“During the years we worked together she rarely talked about her own life for more than a few minutes without breaking off to tell such a story (traditional narrative). When she returned to her own personal experience, she would compose her own account that demonstrated the explanatory power of the narrative she had just related. In this way she provided the framework I needed to understand the complex events that had occurred in her own life.”
—Mrs. Kitty Smith, Yukon elder interviewed by anthropologist Julie Cruikshank, Winter 1974
The Social Life of Stories: Narrative and Knowledge in the Yukon Territory, UBC Press, pg. 105
The wolf stopped before a large stone palace. Before it, in the garden, were enormous stones. The wolf said, “ A giant lives here. He is the one who has turned your brothers to stone.” He instructed the prince to go to the door, “A princess is kept prisoner by the giant. In the day she is inside. Do all she says.” The Prince climbed from the back of the wolf. The wolf called out as he turned to go back into the forest, “If ever you need me, just call for me.” And the wolf sped away.
The events of our lives are complex. If we were to tie together the causes and effects of our actions, or the ways others were affected by what took place, ~ the memories, fears and images that arose within us in the listening ~ describing what took place or what we think took place would take years; if at all possible. All that leads up to any particular event or moment, all that which makes the meaning, cannot be isolated, fixed, or disconnected from others, the natural world, our history or ourselves. Hence, a story even when written down, once told comes to life again in its fullness of intimacy, distance, and feeling that is vaster than our understanding.
The beauty and way in which a story moves us when it is heard/imagined lies in this impossible experience of ceaseless connections that can not be squeezed into words, but in the living event is kept fresh and evocative by the multiplicity of responses that take place between us and in us as the story unfolds.
I could say, as do many who hear the story, that the Giant is evil and the cause of destruction because he has turned others to stone, and captured a princess. However, in the equation of the event of listening these are the very incidents (lived by us in our imaginal response) that propel the youngest prince out of the palace into the forest to confront his destiny – and to meet the princess.
Recently in a salon that I held in my loft in Manhattan (called Passionate Conversations on the Power of Storytelling in Our Lives), memoirist Joyce Zonana spoke of the stories that were told after the disaster of Katrina in New Orleans, 2007, where she had been living. She reiterated how people did not tire of hearing each other’s stories of that time. It is the same for Haiti where I spend a great deal of time. A single story, she reflected, could never hold the vastness and diversity of experiences of the event. It was an event that was mythic in scale, I suggested, revealing so many experiences and mysteries, tragedies and auspicious miracles. We conjured together that the telling was a way of provoking a larger sense of what took place impossible to be found in a single narrative, and at the same time put people into the proximity of the mythic nature of reality.
Recently, working for the Tribute Center at Ground Zero – a small museum sponsored by families of 9/11 devoted to storytelling – I was struck by the numbers of people who came every day to hear stories and be in the place of the tragedy. I felt again that it was not only being in a place of historical significance, but the desire we have – whether conscious or not – to be part of the mythic or greater bigger than ourselves events that can not fit into single stories or opinions. (At the same time and it is a different discussion – it is the habit of narrowing experience into opinions and politics and single meanings with black and white assumptions that keep us separated from the mythic and the territory of mystery about our lives, that can fuel our compassion and sense of being part of a living fabric of story ongoing that enlivens us, and opens our hearts.
The conversation at the salon that followed was intriguing. Everyone present took part. It was all of our reflections that added up to, but did not define, the totality of what it is to share our stories, particularly about “big” events. In this case, our stories were about how we create meaning in our lives after extreme situations. We talked about disasters, but we also spoke about inner confrontations with extreme fear, abandonment, abuse, and grief. I think of the faces of the children at the UN school or Wonder and Wisdom who lived out the Giant story as it was being told with an ever deepening engagement and sense of participation. I was sure that it was not only participation in the content of the tale, but in their own lives and feelings, and the world around them.
I asked Nalini Vaz to spark the next passionate conversation. She had spokes eloquently that first night about her experiences engendering narratives in post tsunami Tamil Nadu, India and Achai, Indonesia. What had been most revelatory in what she offered were her descriptions of people who depended on the abundance of the sea for their livelihood. They had a way of life that was epitomized in myth and ritual dedicated to and dependent on an all giving goddess of the sea. She felt they felt betrayed by that goddess when the tsunami occurred, and for nearly a year did not tell her story or visit her temples. Yet, they reinvested meaning in these myths as time went on, expanding and retelling her story, in order to find continuity and fulfillment in their lives again after four years.
I sought a story that evening which would evoke redolent images that were complex – allowing both sides of the hugeness of natural disasters to be explored. I could not find a tale about the goddess of the sea that was full enough to hold the experience I was attempting to release. Instead, I summarized a section of the Bhagavad Gita—the dynamic conversation between hero Arjuna on the battlefield on the brink of a war to save the world, with his charioteer, the God Krishna. The section that I attempted to retell was the moment in their conversation when Arjuna asked to see the actual raw visage of the truth of the god. Krishna manifested in an all confusing,brilliant, many armed, omnipotent form, where the simultaneous creation and devastation of all that we know appeared together. Even the destruction of the world and Arjuna’s death, being eaten alive in the mouth of the god, was seen. In this way I hoped to open us to less need for a simplistic logic about natural disaster, or any great story for that matter that brings us to a reckoning with our own capacity for feeling two things at once.
Our conversation began with a go around discussion about these devastating and beautiful images that might lead us to surrender to the truth of life and death that we spend most of our time ignoring. How can we survive if we are untrained to know this view of unbiased devouring beauty and constant misery? In the haunting opened vision of this story, Nalini spoke about the work that she collaborated on following the disaster of the tsunami.
The story gave us a way to return to the center of the unraveled knot of safety into the actuality of what cannot be understood. It was cheerful and engaging because it was real. In this way, we felt released from the strange burden of only having opinions and assumptions about the disaster and the details of our every day lives. We stayed on the ground of shared experiences, while feeling into something bigger than ourselves. Such is the gift of these stories and this way of listening and reflecting.
How we can be moved to find a larger viewpoint from which to perceive our lives is how a story can function for us; even if it is not a myth that we grew up with like the stories that the Yukon elders shared with Julie Cruikshank. But it does depend on who is telling the story to us. The imagination can either thrust us into fantasy or expose our mythic capacity to dwell in the complexity and simplicity of an open mind for as long as the middle of the story is able to keep the stone of our own fixed ideas or assumed limits of logic, open.
Back to the story…
Here we are in the story at the place the prince was seeking without knowing that that place was what he was seeking. The prince had arrived where his brothers had arrived. His motivation however was to bring his brothers back home. His vehicle was the wild animal that he fed with his own horse.
Reading Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche’s SMILE AT FEAR (Shambhala Publications) he describes the fortress of ego as a wall that is constructed by the ego when it feels threatened. It reminded me of the Giant.. Who feeling threatened turned the brothers to stone. Had he, like his brothers, gone to the door and asked directly or demanded to have his brothers turned back from stone – and had he succeeded and got back home, things would be very different. But he has a wolf as ally who instructs him and he follows the instructions. Or at this point, we know he has heard the instructions and so have we the listeners! We have already felt the power of the giant -we know this possibility. The prince could be turned to stone or murdered.
The wolf has informed us however that there is a surprise in store for us: there is a princess in the palace and not the giant, at this juncture. What will happen in the stone home of the giant in the middle of the forest from this point will determine the rest of the story. He has arrived.. a first arrival. But the story is hardly over. And our prince’s heart that was stirred to find his brothers will be stirred further.
Living our lives like a story. What does that mean? Personally, I suffered from a romantic and addictive compulsion to find love to save me from a constant sense of not belonging, or not being good enough to be part of a family. The enormity of the nightmares, failed attempts at relationships, and unhappiness due to illness that I repeated in my life led me to recognize that I was caught in a mythic dilemma within my own narrative. Several times in my life I defied all logic to meet up with someone who I felt had betrayed me. I turned myself to stone. And, each time my motivation appeared to be the repair of what I felt was broken; to get back what I had lost. As if doing that I might be released of the terror and anguish I felt at the loss. But it wasn’t until I could recognize that my motivation had to be to save myself so I could be of use in the world, that I was able to make the journey past repeatedly turning to stone, and begin the long process of healing – from a cycle of self misery.
Since we are in the grips of the illogic or the bigger logic of the story rather than our own, we the listeners, spying into the unfolding narrative, have a sense that at the root of the story is a deeper story. Perhaps it is the absence of the mother, the queen_ the female principle of seeing with the light of the moon. Intuition, heart and clear seeing is absent. The nature of our lives when out of balance cause us to be blind to interdependence and impermanence…the knowing of the feminine.
The giant that turned his brothers, their brides and horses to stone, holds prisoner a young princess with whom the prince must engage in order to go forward to fulfill his quest.
And what is our quest? At Wonder and Wisdom, or at the UN School, I related this section of the story matter-of-factly. The prince’s encounter with the wolf, the place of stones and giants, and the captured princess.. At this point into the tale, we are conjuring the images, one upon the other, without any effort whatsoever. As the story progresses in words spoken and heard on the outside, inside we are more relaxed in the imaginative response with immediacy. We are now in our minds and imagination, that very place of arrival.
The giant and the wolf are moving in and out of the forest. The king is in a palace behind us past the trees and streams where raven and fish have been healed and returned to their natural places of branch and water. The brothers are still. Outside the stone palace is the prince about to go to the door.. and inside the walls of the stone is ta princess. We watch for a moment as the wild creature vanishes and we are left in that place.
IMAGES COME TO MY MIND OF STONES
Unearthed seemingly solid. Astonished.
Huge stones thrown up out of earth by earthquakes and flash floods.
Water turned to hailstones the size of tennis balls falling on the earth.
Fire burned stones from blazing heat that burns but does not destroy.
Old ruins and prison walls.
Stone works in endless cities.
Stone cities beneath the water.
Chichen itza and the pyramids.
Sphinx with riddles and buried cities.
“THE LINES IN THE STONES” said an old man showing me how the lines in the stones I was collecting on the beach “were made from the breath of stones a thousand years ago”. Even they are not solid as I hold them in my hands
able to imagine them as water or lava, and breathing.
If the tellers of this tale had stopped here the unseen root of the cause of discord, damage to environment and imprisonment of the princess, would remain unknown. It is equivalent to being told you have cancer and without hesitation asking for it to be cut out without any investigation of what may have caused it and might cause it again or how is that organ related to other organs.The journey of the story in its kindness takes us where we ourselves, the listeners, might not have gone without the continuity of the tale to some conclusion and resolution.