THE WILD BRIDEwild bride

The Handless Maiden is a controversial fairytale.   It was collected and reconstructed by the Brothers Grimm, and left out of their later collections. It has a disturbing violence and tragic sense of loss that makes it a hard story to tell politely for those who want a fairytale to be an easy tale about unreal events. It does however continue to be a story of choice for many of my female storytelling students.   If taken literally (which I consider a disempowering approach for a tale of great symbolic or inner power) it is hard to tell. But, if understood at a more profound level, engagement in the story provides insight and healing.  It confronts  the pervasive suffering caused by misogyny and abuse against the feminine in our world today.

The production performed by the Knee High Theater Company was daring and riveting. No one shied away from the depth of potential in the story.   The writer, director, choreographer, and artists made choices that illumined the inner secrets of the story’s transformational power.  It was a visceral experience of the power of the “wild” feminine, and a genuine expression of the magic of a fairytale. It touched on the actual presence of evil in the world, and provided a template through which to look at our lives in an essential and raw way with grace, fearlessness, and humor.

The director (Emma Rice) explained that she first directed a Hungarian theater piece based on the story in 2002.  She found it flowery, at first.  She realized later that she had not paid attention.    “I began thinking of the story again.  I had a dawning awareness that I had indeed missed the heart, soul and very point of this extraordinary tale.  Older, more bruised, and more myself, I decided to make this piece again. Only now was I beginning to understand what it is to do a deal with the devil and what it is to endure.”

The title:  THE WILD BRIDE.  For many of us our association with wild is something out of control and dangerous. However, the playwright understood that what is wild is natural.  That to live in direct relationship to the world of spirits, and nature puts us in contact with  events of the world realistically.   In so many tales the inner union with what is natural is the goal.   The story unhinges us from conventions that render women as domestic animals to be owned and used.  It also moves us from how we think we should behave to how in essence we respond.  And how we need to leave our comfortable world in order to re-balance what has gone out of balance in our lives or society.  The transformation that takes place is not only the girl’s survival, but it is a liberation through knowing pain,  the reality of consequence of a  devil’s deal, and the promise of redemption.  This is about  disenchantment with abuse and war, and  reconnecting with the heart. Throughout we face the girl’s ongoing relationship to inherent goodness and love; and equally ongoing (but not as powerful) presence of shadow or devil’s intention.

The set was a dark leafless tree, winding upwards with ladders for trunk, and a huge mirror at the top.  The flower of this tree was insight.  On the grey floor, the territory on which the story would unfold, were scattered dried leaves.  There was a small stage for a small orchestra upstage right and on either side two small round stages with leafless single branches.  When the lights dimmed and brightened we saw what we had not seen before:  a rocking chair with the devil draped over its’ arms. His  head was tossed to one side. He was the ultimate sleezy conman.  He started  introduced the story.  He spoke directly to us. He signaled the music to begin and conjured forth three women who would be the girl in the story in her phases of innocence, loss of innocence and motherhood.

Knowing the story, I was curious about and dreaded the moment when the girl’s hands would be chopped off.  Even though I realized it couldn’t be real the anticipation of fear  greater than the moment of fear. A fairytale is the most profound species of  transformative story.  It rests on suspense, imbalance, fear, loss, and the possibility of love and repair.

There are choices to be made by a storyteller telling a tale to a living audience as a solo performer. And choices that a theater director has to make when bringing to life a fairytale in a theatrical presentation. Making it either too magical (which leaves it too special and smarmy – disconnected from our direct experience) or too literal  (which limits the impact of image that has the ability to drive us out of personal assumption into imaginative revelation).  The fairytale is personal and universal all at once.  It is an inner journey and it refers us to our world’s most root level disturbances.  The writing was exquisite.  The acting was incredibly good.

The fairytale was regarded for its specific genre of effect, and the actors’ relationship to listener was honored.  Not only were we participants often spoken to directly, the director understood the way in which a puppet, or a dance, an archetypal image or a sound could bring us closer to a sense of mystical participation than an explanation.  Brilliant choices were made.

No one was a star, so everyone shone.  Each performer was a musician, a singer, a dancer, and actors or a storyteller.  The father whose lack of attention allowed for the devil’s deal to be made later played the prince who was duped by the devil, still after the girl he felt was his.  Subtle meanings of the story were protected.  All three women played the girl.  A young girl, a wild girl, and a fearless mother each had their dance, their role and were supported by the others. It was seamless in exchange.   The play didn’t let us have the comfortable luxury of getting completely lost in the story as if it was real.  Hence, we were moved over and over again with surprise and intensity.  There were jokes and visual metaphors.   We were constantly reminded that it was a story and it was a revelation of truth. The music, blues music played live, was a background of energy and resonant emotion.  It made the unfolding play more forcefully engaging.  The use of lights, and props, supported the emotional world and changing landscape.

Astonishing moments come to mind. A war. The prince was in a near foolish ballet dancing kilt costume.  But when he went to war, leaving his wild bride behind, he became the poster soldier from Scottish World War I posters: wearing helmet and pointing rifle.  He was urgent, serious and perched on one of the small stages in the act of watchful battle.  Lights flashed on and off. The music was intensified.   There was no violence enacted. But, we felt the true horror of war.  On the field of leaves were the three women bent backwards. Their pelvises rising up and down — open, facing us — a sad reminder of motherhood, rape, and the violation of the feminine that is war.    This was the other kind of wild. The deranged dance of death where we lose our minds and hearts.  The territory of violence is where wilderness is obliterated in service of genocide.

The Cut:  The father with his ax and a tree stump were center stage. Horrified at what he had to do in order to save his daughter from being thrust into a hell of brimstone and fire and pain, he slammed the ax on to the wood two times. The devil watched as we watched the young girl throw one arm behind her back, then another.   What we did not literally see we felt.  We were victim, witness, and perpetrator.

After the girl’s hands were cut, the younger actress was replaced by an older more sexual and physical second woman.   She moved like a wounded deer falling and standing, trying to use her bandaged stumps to regain balance in the forest.

It was the center of the story that was revealed in this exchange and this beautiful and agonizing dance.

Stunned by the power of the dance, we came to stillness as she entered a garden.

Strings holding green containers with painted light bulbs began to descend from the ceiling becoming the pear trees she hungered for.  It was surprising and hilarious.

The audience in the midst of empathy and recovering from the shock of what happened began to laugh. This was ritual theater at its best.  We were never allowed to drown in the mire of pity or opinion. We were brought up so we could reenter the story again with fresh mind, capable of feeling into the next phase of the tale.

Just as the young woman had avoided being taken by the devil because of her intrinsic inner purity, the second woman crippled and torn from her home, was the cause of the trees leaning toward her to feed her.   The prince arrived.  He would be her husband,  but the redemption occurred because of her essential goodness and bravery — her inner untarnished self that had already deflected the devil’s plan.   The wild girl  was the embodiment of connection to the sacred. She and the natural world were related. The silver hands of the fairytale were replaced by metal sword and hoe on her arms. She was goddess of plants and animals, farmer of the heart and earth.  An amazing choice again.  Throughout there was the lurking presence of the devil on stage somewhere.  We never were able to forget his persistence and confidence.

The Queen mother was a huge Victorian painting with holes for real hands and a voice.  Again, laughter and appreciation for the make-believe quality of the story that allowed us a bigger experience than our own interpretation  or personal outrage.  It was all managed with  elegance and understanding.  A deer, that the mother caused to be killed, was a transparent puppet.  The letters intercepted between prince/soldier, devil and mother were pieces of paper pretending to be flung across stage and caught.  Music carried the invisible papers with  the magic of Kabuki theater. The   second woman was sent away to save her life, again into the forest.   This time she held a baby on her back.  Until, the third woman, older and more sober, took the child, becoming handless, and roamed the forest  in a different way.   She was devastated and courageous.   She was  the caretaker of a child. Her movements were painful to watch. They embodied tragedy and dignity.  Her voice was harrowingly beautiful and we, the audience/witnesses were somber while in awe.

I could re-conjure images again and again.   The constant use of music and the combination of literal and symbolic events and set, kept us enraptured in the story.  The actors sometimes turned to speak to audience.  They asked questions dropping out of character, to be present.  We were not forgotten.  We were not witnesses alone.  In the end, when the girl’s hands grew back and the prince, after his own long wandering in the wilderness, was reunited with her,  we were sighing from the intimacy of their dance.  The devil was brought to his knees literally.  For a moment  he was vanquished, disappeared.  Then the audience was invited on stage to dance. It was a wildly joyous celebration.  We clapped and cheered. We thought we had come to the conclusion of the story.  The lights dimmed  and they quickly came on  again.     There on the same rocking chair was the devil. Back.    He had been defeated by the girl – by  her love and capacity for faith -  but he was  waiting for a new story to begin.  It reminded me of great tellings where audience, young or old, ask “Was that true?” And I have answered, “Yes. It was true until the story starts again.”  It was visceral: the audience left satisfied and changed.

Outside the theater, the actors waited for us.  They were selling CDs of music.  I couldn’t help but take home the songs.    But they were also there speaking with us.  I found myself embracing each artist;  thanking them for the experience of a genuine event. At a restaurant later, I sat near one of the actors.    I asked what he loved most. He said, It was a joy to work with others who loved collaboration and it was an honor to be so involved in a great story.

Laura Simms

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The Natural Choreography of Kindness

2012-10-04 22.03.02While waiting for the New Jersey Transit Train to arrive at Penn Station in Manhattan, I sat  on a bench to think about the sudden death of a friend, to take in how mysterious life is, and how to accept the unexpected with grace. I thought about how I too could have an unexpected heart attack at any time, or be a random victim of violence.   My thoughts, however,  were distracted by a well dressed man carrying a transparent Smoothie drink.  The color  was a near violent red. It seemed undrinkable.  As I stared at the cup it began shaking.   I watched it fall;  spilling onto the  floor. Then the  man grabbed his coat by  his heart  and  tumbled toward the ground.  A young soldier in army fatigues passing by dropped his large carry bag and caught the man as if they were in a well rehearsed slow motion ballet. As he  helped him to the floor, another  man in a hoodie rushed over, unwound a thick scarf from his neck and set it under the man’s head for comfort within moments. It was so beautifully occuring like a natural choreographic event.  A woman stepped over the man’s shaking body and said out loud, “I am a nurse.” An elderly man shouted,  “I am calling 911.”   I stood for a while watching, both frightened for the man and in a state of awe.   What I saw was both tragedy and living prayer.  I caught my train just in time.

I thought—when I had a moment to catch my breath—that if I had an emergency, I would wish for such compassionate strangers. such immediate care in an unexpected place. I have no idea what happened to the man or his guardian angels in the subway.  But the episode was a reminder of our basic kindness and connection.

It made me think of ancient Indian stories where an event in the present is related and the events leading up to that moment from previous lifetimes are revealed.  The beggar on the street who was a King who in a fit of jealousy killed his blind and beautiful wife, who was reborn as an insect and then a lion, an elephant, a saint, and  then the beggar who would become a King again . . . and all the related events, seemingly random, that  led up to it. What appeared unrelted in these tales had an entire  history – a compassionate back story – that storytellers told.

If we are able to see our lives as a story, makes the difference between opening into a sense of awe and appreciation of  sudden change, impermanence and miracles with intelligence; rather than  closing us down in anger,  revenge or despair. But even if we do not know the story, there is a sense of invisible mystery that seems to be at work in the unfolding.

I worked in Austria. My job was   to help uncover stories from immigrant women who were living in a “transitional” house outside of Vienna.  The “house” was supposed to be temporary, not longer than three months residence. However, there were people who had lived there for more than thirty-five years. Each woman had a remarkable tale of  their culture, their escape or displacement and the challenges of their new life.  Each evening for a week I met with Afghan, Iranian, and Iraqi women.  One evening, they introduced  a
woman  from Chechnya.  The other women were beautifully dressed, coifed and adorned.  They were learning English and skills to have jobs to support their families.  Their stories were difficult, victorious, and complex.  The Chechen woman  sat in silence for a long time. She was dressed in baggy dissheveled clothes.  Her hair was pulled back  too tightly under a black scarf.  She wore no make up or jewelry.

The women encouraged her to tell me her story.  I offered to listen without asking any questions.  She nodded in agreement.  Her story  was translated by an Afghan woman who spoke five languages.  “The roof of my house tore off when we were bombed. I was nine months pregnant. My husband pushed me down the steps into the cellar for shelter  as my contractions began.  I lay on the floor as bullets riddled the ceiling above me and gave birth.”   She lifted her shawl and showed us scars  where shrapnel was embedded under her skin. She was  tense as she spoke; angry.    Over and over she repeated that she remains  unhappy.   Just then the door of the room opened.  A young girl, wearing a scarf lightly tied with her cascading brown hair  around her face, walked in. She was  followed by a group of other young girls, chatting.    She wore a short skirt with a red jacket. She was smiling.

I asked the Afghan woman who it was.She said,  “It is the daughter of the woman telling the story.” “Is that the baby she gave birth to in the cellar?” I inquired.  “Yes,” said my friend.

Our time came to an end. I asked the women to bring their friend  the next night. I longed to see if we could retell or reframe her story  – not as a tale of a suffering victim alone, but as a victory  as well;  giving birth in extreme danger to the most beautiful child.  The courage and nature of a woman overcoming the horrors of war and death.

The woman did not return. The others went to her apartment to invite her again,  and each time they came back and said she was ill.

How we tell our stories  is how we shape our lives. How will the man if he survived tell the story of his emergency?   Whether we  find the medicine, the transformation, the secret message or liberation in our tale,  can renew us and provide courage. The retelling of the story, rendering narrative from memory,  accesses a  life giving source of energy within beyond survival  – a path to live  without ignoring the pain or sorrow, but not surrendering to that as the only conclusion.

Our imaginations give us an option to try out other endings and to imagine other ways of seeing. I longed  to tell her back her story.  To ask a few questions.   To see if we could open into the anger and disappointment into her fierceness and mother love.  Perhaps she could have seen herself as heroine. It is possible to uncover within ourselves a resource of unlimited  goodness. We can transform our stories,  (not the facts),  but the perception of a memory so it feeds us mercifully into the rest of our lives.

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Writing about Love in Winter


The first time I fell in love was at a summer camp in 1965. My mother was increasingly unhappy  ten months after a crippling stroke. She was only 39 years old. Each time I thought of her that summer  I felt her mouth twisted to one side as my own sorrow and her curling brown hair that fell around her face now tangled and prematurely grey as despair.  I was haunted by czárdás music she played with one hand while she wept at the grand piano in our living room.  I spent  time alone by the lake reading books and staring at the water.   I didn’t know how to speak about what had happened.    A boy who was dark haired and tall and also quiet, was fishing by himself. We shared our silence.   One afternoon he caught a frog instead of a fish. I watched him try to save it. His eyes filled with tears.    I carefully walked towards him and unhooked the frog’s one leg that was slightly injured and placed it back in the water. We sat side by side watching the frog gain momentum and swim away,  making patterns on the surface of the lake.   I was unable to heal my mother, but I helped to save the frog.  My broken heart was useful. He and I became closest friends, never telling each other why we needed to be alone. Telling stories I have repaired thousands of damaged imaginations, or I hope that I have, putting them back in the water of their own confidence and joy. I never thought about this story as a tale of my first true love until today.

*  *  *

it snowed for only a few minutes this evening in Manhattan.  I missed the major snow last weekend, and have been longing to walk through city streets rendered quiet and white.   I haven’t been in deep snow since walking in Northern Romania for a mile when my friend Ciprian and I abandoned his car, unable to drive further alongside a road with many other cars miles from Iasi.    We plodded in snow as high as my head, laughing, to a peasant house owned by his grandfather. We sipped Polenka (corn vodka) while sucking on orange slices drenched in sugar. The house was a mosaic of memory and blazing heat.    Ciprian’s grandfather had been saved by a Jewish merchant before the war. He had lived in this house through the Holocaust when the merchant was taken away. He stayed there to protect the house although he pretended to take it over! Later, when the old man returned, broken and sick, Ciprian’s grandfather slept on the floor by his bed so he would not die alone.

Stories shared for hours every morning with strong coffee and vodka, and at night with an endless meal are my most precious memory of the time.   Words transformed the cold. Memories-turned-into-stories gave me the connection to my ancestors that I could not find in my grandmother’s birthplace of Dorohoi. When we left, ten days later, the old man’s  wife gave me the rug that she wove for their wedding fifty years before. It hangs in my kitchen. The colors are vivid.

It is stories that connect us  to places lost, and histories vanished.   if the place itself or the events are unknown it is the imagined places that sustain.   There we re-make meaning; melt sorrow into inspiration and fall laughing into snowbanks of meaning. For years I told stories about all kinds of love, love of romance, love of place, love of mystery, friendship, spiritual love, and family, passions for peace or war, love enduring and sudden surprises and meetings. Winter is that time when we need to stoke the fires of love and imagination in order to renew ourselves with connection and invisible images that come alive again. We prepare our inner world for the return of spring and light and melting snow; the endless possibility of new beginnings is practiced with imagination. Two weeks ago I heard the story of a friend’s sudden death. Diane Wolkstein a keeper of great tales and a friendship hard won over forty years of knowing each other.  Our becoming good friends was a special love. A love based on forgiveness and liberation from fixation.  Her leaving was startling. A bird taking flight. Beauty vanishing into sky.

This activity, co-opted by sound bite and media disguised as storytelling, is like none other. It is the  depth of sharing and presence brought forth because of engagement that melts rigid borders between Them and Us;   gives us back a sense of what we have lost in the outer-world but never need to lose within our own hearts.  The  sharing of words shaped into narrative and widened into reciprocity is  infused with immediacy and intimacy, becomes  an act of passion and restoration.

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Shopping for Beauty in Brooklyn

This entry was inspired by a conversation on the storytell listserv about childhood shopping memories.

LS Borough Park

A man went in search of beauty. He could not find it anywhere until he was told to visit a woman in a cave on a remote mountain. She was very old and very ugly, but she understood the nature of beauty and offered to teach the man all she knew. He remained for years until he had accomplished what he could. But before he left, he asked his teacher, “How should I describe you?” She said, “Tell them I am young and beautiful.
—from a Sufi tale

I grew up in the 1950’s, in Borough Park in Brooklyn, New York. Our street was a refuge for Jews who had escaped Europe and Eastern Europe before and after World War II. Every kind of Jew lived on our street: conservative, orthodox, Chassidic, and communist. I knew from my mother that there were Gypsies in Coney Island who had also come to Brooklyn at the same time but that is another tale. On several occasions my mother would tell me, while brushing my dark hair, that I was not really her child, “Your grandmother found you in a garbage pail in Coney Island. The gypsies threw you away because of your green eyes and black hair.” I was horrified that I was an orphan, but thrilled at the idea that I might be unrelated to my family who lived in the midst of too many languages and untold stories. I think I was also delighted to possibly be part of a coven of witches or a community that had colorful clothing and loved to dance (this is what I assumed about the Roma). The strange absence of related histories, and stranger family storytelling, may be what inspired me to seek stories from everywhere else for a very long time.

My family lived in an old farmhouse that had been renovated into a private home. It stood in the middle of 47th street between 13th and 14th Avenues. There was another large house on our street, a ranch house with a well-kept lawn and a fence. It was owned by a famous baseball player, who was unrelated to the secretive Yiddish world we lived in. Our street was filled with foreign languages, hanging laundry, makeshift basement shuls, and small dark shops. At our corner was the smallest shop. It was a grocery owned by the Gottesman Family. It was dark inside and smelled of candy and meat. The window held a wild assortment of food in boxes and large bottles of penny candies. Mr. and Mrs. Gottesman were exotic. They looked almost exactly the same to me; the same size and shape. I knew them apart because she wore a scarf over her hair and he wore a black hat. They hardly spoke English, seemed to rarely smile and wore long sleeves and black jackets through the intense heat of the summer. I believed they slept in the store. My brother and I often commented that we never saw them on the street; not even on Saturdays—the Sabbath—when the shop was closed, and everyone in the neighborhood was out walking. In our childish lack of knowledge (no one spoke about what had occurred only years before in the old country) we remained ignorant, making jokes about them. Until I was nine years old.

There was a morning, when on an emergency run for milk, I saw Mrs. Gottesman leaning over the meat shelf. Her sleeve fallen backwards, revealed numbers printed in black ink on her arm. I rushed home with the strange news. I was laughing about how “weird” they were, when my mother, with a raw rage I had not seen until that moment, stopped me, grabbing my arm. She said sternly, “They were in a camp.” I had no idea what that really meant. The only camp I knew was the one I was forced to attend for four weeks in the Adirondacks every July. How did I escape this knowledge of holocaust and suffering? She sat me down and told me about the camps: the horror, the brutality, the hatred, the murders, and the escapes. These were part of the forbidden lurking stories that drenched our street with tears. I was afraid to go shopping at “Gottesmans’” for days. I would only walk on that side of the street if I had my dog with me on a leash for safety.

My mother sent me with a list to Adelman’s Delicatessen instead. It was well lit and spacious with amazing smells of what we called “Jewish Food”. It was across the main road (13th avenue) from the Gottesman’s store. A different universe. The Adelman’s were a well to do family that owned the Deli and several other shops on 13th Avenue. They dressed normally, “like Americans.’ They spoke English without an accent. They wore colorful clothing (but not as colorful as gypsies), laughed a lot, and chatted. There was often music playing in the store. Their parents and grandparents had come to Brooklyn in the 1880’s and did not have numbers on their arms, wear long coats and skirts, nor cover their heads every day. From them we purchased bagels, fresh rye bread, pastrami, derma, sour pickles, pistachios, kosher salami, lox, and creamed cheese. They had a machine that sliced bread and deli meat either thin or thick. I walked out daily with a shopping bag of items, separately packaged in white paper, and four black and white cookies always given to us as gifts, for each person in the family.

But every day I thought about the Gottesmans. So I returned. It became a special event. I would go inside for a penny candy that was in a bottle in the window. I entered with the same sort of respect I had for my grandparents who knew English but mostly spoke Yiddish; who were not as strange, but also seemed to live in another time zone. Although we never spoke about what they had experienced, nor did I tell them that I knew, my now tempered requests for groceries and candies finally won me tender smiles in response. Perhaps they felt sorry for me since I seemed to need to enter their store more than they needed to sell me occasional foods. It was a place of history, and a pilgrimage to the mysterious realm of Eastern Europe where people were killed because they were Jews. I was buying groceries, but I was also buying history. My visits put me in contact with a revelation of unspeakable occurrences that happened elsewhere. “How could that have happened?” I often asked my mother who just shook her head. I grappled with evil and weighed what I had heard against the acts of giants and demons in fairytales that I read nightly to keep in contact with the inner sanctums of reality that were becoming known to me through the grocery store.

It was that elsewhere that my grandparents also came from. They did not speak about that place either, though they did not have numbers on their arms, or own restaurants. Later, I learned the Gottesmans were from Poland, like my father’s family. I realized that must have been why my grandma Ida often walked in to their shop reverting to her other language. She reserved Yiddish for the Deli. I never knew their first names. The Gottesmans had lost everyone and were saved by a distant relative living on our street. This unnamed family member, I overheard, rarely visited them but had “set up” the shop so they could continue their life as they had lived it in their shtetl in Poland. I did have “big ears” as my father repeatedly said. When I was seventeen and my father and mother still lived on that street, I walked to 13th Avenue. When I came home from college. I was in search of the story that I had never heard about the Gottesmans. I wanted to see them again and know more about them. Perhaps they had children, or had learned English. But the shop was gone. A hair salon replaced the dark entrance to Poland. End of story.

There were trees and gardens on 47th street, but no meadows or forests to walk through to get groceries. It was neither an urban world or a suburb like the kind my cousins moved to where houses were all the same. It was an in-between place. We had lived half in the 1950’s of America and a haunting other world of Eastern European memory and over sized furniture. The deli and its shopping bag and the grocery where food was wrapped in newspapers were my coming to terms with a complex history that slowly unfolded for me when I started reading about the Holocaust on my own. The smell of their grocery is the smell I often remember when listening to stories that are hard to tell and best shared in a cradle of gentle listening. That listening cradle is still made of old newspaper and wrapped in kindness. Perhaps it is from the Gottesmans that I learned how to ask questions without asking questions and to listen to all as if I am listening to my own family.

In the city of Malini in the northern part of Moldavia, Romania, a city known for its powerful refusal to give up its peasant philosophy even in the threat of the hated dictator, I took orphans (teenagers) to live in farms for three summers on a storytelling program. At first, I was told there were no Jews in the city. “They left after the war,” the mayor explained. However, I learned there was one family still living in the outskirts in a fenced compound. I went to see them. The father welcomed me into his well-kept large house and explained that he and his son worked in Italy and had built the house. I asked further about the war. He told me that his mother lived in the original house, still standing behind this new building. I went outside to a small wooden peasant house. Inside, the walls were papered with old newspapers and the only decoration was a wedding picture. The mother only spoke Romanian and Yiddish. I bumbled along with the help of a translator and learned that she grew up in Dorohoi where my mother’s mother was born at the same time. I began to make a desperate inquiry, but she kept saying she did not remember much. At one moment she began to tell me about the synagogue they attended, when her son interrupted and yelled at her to stop talking nonsense. Our conversation abruptly came to an unnatural end. He dragged us back to his house and served coffee and cakes on plastic covered furniture (reminiscent of our neighbors in Brooklyn in the fifties who were protecting their newly acquired middle class homes.) Finally, we left disappointed. But the mother came to the car, just as I was about to roll up the window. She whispered furtively, “My mother used to take me to the mikvah every Friday morning. She would wash me and then dress me for the Sabbath. I remember. She sang to me. I remember.” Her son arrived and we had to drive away. I knew I would not see her again. Again, end of story.

The next day I had two cakes delivered to the house for the Sabbath. But I had no idea if they were received or the mother was given one for herself. They were wrapped in newspaper and bought in a small dark shop that smelled of meat and candy.

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I feel thankful for Giving. To give is ultimate mind protection: if we can give, we have something within of great value and worth that can be offered. The Giving is also the nurturer of joy. To be able to offer a wish, a gift, even a moment of empathy for someone else brings happiness. we are protected from self preoccupation and selfishness that makes us blind to our being a part of the world. Buddhist teachings say again and again that to care about others is to be personally happy. And, to care only for oneself produces misery.

When I worked with Ovidiu Rom in Northern Romania (an organization that brings life skills and education to roma mothers and children, respecting their culture), I was directing a Roma Children’s Art Camp in the small city of Buhusi. I ended each morning with a wishing circle. The kids ranged from six years old to eighteen and numbers changed from 24 to 86 children daily. We made a large circle and one child took a place in the middle of a circle and made a wish. The wish could be for another child, or all the children, for their families and community, for themselves, for their country or even the world. Those in the outer circle repeated the wish expanding its resonance further. We always made time for everyone to make a wish. There was always a lot of laughter, and sighs, and sometimes accompanying big gestures that were also mimed in unison, or something like unison. My translator stood next to me and I would attempt to repeat the wish in my own mispronounced Romanian which brought even more generous laughter to our circle.

The outer fun of the wishing was about being kind, and giving voice to natural generosity. Making sure everyone was cared for. It was not about results or solutions, it was about wishing itself. The secret practice was accessing and becoming confident that they each had a vast inner resource of wealth to call upon: the capacity to give was boundless; or to imagine something good for another. They wished for an end to poverty, an education, a puppy or a repaired roof. Each child that made a wish harvested their inherent goodness. Their capacity for kindness and care, in their usual lives, was often ignored, invalidated or even stifled in the poverty and harshness of their lives, and the pressure of a cultural role of being victim as well as perpetrator of thefts and antisocial behaviors. these kids who I spent two months with often raced up to me in the streets when we were not in the project, and I was warned over and over that they were no good.

During these mornings, drenched in deep listening, engaged in focused and zany fun and games we invented communal rituals. We remade traditional Romanian fairytales by including everyone in the story. They not only became individually everything in the story through imaginative response, but in the play of the story they became each character, object, place or animal by naming each thing after themselves. Laurenzio became one of four horses; Valentina became a princess; and on and on. We repeated the story with everyone’s names every day. There were lots of options for each person. Some days someone was a King and the next day they took the role of a door step or a flower. (My biggest task was remembering the flow of the story and including the names). After the wishing circle we raced outside of Scoala Uno (School room #1) into a big schoolyard for a “Virginia wheel” — a grand dance celebration choreographed by the kids. Then we walked in pairs, our crazy procession, to a devastated zoo that we cared for. We went up a hill through the city with large black plastic bags cleaning garbage from the streets as we walked. Until we came to the half ruined entrance of the zoo. There we entered in silence to clean cages, feed animals and generally care for the grounds. There was always time for drawing animals, making new signs, and making up stories .And often we ended with a second wish circle , between the caged dogs and the goat habitat, wishing a better future for the animals who lived in miserable conditions.

I am thinking of those days today, thanksgiving. Thinking about how much fun we had giving and why I am thankful for giving itself. And of course a story comes to mind.

I have read versions of this tale form Afghanistan and from Zanzibar about a beggar who searched rubbish heaps every day in hopes of finding coins so he could purchase food. Mostly, he was not successful. Then, one day he found three coins. Happily he walked with the coins in his pocket to find something to eat. A merchant, leading a donkey with a large cage on its’ burdened back, passed by. The cage was crushed with live gazelles. The beggar pitied the creatures. One small gazelle stared sadly into his eyes. Without thinking the beggar asked the price of the small gazelle. The merchant almost as desperate as the beggar offered to sell the creature for whatever the poor man could give to him. The beggar bought the gazelle with his three coins.

He returned to the garbage heap to search unsuccessfully for more coins. Lying that night beside the gazelle he regretted his foolishness. “I am warmer and the company is nice,” he sighed, “but I am starving and now have two mouths to feed.” To his surprise, the gazelle spoke in a human voice and promised to repay his kindness and bring him great good fortune.

The part of the story that differs in detail in each of the versions I have read are the remarkable events that describe the brilliant cunning of the gazelle who wins the beggar new clothes, wealth, a large home of his own and eventually marriage to a princess. The beggar, now a wealth man and respected man fed the gazelle each night. The creature slept by the door of his bedroom. However, as time passed, the beggar forgot about the gazelle, finding it beneath him to take time to feed an animal. In truth, everyone respected the new wealthy man, but loved the gazelle. One day the wife of the man noticed that the gazelle was starving. His ribs stuck out and his eyes were glazed over. She offered to feed the creature, but the gazelle said he would only eat food brought by her husband. She urged her husband to feed the beloved gazelle. He laughed aloud, “I have no time for an animal. You feed it if you feel so inclined.” But the gazelle refused her food. One morning the princess found the gazelle dead. She told her husband and he said, “So be it. Now we do not have to worry about the beast.”

The princess was so disgusted by her husband’s actions and lack of heart, that she returned to her father’s house. And, that night the wealthy man dreamed of the gazelle. The gazelle appeared to him and said sadly, “You forgot how you came to have enough food and about our friendship.” When the man awoke, he was asleep again as a beggar besides a mountain of trash.

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Slaughter and Tears

Often I would walk down the road from the resort we were staying at in Zanzibar, Ras Nungwi, away from the splendid ocean toward the village. Ras Nungwi was a remarkably beautiful and quiet place with small thatched roof cottages and well-kept green flowering tropical landscapes leading down to the blue ocean. The road lacked all verdant landscape. It was prickly dry brush and sand. Occasional three-sided concrete structures, roaming goats and bone thin cows with a large hump like ancient portraits from India were visible. Turning right to walk into the dusty village of Nungwi itself, I passed a concrete structure with a large hand-painted sign: BUTCHER. I saw it several times before it struck me that this was the slaughterhouse. This was the place where goats and cows were killed to feed the village that I was so entranced by. It was beside two shops that seemed to be open twenty-four hours a day. Tanzanian textiles of wildly vivid colors and zany patterns. Each cloth was a fashion meeting ground for India, Arabia and Africa, hung neatly together in a modern art collage. I was allured by the brilliant cloths, and disturbed by the sign. Two potently different emotions arose simultaneously.

One evening, returning by taxi to the hotel, I saw a man dragging a goat on a string down a narrow path toward the butcher shop. We were moving slowly in the dark where there were no lights and many people were standing on the sides of the road. I was tired from having walked in the heat along the beach to the village, which took over an hour, tired still from an even longer walk through the village and had resorted to a taxi. I stared at the man and the goat as the driver was telling me his forlorn love story in poor English. He had come to Nungwi in hopes of marrying a woman who left him for a younger man. My mind was active trying to map out the narrow path that led to the butcher shop, wondering about the sound of the goat and if the goat knew he was going to slaughter. We came upon another concrete structure that was a local restaurant with radio music pouring out, drowning out the taxi driver’s tale of love and my own thoughts.

On Sunday evening, back in New York, I told stories as part of an Interfaith Gathering uptown in Manhattan. The evening began with lovely Daisy Khan, director of American Society for Muslims Advancement. She riveted us with her true life experience of ordering the sacrifice of a goat on Staten Island for a Muslim celebration that was interrupted by the hurricane. The goat had to be kept for days until their was transportation. She described she and her husband carrying the four parts of the animals in bags on subways home, since the electric meat cutter could not be used. There was no power. It was a remarkable story of faith and natural disaster. It was also about sacrifice in the name of religious faith and the zaniness of carrying pieces of an animal corpse on a new york train. She told us this to share with us the origin of the meat that was part of the great pot luck feast we were about to share. I loved the telling, uncontrived, generous and actually daring. I wondered what others thought of the story that demanded our tolerance. I was also amazed that goats were sacrificed today. It brought back images of the goat on the rope on the road in Zanzibar.

Yesterday, I told a storyteller friend, lovely Loren Niemi, at a lunch we had at JACK’s on University Place in Manhattan, about the story. I told it since he asked if I was disturbed by his eating a hamburger. I revealed that although I rarely eat meat, I ate some of the cooked goat that Daisy had spoken about and offered, to honor the Muslim holiday that had been interrupted because of the hurricane. In response he told me a story that he had heard over twenty years ago. It was told by a Jewish storyteller named Reuven Gold, who has been deceased for many years. He did not remember if it was a tale from the Baal Shem Tov, he said. It was a story whose affect allowed me to bring together the multitude of feelings I’d had seeing the goat on the rope in Zanzibar.

A new butcher replaced the old butcher in a village in Poland. An old man sat beside him and observed. As the new butcher killed each animal, the old man, who had witnessed the other butcher, nodded his head constantly in disapproval or disappointment. The new butcher kept wondering what he was doing wrong. Perhaps he had not sharpened the blade of his knife enough. If he had a sharper blade the animal would not suffer. So each day he sharpened the blade. And each day the old man continued to move his head back and forth in dismay. Finally, the new butcher asked about his reaction. The old man explained that the old butcher before him was a holy man. “He too had sharpened the blade well, But after each slaughter, he washed the blade with his tears.”

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The Truth Revealed

Part VII

The only one who knows where the heart is kept is the Giant. The only one who knows how to get there is the Wolf. The one who travels there and retrieves the heart is the Prince. He cannot do that without the persistence and presence of the Princess. But if not for what had occurred before, the entire play of the story to this point, the prince would not enter the palace of the Giant. Inside this stone house embodied by power, where we meet the first female of the tale, the prince hears the truth.

When I teach storytelling I discover that my students are often seduced by the main events of the story and their immediate desire to understand and interpret what is taking place as if the events of the narrative were actual events that took place in the real world. They often identify with the prince, traveling his journey, and forget the clues in the story that reveal to us a vaster story of interconnections and past occurrences. The main thing they forget is that the events are not taking place in another place somewhere else long ago, but are happening in the present as the story unfolds in the conjoined imaginative manifestation of images. These images are drenched in association, spaciousness, and visualization in the moment, within each listener. Unaccustomed to trusting this shifting territory of deep responsive listening, the story is felt and occurs, but is immediately relegated to the analysis of the part of the mind that produces concept, theory, understanding based on what we already know—for example, we project onto the story an understanding of the characters as separate beings instead of parts of the whole. The energy sense of the story, so vividly known in the listening, is pleasurable, but easily invalidated.

This reminds me of work I often do as a consultant. Lacking a PhD, I am brought into situations to speak about my impressions of stories, or to create or uncover stories, to listen into language and help design projects that produce more penetrating stories. However, more often than not, if I do not have a repeatable theory validated in academic materials, the work I do is dissected and translated into another language—a kind of translation that drains the heart from the words so that it may be presented as familiar or with fixed meaning based on logic—not as the felt sense of connected experiences, based on awareness and insight, that I initially intended.

We are in the realm of story and not of text. Hence, we have to remain alert and compassionate about even our own habit of giving meaning, rather than allowing meaning to arise in its fullness. Here are some clues and reflections about this vessel of events in the Giant’s palace.

Once the prince enters the palace, the place of the princess during the day and the Giant and princess during the night, everything changes. The balance of power shifts because the princess has a companion in the day, and the Giant’s actions are seen, felt, and heard at night. In a strange way, we the listeners and tellers are the witnesses of what is actually taking place. We are the dreamers receiving the dream of the unconscious in our sleep. What was hidden before is revealed not only to the prince, but also to us. We are told that the Giant has no heart. We experience the deception and hubris of the Giant. We also feel his hunger and need for food and connection. He is dependent on the princess.

We are also told that he cannot be vanquished through murder or brute force. The princess knows what every peacemaker knows, that another war, another victory, another vengeance satisfied, will ultimately lead to more violence and more power. We are reminded of dictators and torturers, business people without conscience and sense of consequence of actions even on their own lives, and deniers of interdependence who murder wolves and drill beneath ice thinking it has no effect on anything as if ice and earth and air have borders.

Twice we experience his banal lies. The Giant does not know that the prince hides under his bed at night and hears what is said and how it is said. In fact, he has been deceived by the princess. When he arrived home and said (as so many Giants and monsters in stories have said before), “I smell a human being.” She lied and told him, “There may have been someone hours before, but no one is here now.” The Giant denies his own amazing sense of smell and instinct, and believes her. Perhaps he is even pleased by her regard for his great sense of smell. We are coming to recognize that the Giant lacks genuine intelligence and can be fooled.

Because the heart is not in his body and no one knows but him where it is kept, they plot to have the Giant tell his own story. Two times we are witness not only to the deception, but to the futile quest for his heart in obvious places in the palace: beneath the stones at the entrance to the castle and in the kitchen cabinet. Audiences seem to adore the moment when the Giant returns for the first night of a three night vigil in search of truth, and finds flowers over the threshold. He rages. She lies and praises, “Since it is the place where you keep your heart, I have made it beautiful.” The Giant, at least as I tell it, responds proudly, “I lied!” At Wonder and Wisdom my wonderful audience, including adults, burst into delightful laughter to have the Giant finally tell the truth. So, when on the second night after being fed the Giant says, “It is in the kitchen cabinet.” We already know he is lying and we enjoy the episode moving us closer to the truth. We now feel the power of our discernment. We trust that he is wearing down and it is a matter of time before the Giant gives away the story that might bring us to find out where he keeps his heart.

I love this part of the story in the telling. I emphasize the princess’ innocent pleas: “Please tell me your story. I could never find your heart. I am a prisoner. But I can’t stop thinking about where you keep it. When you tell me, I will be able to tell you more stories and things will return to as they were before.” We know, being more intelligent and informed than the Giant, that the prince is listening, the princess is finding out on our behalf the whereabouts of the great mystery, and that he will have to reveal the truth. Sometimes the process of revelation in a fairytale is much more complex and demanding with many twists and turns, obstacles and journeys to other worlds where other challenges risk the lives of heroes and heroines before they uncover the inconceivable place of the treasure. However, in the Giant story it is not that complex. So, so much of the depth of the satisfaction and transformation of trust of the audience, increases by the authenticity of the voice of the one telling the tale.

I also feel that if the storyteller has already made the journey through the story, there is knowledge of the complexity of connections (causes and effect) that drive the story forward. This awareness of how the story is actually taking place, not in a literal place with real people, but in the energetic, less fixed realm of imaginative response in the minds of each of us. There is no cheap characterization of Giant or monster as bad only. There is a realization of the interconnection of events, characters, unfolding in each person that renders us less biased. A responsibility is born in this recognition of how the story can heal, transform, delight, and penetrate our listeners.

In a public school in Manhattan burdened by an expanding problem of bullying, I was asked if I could tell a story that would help heal the problem. I agreed with some trepidation. My hesitation was that a one time only event might touch the point of transformation, but without continuity, would not change it. However, I agreed because there might be a teacher willing to take on the task of perseverance (like the princess and the prince.) I told an adapted Iraqi tale in which there are two older young men who are bullies. It is their heartless greed and reactivity and fear that drives them to act without thinking, steal from the youngest young man and blind him, and ultimately cause their own destruction. During the telling of the tale, everyone sat together. I was aware that the smaller children who were the victims of the bullies sat up close in the front, and the row of larger kids sat in the back rows seemingly impenetrable to storyteller. But as the story engaged, and my intention was not to point out or teach a lesson, they fell into their own engagement, and leaned forward unknowingly. At some point, a bully in the back shouted out as the youngest man in the story entered the place where he should have known better not to enter, “Uh oh. Those terrible guys are there!” I have no idea if he was aware of what he said but the spell of power in that moment shifted. The part of him that was tender was openhearted and involved in the expectation and support for the young man (the only one of the three brave enough to have made a death risking journey). He had distance enough to see what was taking place and to feel sympathy and intelligent dread.

On the third night of the story inside the Giant’s castle, the princess’ pleas for his tale are accepted. Boldly the Giant responds, “You would never be able to find my heart anyway.” And he releases the truth. It is a riddle, a litany of places within places. If the Giant knew that the prince (who knows the wolf and is motivated by unselfish intention) was under his bed listening, he would not have told, nor would we find out the mystery. I love saying out loud what the Giant revealed: “In the middle of the forest, in the middle of a lake is a tower. In the tower is a well. In the well is a duck. In the duck is an egg. And in the egg is my heart.”

Our minds are so moist with imagination that this symbolic image arises easily in our listening like the most vivid moment in a meaningful and mysterious dream; which takes us with surprise and cannot leave our minds in the daytime. I love speaking it because it exposes the Giant’s truth. From this moment, we the listeners know that there is a place where the heart that has been lost is kept and can be found. I often feel my own heart raw and beating as the words are heard by my audiences, who also feel a sense of deeper relief. Then, we are told, “The Giant fell asleep.” He is confident that his secret is not known. Yet, we know in a sense “his gig is up” and in a way so is ours.

For all of us there is another level of longing to know what is going to happen next. Perhaps this depth of longing is the inherent longing we have to be in contact with the truth of our existence, which is a riddle as well. Perhaps it is the voice of the child who asks, after being swept up by a long unfolding story, “Was that true?” I have learned to respond, “Did it feel true?” As heads nod in agreement, I can add, “There are truths that are more important than facts.” If the conversation continues, I ask if they dream at night. Hands go up quickly and some with a bit of hesitation. (There are many who have nightmares or who have been told by adults that dreams are ridiculous and have no meaning.) “It is another kind of truth. Did you see pictures in your mind as you listened?” And again they nod. “Well there you are.” It is not that I want to deceive or be a smart aleck, it is that we are in desperate need for mystery so that we will not ignore our longing to know who we are and what it is to be a human being. When we forget that we are like the Giant who has lost his heart.

The riddle we are born with, and because we are so involved in our every day lives, it is hard to remember, is that we will die. And as Buddhist teachers over and over remind us, our inherent natural state of mind is like a jewel hidden in a mountain of trash, a blue sky always present behind the clouds, that can be known. It is that “open heart” of authentic goodness and presence, regardless of circumstance and concept, that is our birthright and the place of transformation into a compassionate human being. To be in touch with this mystery would not make us morbid irresponsible people, but more curious, tender hearted and more alive people.

When the Giant fell asleep in the story and the words were heard by the prince and the princess, and all of us, we become more patient. The shift in power is from the Giant to all of us. But we cannot rest in that power alone. We need to hear the rest of the story in order to find out whether the heart can be retrieved, and how that can happen. Confidence and curiosity, trust and longing are where we are at this moment.

Should the story have ended here, the heart would not be found and the brothers would remain turned to stone. The prince and the princess might remain in the palace even become the rulers or the keepers of the Giant, but the King would be alone ruling in his palace in our world as well.

One of the beautiful aspects of the heard story is that even though it might appear that the most important character is the prince, in the vessel of moment to moment listening, the union of masculine and feminine is vital. The increasing presence of the princess and of truth telling, the realm of female wisdom, (we are not talking about boys and girls but about the energies in each of us) is what moves forward the quest and the resilience and patience that keeps us involved. We no longer want to betray this place of listening or presence with an immediate solution. There is a commitment by listeners to stay the ride to the end. For myself as storyteller, it is a crucial moment of restraint and care for my audience. If I become too confident that we are going to succeed I rob them of the capacity to feel into the journey thoroughly. I make the story experience into a comic book of quick fix events. Secretly, I have the potential if my motivation is based on insight and compassion, to stretch even further the elasticity of patience and open up into another deeper and more immediate engagement.

• Inuit dreaming—the woman is not passive. She remains dreaming.
• The spirit of the whale into the smoke hole.
• Odysseus’ visit to the underworld.
• A momentary glimpse of the northern lights.
• Meeting a bear on the road and completely relaxing feeling the connection of beingness.

All of these events cannot be prepackaged or scripted. Rather the mind must be prepared, awakened, practiced so that in any given situation one can be alert to what is actually taking place and respond, rather than remember a rule or concept of what should be done. It is why morals at the end of stories are innocuous, even dangerously deceptive. We are taught to remember the moral and not the experience that renders us responsible, alert, and capable of having intelligence and intuition arise together with wisdom and compassion. It is the process of the listening and what takes place that is offered by the story, so we can more than survive in the riddled reality of our waking lives. And for some, the listening is the only way that overwhelming stress, preoccupations and self inflicted misery born of trauma and tragedy can be relieved even for a moment during.

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VI. THE ARChitecture OF A STORY:
At the Door of the Heart of the Story


“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.

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.
Stones throne.
“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.

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V. THE ARChitecture OF A STORY:
A Wild Ride


In the face of the too close to home tragedy of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado and the increasing violence in the Middle East and in so many other places in our world, I am offering these fragments of reflection on the fairytale of THE GIANT WITH NO HEART. Recognizing the process of engagement in spoken story as an active antidote to the disconnection we have between our own actions and how change takes place in the world can help us be more useful in our work in the world.

The desire to see a story as a content driven lesson to promote ethics or offer a conceptual moral is a very limited view of the power of storytelling today.

The potency of engaging individuals, particularly our youth today, in the unfolding event of a symbolically penetrating story (or a well constructed personal narrative) is a way of connecting to reality, and is significant. We have delegated the texts of stories as something that can be analyzed and viewed in a literal way. It is my wish to share with you how the story is what is happening in the event itself between listener and teller and is a penetrating and provocative experience that can increase compassion, and awareness, and awaken intelligence and capacity to work with one’s mind grounded in the knowledge of interdependence. The technology unequalled is presence and imagination. I offer this to encourage storytellers and others involved in personal and communal peace making, education and direct communication, to gain a deeper recognition of how storytelling can work when it is not seen as a spoken word performance presenting a text, but as an event that is far more potent than the sum of it s parts and dependent on reciprocity and presence.

We have not only to understand the narrative but the narrative process and ourselves take the journey of investigating the nature of our minds, of the actuality of what imagination unlocks within, and the nature of spoken and heard language when arising from the territory of unbiased presence within. This awareness and training can strengthen the experience, intention and presentation of stories for the benefit of others. Then, we can skillfully help guide our listeners to naturally access the inherent experience of their own vast mind without bias that is available always, now, present, within. This is the wild place of interdependence and the house of compassion we each can travel. It is this territory of what Shambhala Buddhists called BASIC GOODNESS, and Traditional Buddhists call NOBLE HEART and most traditional peoples refer to as SACRED VIEW or living knowledge of interdependence.

When we are severely and culturally disconnected from our natural access of inner open heart and mind, we like the giant in the story turn ourselves to stone and continue to perpetuate violence and suffering unwittingly and consciously. At the end of this reflection I have several recommendations for further reading.

The prince rode into the depths of the forest on the back of his old horse. Then, from behind a tree appeared a wolf. The body of the wolf was frail. His ribs were seen through his skin like transparent paper. His fur was dull and his eyes nearly closed. The wolf moaned, “I have not eaten in two years. Please give me something to eat.”

Feeling tremendous pity, the prince offered the other half of his bread. But, the wolf said, “Please. Let me eat your horse.”

It is one thing to give away that which we carry that is familiar; to offer what makes us safe and protected and fed. To offer the bread, the prince is generous, but he can replace that food with something else if he is clever. And, yet it is another to give away what has carried and supported us in our lives: our identity, past history, unconscious habits, and beliefs. Our known stories support us, define us, identify us. Even if they have proved to be challenging, obstacle ridden or painful, they are what we know. We are addicted to these beliefs as if they are “right” and there is no other way to move in the world. They bind us to home, our parents and ancestors through repeated behaviors and unconscious patterns. All that we carry or carries us from our past — all of what we have learned is what has given us a map we can follow without falling off the world or disconnecting from what we believe to be our security. All that seems to make possible our journey. This domesticated creature, even if old, has carried the prince on his journey; just as our assumptions, habits, attachments and learned beliefs influenced how we travel and react. What is it that we have to divest ourselves of to truly enter the forest of our lives and confront what is causing our misery, and the suffering of our world? What can we give up and move further more fully into the world as it is … deepening our desire to heal ourselves and find those parts of ourselves and the world that are turned to stone?

It is undiluted courage to know, to recognize, to feel the effects of what we carry and rely on. It is also the greatest compassion of the story unfolding to let us live this experience through the potent image of starving wolf asking to be fed the old horse the prince is riding on.

The prince helped a creature of the air, of the sea and now of the earth. But this encounter with wolf is far more uncompromising. Thank goodness we (and he) have been prepared. His first two offerings opened his heart, strengthened his knowing of how good it is to help. He saw the raven fly back into the trees, and watched the fish swim away with zeal. He has not shut down. He has not run away through fear or anxiety from his mission of saving his brothers. It is after all the truth of the story that everything has to happen that takes place in order to fulfill the journey. The literal journey is the quest of the youngest prince to find his brothers (so far). The psychological journey is to let us metaphorically experience cause and effect and live through the reconstitution of the feminine, return of the brothers, and awakening aspects of ourselves necessary to complete individuation for ourselves and the world (the Kingdom and the natural world, the giant and the brothers, the absence of feminine, the encounters with creatures and what is yet to come)

I am reminded of another tale: (heard in Haiti) where a woman took/stole a beautiful bowl that had been placed in fresh water for everyone in a village to drink . She admired it and wanted it for herself. No one was watching. She was not thinking of its purpose, but of her own desire. She hid it in her basket, and filled it with a sack of salt bought at the market, so it would not be seen.

If you listen to politicians explaining why we need to ravage the arctic, or have guns in our homes, it is this individual desire to have for oneself unconnected to effect and others that deludes us.

As she walked away the bowl, the basket, and the salt spoke, saying, “It is not your bowl.” What we take that we think is inanimate and unrelated to anything else is alive and connected. As the Pygmy song resounds, “Everything is alive. Everything speaks.” Even her clothes called out and told her that it was not her bowl.

She threw away the basket, the salt and her clothes, ran from the speaking skin of a beloved friend, but held tight to the bowl – even after she was exposed and humiliated. Finally, she retraced her steps and jumped into the water from where she had taken the bowl. The water took back the bowl. But, until, she was nearly drowned by the force of the water pulling her down , until she called out, “It is not my bowl,” she clung to it. Do we have to confront our death in order to let go?

Isn’t this our dilemma: we hold on to our old ways, habits, fixations, opinions and beliefs until we are nearly dead. We are willing to offer our food, our money, our clothes, even our words about what we are doing , but rarely notice that the root cause of this misery is our deep rooted attachment to attachment and we refuse until our lives are in danger, to give it up. Unless, we are reawakened from within to know our interdependence with one another, the natural world, the world of spirit.

Awareness is like a wind. If you open your doors and windows, it is bound to come in.
—Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche

The lived and imagined story increases the possibility of tasting what it is like to let go. We practice this in our imaginative response, in our surprise and empathy for world and horse and prince and our own lives. Then, there is a small pause garnered through feeling where the wind of awareness blows in unseen and we touch deeper into the healing of awakened listening. We begin to know that if we kill, even in the name of our god(s) or destroy something in order to assure our security and comfort we are killing ourselves and the world that sustains us and feeds us.

These personal reflections, and the personal practice of looking at the nature of mind through the practice of meditation under the guidance of a teacher has been my path to urge me to recognize and acknowledge inherent goodness and compassion. It colors how the stories I tell are revealed to my listeners. No amount of explanation or data without this seminal experience of open mind can touch us with the capacity to help us refrain from harm. It is the responsibility of storytellers to make the journey themselves in order to keep open the tender heart where we speak from that lets the story arise as directly as possible o those who are listening. In that access of authentic language spoken from the heart, that inspires words into image between us.

At present, the image and reality of wolf is palpable. Wolf has become the symbol of nightmare danger and for others the symbol of family cohesion and unconditional love. We all know the story of the wolf in Little Red Riding hood that devours the grandmother and deceives the child made into a caricature in children’s books and Disney-fied films. At the time when these stories were being told there was fear, but also still knowledge about the wolf. In Native tales, wolf is known for her interdependence with others, knowledge and literal place in the natural and spiritual world. Today in order to protect the wealth of ranchers (who have been offered ways to keep wolves away from their cattle without killing them) there are government sanctioned helicopters with armed soldiers shooting wolves indiscriminately from the sky leaving cubs without parents, crippled wolves without aid, and corpses on the earth. What are the effects of this sanctioned shooting. Is it different than the gone mad young man who collected an arsenal of weapons and went into a movie theater killing. If one is sanctioned by governments as is the allowance for anyone to buy and have guns, is that unrelated to the massacres that are increasingly taking place?

The wolf said, “If you let me eat your horse you can ride on me.”

The first time that I told the story after 9/11 when I came to the part of the story where the horse was about to be eaten by the wolf, the classroom of third graders shuddered. Suddenly, I remembered their all too recent confrontation with death and the fear of death; of having watched people leap from buildings; of television replays of planes crashing into seemingly impenetrable buildings; and, of parents and other adults in a state of panic being motivated to take revenge as a means of alleviating the terror that had disrupted our lives. I paused. I changed the details in the story, hopefully not changing the essence of the story.

I assured them:

The very old horse was ready to die. He looked up at the prince. The young man climbed from its’ back and watched his horse peacefully take his last breathe. Then the wolf ate the horse. The wolf grew plump and strong.
“On my back” said the wolf to the Prince. And the Prince climbed on the back of the wolf. And they rode further into the forest.

A sigh of relief, a communal breathe, moved through the classroom as I continued with the story. I held an internal image of the body of the horse in the body of the wolf. I felt the wild creature fed by the old patterns and stories of the prince, under the prince carrying him further into his story — into the forest — where he would encounter the next phase of his adventure.

From the logic of the tale, he needed a wild vehicle… not a domestic and well worn vehicle to meet the giant and save his brothers. The past was not lost or forgotten. It was digested by the wolf. It fed the more wild being that was the only one who could take him into that place.

Please take time to watch this video and remember:

For me, the prince having flowered his generosity and intelligence now was able to go on. And for myself, I can see that my own expanded sense of compassion was perhaps capable of delivering me from what Trungpa, Rinpoche called “Idiotic Compassion.” Idiotic Compassion taking place when we act to help others to relieve ourselves of discomfort or to see ourselves as heroes or heroines and never having to give up or our old horses. In the name of helping others we increase our own separateness. What is needed, the story incites in us… is an alchemical act… a conscious realization that our old horse is ready to die and that we do not have to destroy it, but use it as food. We need a more direct, less filtered, wild vehicle for travel (wild that is natural, related. I am not speaking about wild as out of control but out of mental control… the ability to be aware of consequences, relationships, with compassion and tenderness). that can only occur when the storyteller has activated their own sense of “letting go.” All this is done with no expectation of anything in return. The urgency of the journey is motivating the prince who now rides on the back of the wolf deeper into the story.

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There are pathways in and beneath each story unseen that provoke us into another kind of journey. Held by the unfolding story, like a psychic scaffolding, our own lives are illumined and expanded in perspective by the mirror of the greater tale. I have the luxury of not listening to the story of the Giant, but writing about it during the ordinary flow of my everyday life. So I can stop and put down the tale and have experience — pay my bills, meet others, read.
   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.

Click here to hear the Nightingale sing.

   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.

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