A HARVEST OF SORROW – The storyteller as healer

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The Journey of the Healer as Teller of Tales is complex:

As a storyteller I have learned that to tell a story and lead others through it with a depth of intimacy and distance (simoultaneously) I need to have lived the story myself. It is not always the incidents of the tale that I know, but the experience of the journey.

In High School, in the 1960’s, I wrote a tragic story about a boyfriend who never returned from a war. I read it in the front of my homeroom. Everyone wept. I had no idea where the idea came from. But in retrospect, I was watching images of war in Viet Nam every evening on the news and my life had changed that summer overnight. I returned from summer camp to find my beautiful red haired mother, who played Bach and Hungarian Czardas on the grand piano, seated in a wheel chair.; leaning to one side, white-haired, and unable to speak without slurring her words. No one had told me that she had suffered a stroke. I endlessly repeated the tale of seeing my mother; and created viscerally sorrowful love stories that I repeated in my own life for a long time.

Years later, I fell into despair after a divorce and a diagnosis of cancer.   I decided to do what I had suggested my students do: choose a myth and reflect on my life through the mirror of the story. “A healing journey can lift you out of misery,” I had said a hundred times to others. I bought an over-sized journal. On one side of each page I wrote a line or two from a text of the pre-Hellenic mythic tale of Demeter and Persephone. On the other page I journaled about loss, pain, family, and romances gone wrong -  while taking notes from research on the history and varied interpretations of the story.  It was a 25 year project.  It culminated in a one woman show called THE DAUGHTER OF DEMETER: Of Myth and Memoir; and a chapter in a book about the myth   ~ (named after my essay) called THE LONG JOURNEY HOME ( Christine Downing, editor; Shambhala Books).

In both situations sorrow was a gift. But,  barely recognized at the time.  The story we tell ourselves can either glue us into hopelessness and depression, or lift us up with tenderness into deep inspiration. The tragic love story imprinted me with a romantic pattern of loss and unhappiness as my romantic fate. The writing and telling of Demeter and Persephone transformed my life. I moved through the sorrow harvesting its tenderness and heart breaking kindness to an awakening of profound joy.

A Babylonian tale, told as part of a Jewish Thousand and One Nights, , recants the journey of a Rebbi. He set out across the world to discover if spirit could be known in this world.  After many obstacles and strange events,he gave up hope of ever returning home or reaching his goal.   He met a Bedouin Chief who knew the place where heaven and earth met. “They can  be seen at one time.”   The Chief led the Rebbi through the desert. On the way The Rabbi fell to his knees weeping, overcome with thick empathy.   Beneath the sand he heard a cacophony of wailing voices. Irrisistibly drawn to the sorrow that reflected his own loss, he refused to leave that place.  The Bedouin urged him onwards, “This is the place in our journey where too often we get stuck. This place is the unsettled burial ground of those who gave up hope while crossing the desert with Moses. This sadness is the fixed misery of those who fear to go beyond their unhappiness. “ Pulling himself away, with the help of the Chief, he acknowledged the reality of loss, and uncovered within himself renewed energy and vaster courage to move forward.  The Rebbi fulfilled his journey although he actually never saw the conversion of heaven on earth that occurred only in an instant. But he knew it to be true.   Ultimately he eached home. He carried with him two unexpected gifts: he received a ring that brought what was dead back to life and he had the story of his journey.  When he told the tale, he inspired others not to get caught in  their sorrow . Those who listened made the journey of loss and return; a return amplified by the knowledge of the ring and the victory of fearless confrontation with sorrow without becoming overtaken by its allure.

The storyteller  either provokes us into  pity and sadness,  and leaves us in grief,  as if it is the fate of our lives as human beings. Or, they let us experience the depth of sorrow and feel the strongest emotions fully while moving us forward and through it without getting attached  to being sad, only. – Like the Rebbi in the ancient tale, in order to tell the story, we have to make the journey ourselves. How else do we dare to  take others through the narrative without becoming captivated in the mulch of misery, or skimming over it as if it was something we can contain in words and ignore its presence in  the heart. Feeling into the sorrow, without becoming attached to it, gives us the core of the sorrow to feed us. It is the capacity to feel and live with tender hearted care for ourselves and others that is the nurturance we harvest.

What I learned from my two episodes of encounter with deep loss was that in telling the story through the filter of a great myth, I gained the capacity to feel and tell the story with intimacy and distance. I learned to see beyond and within the grief at the same time as I felt it. It is this quality of presence and compassion that I seek in my preparation as a storyteller, and the guiding principle of my role as narrator/guide in performance. It is the task of the healing and the healer.

1 July 2015





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