Most of, in fact more than half of, my life I have devoted to being a storyteller. And there is always a question of what that is in our world. Some ask. Others just assume that I memorize and recite banal versions of folktales or ramble on about my own life, without skill, practice, research, inner demand for authenticity and respect for what I can not know. If I have to compare my work to other artforms, I choose spoken poetry and music. Poetry because the language is alive in the speaking. It moves like piercing gentle arrows through layers of fleshy congested opinions and interpretations, projections and already digested experience, into the imagination which itself is an arrow opening inwards towards the secret heart of memory and the unconditional beauty of emptiness, awareness, or basic goodness. This kind of language is a disarming weapon.
And the music? It is heard as unheard sound—a silent melody— haunting the event itself in the trembling space between listener and teller where images have arisen. Thinking mind is busy following the story not knowing that it goes way beyond thoughts where imagination has accessed invisible rivers of presence felt as enchantment or deep connection. I am in the business of make-believe — a mirror to the real world subsisting on full human agreement. The mystery of this connection is something we long for, because I think all along we knew as young children that the world was alive and shifting, coming and becoming and dissolving constantly faster than the blink of an eye. And this knowing is simultaneously terrifying and has great allure. Even for an instant, if we surrender, we feel relief. For an instant, we are no longer the prisoner of our own congealed story. We seemingly enter another, while all the while we are opening fully into our own ongoing narrative where phenomenal world dream, and dreaming mind are actively producing and directing a vivid and more full performance. The truly interesting part is that everyone who is listening is hearing their own unheard symphony of image and space and memory and imagination. But our well trained mind is hearing the words and literally keeping us moving on what appears to be the same trail into the forest. The words are our bread crumbs. What we do not fully recognize, because we are accustomed to recognizing the map and not the journey, are these unseen pathways that open like earthquake crevices beneath our feet.
As I write this, I am on my way to the Hans Christian Anderson statue in Central Park. I have gone at 11 am on Saturdays like this one for more than 40 summers. The tradition is related to the entire story of how I became a storyteller consciously and connected to one of the great shadow tales of jealousy and uncontrolled rage — a personal story I have had to confront in my own unfolding epic. But this is also a place that is joyful with memory of events and old friends, being outside in the middle of the city, facing the direction where hawks nest on elegant buildings and swoop in among the trees to hunt.
I am retelling the story of the Nightingale. The tale is apt for today’s culture of digital projection marketed as communication. An Emperor of China had a garden that bordered a vast forest that expanded until the sea. In that forest was a bird with the most beautiful song. It was so beautiful that books written and read throughout the world about the marvels of the Emperor’s garden always mentioned the sound of the Nightingale’s voice. The emperor finally reading one of the books, demanded that the bird come to him and sing in the palace. Only a kitchen girl knew of the bird and payed attention to its song. She led them into the forest where the bird at last agreed to sing in the court. Hearing the song, the emperor cried. His tears moved the bird and against all of her knowing and foreseeing, resistance and horror, she agreed to be caged and kept and perform on request for the emperor rather than continue her life in the forests, seas, and gardens with sky unlimited.
The emperor’s tears kept her. But when the same person who had sent the book about the gardens (the Emperor of Japan) sent a replica of the nightingale, jeweled with one mechanical song inside its metal body, the emperor was even more enchanted. He could count on the repetition and the study of this single song. There was no diversity, no disturbing beauty or unique moments that pierced the heart. It was predictable and repeatable.
From then, the only time that the emperor had the real bird sing was on occasions when the metal bird failed. But one day the bird was gone. The metal bird rusted and broke. No one could repair it. It was placed in a museum. Brought out on royal occasions. But it no longer sang its single song.
I love this story. Today, I truly believe, we are addicted to wanting predictability. Why else would we need guns? Not to protect ourselves, but to provide ourselves with safety from anything that we don’t agree with or that we fear. To rid ourselves of the only avenues into reality and genuine peace: imagination, memory, truth, and compassion. Yet the misuse of imagination is the monster of genocide and aggressive weaponry. In the fairytale of the Giant, the brothers set out to bring back six wives for themselves, and at the request of their father, a wife for their youngest brother. Yet they forget the youngest — the one who sits by the fire. What is he or cinderella doing by the fire? What are any of us doing when we are dreaming, resting our minds on a cushion for meditation, in deep bond with another, or at a desk writing poems that blaze off the page. We are reconnecting to the source of our heart’s intelligence that is beyond categorization and analysis. This is the song of the nightingale of the garden, ignored in the palace. She left. The emperor at first was bereft. How could anyone disobey the emperor? How could anyone not love the emperor? The one in charge? The one who gave his people the security of what he thinks is right? The one who destroyed their enemies, but also their instinct, their imagination, their ability to genuinely learn, their noble open mind.
The Emperor grew ill. No doctors could heal him. He was dying. On his death bed death itself came to greet him. And on the curtains and walls faces of his deeds, good and bad, appeared to taunt him. So many selfish grotesque deeds were horrifying. What part of the emperor actually saw and felt what he had done? Is this rare for someone to realize the harm that they have caused?
When he felt that terror and grief for his own delusion, then the nightingale returned on her own to the windowsill and sang. She had some sympathy for the Emperor because she had seen his tears once before. She knew that like all of us his basic goodness was present, untarnished and that he was decieved by his own beliefs.
The emperor in the story grew well. For our sake, the listening-reading audience who need a template for acting in the world with mercy, he was cured and became a great ruler. He begged the bird to stay and she promised to sing in his palace, but not to live in the palace. She would return on her own (like the story of King Arthur and the hag) when she chose. She chose sovereignty. Not the self propelled desire to simply do what she wanted, but the soveriengty of compassion that needs to be present for nature as well. Her place in the world.
This is my interlude today. In preparation for telling a story, I have opened my own door inward and outward. And without explaining now it is time to tell the story. It is a day of immense heat. It promises to be well over 105 degrees even in the park. Will anyone come? Who knows? But two friends come from India. They almost didn’t come. “It will be too hot!” I said, “You have to be kidding? you live in Mumbai where the weather is sweltering.” Laughing, they agreed to come. “And if you can not bear it, leave and I will meet you later.” We laughed delighted at our own foolishness and the ability to choose to be in an air conditioned restaurant, rather than a picnic in unbelievably humid weather.