Becoming Anansi’s child
I was scared of spiders most of my life—except for one inexplicable time (no spider images inside, don’t worry.)
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This essay is mostly about the nonsense that brains get up to in the name of self-protection. Exemplar: I was scared of spiders for nearly my whole childhood, except for one day when I was about 8 years old.
I’d had a morning of fresh air fun at a fair on the grounds of my South London primary school. I meandered through the exhibiting tables of trinkets and slinky toys arranged at a child’s height and sized for a child’s hands.
Not long before we left for home, I walked through the yard again, looking for something to take as a memento. What I landed on—and this is unfathomable to me now—was a rubbery black toy spider at least two inches across.
Its stretchiness delighted me. I tugged the legs wide and cross-wise and chuckled at how the shape rebounded. I handed my pennies over, put the spider in my pocket, and drove home with my mother.
That’s what happened.
And here’s how I got there.
For years I’d heard that some spiders were poisonous, so I should steer clear. I figured that if I were ever to parse “harmless” from “purveyor of doom” I’d already be too close to the harm and doom; I therefore firmly avoided all of the eight-leggeds walking through our blackberry bushes or sneaking into the house through a window or door.
Daddy longlegs, not so bad comparatively, were nevertheless skinny, wispy, and unnerving. It seemed wrong, somehow, for them to be so fragile and yet so menacing a predator to the spiders who might prey on us.
There were probably spiders in the attic, the garage, in the back porch, under the stairs. I trapped and released those I saw.
I pretended I didn’t see the others.
I was good at pretending.
Except for that one time I saw a toy spider and brought it home.
When I got home from the fair, I emptied my pockets to change into house clothes, and put my new toy to the side.
Then I left the room briefly, came back in, and saw that thing again.
Now, I knew it was a toy and not an animal. I knew I knew it. I also knew it was the same object I’d just played with at the fair.
But somehow—and I was almost watching it happen as it was happening—the spider wasn’t still the same. Somehow it had morphed into something Other; somehow it was now a threat, and no matter how I squinted at it, I couldn’t change it back.
Intention wouldn’t do it. Willpower wouldn’t do it. I could no longer see the toy. I could only see the danger.
I eventually convinced my brother to get rid of the spider: repulsion and expulsion ended the crisis… at least until the next 8-legged came by and I needed to figure out what to do with myself.
The weavers’ wisdom
I remember that day every so often because I’ve never since had as extreme a reaction to anything. I’m still a little baffled about what my brain did to me and my toy that day, and I’m also now far enough from the moment that I can see the theatrics in my precipitous slip from play to fear.
Contemporary examples of scapegoating and expulsion are more intelligible to me in the light of that day: they start with a rationale but end with pure un-reason, and it’s hard to disrupt them once they’ve begun to roll.
Around the same time as my adventure with that poor rubber spider, though, I went browsing through my parents’ library and came up with a collection of Jamaican folk just-so tales. They were stories about why Cat and Dog hate each other (because Cat stole Dog’s avocado), and why Crab has a hard shell (because Anansi tricked him).
The stories tell us why, if there’s a contest between any human or animal and Anansi the spider, don’t be fooled by the challenger’s size, strength, or reputation: you need to bet on the spider.
Anansi is one of Jamaicans’ inheritances from our Akan ancestors, and he appears in the folk tales of Black people across West Africa and the western hemisphere. Anansi’s story catalog celebrates the spider-man who governs story and practical wisdom or judgment, and who outwits oppressors as well as the people who prop them up.
Anansi was the perfect mythic figure to accompany people who found they could not rely on conventional power; people whose insights and perspectives were often devalued; those whose worlds were so arbitrary and uncertain that only those with contextual insight, prudence, and the ability to see around corners would last.
Those are among the gifts of contextual awareness that Anansi brought us and keeps giving. He was the only animal in the kingdom who could keep Tiger on his toes.
And he did it all as a wily 8-legged who knew how to stretch, rebound, and adapt.
A few things
Wil Wheaton tells how, as a gaslit child actor, he took refuge in his local public library, its librarian, and the books she recommended to him. The library, he explains to the Southern Kentucky Book Festival, is a safe place for vulnerable people; and it is also an easy target for authoritarians and autocrats-in-training (March 2023).
Last year I worked with Daneen Akers (Watchfire Media) on her new children’s book, Dear Mama God. Learn more about it on the book site, and check out Illustrated Ministry’s post about it: lots of encouraging notes there.
A few weeks ago I came back from the 2023 Strickland Symposium and Lecture on religion, pluralism, and democracy at Wake Forest Divinity School, NC.
Watch the morning conversation featuring me (Auburn Theological Seminary), Dr. Ryan Burge (Faith Counts), Dr. Sabrina Dent and Amanda Tyler (BJC), and Pastor Alan Sherouse (First Baptist Church [Greensboro], and Guilford County Schools school board). We're all introduced by our colleague and Wake Forest Divinity School’s interim dean, Dr. Corey D.B. Walker and this year’s lecturer, Dr. Alton B. Pollard, III.
I transcribed my remarks, and they’ve just gone up on the Auburn website.
An audience member and student asked us about spaces outside of congregations where people have formed spiritual community. That question has been burning a hole in my brain since the panel.
Spaces that aren’t home or work; spaces like gyms, coffee shops, walking groups, congregations, and studios; spaces where no one cares that you’re Really Important in your day job but love watching you dance or tag in for pickleball or stretch to your personal best on your latest sets or perform your newest poem—these are all third spaces.
Not only do there seem to be fewer and fewer of them, but we also seem to have crafted lives that allow us less energy to enjoy them even where they exist.
I think that’s a democratic problem, not just a sociological or psychological one. More on that next time.
Tell me: Are there spaces outside of home and work where you regularly connect with other people? If so, what are they? Looking forward to hearing your stories about them in the replies or comments.
Two weeks ago, Saturday, April 15: I talked to Sligo Adventist Church’s Faith and Reason Sabbath School class about nationalism and pluralism. The class doesn’t record its Zoom sessions, but I did save our slides and I’d like to talk about this some more.
So if you have a community group you’d like me or my Auburn colleague Dr. Erica Ramirez to chat about the loopy things Americans believe about religion or this country, let me know. (I jest about the loopiness, but only a little bit.)
One week ago, Sunday, April 23: I hosted a small group conversation with relatives of LGBTQ Seventh-day Adventists at the end of the Adventist Peace Fellowship’s recent 2-day summit. You can still watch the first day’s program online.
When I participated last year, we talked about peacemaking. This year, given the repentance and reconciliation theme, I referred the organizers to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s book, Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World. It lays out a classic Jewish model for repair: acknowledgement, changed behavior, restitution, apology, and making different choices toward a new future.
Upcoming: Wednesday May 3, 6:30-8 p.m. ET
I'll be with the crew at Fellowship of Reconciliation Wednesday May 3 to listen and respond to Rev. Tabatha Holley about violence, peace, and resistance. Tabatha is this year’s FOR Wink Fellow, and so we’ll be exploring some of the teaching legacies of Walter and June Wink as well.
Email me for the Zoom link and join us!
Until next time,
Thanks for sharing this post, y'all. 💜