Mossflower gave me other tools. I sat in church, CCD and religion classes and saw kids who pledged commitment to love and compassion step out of church or classroom to assault anyone they deemed deserving of punishment for…who knew? Mossflower taught me honesty: don’t mouth virtues you won’t commit to, stand up for yourself, but because you’re not going to make it without your community, stand up for everyone. If you have to fight, fight for peace and justice. Smaller, younger, elderly or friends different from you may slow you down, and they could limit your choices. They also will bring you joy, wisdom and help that is less quantifiable but more powerful because they will sustain your soul. When I found my faith, I recognized it because of the woodlanders of Mossflower.
Mossflower, Brian Jacques, Philomel: 1988