IV. THE ARChitecture OF A STORY:


The journey into the forest for the youngest prince is a series of kind acts without hesitation or request for reward—actions from his heart’s natural care for others. Although we are familiar with the actions of heroes and heroines that later result in them receiving help when needed, we are not informed that this will be of benefit in the future. A fish once lying on the ground out from water, near to death, is returned to the water and informs us more fully about the prince’s kindness, and also points us again to how out of balance the natural world has become. This section of the story is preparation for a deeper journey, and also the beginning of repair.

It is this section of the story where the hero is called on to respond from his empathetic heart; and the listeners are called on to respond as well. What he or we may not recognize at that moment is that by placing the fish back in the water, he has helped himself and us as well. In our tale, this second act of generosity occurred when the prince stopped to drink from a stream and heard the pitiful voice of a fish calling out, “Please, put me back in the water.” Regardless of his own thirst he tended to the fish first. Even writing these words, I feel a heart-stirring pull resonating in my voice as I see and feel the fish on the ground barely able to breathe begging to be saved.

If we set off on a trip we not only buy tickets, get a map, and pack, but there is a kind of internal preparation, particularly for a journey that is some kind of pilgrimage. We are leaving our home and familiar situation and seeking another place. This interlude of responsiveness is the prince’s and our becoming ready by having our heart’s open with sympathy.

How often have I felt like that fish? Thrust out of my comfort, or in a circumstance that is desperate, frightening, or life threatening. And what part of myself have I had to call on to bring me back to sanity or hope or acceptance. What is the water of my natural state of mind?

The youngest prince was thirsty and stopped to drink at a stream. He heard the desperate voice of a fish calling out, “Please put me back in the water.” Without a thought, the prince placed the fish back in the water and watched it swim away, revived.

What comes to mind is being in an airplane on the way back from Haiti over a year ago. We left Port au Prince en route to Miami. Less than an hour into the trip there was a rumbling noise and then a bump that felt like the usual bad weather moment.

But our flight seemed to turn abruptly at the same time. For a long time there was no announcement from the pilot. Then, he told us there was a problem and we would have to land in Santa Domingo airport. No further explanation. At first, this felt annoying and typical and we all returned to our movies, books or naps. After all, we were near that airport and would land quickly. But the graphic map of our journey on the screen intermittently revealed that we were circling around as we moved way out to sea. An hour passed with no word and not much distance flown. People began questioning the stewardesses, who kindly but mysteriously said very little except that we had to wait for other flights to land before us. A creeping sense of apprehension began to ripple through the plane.

Then, an announcement: we would be making an emergency landing.
With a surreal cheerfulness, meant to keep us calm, we received instructions of how we should land with heads on our knees and hands over our heads; and how to jump onto the emergency slides either into the water or onto land with shoes, bags, or cell phones. Someone whispered to me that the circling flight was to enable us to rid the plane of as much gasoline as possible so we would not blow up and if we did, so to do least damage on the runway.

I felt panic and helplessness. I had not prepared to think about dying and had in fact created a will and left it on my computer that I had with me. But the growing fear became almost debilitating until I felt my neighbor tremble. She took out a rosary and began to pray. I asked if she had been in the earthquake and she nodded yes. I moved closer to her and she leaned against my arm as she continued her prayers. I could see that my mind could give way any moment to a devastating terror filled with fear, regret and desire to escape the inescapable. Then, I remembered my own meditation practice and thought about being present for others on the flight who might need help, and about the ephemeral nature of this life at any rate. I urged myself to rest my mind and open into a sense of equanimity that was there like an underground river within. I felt my fear like a friend, a companion, and actually cheered up in a very fundamental way—not necessarily happy but without the horror of my own thoughts stealing away my presence. I, in essence, put myself back in the water.

When I tell this small moment of the story where the prince, without hesitation, puts the fish back in the water and watches it streak away like lightening revived, I feel an inner contentment. And I watch my audiences—unaware that he has actually saved his own life—lean forward ever so much in collaboration with this natural act of compassion.

These instances in the story, an intermediary journey within the journey, are the hero or heroine’s heart opening preparation to leave behind an old vehicle for living and go deeper into becoming a whole human being no longer limited by interpreting imagination, compassion, and encounters with the magic of the world as fantasy.

As we began our descent into Santo Domingo an hour and a half after receiving our instructions, it was obvious that the runway had been evacuated. Emergency lights from ambulances and fire trucks surrounded the runway. The plane had become uncannily silent in the expectation of disaster, particularly moving because so many of the people on the plane had been in the earthquake. I looked up and saw the stewardess crying, holding her iPhone with a photo in front of her. I put my head down, and my neighbor touched my arm. I looked up at her and we smiled. She returned to her prayers, still trembling. Contemplations on generating compassion for others rose to my mind and I too prayed for us all, for those I knew, for my son and family, for our deeply aching world. I closed my eyes calmly and waited. What else was there to do? The moment was choiceless. Then we touched the ground. I had no experience of what it would be like blowing up and hoped it would be immediate, but the plane bounced like a light ball and then stopped. The silence was palpable. Even deeper quiet. We slowly opened our eyes from a dream. And the Haitians began to sing a song so beautiful that I felt, and I think we all felt, an immense peace.

And what happened as we deplaned? The world of complaint and bitterness, self-preoccupied worry gathered like storm clouds as we walked into the airport. Each time I felt annoyance and impatience, I remembered to pause and breathe and stop my mind from throwing me out of the water again.

When I finally got home, nearly 24 hours and two flights later, I told the story to several friends. Telling the story brings some kind of meaning, not interpretation but meaning to the lived experience. And, I recognized that it had softened me, opened me, to have made the choice to align myself with open hearted unconditional mind rather than panic (which I felt throughout but without the devastating mental terror).

The story provides us a means of reconnecting through experience with our capacity for open heart. And, just as the youngest prince feeds and heals a raven, he has now returned a fish out of water to its natural dwelling place and can continue on his journey, more prepared for what will come.

And then…

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When the story of The Giant with No Heart began, the listeners/readers had no idea that the natural world was disturbed. Or that it was even in the story. We were ensconced in a palace with a king and seven sons. Where we have arrived in our story is with six eldest sons turned to stone in the middle of a forest by a giant with great power and no heart; the King alone in his palace; and the youngest son, riding on the back of a very old horse, arriving at the edge of the woods.

The youngest prince, considered a fool, had set off to find and save his brothers, not knowing what has happened to them. This act of care for others came with no preparation for us—except for those schooled in fairytales who are familiar with the fact that cinder dwelling young men and women often rise to become the heroes and heroines of these stories. The prince took with him nothing but a loaf of bread. To ride out into the world, into the unknown, drawn by an inner command to save one’s companions or family, regardless of the fact that they have mistreated or misunderstood us, marks this moment as worth a pause. If the story is indeed happening within each of us on the ephemeral stage of our unique imagining mind, provoked into action, this very scene is the seed of our inherent goodness awakening as well.

Riding on the old broken down horse with little food reminds me of refugees from war or disasters, or the abused and weary of heart who set out to reconfigure the world with kindness and resilience, having experienced profound misery or poverty themselves. Those who know viscerally the unsettling reality of sudden change are often more open hearted than those who struggle against or fear change. Working in Haiti these past two years, in the camp where I spend most of my time, I have been shaken aware of how demanding and devastating sudden poverty is. Yet it can urge access to an indwelling well of resilience and life force that renders, some for the first time, an abiding connection with nature, patience and sharing. I’ve learned that something truly fresh and powerful can arise from those who have to make do with their circumstances. This inside source of wealth is the place to harvest and expand, to learn from, and to be nourished by, so one does not sink into the paralysis or rage of victimization or self-debilitating apathy. To trust in spirit driven healing can be a nurturing path of living beyond survival. That is what the next episode in the unfolding tale brings to mind.

At the edge of the forest, the prince heard a mournful sound.
He saw a Raven on the ground beneath a tree. One wing was broken, and its beak was twisted to one side. The feathers of the bird were dulled and its’ eyes were closed. The Prince felt pity for the creature. The bird spoke, “Please give me something to eat.” The Prince placed half the loaf of his bread on the earth and the Raven ate. The raven’s wing and beak were instantly healed and he flew back to the trees.

The youngest prince was interrupted before entering the forest. To us, listening and bringing this episode to life in our minds, arouses our ephemeral template for reality itself, our sympathy. When I have told the story, always at this moment, there is a response of empathy for the bird from audiences, child or adult. We offer our open heart and are rewarded with the instant health and flight of the bird within. No one tells us, least of all the storyteller, that to offer to others is to return us to our wings. But that is what takes place. In order to go further into the journey to save what has been turned to stone, we have to pause, reconnect with our natural world and feel. We have to share what we have, rather than horde for protection. The prince asked for nothing in return.

Personally while telling the tale, there is an instant in this pause where my heart aches for the hunger of the raven. All the years that I worked in the zoo in Buhusi, Romania with animals living in devastating conditions, I felt torn open by the sound of their voices staunch with starvation. All of that fills my voice. The aching roar of a lioness or the apathetic stare of a hungry tiger meets a place inside me that is raw with sorrow and desire to offer something.

Before we entered the forest of the unfolding tale, we have had our heart unguarded. We have had a glimpse into the unbalance of the world. We were not aware of the effect of the giant without a heart or the lack of a queen that defines the story. Perhaps this simple incident has not impressed us yet when we hear it, but we have felt something shift within. We have opened up to our natural relationship to sympathy and shared our world. And all of this has occurred within our minds now alive with personal experience because we are listening imaginatively and not intellectually in that moment. We are disarmed into relaxing our grip on self-preoccupation. There is nothing more powerful and life fulfilling than the capacity to care.

The sound of the voice of the storyteller and the sound of the bird’s need slips into us guilelessly, revealing our own generosity, regardless of who we are in our everyday lives —the bully or the bullied, the greedy or the generous. We all respond in the listening. No one is excluded from the shared love that arises in the moment.

Love is the way messengers
from the mystery tell us things.
Love is the mother.
We are her sons.
She shines inside us,
visible, invisible, as we trust
or lose trust, or feel it start to grow again.

I am writing this at 5:30 am in Vancouver. The sun is already up and the last glow of a sliver of crescent moon is in the sky. I am not sure that I slept at all which often happens on my days of departure from here to there or back again home from storytelling or other events. I watched a movie with a friend last night called In Darkness. It was hard to watch, but exceptionally done; about a Polish petty criminal who saved a group of Jews during the holocaust for money and in the process became their true protector—saving his own heart in the process. It was made recently in Poland. When I was in Poland telling Jewish stories with storyteller Muriel Bloch, at the request of the Jewish community and the American Embassy (the idea of Michal Malinowski) we would tell stories for an hour to our non-Jewish audiences. For two to three hours afterwards we would sit with people who told us stories about their parents and grandparents who saved Jews or Gypsies; And, we heard tales of grandchildren could not rest because they knew there ancestors were unable to save others, or engaged in the killings. Every possible emotion arose every evening. There too, I rarely slept. Sometimes because I wanted to walk on old streets, like in Lublin, Krakow’s Jewish area, or through Chelm, to see and feel places where my ancestors had lived and died. Then, in the small city of Lumza, where my grandmother Ida was born, I told a story about her for a surprising audience of two hundred people. Tears flowed, gifts were given to us, and we sat into the night afterwards talking. It was advertised that I was the granddaughter of a Jewish woman from Lumza. When we walked into the courtyard of the Library, where the concert was held, everyone stood up to welcome me. Whatever confusion or hardness inherited from family stories that I might have harbored, dissolved in that pause, as I entered the forest of shared stories that night.

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II. THE ARChitecture OF A STORY:

Our quest continues…


From the point of view of the most profound Buddhist and Shambhala teachings the root cause of personal and societal suffering is the emphasis on individualism. Our mistaken view of our selves as solid – all important and separate beings out for ourselves – disconnected from other and earth – perpetuates the harmful selfishness, dissatisfaction, cowardly defense and deception, aggression and misery that ultimately justifies conflicts and power struggles of every kind. In our story, the six older brothers forgetting their youngest brother, is followed by their getting lost in a forest and turned to stone. It is both a tragedy, and a great source of possibility.

Because the story has already become our internal drama, by the trick of provoking us to want to know what is going to happen next, we do not need to explain this. It is happening. For children, who are not accustomed to diverse and constant stories (the engine of internal decency in traditional cultures), I say often,
“The brothers found six brides and started home. What did they forget?” Delighted to participate and suddenly coming aware, someone always calls out, “the seventh bride,” or “a princess for their brother!” Now we too are in the forest of our own story.

In a workshop this past weekend, (Washington, DC Shambhala Center sponsored, “The Cow That Feeds the World” where we worked with this story for two seven hour days) I asked about the difference between a palace and a forest. The one is designed and made, set apart from nature, and serves human beings – particularly those who ”rule others”. While a forest is wild, elemental, growing and dying, inhabited by animals, birds, and plants. It is in the middle of the forest that the six brothers , their six brides and their six horses meet a Giant in a stone palace. Another palace? Another ruler in control – this time of the natural world? ( a mirror of the first place of rulership). But here is a large unconscious heartless force of nature enclosed in a stone building. He has the power to turn others to stone. At this point, the storyteller knows more about the Giant, but the listeners know only this brute act of astonishing and sudden paralysis.

The King and his youngest son waited for the brothers to return. Finally, the youngest prince begged his father to let him search for his brothers and bring them home. The King refused at first. Afterall, this son was a dreamer. How could he find his older brothers? But the youngest son assured his father that he would try and return as soon as he could.

For me, this moment is pivotal and poignant. The youngest prince, who has been deemed incapable of action and bravery, power or ability to rule, is like so many of us, or parts of us, that are intuitive, sensitive, so often seen by ourselves or others as powerless. I watch as children lean forward a bit, hesitatingly interested, waiting to see what will happen if the one that was bullied, rejected, or insignificant or small were to set out to save those who forgot about him.

The King agreed on the condition that there was a strong horse left in the stable. But there was only an old mare with a bent back and wobbly legs. The Prince said he would accept whatever was there and he left with only a loaf of bread.

The older brothers, the ones who were now turned to stone in the middle of the forest before a Giant’s stone palace, had all that was needed outwardly for success: strong horses, gold and food. But our youngest prince accepts whatever is available and sets off slowly on an old horse. In so many fairytales and wisdom stories, the horse knows the way, is naturally intelligent, speaks, and provides instruction and often sacrifices themselves for the sake of the hero’s journey. It struck me that the old horse, the vehicle he accepts, might be seen like older ways of being: more direct, traditional, well-used and (like the prince himself) seen by contemporary culture as foolish.. depending on superstition and interdependence, rather than related to outer intellect, and power over others. In other fairytales, the youngest is given a three legged horse. (see Hen and Rooster in OUR SECRET TERRITORY) Along the route, when coming to a place of transition the 3 legged horse that appears disabled, and ridiculous, is the only one who takes the hero into the other world. An old man told the youngest prince, “Speak to your horse. Tell him that he is a noble horse. A beloved horse. Ask your three legged horse to take you to the other world.” And the hero sings to his old horse, “Horse of my heart, beautiful and noble creature, can you take me to the other world?” It is that horse that sprouts wings and carries the hero to the inconceivable world where the inside of the journey begins.

And how long does a loaf of bread last? The most basic of nourishment is all that he carries.

I remember reading SHAMBHALA: THE PATH OF THE WARRIOR, by Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche for the first time over twenty five years ago. What gave me great courage was a statement in the introduction urging us to “start where we are.” Begin the journey with who we are and our history, rather than denying our lives and our mistakes, our lacks and our limits. These were the vehicles that we could ride on. Where ever we were, who ever we were, that was the most potent starting point.

It is these recognitions of all that is happening in the beginning of the story that supports my zeal and delight in sharing the story. Whether my audiences, young or old, recognize all of this intellectually or understandingly, is not what assures me. Rather it is that once engaged, the listening more direct and visceral. The experience takes place in the territory of our mind that is alive with response and imagination.

Once in a seminar at Naropa Institute, Allen Ginsberg asked Trungpa, Rinpoche, “What is imagination.” Rinpoche answered, “Nowness.” It is this place of profound space and natural intelligence that is accessed in the engaged listening. And the more we journey into the story, the more available that inherent space of presence becomes. In many ways, it is the unbiased presence of the storyteller that provokes the deepest possibility of imagination – the natural visualization that combines intuition and intelligence arising as ephemeral vivid image and feeling, moment by moment. The mind of the listener, enlivened into a more natural responsiveness, is entering the forest of their own inner mind, and is grounded and aware of the teller and others at the same time. This heightened and ordinary sense of space and ease can be expanded inwardly because the unfolding spoken details of the narrative holds our conceptual understanding opinion drenched thinking mind under the spell of seeming logic.. We are a mirror of the story journey itself. Our six brothers, their six brides and horses have been turned to stone. Because of that, the youngest aspect (so to speak) the natural intuitive aspect of our mind can emerge into the forefront of our listening without interference.

It feels as if we are more and more interested. We can ask questions, “Is that true?” “Why did he do that?” But, we have crossed over into the realm of beyond belief and the story moves on with our allowance. A man said to me, “I can’t believe that I was so involved in the story that I was calling out, and then what happened.”

At Wonder and Wisdom, a ten year old boy repeated the words, “an old horse.”
“Yes. A very old horse,” I responded.
“And a loaf of bread.” Someone else said.
“Why didn’t the King give him more food?” a girl called out.
“Why do you think?” I said.
“Maybe he didn’t think much of him.” said a girl off to the side.
“Well, let’s go on with the story and see what happens,” I said.

I love questions unanswered. The mysterious aspects of stories that are never explained, even at the end. More and more curiosity is engendered. More and more commitment to finding out what happens next and to keep the inner involvement going. It is a feeling like none other. Holistic. Engaged. Alive. At Wonder and Wisdom we were involved in what I had described to the youth as story detective work. We all paused for a moment and then, a girl said, “what happened next?”
We were communally moving into a bigger story than our own, each on our own imagined terms.

“Ok.” I said and continued the story…

Jean Houston wrote:
Soul – making requires that you die to one story to be
reborn to a larger one. A renaissance, a rebirth, occurs not
just because there is a rising of ancient and archetypal symbols.
A renaissance happens because the soul is breached. In this wounding the psyche is opened up and new questions begin to be asked about who we are in our depths. These powerful questions need not lead to alienation and withdrawal, but to the seeding of the world with the newly released powers of the psyche.
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I. THE ARChitecture OF A STORY:


Each time I tell the fairytale – THE GIANT WITH NO HEART –  I am awestruck by the its’ effect on children and adults.   There is something about the way in which the story works within the listener that is medicinal and   liberating. This many- part blog is my  detective work… a spyful  attempt to to find the hidden significance of the totality and details of the story.   Why does this happen?  When it is told/heard something unlocks that is a revelation.   Hearing/living  fairytales connects us to our authentic self in ways that  allow us to make peace with ourselves and others.. hence peace in the world.

In 1996 I purchased a book in the mandala bookshop in Nepal called DRUNG, DUE AND BON about the history of narratives in early Tibet, written by the great meditation master Namkai Norbu (who recently died).   He wrote about the important function of these stories that were “used as marvelous means to awaken deep spiritual knowledge.”

I was once in a  girl’s junior high school in Manhattan.  They said, “I hope you are not going to tell stories about Kings and Queens.”  I said, “OK. I will tell a personal story and then try out a fairytale.  If you don’t like it you can tell me and I will stop.”  They agreed. I told  two stories.  They loved the story about my childhood in Brooklyn. But,  when I finished telling a fairytale, they moved out of their seats and sat on the floor by my feet and began to tell me their dreams.  This spontaneous event revealed unrecognized difficulties in the lives of two girls.  They were helped as a result.   The seemingly indirect images of the story provided a way for them to give voice to what was unspeakable for them.

Perhaps in the listening space, there is  pause or disarmament taking place like the wing of a butterfly effecting a storm across the world.  This inspires me to tell the story  again and again.  The telling, interdependent with listeners, imagination and circumstance, feels like  the beginning. The  resonance of effect of  the story  is without.  Even though the session comes to a close what occurs serves as  a stone thrown into a fathomless lake.

As I uncover more levels of meaning in what occurs , the more I am changed by it as well.  I am trying to write about this confluence of  awakenings .  We are hurtling along with  amazing technologies; social media that renders  people able to make changes in the outer world at a rate unheard of;  but are we tending to the heart ?   Are we harvesting our unique technology of mind and imagination founded in fundamental and inherent basic goodness?   It is the experience of the story that accesses this place of beingness within.   It can reach into the  marrow of the invisible bones of our  mind/body/heart  and realign us.   Practice and patience in this listening event might save us from doing harm.


There was a King who had seven sons.  When the six eldest princes asked to leave the palace and seek wives, he was reluctant to let them go.   They assured their father that the youngest brother, who was a fool and a dreamer, would remain at home and they would return quickly.   The King  agreed on the condition that his sons bring back seven brides, one for the youngest prince.  With strong horses, gold and food, the six brothers set off.

Recently, at the UN School three large classes of first graders, squeezed onto a rug in a small room, called out  “Seven? That is a lot of sons!”  Suddenly, more alert,  they leaned forward to listen.  Usually in fairytales there are three sons or daughters. This IS a lot of young men!   What flashed in my mind were the descriptions  of Deu – (from Namkai Norbu’s research) which were enigmatic or symbolic narratives that held the key to open  the gates of realization.  I thought of  the  seven consciousnesses and an eighth  (in two parts) that make up  the aspects of consciousness, according to the abhidharma in Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy – the nature of mind.    What was missing and not mentioned was a Queen, at the start,  Who gave birth to this plethora of boys?  My own feelings rested with  the youngest son, the one considered to be a fool, who was left in the palace like a seed sleeping under the earth.

I love  the beginning of stories. . So much is gathered into their  opening that the storyteller can heed.  There is the outer task of making a relationship to listeners that is trustworthy and direct. He or she who tells the tale has already undergone the entire journey and has survived and observed., so there is trust that arises.  And, there are clues to understand that are not mentioned but can be assumed by knowing the whole tale;  and there are the unseen details of the story that the storyteller knows.    It is only when I feel that it is a worthwhile journey  and I have done this exploration do I tell a story. Or as they say in Bhutan, “Release the tale.”

What do we know as storytellers at the start that the listeners don’t know?  Everything takes place the Kingdom.  A king with seven sons, the youngest considered inert.  Six wanting to go out of that “place” and find brides leaving their brother home with the King.  They leave  with outer  needs fulfilled:  strong horse (vehicle), gold (commerce) and food (nourishment).

Aren’t we often in this position in the world.? A King, a solo Leader, A CEO or President sends out his army into the world to bring back what is needed for the sake of his realm.  The Leader without the feminine without a Queen, would never think to send out a poet, or a storyteller,even less  a dreamer, to increase the wealth of his territory.  In a Russian fairytale called THE HARP WITH NO HARPER, a King refuses to have his son seek his two vanished daughters:  “You have no army, and you have no training or zeal for protecting our borders. All you have is a useless harp with no strings and a lazy life of dreaming.”  The young prince says he will bring back his sisters.  All he needs is the harp.  He refuses gold and armed forces. He chooses his artistry and intuition and not force.  He tells his father, “If I don’t return in three years, choose someone else to become the King.”  Since everything else has failed to retrieve his daughters, he agreed.

I was a visiting artist for Wonder and Wisdom ( an imaginative arts project) in Greensboro, Vermont.  The children ranged from 8 – 18 and were familiar with the space where the program was occurring: in the basement of a church filled with paper, costumes, games and a molting scorpion in a small cage.  They were having snacks, trying on clothes, hunkered about or watching the scorpion when I arrived.  It was noisy and excited.  To begin the story immediately would take a lot of work, so I called out as if I was  a barker at a street fair: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen! The story is about to begin. Come and make a circle.”

There was curiosity and hesitation. Some raced happily to the empty area of the room where I was waiting;  others sauntered  shyly or more cautiously. But all arrived.  “Who is going to hear this story?  I want know your names. I have been sent by the Council of Fairytales!”   I invented a name game in acircle where each child called out their name,  went into the center and all repeated the name with claps and gestures.    A zany dance  occurred and finally everyone was in the circle and I was introduced.  Some kids rushed to the costume box and presented themselves in a whacky array of scarves, Mexican shirts and hats for the listening.  But everyone  was now part of the event.   Even the boy who chose to stay by the scorpion cage called out his name off handedly and was “in.”   When we were on the couches and chairs and pillows on the other side of the room, and I began the tale, there was  a very strong sense of communal involvement.

“How does a fairytale begin,” I asked.
They called out, “Once Upon a Time.”  And I began.  “There was a king.”
“Where is the queen?”
“That is a mystery,”  I said.
And then I announced, “We are not only listening to a story, but we are becoming story spies. What is a spy?”
A boy said seriously, “someone who spies.”
“Yes.”  And I added, “There are a lot of things that are not explained in the tale, but we can find out what happened.  At the same time  the tale has a mystery to be solved that will be solved.”
A girl in a combination gypsy skirt and nightgown, said, “Is there a scary part?”
“Of course, “ I responded, “It is a good story!”

And we were begun.

The six brothers found brides and set off home.  They entered a forest and got lost.  They came upon a stone palace in the middle of the forest and sought help from the inhabitants.  Inside, was a Giant.  He saw them and instantly turned the six brothers, their six brides and their six horses to stone.

But the storyteller knows more at the start.. more than the listeners and at that moment, more than the characters in the tale.  The storyteller knows that there is another palace or places somewhere because the princes find six brides. He or she also knows that there is a stone Palace with a Giant with no Heart who lives in the center of a forest that they pass through.  The storyteller also knows that the heart is hidden somewhere in the story and will be found, and there is a seventh princess.

This knowing of what is there, beyond the view or knowledge of the listeners at the start, grounds me in a landscape and view.  As we were launched that day, I felt the relaxation into a deeper listening as the start of the story unrolled like a ball thrown in another tale that takes us where it will.

At this point in the story we have moved from finding out where we are, and becoming interested, to wanting to know what is going to happen next.  The brothers and their brides have been turned to stone and the King with the dreamer youngest son are at home waiting.  There is another place where princesses have been found and  a powerful giant – a force of nature with no conscience or heart – sits in the middle of the forest, capable of turning us to stone.

To be continued…

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38 Seconds

Every morning I walk like this around the pond,
thinking: if the doors of my heart ever close,
I am as good as dead
Mary Oliver “Landscape”

I was inspired by a reading by Patricia Smith as part of ‘ An Evening of Witness for Water’ at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City. She read 34 – a poem describing her experiences in the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans. As I listened, a door opened inside my memory. I was flooded with emotion and images from my six trips to Haiti following the earthquake of January 2010. Stories told and images seen after the earthquake, called Gadou Gadou in Creole because of the omnipresent ominous sound heard from within the earth right before the shaking began, continue to haunt me.

No story that I told or heard compares to the living story unfolding continuously, in the aftermath. To write is an attempt to seduce a sense of sense into something vast and uncategorizable: the horror and the beauty. One day I asked how long the earthquake lasted? “38 seconds.” I began to count to 38 slowly. Most of the images are from my visits months later. But always, the less than one minute event, the power of the earth, and the love affair I have with people and place, haunt me.

Some comments are from the OFEDA women (you can read about them and their stories and photos on www.OFEDAHaiti.wordpress.com). They are a cooperative group of women (aged 19 – 84) in the Rues des Freres camp, who have met since January 2010 every Sunday to support each other – gathering outside under a tree or in the temporary school room behind Ecole Nationale in Port au Prince. Their stories vacillated from despair and frustration to an abiding sense of joy and appreciation for being alive and being together.

Arrival at Port au Prince airport, June 2010, the first time in Haiti, there was a band playing songs dedicated to Erzulie, Goddess of Love. They had been welcoming tourists and Haitians way for years. The music, however, sounded heavy – a shadow of forgotten joy without the smiling, beguiling carefree Caribbean mood. None of us were tourists. I smelled dust and felt confused not knowing how not to smile. Respecting the atmosphere I avoided making eye contact with the musicians and nodded instead. I walked onto athe bus that would take us to customs past piles of metal and garbage. A Haitian woman was talking behind me to a young woman with a blonde ponytail wearing a Jesus Saves T Shirt:
“Yes. I was here. I heard the earth groan before it shook –
groan like a giant crying.
Then my house began to move.
 She was quiet.
“ It is no longer standing,” she added.
“Where are you going to stay?”
“With a friend.”

Mica, a Haitian artist, serving as our translator and arts teacher with kids in the Camp, suddenly starting telling me about the day of the earthquake. We were stuck in traffic driving from Pietenville. I had known her for a year, and she had never talked about that day.
“The ground turned to water. It was moving up and down like waves.
Buildings fell one after another like a deck of cards when the shaking stopped.
I was trying to get home when I saw a woman leaning on a man. I don’t think she realized that she had lost her leg.”

“My dog saved my life. I followed him out of the building.” A woman explained at lunch in the beautiful garden of a Middle Eastern restaurant decorated with metal sculptures, Haitian paintings, and a wood sign that said ‘Beirut.’
“When he turned, I turned. I kept my eyes on the dog.
Often, the other direction, the way I might have gone,
was the place where everything collapsed a moment later.”

The Bougainvilleas were blossoming everywhere. Flamboyant red flowers climbing over ruins and peering through fences defying destruction. “ I should learn to live like these flowers.”

A woman in the camp said, “We slept in the ravine on Rues des Freres, where the bridge collapsed, for three nights. There were hundreds of people. Our condition was worse than pigs. Every aftershock was a terror. I want to live in the camp with other women. My son comes here everyday to be with young people. But I am still living there with my husband’s family. They don’t want to move far from their house. It is too damaged to remain inside. Each time there is a big rain the tarps of the roof of our tent are washed away. Can you get me a new tarp?”

“Of course there were incredible scenes of people helping each other everywhere.
People digging with their hands for those who might still be alive.
I saw a man’s head between two slabs of concrete.
He was alive. His eyes were open. Another man stopped. Just stopped. And touched the man’s brow gently
to comfort him. Comfort.
I forgot and felt at peace for that moment.”

“I fell down when The earth opened on the road.
But a hand lifted me back to safety just as the ground was closing again.
I knew the man, but never had a chance to thank him. I haven’t seen him again.
I kept running to get home – for hours. There were so many people on the street.
I didn’t notice until later that my knee was cut open.”

A UN Aid worker described his experience:
“When the sun rose the next morning we were alive.
It was extraordinary. All over the city I could hear people singing.
Prayers. ‘We are not alone,’ I thought. The entire city seemed to be singing.
Hundreds of people were on their knees.”
I listened to him imagining that after the quake, when the buildings tumbled, the earth became a huge cathedral.

“I keep wondering if my mother is still under the rubble.
If she will push her way out and come home. I dream that she is trying to
call me on her cell phone. After the eighth day we gave up hope,
but I didn’t stop dreaming.”

“I bumped into my sister – destiny.
At first we started laughing.
Then we walked without a word until we came to a place where there were many people gathered behind a wall.
We had nowhere else to go. Nowhere to go. Nowhere.
We have been living in these tents behind the wall for nearly two years. “

The girls’ writing class had ended early. So, I took the five of them to my apartment for sandwiches, to wait for the driver who was late – somewhere cool. They sat primly in the living room eating. I knew this was the first time they had been out of the camp in 16 months. One girl went into the bathroom. Soon another followed, and another. I heard squeals and laughter. All of them were there together for a long time. I knocked on the door. Water was everywhere. They were washing, wildly bathing and toweling each other dry in a trance of hysterical bliss. I said, “Just clean up a bit when you are finished,” and closed the door. I was uncertain if I had made things worse by bringing them to the apartment. Then, one girl came out asking for a drink of water. She walked with me into the kitchen. I opened the refrigerator, she asked, “Is that a refrigerator?” She pointed to a bowl of fruit. I took out the three plums. The girls sat back down on the chairs. This time, they shared the plums with a fury, passing them around for bites, devouring them, juices sliding down their chins. They chewed on the pits. No one spoke on the ride back to the camp.

You asked me if there was anything I liked about life in the camp. I am not happy, but my life is better than it was.
I like living with others. It is hard, but I didn’t knew I could do so many things. Yhe first nights we sat outside, making a fire, sharing our food, retelling the same stories of our lives over and over. I had forgotten how good it was to be together. But I don’t want to live here forever. I want to go back to a house and to work.”

“I went back to see if the plants were alive.
All the furniture was tossed around like broken toys.
But the plants were flowering in one room that was not damaged.
I dragged them out of the house risking walls falling, and
put them up in the garden.
I go back sometimes to water them.”
That evening I thought about my only danger in the garden of our house in Belleville was being hit by a falling mango. A gardener watered the grass and flowers morning and evening.

A good-looking man was seated, bare-chested and muscled, on a hill of rubble between two tents on a plateau of sand and tarps in the middle of a hot afternoon. He was playing guitar. A small girl in a pale blue sundress was dancing nearby to the rhythm, her arms were swaying slowly like a bird in water. Spontaneously I leaned out the window of the van and applauded.
He bowed, smiling, as if he was performing in a concert hall. Then he waved.

As we drove, I looked out the window. Always rows of women selling everything, or groups of people sauntering along with patterned piles of pharmaceutical, batteries, stockings or bottles of water balanced on their heads. Occasionally someone was asleep on top of their goods. I saw a tall woman dressed in an impeccable white dress and high heels stepping through mud and trash, remnants of fruit skins and plastic bags, untouched. She was a vision of dignity and female magic. Our car moved slowly passed piles of mangoes and vegetables, second hand clothing hanging on walls next to rows of sandals in every size and color waiting for someone to buy. Or not. Then I watched a seven year old girl in a school uniform, shaping a picture with her finger on a piece of cardboard.. more precious than a blank white paper. Her concentration was riveting. She seemed to be creating in her own ocean of silence.

“The boys starting playing soccer in the alley way immediately.
where the school had been. They used a half deflated soccer ball.
‘Where did you get that?’ I called out.
‘I found it,’ answered my son absorbed in the game in the middle of our troubles.
I saw he was wearing only one shoe.”

Two other men, side by side, walking. Each one carrying potted green plants in their hands and a tray with a tall flowering plant on their heads. These moving gardens were chatting across the street from the camp on Place Boyer.

Every day the same large pipes and pieces of metal stick out like a forlorn airplane after a crash landing on the side of the road. I worry about chidren returning from school passing beneath it. In time, the top of the building has turned into a rusted bird stopped in the middle of flight. Months later, I noticed the rubble had been cleared. But no one had mended the bird’s broken wing.

“An old woman on our street opened up a church in the alley –
between houses. She put pieces of wood on stones and made us
some chairs. Does God hear our voices? We don’t know. We prayed anyway.”

Another day, A friend revealed,
“ I dreamed about the earthquake many times before it happened.
Even that morning I wanted to leave work early. I felt something.
I used to own a small store. I sold cosmetics and clothing.
My coworkers said, “Why do you want to leave?”
I couldn’t explain. But I started to sing under my breath,
‘God is everywhere.’ Then it started.”

She pointed to the sky. It was clear and blue. Hardly a cloud.
“ In the moments after the earthquake the sky was missing.
Everything was dust and smoke and grey,
I feared the city had vanished.”


“I still sleep in a tent on the roof of my house. I am afraid.”

One day, driving towards Carrefour, the wind blew open a cloth door in front of a house. Two goats were roaming in the grass with a rooster nearby. A man and a woman were seated on either side of a table covered with a flowered plastic tablecloth, having a conversation, drinking cups of tea.

On the next turn onto a busy street, my translator tapped me on the shoulder. She pointed to a woman’s body on a bench covered. Her face was covered with a white cloth. “Cholera.” she whispered. I had mentioned earlier that I didn’t see any evidence of cholera although I knew it was everywhere. A line of people stood watching from a distance. Our car moved on. I heard the ambulance.

Months later, arriving again In Haiti at the same airport, I walked down the same steps towards the bus to customs. The same band was playing. This time the music was lively. The musicians were smiling. I still looked away, uncertain how to respond. Still no one was arriving for a vacation . The same heat. The same crowds. The same lines. The same half built terminal. But the piles of metal were gone. The old women wearing heels and hats were on line. Outside, the driver recognized me. I had not succumbed to the scam of having someone carry my bag from the building for $10.00. We talked like friends in half bad English and half bad French. Leavinb, I noticed that lots of trash had been cleared. I saw two cows in a field munching. There seemed to be less merchants on the roads, but just as many second hand shoes.

On the hillside above Boudin Street, where the craftspeople leave their paintings out all night in the rain on metal fences, there is a mountain side of ramshackle broken houses. As if someone just shaved off the front walls. In one room hung a red shirt on a hanger on a yellow closet; for a long time. Then it was gone. The hanger and the shirt were gone. At night from my hotel window I could see lights and fires from homes where people had returned. Recovery.

We had been talking to a woman in front of her tent. A child walked between tarps carrying a bucket of water half her size. She stopped for a second, put down the bucket, and smiled at us. Then, we heard her ‘step-mother’ yelling at her to hurry. The child’s face grew serious. She lifted the bucket. My friend tried to help her. The girl froze, tense, fiercely refusing assistance. She picked up the bucket and kept walking. The mother shouted again. We walked away hoping she wouldn’t be beaten for stopping to talk to us.

An elderly man hangs up hand sewn Vevers ( brilliantly colored sequin embroidered voodun flags ) with hearts, swords, snakes and symbols on a stone wall every morning near the Villa Creole Hotel. I admired them when I walked with a friendly bellman -who spoke English. One morning the man asked me if I liked the vevers? He was not selling them to me, he remarked. I was very interested. He began telling me about the different gods and goddesses, the significance of the white egg and the red heart, the snake and other symbols – describing pathways… crossroads…. leading inside and out from this world to the other.

At an OFEDA meeting, I asked the women about their one year celebration:what they had enjoyed? A small woman boldly pushed to the front of the room and told me it had been too serious. She wanted more dancing. The other women, scoffed. Without thinking, I stood up and said, “Let’s dance.” She and I began to dance. The other women burst into song, giggling, until we were all dancing with partners in the school room between makeshift desks.
“How was that?” I asked her

“Life goes on somehow. I don’t concentrate on misery.”
The Haitian woman in her African headscarf and long earrings had been a dancer, returned from Canada days before the earthquake We spoke as we walked to Le Giant, a large grocery where most expats shop. For the experience, I tried to purchase a mango from a woman merchant sitting on the edge of the gutter between five other women selling vegetables.
She said in English, “ten dollars!”
I said, “ Je vous donne deux dollars.” (I give you two dollars)
She turned away saying, “Twelve dollars.”
I wanted to explain that if she sold ten mangoes for ten dollars there would be lots of sales. She could make money. But, I couldn’t think fast enough in French. She was not paying attention to me, anyway. Then I noticed her pride,and beautiful skirt, straight back. I gave up my foolish logic and entered the air-conditioned grocery.

“I was in commerce since I was eight years old.
I worked in the market besides my mother”
She was a business woman. Her mothr sold rice and beans.
while she sold sweet cakes.
“Sometimes we made a few goudes. That is how she sent us to school and paid the rent.
I would like to do that again, but I can’t afford to buy the goods for sale.’

“ I have seven children. I lost my husband. What can I do? “
She carried a metal soup pot with hot sugary strong coffee on her head. On the tray there were cups and a can of more sugar. She wiped a dirty cup with her scarf and offered me sweet thick coffee. I drank. “Merci. Merci,” I repeated not thinking about cholera or bacteria but enjoying the gift.

“When I was a little girl in our village I loved to play in the river with my friends.
We swam and played with stones and twigs.
I wanted to be a singer. But I followed a boy to Port au Prince when I was fourteen and never went back to the village. He disappeared when I was pregnant.
I have his child. I still love him.
Love is the most important thing in the world.
I would like to go to school.
I asked if she still liked to sing?
She sang me a song. “That is beautiful.”
“I wrote the song,” she said.

“Why do you attend the OFEDA meetings every week? You Walk for an hour to the camp in the heat?“
I asked a woman
She said, “Women meeting together gives us strength.”

In the late afternoons, in July the blue sky all of a sudden turns dark with grey clouds. The palm trees started to bend in the wind. The first drops of the daily monsoon begins to fall. I gathered my notebooks and recording equipment. I folded up the plastic chair to crry it back to the single tent where the women meet, girls dance, and health information is shared. The young men continued their soccer game in the downpour,regardless. Women sat under trees or on the porches of the school buildings – perhaps for conversation – perhaps to get out of the rain. It was time for me to leave before it got dark. A small boy put his hand in mine saying “Tippingee.” It was the name of a story I had told the children months before. I promised myself not to forget to do that when I return.

One day walking through random rows of tents, we came across a young woman taking a bath – pouring water from a tin bowl on the ground. She was outside skillfully wrapped in a green towel, revealing nothing. Smiling, she posed for photos saying, “I owned a beauty parlor.” She loved seeing the photos. Later, not recalling her name we referred to her as ‘Beauty.’ We searched for Beauty and heard she had left the camp.

“ I am thirteen years old. I love to dance. Watch me!”
She dances with other girls, in perfect synchronization to a song recorded on an old battery run cell phone.
“I love Rhiaaaaannooooon” she calls out, exaggerating her words.
The words of the song in English are implanted in memory. She is miming the glamour,the gestures, her hips swaying, her feet beating the rhythm of the music on the plastic tarp floor. IN that moment,we could have been anywhere.
Young boys stood outside , watching. They knew better than to enter this female space.

“My grandmother told stories. She practiced voodun ,
but we don’t speak about that any more. My family is Christian.
I could tell you a story about twins. But I don’t speak about those things.
Oh. I remember….. There was one story about a King who had three daughters.
A fruit tree grew in front of his palace. Well, I don’t remember anymore. I am too old.
The earthquake took away my memories.”
“Please remember,” I urged.
Later she told me the whole story and sang me a song.
“Only the man who could discover the names of the princesses could marry one of them. The most ugly man found out their names. He climbed the tree and hid – listening to the girls who talked beneath him. He was ugly, but smart. The King was angry. But he had to keep his word. So the girls washed that man clean. He was actually handsome.”
“Where did you hear that story?”
“ Outside a house when was a child. There was a funeral indoors.
We were told stories and kept entertained to keep the ghosts away.”

“I ran home to see if my house was still standing.
Was anyone alive? I didn’t know for days that my husband had
survived. God is good, even if he forgot us for a while.”

I turned around at the airport, departing, December 2010,to look at the hillside. My eyes welled up with tears. The blue sky, the mountain of palm trees, the tents in the distance, the sound of children’s voices asking when I would come back, which story I would tell. My baggage of memories, images, and weather filled me. The man checking passports at a folding table saw my tears, “You must be happy to leave!” I answered, “I am crying because I am sad to leave. This place, where the world split open I feel alive. …something new can be born.” He stamped my passport. I knew I would be haunted by faces and tears, and the endless litanies of frustration and hope. He leaned toward me as “Some people say this earthquake was the signal that starts the new world. “ A woman said, “there are ancient caves under Haiti with petroglyphs.” But the pushing and chaos took all my attention as I held tight to a woven bag bursting with metal sculptures, papers and sequined bottles I was carrying home.

Then, the sadness returned. Tender, sweet joy – unbearably sad.

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Eight-Legged Love

Romany & Gypsy
Lovers, Romany and Gypsy in the Buhusi Zoo, 2005


In the last of three dreadful concrete cages at the far end of the zoo in Buhusi, across from a small cage crowded with twelve dingoes, were two disabled lions – a male and a female, Romany and Gypsy. Their coats were matted, eyes glossed over, and their misshapen legs and bent spines were disturbing to see. They barely moved.    The concrete was hardly cleaned. There was inadequate dirty water, often rotten food, and little care. “They were used as cute cubs for tourist photographs in Constanza,” the zookeeper told me. I asked how had lions arrived in Northern Romania? He said, “During the time of the dictator their parents  were gifts from heads of nations.” Until Lions Roar raised funds for a heater in the attached  -even filthier indoor space, – Romany and Gypsy survived the Romanian winters with increasing damage to their already suffering bodies.  The Zookeeper, a retired biologist trained in a communist college in his youth, said they were about five years old.

What kept these two lions alive?  I THINK IT WAS LOVE.

Any hour of the day, when I was at the zoo,  my eyes were drawn to them. They often lay close to one another, and when the sun was shining it was incredibly moving to see them clean each other’s faces or rub their necks against one another for comfort. They were not dangerous. The untrained assistants to the zookeeper often climbed into the cage pushing them aside as they swept or placed food on the ground.  Sometimes, drunk, he kicked the male calling him “cripple.”   He once yelled at me when I was trying to give them a bath on a hot day with the newly purchased hose, “I should shoot them and put them out of their misery.”   They might roar, but it was the roar of a child feigning strength. Regardless of these terrible heart-breaking conditions, Romany and Gypsy had a dignity and kindness that was palpable.

In the second summer of visiting and attempting to help the zoo, a vet from Missouri named John Wright helped me clean their cage indoors and out.  We built a platform for them to lie on and changed their diet.  We even managed the daunting task of finding a heavy metal bowl for fresh water to replace the concrete container in the indoor area.    During the third summer, Jane S and Sue B arrived bringing  sacks of hay and lavender to play with. Later, when the three lions in the other two cages (a mother and her two sons full grown) were moved to Africa, Born Free pulled down the bars between cages and Romany and Gypsy could move for the first time. BF vets brought medicine and x-rays and anchored tree trunks in the cage, and installed four higher wood platforms so they might stretch their spines.

Every day, our on the ground Romanian assistant Alina, visited Roman and Gypsy. She  encouraging them to run. When they heard her voice, they stood up, came to the bars and rubbed themselves against each other and the bars to welcome her presence. Then they raced back and forth. Or at least, mostly the male, more able,   romped while Gypsy watched attentively from her new clean platform.


We were all inspired by their love for each other. However, no one wanted to rescue two lions who were not “whole.” The conversation focused mainly on how to euthanize them painlessly.  I could not stop dreaming about them. In my dreams they were together looking at me, the way they sometimes did when I visited. If I slowed down and stood quietly, offering a stick overstuffed with leaves and grass and hay, they dragged it into their cages and sniffed it or lay down on it appearing to have a sense of contentment. I fought to keep them healthy and find someone or some way to let them have the rest of their lives with care and peace and love.  The zookeepers had to be bribed and that kept them alive for a while.  But no one was able to justify raising money to save disabled lions when there were so many others in need of immediate rescue.

Jane and Sue found a sanctuary in Holland (easier and less risky then the long series of flights to Africa where there was a long list of lions in need of homes and funding for rescue)! Arno, owner of Pantera Sanctuary, became our savior.  He said he would drive he two lions to Holland. Although there was no way to inform the lions that they might be moved to a place where they could walk on  grass, bask in the sun in the spring and summer, have medical attention and proper lion food, with a larger clean indoor area, they seemed to perk up nonetheless!

The day arrived and Arno was honest with us. Moving them might actually kill them or worse — damage their spines further. He argued however that it was completely possible to drive them without that happening. Born Free vets argued against it.  Again, I dreamed of them. This time they were standing together on a mountainside looking at me.  So, Jane organized Reiki masters throughout the world to assist them from afar on their journey. I think we all didn’t rest until they reached Holland and the note arrived that they were adjusting to their new temporary habitat. Like any creature or person long limited, knowing nothing other than concrete and harsh conditions, it must have been shocking. However, within a few days, we were told

Romany & Gypsy
They two are enjoying the grass and sunlight!


Lions Roar had spent four  years raising funds to improve the zoo, and finally another three to rehome the animals that survived. We looked forward to some relief from that strenuous endeavor. However, moving the “love lions” (we named them) required us o pay Arno for their food, and medical care for at least two years until the sanctuary had a new better home.

Our donors supported Romany and Gypsy easily for the first year, but the second year it was harder. With tsunamis and earthquakes, increased conflicts worldwide, animal activists were being asked to constantly provide money for emergencies and other rescues. Jane took to raising funds at Christmas fairs; I tried to encourage our funders to keep going; and Sue miraculously found donors in Dubai where she has taught and helped to protect the zoo there.

Throughout, what has inspired us is the beauty and love of the two lions. They are not suffering the way they were physically in Buhusi.  But, the temporary arrangement has extended – for another year – at least. There are complexities in building and funding the new Sanctuary. We cannot give up on Romany and Gypsy.   Their coats are very shiny and healthy. Their eyes are clear and they move with less difficulty. The winters are harsh in Holland and we long for the new habitat that will have a larger heated interior and no mud in their habitat. But, they continue to enjoy their new lives.   But our options for supporting them are more difficult.

I am writing in celebration of love. But also in hopes that we can arouse funding for them. Small donations from a lot of people go a long way. Classes can take them on as a small project. An organization can fund them. I plan to visit them in Holland for the first time this spring and to begin creating a book to raise funds and celebrate them in order to share their story with children who have been maimed by wars and earthquakes. It is my hope that their story will encourage people to remember how many children, disabled adults, and animals are simply forgotten. They are often kept out of sight, the way that Romany and Gypsy were kept in a small cage beyond the more obvious part of the zoo. Unkempt and often uncared for, those that are different can be forgotten. In Sierra Leone, where my son was born, and my friend Sheku lost both arms during the civil war, the disabled and maimed are in refugee camps for years post war that provide no comfort or dignity. They are considered useless.

Is any life useless?   Love can  flower in any circumstance?  If you would like to know more about Romany and Gypsy and help raise funds for them, please go to www.thelionsroar.eu. There you can read about our  project and see videos about R and G and the other lions, bears and dingos (and others) who been moved.   Introduce them to your children or your classroom.

I was inspired to “keep going” as I got to know the strength of their love for each other. There are no words to describe the moment when Romany extended his paw beyond the rusted bars and drew long grasses into the cage and dragged them toward Gypsy so she could smell something fresh and green, for the first time. And how he looked back for a moment and caught my eye. There was no greater thank you.

Again, to donate to Romany and Gypsy go to www.thelionsroar.eu and don’t’ forget to read the blogs about all of the rescued animals living in the UK; an amazing bear sanctuary in Brasov, Romania; grazing horses in Holland and Germany; and our other lions in South Africa and Malawi.

Posted in Storytelling, Mindfulness, Peace Making, Engagement and Restorative Imagination | 1 Comment

An Amulet of Blessings

The Young Virtuoso

"The Young Virtuoso" by Antoni Kozakiewicz

I began a New Year ‘s clean-up in my office.  Secreted under a pile of papers was a folder containing notes for a never manifested project using tales about Good Fortune for an Arabian Nights Casino theme park in Las Vegas.  I titled the folder and placed it in a findable cabinet labeled ‘Projects.’ A page fell out entitled An Amulet of Good Fortune (Baragladin) – a story said to be based on an orally recorded Roma (Romanian Gypsy) story adapted by Queen Marie in the early 1930’s.  Queen Marie’s Book of Stories was one of two books that my mother gave to me from her youth.  The other was the autobiography of Isadora Duncan.

Reading Baragladin’s story brought up instant memories of my grandmother, my mother and the Roma women that I’ve worked with in Bacau, Romania. These feeling-drenched recollections provide a recorded frame story for the tale.  A family legend that I savored was about my Grandma Molly (Mahlia Krassner), daughter of a Great Rabbi in Dorohoi, Romania, having tea with Queen Marie during her New York tour in the 1930’s in order to “read her tea leaves.” That detail served to create an entire universe of imagined history about my grandmother who died when I was six months old in Brooklyn, NY. Not to mention my mother’s telling me many times that I was not really her daughter. “We found you in a garbage pail. The gypsies threw you away.”

In my first generation Jewish immigrant family there was an ongoing civil war between my parents.  My father’s romanticized roots were from Lumza, Poland where he associated himself with poor displaced peasants.  My mother on the other hand associated with her Romanian “aristocratic” roots, (“Your grandmother spoke French”) perhaps equally romanticized.  The conflict erupted over where to eat on Sunday afternoons. My father wanted to go to Nathan’s in Coney Island for cheap frankfurters and clam chowder, while my mother wanted to “dress up” and go to a French Restaurant on Flatbush Avenue eating a “real meal.” Themes of the conflagration were cultural pride, class, fashion, food and identity. The common ground was that the food we ate outside the house did not need to be kosher. I was never asked what I preferred. Both were of interest to me, but often Coney Island was my first desire since Nathan’s was near the fascinating and forbidden Freak Show and across the street from a pet shop with puppies in need of as much affection as I longed for.

In the Roma story, there was a painful incident where a young Gypsy man, who held a secret and was a great violinist, was hired to play music at the home of a wealthy Romanian woman. He assumed she was interested in him, but quickly discovered that he was an exotic entertainment.   Wanting to prove himself, he betrayed the secret he held and played an exceptional piece of music he had written in honor of the mystery of the rainbow.  It had the effect of exposing the foolishness of his audience, and also his being further humiliated and forced to leave, unappreciated.  That episode came to mind as I found myself thinking about what it was about the tale, overwritten and somewhat tedious in the book, that inspired me to adapt the story.  Something in that incident of betrayal and humiliation, attempting to prove oneself, felt raw and familiar.  But rarely did I include that part in a public retelling.

More and more I became interested in how the incidents and images in traditional stories can draw out less conscious personal stories we believe about ourselves.

Not knowing these stories often betrays our own sense of authenticity.  Or, what I dread of most might come to be the very hidden narrative that I feed in my life as if I am more attached to that then anything other.  The unspoken, unconscious stories, driven deep down below memory into the bone of our lives, are the very ones that when recalled, acknowledged, and honored offer up immense energy of life force liberation that was working to keep the story unrecognized.   In this uncovering of details of our story, that the often insidious habitual addictions are transformed and our lives are deeply enriched.

It is not that I had not recognized that betrayal was a theme, or for that matter being caught in the horns of the family cultural dilemma, played out as masculine and feminine power issues, a mother and father’s fuel for dissatisfaction and distance, and a poignant discomfort with feeling that I had no idea what side to take or who I should become. However, lifting the fog, the sense of betraying my own gifts, or not being recognized for my essential gifts was for me an even greater threat than betrayal—a hidden story of confusion and longing that did not have words, but visceral resonance, a feeling of sadness and fear inside.

Feeling into the place of unspoken story, the territory of groundless fear and sorrow, released a gift of longing and even a confidence in my sense of presence.  Transforming unconscious inner material into open heart—opening beyond attachment to these potent narratives—has been the theme of spiritual teacher’s New Year 2010 messages.

I find myself wanting to tell the story of Baragladin again in the light of my own discovery of unbiased longing  – instead of shame about the way I feel I have betrayed something fundamental within in a desire to heal or suppress a ceaselessly bleeding wound inside myself.  Sensing the longing and its riches, I went back to the story.

There is something about the indirect nature of these narratives, told well from the unbiased place of presence, that captures our thinking mind with the content, while letting us feel into deeper multi-layered strata of being that is akin to and perhaps is accessing unconditional basic goodness (Shambhala Buddhist term for boddhicitta – of the natural state of mind before and untarnished by conceptual thinking and inherently present).  Taken out of context, with deep regard for context and culture, the story is an opportunity and a template for making the journey within that feeds our lives without and enriches our compassion towards self and others.

The literal thinking mind is held enraptured and satisfied by the content: where and how it happened in logical sequence; while the dynamic of reciprocal listening naturally provokes imagination – a moment by moment uncategorizable inner display of visualization, association, and feeling, that is not fixed, but fluid.    I think the jewel of the storytelling process is the activation and deepening imaginative expression engendered by the relationship between the teller, the listeners, and the way the story is spoken between.

The more unbiased the telling (even if the storyteller is well aware of their own associations and even psychological barriers or limits personally) and the more embodied with genuineness the voice of the teller, the more radiant and vivid is the experience of the listener.  Not only is the narrative content taking us on a journey, but the engagement itself (a ritual of deepening spontaneous communication that is not limited to understanding or analysis) is a living journey that is profound and naturally familiar.  We become the story in the telling and participate in a communal event.

*   *   *


Retold by ©Laura Simms 2012


A Roma woman, queen of the gypsies, gave birth one night in her wagon.  As a baby boy came into the world, the three sisters of fate appeared.  They blessed the child with the knowledge of beauty.  Then they disappeared.  The boy’s mother sewed an amulet to keep away the evil eye in a cloth pouch and hung it on a string around the baby’s neck. He would wear the amulet for the rest of his life.

As a boy, Baragladin was obsessed with beauty.  He learned to play the violin with immense passion surpassing all adult musicians; and he was mystified by the sight of the rainbow after the rain.   As a young man whenever it rained, he raced across a meadow in search of the end of the rainbow. He had heard stories about treasures that were to be found if one was quick enough to arrive before the rainbow disappeared.

Late one afternoon after a rainfall, Baragladin ran to the other side of the meadow where they were camped, crossed a river, past a row of trees to a clearing.

He saw the end of the rainbow touch the earth.   There on the grass was a small box.  By the time he reached it, the rainbow was gone, and the box remained locked.  He placed the box in the knot of a tree and marked it with a carved X.  Every day he went to the tree and attempted to open the box without success.  Then, one day he vowed to create the most beautiful music for the rainbow. He prayed that would pry open the box. He also promised to never tell anyone or to play the music except when the box would open.

The Roma did not camp for long in one place and at the end of that summer, he awoke one night to find himself far from the meadow where he had hidden the box.

He was certain his tribe would return there sooner than later.  However, for years, he searched the horizon for a meadow with a river and the row of trees.   He came to know the countryside like the lines in the palm of his hand, but his tribe never camped at that place again.  Nonetheless, he continued to practice his song.

As I was writing these words in my journal the music in the corner coffee shop called The Bean changed to a Roma song played by the Gypsy Kings

Baragladin’s song grew more beautiful with time. He played it for others only twice.  Once, as his mother was dying, she asked him what had consumed him his whole life that left him unmarried and vigilant.  He played her the song bringing her great peace, and explained that he had found the end of the rainbow and written the song in hopes it would open the box.  She died peacefully. The second time did not bring solace or joy.  He was hired by a woman to play music in her home.  He was smitten with her and believed that she had also fallen in love with him. However, as he played, he realized that she and her guests found saw him as an exotic entertainment.   Overtaken by pride and shame he played his special music. They ignored him throwing coins at the end of the performance and showing him to the door.  He no longer performed on the streets or played his music for anyone.

But, his knowledge of the roads, and intelligence, was respected by his people.  He was made the King of his tribe and his wagon led the way on every road.  He had an uncanny ability to find meadows besides rivers that offered protection and shade.

Years passed. Finally, an old man, Baragladin gave up his dream of finding the meadow. He spent all of his time serving the needs of his people.   A boy became his driver providing him much needed rest and care in his old age since he had no children of his own.

Then, one afternoon after a rainstorm, waking after hours of sleep, the old man heard the wagon wheels grow silent. Barefoot he went outside to see where they had stopped.   The sun was shining. He looked out across a meadow, beyond a river, to a row of trees.  Amazed at having arrived at the place he had sought for so long, he grabbed his violin and raced across the wet grass and the river to the trees. He found the mark he had made as a boy and took out the wooden box. He did not notice when a twig tore the string he wore around his neck.  The amulet fell to the roots of the tree.

Baragladin set the box on the earth. It opened easily. But there was nothing in it.

He lifted the violin and played his song.  It was impossible to know if the music came from the violin or the sky or from within the box.  It was beautiful.   A young girl in the camp heard the music.  She raced across the meadow through the river to the row of trees.  She found the body of Baragladin face down fallen over his broken violin.  Her eyes were drawn to something nested in the roots of the tree. It was a small pouch. She lifted it and heard a sound.  The three fates appeared across the river.  They blessed her with the knowledge of beauty.

* * *


LONGING.  I have no memory of my grandmother, only photos.  I went to Dorohoi six times over five years in hopes of uncovering some essence or proof of my grandmother.  I visited two Jewish graveyards, walked through the streets, photographed every house that had rose gardens, climbed through a window into one of the two synagogues that are left, and searched through archives of Jewish births in Botosani.  I didn’t find anything.  In fact, of all the cities I visited in Romania, Dorohoi felt the most alien.

So, I drove North giving up my search and passed through Bukovina to the old city of Radauti. There I felt at home.  One night I went out for a walk on Stephan Cel Mare Strada and heard music. I looked down an alleyway and saw a roma man playing accordion. He was wearing heeled boots, a small hat and had silver coins for buttons on his jacket.  He nodded to me and I walked toward him. Another man came out from a doorway with a violin and smiled.  I felt completely safe although my driver had warned me to stay away from Cigan (gypsies).    Pleased to have an audience, the two men played songs for a long time.  It was of course the only time I had no recording device with me since I was out for an evening walk.

The next day I went to the Archeology Museum not far from the synagogue. I met the curator who was a painter himself.  He showed me antique Romanian peasant embroidery and told me stories about the Baal Shem Tov.  I passed by later that day and he came out to give me a gift. He presented me with the partly burned Hebrew prayer from a Mazuzoh (at the entrance to all Jewish homes – an amulet of prayers) that his father saved when one of the temples was burned down during the holocaust.  I had never seen the prayers rolled inside and had as a child wondered what was inside of it.

How to tell the story of Baragladin without indulging in maudlin emotion?  The feeling of the boy’s longing and passion, his gift of the knowledge of beauty, even his betrayal through pride, is what I think of forgivingly before telling the story. That the story does not end, nor does the longing, is pleasing.  It renders the tale worthy to be told.  To dip into that place of joyful sadness and let the details straightforwardly be told so to the best of my ability I can let the inner story unfold for my listeners as they find their own source of longing.

I have never found any notes about where Queen Marie heard the story or if it is a Gypsy Tale or her own invention.


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Touched By The World

A great sage studied alchemy for thirty years. He learned chemistry and magic, studied texts and meditated for months, acquired mantras and secret herbs. But he was unable to transform his metal begging bowl to gold. One day a woman coming from the market carrying a basket of spices, singing, walked by and bumped into the sage. Her spices fell into his begging bowl. Instantly it turned to gold. (India)

Such is the art of the right story at the right time….

1. to brighten with light
2. to intellectually and spiritually enlighten
3. to emblaze, illumine, radiate, highlight, glisten, ennoble, enrich, ensoul, uplift, regenerate, renew, and transform

My intention is to share what I have learned and love about the unique event of storytelling through descriptions of my work and reflections on stories; to open the treasure house of what takes place in order to illuminate rather than illustrate or explain. I am interested in how the traditional symbolic tales, often misunderstood as cultural artifact or less than real, are the means that reaches beyond habitual story to connect us to reality. In my work, I am moved by how storytelling alleviates suffering, and uncovers inherent joy, regardless of circumstance. To know our own story, to live in the present and imagine our future, is to be released from the stories that cause conflict, fixation and unnecessary hatred. Each post will be an essay with a story; and additional material and or recordings will be included.

Click here to play the Meditation in the City Podcast! “Touched By The World” with Laura Simms Episode #29: featured on ShambhalaTimes.org

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 1.50.56 PM“Laura Simms reminds us that when life becomes demanding and difficult, we don’t have to cave in. Through recognizing the space of our minds, meditation opens us up to a world of possibility.” -Shambhala, NYC

Meditation In The City is the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York’s very own podcast!
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