“My imaginary friend really lived. . . once,” the Latina teenage girl began, head bent, her fingers twisting her long, black hair.
She stood in the circle of other adolescents gathered in my Seattle Arts and Lectures storytelling class.
Here were kids from all over the city—every color and class, all strangers one to another. Over the next two weeks we would become a fierce tribe, telling our own and our tribe’s story. Our first assignment was to introduce our imaginary friends from childhood. This shy fourteen-year- old girl, Sarah, had struck me on the first day because she always sat next to me, as if under my wing, and though her freckles and stylish clothes suggested she was a popular girl, her demeanor showed the detachment of someone deeply preoccupied. She never met my eye, nor did she join in the first few days of storytelling when the ten boys and four girls were regaling one another with favorite superheroes.
So far, their story lines portrayed the earth as an environmental wasteland, a ruined shell hardly shelter to anything animal or human. After three days of stories set on an earth besieged by climate change, environmental evacuees, and barren of nature, I made a rule: No more characters or animals could die this first week. I asked if someone might imagine a living world, one that survives even our species. It was on this third day of group storytelling that Sarah jumped into the circle and told her story:
“My imaginary friend is called Angel now because she’s in heaven, but her real name was Katie,” Sarah began. “She was my best friend from fourth to tenth grade. She had freckles like me and brown hair and more boyfriends—sometimes five at a time—because Katie said, ‘I like to be confused!’ She was a real sister too and we used to say we’d be friends for life. .. .”
Sarah stopped, gave me a furtive glance and then gulped in a great breath of air like someone drowning, about to go down. Her eyes fixed inward, her voice dropped to a monotone.
“Then one day last year in L.A, Katie and I were walking home from school and a red sports car came up behind us. Someone yelled, ‘Hey, Katie!’ She turned . . . and he blew her head off. A bullet grazed my skull, too, and I blacked out. When I woke up, Katie was gone, dead forever.” Sarah stopped, stared down at her feet and murmured in that same terrible monotone, “Cops never found her murderer, case is closed.”
The kids shifted and took a deep breath, although Sarah herself was barely breathing at all. I did not know what to do with her story; she had offered it to a group of kids she had known but three days. It explained her self-imposed exile during lunch hours and while waiting for the bus.
All I knew was that she’d brought this most important story of her life into the circle of storytellers and it could not be ignored as if she were a case to be closed. This story lived in her, would define and shape her young life. Because she had given it to us, we needed to witness and receive—and perhaps tell it back to her in the ancient tradition of tribal call and response.
“Listen,” I told the group, “We’re going to talk story the way they used to long ago when people sat around at night in circles just like this one. That was a time when we still listened to animals and trees and didn’t think ourselves so alone in this world. Now we’re going to carry out jungle justice and find Katie’s killer. We’ll call him to stand trial before our tribe. All right? Who wants to begin the story?”
All the superheroes joined this quest. Nero the White Wolf asked to be a scout. Unicorn, with her truth-saying horn, was declared judge. Another character joined the hunt: Fish, whose translucent belly was a shining “soul mirror” that could reveal one’s true nature.
A fierce commander of this hunt was Rat, whose army of computerized comrades could read brain waves and call down lightning lasers as weapons. Rat began the questioning and performed the early detective work. We determined that the murderer was a man named Carlos, a drug lord who used local gangs to deal cocaine. At a party Carlos had misinterpreted Katie’s videotaping her friends dancing as witnessing a big drug deal. For that, Rat said, “This dude decides Katie’s to go down. So yo, man, he offs her without a second thought.”
Bad dude, indeed, this Carlos. And who was going to play Carlos now that all the tribe knew his crime? I took on the role. As I told my story, I felt my face hardening into a contempt that carried me far away from these young pursuers, deep into the Amazon jungle where Rat and his computer armies couldn’t follow, where all their space-age equipment had to be shed until there was only hand-to-hand simple fate.
In the Amazon, the kids changed without effort, in an easy shape-shifting to their animal selves. Suddenly there were no more superheroes with intergalactic weapons— there was instead Jaguar and Snake, Fish, and Pink Dolphin. We were now a tribe of animals, pawing, running, invisible in our jungle, eyes shining and seeing in the night. Carlos canoed the mighty river, laughing—because he did not know he had animals tracking him.
All through the story, I’d kept my eye on Sarah. The flat affect and detachment I’d first seen in her was the deadness Sarah carried, the violence that had hollowed out her inside, the friend who haunted her imagination. But now her face was alive, responding to each animal’s report of tracking Carlos. She hung on the words, looking suddenly very young, like a small girl eagerly awaiting her turn to enter the circling jump rope.
“Hey, I’m getting away from you!” I said, snarling as I imagined Carlos would. I paddled my canoe and gave a harsh laugh, “I’ll escape, easy!”
“No!” Sarah shouted. “Let me tell it!”
“Tell it!” her tribe shouted.
“Well, Carlos only thinks he’s escaping,” Sarah smiled, waving her hands. “He’s escaped from so many he’s harmed before. But I call out ‘FISH!’ And Fish comes. He swims alongside the canoe and grows bigger, bigger until at last, Carlos turns and sees this HUGE river monster swimming right alongside him. That mean man is afraid because suddenly Fish turns his belly up to Carlos’s face. Fish forces him to look into the soul mirror. Carlos sees everyone he’s ever killed and all the people who loved them and got left behind.
“Carlos sees Katie and me and what he’s done to us. He sees everything and he knows his soul is black. And he really doesn’t want to die now because he knows then he’ll stare into his soul mirror forever. But Fish makes him keep looking until Carlos starts screaming he’s sorry, he’s so sorry. Then…” Sarah shouted, “Fish eats him!”
The animals roared and cawed and congratulated Sarah for calling Fish to mirror a murderer’s soul before taking jungle justice.
Class had ended, but no one wanted to leave. We wanted to stay in our jungle, stay within our animals—and so we did. I asked the kids to close their eyes and call their animals to accompany them home. I told them that some South American tribes believe that when you are born, an animal is born with you. This animal protects and lives alongside you even if it’s far away in an Amazon jungle—it came into the world at the same time you did. And your animal dies with you to guide you back into the spirit world.
The kids decided to go home and make animal masks, returning the next day wearing the faces of their chosen animal. When they came into class the next day it was as if we never left the Amazon. Someone dimmed the lights. There were drawings everywhere of jaguars and chimps and snakes. Elaborate animal masks had replaced the super heroes who began this tribal journey. We sat behind our masks in a circle with the lights low and there was an acute, alert energy running between us, as eyes met behind animal faces.
I realized that I, who grew up in the forest wild, who first memorized the earth with my hands, have every reason to feel this familiar animal resonance. But many of these teenagers, especially minorities, have barely been in the woods; in fact, many inner city kids are afraid of nature. They would not willingly sign up for an Outward Bound program or backpacking trek; they don’t think about recycling in a world they believe already ruined and in their imaginations abandoned for intergalactic, nomad futures.
These kids are not environmentalists who worry about saving nature. And yet, when imagining an Amazon forest too thick for weapons to penetrate, too primitive for their superhero battles, they return instinctively to their animal selves. These are animals they have only seen in zoos or on television. Yet there is a profound identification, an ease of inhabiting another species that portends great hope for our own species survival. Not because nature is “out there” to be saved or sanctioned, but because nature is in them. The ancient, green world has never left us though we have long ago left the forest.
As we told our Amazon stories over the next week, the rainforest thrived in that sterile classroom. Lights low, surrounded by serpents, the jaguar clan, the elephants, I’d as often hear growls, hisses, and howls as words.
They may be young, but kids’ memories and alliances with the animals are very old. By telling their own animal stories they are practicing ecology at its most profound and healing level. Story as ecology—it’s so simple, something we’ve forgotten. In our environmental wars the emphasis has been on saving species, not becoming them. It is our own spiritual relationship to animals that must evolve. Any change begins with imagining ourselves in a new way.
But children, like some adults, know that the real world stretches farther than what we can see. That’s why they shift easily between visions of our tribal past and our future worlds. The limits of the adult world are there for these teenagers, but they still have a foot in the vast inner magic of childhood. It is this magical connection I called upon when I asked the kids on the last day of our class to perform the Dance of the Animals.
Slowly, in rhythm to the deep, bell-like beat of my Northwest Native drum, each animal entered the circle and soon the dance sounded like this: Boom, step, twirl, and slither and stalk and snarl and chirp and caw, caw. Glide, glow, growl, and whistle and howl and shriek and trill and hiss, hiss. We danced as the humid, lush jungle filled the room.
In that story stretching between us and the Amazon, we connected with those animals and their spirits. In return, we were complete—with animals as soul mirrors. We remembered who we were, by allowing the animals inside us to survive.
Children’s imagination is a primal force, just as strong as lobbying efforts and boycotts and endangered species acts. When children claim another species as not only their imaginary friends, but also as the animal within them—an ally—doesn’t that change the outer world?
The dance is not over as long as we have our animal partners. When the kids left our last class, they still fiercely wore their masks. I was told that even on the bus they stayed deep in their animal character. I like to imagine those strong, young animals out there now in this wider jungle. I believe that Rat will survive the inner-city gangs; that Chimp will find his characteristic comedy even as his parents deal with divorce; I hope that Unicorn will always remember her mystical truth-telling horn.
And as for Sarah, she joined the Jaguar clan, elected as the first girl-leader over much boy-growling. As Sarah left our jungle, she reminded me, “Like jaguar . . . . I can still see in the dark.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Tikkun. Want to read other articles from that issue? Consider making a tax-deductible donation to Tikkun – all donations of $50 or more include a free subscription to the magazine! Or you can click here to subscribe or to purchase single issues.