Mihi

The mihi, by way of introducing oneself to a group, is one of those Maori traditions that has been adopted fairly widely in New Zealand. Indeed, the sightly self-conscious, minimalist Pakeha stumble through mountain, tribe, region, river etc is now a well established part of the cultural landscape. There is something about the presentation that I like. It is the upfront acknowledgement that the person standing before you did not emerge into the world fully formed, but carries with them an evolving narrative that stretches back through time, space and bloodline; that we are essentially the latest incarnation in a game of tag; that from one generation to the next we have been held, rocked, and sung too; that we are here because others have struggled, fallen in love, clung to hope and each other; that our stories, like our genes, flow continuously in a river out of Eden (to borrow Richard Dawkins’ evocative phrase).

And it makes me wonder what my own mihi, were it to be a true reflection of who I am and where I am from, might look like. It would have little to do with bloodline, I think. I am left unmoved by the fashion for genealogies, partly because of the simple mathematics of the thing. I have two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents… Go back twenty generation, and you’re up to a million forebears, each with equal claim to being the source of my bloodline. So it’s not a river at all, but an inverted delta, and indeed it’s only because the many paths cross and double up as they do that the whole thing doesn’t collapse into a mathematical impossibility. So, should it turn out I am related to an obscure 12th century English nobleman, any excitement in this discovery is tempered by the knowledge that, chances are, if you have any English blood in you, then you will be too. Extend a little further back in time and it turns out we’ve all squeezed through the same evolutionary bottlenecks. Whatever it is that gives me my identity, it isn’t going to be my bloodline.

The ways genes are mixed and matched from one generation to the next, and the fact that most our genes are identical with those in everybody else (it is this similarity that makes us people, and not, say, tomatoes), and the fact that the way these genes express themselves has a great deal to do with the way the person and the environment interact, leave me feeling that it isn’t my biological ancestors I should be turning to when I seek to people my mihi. (Or at least not as that tale extends back through time – clearly the the pointy end of the delta, my parents and grandparents, played a crucial part in shaping me).

So, where to turn? The ‘I’ to be introduced speaks of a mind: of a personality, a store of knowledge, a set of values and beliefs. And those, it feels to me, are made up of stories. And the beautiful thing about stories, in a world of recorded language, is that they are not constrained by time or place. I have had the very great privilege of growing up literate and curious in a world soaked in story. My mihi, then, would be a journey through the great story tellers and thinkers who have managed, mostly indirectly, to worm their way inside my brain. Which makes me more than a little bit Greek (where would my stories be without Thales, Plato, Aristotle, Protagoras…), every bit as English as my ancestry suggests (Bacon, Shakespeare, Newton, Darwin, Russell…), with some Irish (not just the name, but the marvellous Samuel) Scottish (Hume), and so it would go on. And if that all sounds self-consciously high brow, the stories in which I marinated as a youth are anything but. I think of the television shows, the comic strips, the Hardy Boys adventure series, the movies, the music. Any honest attempt at a mihi would have to name check Enid Blyton, David Bowie, Walt Disney, Woody Allen, Larry David; and if I turn my head as I write this, I see bookshelves lined with the names of scientists, novelists, economists and journalists who, each time I turn a new page, make me a little different.

I was brought up a Catholic, and so the Christian tradition lays claim to part of my mind, as do all the atheists and agnostics I have read or conversed with along the way. I grew up in farmland, I have lived the New Zealand life of rivers, beaches and mountains, and they have made me. And, to come full circle, I live in a land at the edge of the Pacific, the last of the discovered lands, settled here as the guest of the world’s greatest sea farers. From the instinctive ease with which I raise an eyebrow in greeting, to the co-opting of words and phrases, to the young woman who once taught me how to deal with death, a little part of me is Maori too.

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