I began a New Year ‘s clean-up in my office. Secreted under a pile of papers was a folder containing notes for a never manifested project using tales about Good Fortune for an Arabian Nights Casino theme park in Las Vegas. I titled the folder and placed it in a findable cabinet labeled ‘Projects.’ A page fell out entitled An Amulet of Good Fortune (Baragladin) – a story said to be based on an orally recorded Roma (Romanian Gypsy) story adapted by Queen Marie in the early 1930’s. Queen Marie’s Book of Stories was one of two books that my mother gave to me from her youth. The other was the autobiography of Isadora Duncan.
Reading Baragladin’s story brought up instant memories of my grandmother, my mother and the Roma women that I’ve worked with in Bacau, Romania. These feeling-drenched recollections provide a recorded frame story for the tale. A family legend that I savored was about my Grandma Molly (Mahlia Krassner), daughter of a Great Rabbi in Dorohoi, Romania, having tea with Queen Marie during her New York tour in the 1930’s in order to “read her tea leaves.” That detail served to create an entire universe of imagined history about my grandmother who died when I was six months old in Brooklyn, NY. Not to mention my mother’s telling me many times that I was not really her daughter. “We found you in a garbage pail. The gypsies threw you away.”
In my first generation Jewish immigrant family there was an ongoing civil war between my parents. My father’s romanticized roots were from Lumza, Poland where he associated himself with poor displaced peasants. My mother on the other hand associated with her Romanian “aristocratic” roots, (“Your grandmother spoke French”) perhaps equally romanticized. The conflict erupted over where to eat on Sunday afternoons. My father wanted to go to Nathan’s in Coney Island for cheap frankfurters and clam chowder, while my mother wanted to “dress up” and go to a French Restaurant on Flatbush Avenue eating a “real meal.” Themes of the conflagration were cultural pride, class, fashion, food and identity. The common ground was that the food we ate outside the house did not need to be kosher. I was never asked what I preferred. Both were of interest to me, but often Coney Island was my first desire since Nathan’s was near the fascinating and forbidden Freak Show and across the street from a pet shop with puppies in need of as much affection as I longed for.
In the Roma story, there was a painful incident where a young Gypsy man, who held a secret and was a great violinist, was hired to play music at the home of a wealthy Romanian woman. He assumed she was interested in him, but quickly discovered that he was an exotic entertainment. Wanting to prove himself, he betrayed the secret he held and played an exceptional piece of music he had written in honor of the mystery of the rainbow. It had the effect of exposing the foolishness of his audience, and also his being further humiliated and forced to leave, unappreciated. That episode came to mind as I found myself thinking about what it was about the tale, overwritten and somewhat tedious in the book, that inspired me to adapt the story. Something in that incident of betrayal and humiliation, attempting to prove oneself, felt raw and familiar. But rarely did I include that part in a public retelling.
More and more I became interested in how the incidents and images in traditional stories can draw out less conscious personal stories we believe about ourselves.
Not knowing these stories often betrays our own sense of authenticity. Or, what I dread of most might come to be the very hidden narrative that I feed in my life as if I am more attached to that then anything other. The unspoken, unconscious stories, driven deep down below memory into the bone of our lives, are the very ones that when recalled, acknowledged, and honored offer up immense energy of life force liberation that was working to keep the story unrecognized. In this uncovering of details of our story, that the often insidious habitual addictions are transformed and our lives are deeply enriched.
It is not that I had not recognized that betrayal was a theme, or for that matter being caught in the horns of the family cultural dilemma, played out as masculine and feminine power issues, a mother and father’s fuel for dissatisfaction and distance, and a poignant discomfort with feeling that I had no idea what side to take or who I should become. However, lifting the fog, the sense of betraying my own gifts, or not being recognized for my essential gifts was for me an even greater threat than betrayal—a hidden story of confusion and longing that did not have words, but visceral resonance, a feeling of sadness and fear inside.
Feeling into the place of unspoken story, the territory of groundless fear and sorrow, released a gift of longing and even a confidence in my sense of presence. Transforming unconscious inner material into open heart—opening beyond attachment to these potent narratives—has been the theme of spiritual teacher’s New Year 2010 messages.
I find myself wanting to tell the story of Baragladin again in the light of my own discovery of unbiased longing – instead of shame about the way I feel I have betrayed something fundamental within in a desire to heal or suppress a ceaselessly bleeding wound inside myself. Sensing the longing and its riches, I went back to the story.
There is something about the indirect nature of these narratives, told well from the unbiased place of presence, that captures our thinking mind with the content, while letting us feel into deeper multi-layered strata of being that is akin to and perhaps is accessing unconditional basic goodness (Shambhala Buddhist term for boddhicitta – of the natural state of mind before and untarnished by conceptual thinking and inherently present). Taken out of context, with deep regard for context and culture, the story is an opportunity and a template for making the journey within that feeds our lives without and enriches our compassion towards self and others.
The literal thinking mind is held enraptured and satisfied by the content: where and how it happened in logical sequence; while the dynamic of reciprocal listening naturally provokes imagination – a moment by moment uncategorizable inner display of visualization, association, and feeling, that is not fixed, but fluid. I think the jewel of the storytelling process is the activation and deepening imaginative expression engendered by the relationship between the teller, the listeners, and the way the story is spoken between.
The more unbiased the telling (even if the storyteller is well aware of their own associations and even psychological barriers or limits personally) and the more embodied with genuineness the voice of the teller, the more radiant and vivid is the experience of the listener. Not only is the narrative content taking us on a journey, but the engagement itself (a ritual of deepening spontaneous communication that is not limited to understanding or analysis) is a living journey that is profound and naturally familiar. We become the story in the telling and participate in a communal event.
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AN AMULET OF GOOD FORTUNE (Baragladin)
Retold by ©Laura Simms 2012
A Roma woman, queen of the gypsies, gave birth one night in her wagon. As a baby boy came into the world, the three sisters of fate appeared. They blessed the child with the knowledge of beauty. Then they disappeared. The boy’s mother sewed an amulet to keep away the evil eye in a cloth pouch and hung it on a string around the baby’s neck. He would wear the amulet for the rest of his life.
As a boy, Baragladin was obsessed with beauty. He learned to play the violin with immense passion surpassing all adult musicians; and he was mystified by the sight of the rainbow after the rain. As a young man whenever it rained, he raced across a meadow in search of the end of the rainbow. He had heard stories about treasures that were to be found if one was quick enough to arrive before the rainbow disappeared.
Late one afternoon after a rainfall, Baragladin ran to the other side of the meadow where they were camped, crossed a river, past a row of trees to a clearing.
He saw the end of the rainbow touch the earth. There on the grass was a small box. By the time he reached it, the rainbow was gone, and the box remained locked. He placed the box in the knot of a tree and marked it with a carved X. Every day he went to the tree and attempted to open the box without success. Then, one day he vowed to create the most beautiful music for the rainbow. He prayed that would pry open the box. He also promised to never tell anyone or to play the music except when the box would open.
The Roma did not camp for long in one place and at the end of that summer, he awoke one night to find himself far from the meadow where he had hidden the box.
He was certain his tribe would return there sooner than later. However, for years, he searched the horizon for a meadow with a river and the row of trees. He came to know the countryside like the lines in the palm of his hand, but his tribe never camped at that place again. Nonetheless, he continued to practice his song.
As I was writing these words in my journal the music in the corner coffee shop called The Bean changed to a Roma song played by the Gypsy Kings
Baragladin’s song grew more beautiful with time. He played it for others only twice. Once, as his mother was dying, she asked him what had consumed him his whole life that left him unmarried and vigilant. He played her the song bringing her great peace, and explained that he had found the end of the rainbow and written the song in hopes it would open the box. She died peacefully. The second time did not bring solace or joy. He was hired by a woman to play music in her home. He was smitten with her and believed that she had also fallen in love with him. However, as he played, he realized that she and her guests found saw him as an exotic entertainment. Overtaken by pride and shame he played his special music. They ignored him throwing coins at the end of the performance and showing him to the door. He no longer performed on the streets or played his music for anyone.
But, his knowledge of the roads, and intelligence, was respected by his people. He was made the King of his tribe and his wagon led the way on every road. He had an uncanny ability to find meadows besides rivers that offered protection and shade.
Years passed. Finally, an old man, Baragladin gave up his dream of finding the meadow. He spent all of his time serving the needs of his people. A boy became his driver providing him much needed rest and care in his old age since he had no children of his own.
Then, one afternoon after a rainstorm, waking after hours of sleep, the old man heard the wagon wheels grow silent. Barefoot he went outside to see where they had stopped. The sun was shining. He looked out across a meadow, beyond a river, to a row of trees. Amazed at having arrived at the place he had sought for so long, he grabbed his violin and raced across the wet grass and the river to the trees. He found the mark he had made as a boy and took out the wooden box. He did not notice when a twig tore the string he wore around his neck. The amulet fell to the roots of the tree.
Baragladin set the box on the earth. It opened easily. But there was nothing in it.
He lifted the violin and played his song. It was impossible to know if the music came from the violin or the sky or from within the box. It was beautiful. A young girl in the camp heard the music. She raced across the meadow through the river to the row of trees. She found the body of Baragladin face down fallen over his broken violin. Her eyes were drawn to something nested in the roots of the tree. It was a small pouch. She lifted it and heard a sound. The three fates appeared across the river. They blessed her with the knowledge of beauty.
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LONGING. I have no memory of my grandmother, only photos. I went to Dorohoi six times over five years in hopes of uncovering some essence or proof of my grandmother. I visited two Jewish graveyards, walked through the streets, photographed every house that had rose gardens, climbed through a window into one of the two synagogues that are left, and searched through archives of Jewish births in Botosani. I didn’t find anything. In fact, of all the cities I visited in Romania, Dorohoi felt the most alien.
So, I drove North giving up my search and passed through Bukovina to the old city of Radauti. There I felt at home. One night I went out for a walk on Stephan Cel Mare Strada and heard music. I looked down an alleyway and saw a roma man playing accordion. He was wearing heeled boots, a small hat and had silver coins for buttons on his jacket. He nodded to me and I walked toward him. Another man came out from a doorway with a violin and smiled. I felt completely safe although my driver had warned me to stay away from Cigan (gypsies). Pleased to have an audience, the two men played songs for a long time. It was of course the only time I had no recording device with me since I was out for an evening walk.
The next day I went to the Archeology Museum not far from the synagogue. I met the curator who was a painter himself. He showed me antique Romanian peasant embroidery and told me stories about the Baal Shem Tov. I passed by later that day and he came out to give me a gift. He presented me with the partly burned Hebrew prayer from a Mazuzoh (at the entrance to all Jewish homes – an amulet of prayers) that his father saved when one of the temples was burned down during the holocaust. I had never seen the prayers rolled inside and had as a child wondered what was inside of it.
How to tell the story of Baragladin without indulging in maudlin emotion? The feeling of the boy’s longing and passion, his gift of the knowledge of beauty, even his betrayal through pride, is what I think of forgivingly before telling the story. That the story does not end, nor does the longing, is pleasing. It renders the tale worthy to be told. To dip into that place of joyful sadness and let the details straightforwardly be told so to the best of my ability I can let the inner story unfold for my listeners as they find their own source of longing.
I have never found any notes about where Queen Marie heard the story or if it is a Gypsy Tale or her own invention.