Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve

The skies these past few weeks have been curiously drowsy. Odd, Spring-like conditions have prevailed. That should come as no surprise, considering the climate in general, but it makes for a moody situation. We scatter straw across the yard to absorb the mud. The stage, jutting out from the porch, is surrounded by a pale yellow straw beach, giving it the quizzical appearance of a tropical desert island. But the air is damp and cool and the sun barely shines. Last night, however, the stars were holding court. A front brought a cooler dryness and the muddy straw is exhaling. The sky was clear enough for me to see the Milky Way from the street of our city suburb. It is a poetic moment for the season. The clearing sky, the fresher air, the brilliance of the stars all inspire the moment with hope and dreams.
Most afternoons recently our yard would have Nick (9) swinging, Kaiya (9) hanging, and Jordan (3) climbing, while Jasmine (2) runs in tight circles around it all, nipping and yapping. Occasional appearances of the sun would lure us out only to usher in the clouded gloom, which seems desperate for our attention. It is as if our attention is deliberately directed to the gloom. It is easy to feel the gloom, but to really heed it is another matter. With a little less self-pity and a little acquiescence, the attention shifts.  I look out and see the boon of mud.
The mud is magnificent. It has a dark, fudgy firmness. It clings well to heel and toe, then falling in dried shards around the house. Either the mud wants to come in from the gloom or it wants us to go out. Both, of course. There is a story of a boy who comes to honor Buddha with gifts. Having nothing, the boy makes a mud pie and prayerfully presents it. The gift is received with a blessing and the boy is reincarnated as the great king, Ashoka. There is more to the story, and others can explicate its significance to Buddhism. But to me, this New Year is offering us the rich earthy mud, filled with potential for new life.
So I offer you good wishes for the year ahead. May 2012 bring many blooms from the soil of 2011.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Not Enough Room?

The Small House
adapted from a favorite Jewish folktale
Jacob was a farmer and Sarah was his wife.
They worked hard together to live a happy life.
They had a couple chickens, a good old dairy cow,
and a cranky, stubborn mule they harnessed to the plow.
The only thing that stopped them being happy with it all,
was the feeling that their little house was much too much too small.
They visited the Rabbi, an elder man and wise,
And told him of their trouble and asked him to advise.
After thoughtful meditation, this is what he had to say:
“If you will do as I instruct, I think there is a way
to make your house a place of peace that happiness will bless.
But tell me am I right to think you have some chickens, yes?”
“We have some chickens, yes,” they said “what would you have us do?”
“Take the chickens from the yard into the house with you.”
“Bring the chickens from the yard into the house, you say?
We honor age and wisdom and will not disobey.”
So straight away they went and brought the chickens in to nest.
But instead of getting better,  they were very sorely pressed.
The chickens squawked and scratched about, they laid eggs everywhere.
The noise and feathers were enough to make them tear their hair.
So once again they went to seek the Rabbi for advice.
He said, “I see a way to make your situation nice.
You have a cow for milking, yes?” “We have a cow for milking, true.”
“Go to the field and take your cow inside the house with you.”   
“Go to the field and take our cow inside the house to stay?!”
They thanked the Rabbi for his advice and later on that day
The house had chickens laying and a cow chewing its cud.
The walls were nearly bursting, the floor was turned to mud.
The noises, smells, and other things were enough to drive them mad.
Once more they sought the Rabbi to seek advice he had.
“You say the chickens and the cow have made your home a mess?
But there is always room for more. You have a mule, yes?”
“We have a mule to pull the plow, we keep him in a stall.”
“Then take him in with all the rest, one roof will cover all.”
“Take the mule into the house with cow and chickens too?
We do not understand but we will do what we must do.”
Now the crowded little house had the mule ushered in.
Mooing, clucking, braying, made an awful din.
There was no room to sit, no place to build a fire,
The rafters shook, the air was foul, the floor became a mire. 
The hapless couple groaned and cried “we cannot take this life!”
And once again they asked the Rabbi to save them from this strife.
The Rabbi lit a candle and poured them each some tea.
“You’ve endured a lot of suffering, this is plain to see.
“One last suggestion I will give, it should not be too hard,
“Return the cow out to the field, the chickens to the yard
“Return the mule to his stall, then clean and fix and sweep.
“Then see if you have room enough to get a good night’s sleep.”
Once more they did as they were told and to their great surprise,
The house that once was much too small, was now the perfect size.
How often even now, just as it was before,
when our want is keenly felt and we lament at being poor,
we think that having things will even up the score, 
only to discover: having less beats having more.

Good words

My stepdaughter, Kaiya, is enjoying Rachel Roberts' Avalon series. Here is a recent quote that we find meaningful and inspiring. Enjoy


There’s an old saying: “The darkest hour is always before the dawn.” I believe that to be true. There are times in our lives when feel alone, face trouble, or feel scared by the darkness the world can sometimes force upon us. It’s these times that true courage can be tested. We must never give into despair, even when it feels like the night will never end. You have the magic with in to meet any challenge and carry on. A new dawn will always shine its way into your heart. 
 –––– Rachel Roberts, Dark Mage



Wednesday, October 26, 2011

From The Circle

Out of my family circle has grown more storytelling art! My son, Jack Novak, is Literary Manager for a new theatre in Chicago: Filament Theatre. He has just directed and co-written a new play titled From the Circle: ReMembering the Earth Through Folktales. His director's notes appear below. As you will see, his words are in the spirit of many of my earlier postings.

"It’s a common perception that folktales and myths were created by ancient civilizations to explain the world around them, and that modern science has replaced the need for such stories.  This performance challenges that perception. Folktales are not intended to provide technical understanding of the world.  Rather, folktales help us construct an emotional understanding of it, which allows us to relate to it.  We can’t relate to things just by knowing the science behind them.  When we watch the sunrise, that’s an experience we can’t share with someone by explaining the science of it.  The science doesn’t touch on how it makes us feel – how the sun takes on a new significance, or even a personality.  A folktale or myth captures that significance.

The people who originated most of the stories told this evening would have lived much closer to the natural world.  Here in the modern urban environment, however, the world around us is not the natural world but one of pavement and insulation.  This is a tricky obstacle for proponents of sustainability, who are trying to promote an awareness of nature.  At such a distance from the biological flow of energy we can easily forget our place in it.  We forget that everything we consume comes first from natural cycles, and that everything we put out (for better or worse) must return to those cycles.

Storytelling has a new importance.  In a folktale a man can talk to a tree, and by listening to that story we can see more clearly an aspect of our subtle relationship to trees. Once our relationship to nature is contextualized in a folktale, we gain a more personal, emotional understanding of the world.  With that understanding comes a greater sense of responsibility and, hopefully, a renewed joy in the Earth.  If, sitting in a dark room with no windows, we can remember the experience of watching a sunrise, just by listening to a story, then I think the environment has a chance. "
 – Jack Novak, Filament Theatre, 10/2011

And while we're on the subject....


Friday, June 3, 2011

Grandfather Stone

    I am in Grand Junction, Colorado, this weekend, telling stories at the main and branch libraries as their kick-off for the summer reading program. This year the theme for library reading programs is: One World, Many Stories.
   Grand Junction is indeed Grand. The wide, flat desert valley is bordered on one side by the Book Cliffs, some 200 miles of beautifully eroded flat topped rock cliffs. The cliffs are named for the semi-regular vertical lines that give them the appearance of a row of books neatly lining a shelf. The  cliffs are  composed primarily of sedimentary rock and are said to be an excellent place to study what geologists call "sequence stratigraphy." A great word for a dynamic concept ("dynamic" because the concept is hotly debated) for understanding the sequences of rock strata formed over time.
   I am reminded of a favorite story from the Seneca (first nations people of the American Northeast) that tells of the origin of stories. The gist is that the people did not have or tell stories until a young hunter received them from Grandfather Stone. That stories were first told to people from a stone often strikes my young listeners as fantasy at best, and absurd at worst. But if we consider that most of what we know about the history of our planet we have learned from studying stones, the story gains credence.
    For me, the story is a reminder that our ancestors received story and narrative awareness from close observation of the environments in which they lived.
   Whether or not sequence stratigraphy endures as a branch of geological study, the presence of stories in stone has been well established and is easily understood out here where the stones stand watch over us and reveal the world's mysteries in the form of intriguing strata and fossilized saurian bones.
   The stones are only silent to us if we do not know how to read them, in the same way any shelf of books is silent if we are not literate. The first literacy, was earth literacy. If you want to hear a story, listen to the world around you.
   Consider these words from Shakespeare's As You Like It, spoken by the banished Duke Senior as he muses on life in the wild:

     "And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
      Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
      Sermons in stones, and good in everything."

Friday, May 27, 2011

Down To Earth

I find it interesting to compare two stories of the separation of heaven and earth:

First is the familiar story from Hesiod's Theogeny, concerning Ouranos, Gaia, and Kronos. Ouranos, father sky, and Gaia, mother earth, are separated when Kronos castrates Ouranos with a scythe he received from Gaia. Thus begins Time according to some who associate Kronos with Chronos, though this is disputed.

Second is the Maori story, from New Zealand, of Rangi, father sky, and Papa, mother earth, separated by their son, Tane. Tane separates them by placing his head upon earth and feet upon sky, then pushing them apart and becoming the first tree. In this way, Tane, the tree, separates heaven and earth and holds them together at the same time.

It is meaningful that in the first, separation is caused by violence - cutting and castration, whereas in the second the separation is accomplished in a more gentle, and conciliatory manner. This certainly presents inherently different cosmologies. It is worth noting that trees play a role in creating an atmosphere and thereby separating earth from sky (space) making life possible. It is also worth considering how the notion of psychic separation from spirit and matter creates an alienating sense of self moving through time. Without a sense of time, narrative could not exist.

But the thing I think about most, lately, is how Tane becomes Tree by putting his head upon his mother's breast and feet against his father's chest, stretching upwards in a deep-rooted head stand. The storyteller could have had Tane simply stand on earth and push on sky like Kronos' younger brother, Atlas, holding up the sky. But the story has the head of trees in the earth. As I look out at the trees, I imagine them that way. The visible part of trees is only half the whole, waist to toes if you will. The head and arms are below ground.

If the Western Mind, inheritor of the Greek cosmology, is alienated from earth and sky, perhaps we would do well to take an idea from the Maori and turn our heads around.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Maximizing Our Minds

Tahir Shah writes with great feeling of the role of storytelling in our lives. Here is an excerpt from his book In Arabian Nights (Bantam, 2008.) I highly recommend it and him and of course his illustrious father, Idries! For more from Tahir, visit his blog:

http://tahir-shah.blogspot.com/

"By their nature, most tribal and nomadic societies have had no writing system. And they are blessed as a result. They depend on each other for entertainment, for stimulation. Huddled around the campfire, the storytellers pass on the collective wisdom of the tribe. Their oral tradition is perfected and sleek, like stones in a river, rounded by time. The information has an extra dimension because it enters the body through the ears and not through the eyes. Listen, stare into the flames, and imagination unfolds.

I have seen storytellers casting their magic in the depths of the Peruvian Amazon, and in teahouses in Turkey, in India and .Afghanistan. I have found them, too, in Papua New Guinea and in Patagonia, in Kenya's Rift Valley, in Namibia and Kazakhstan. Their effect is always the same. They walk a tightrope, no wider than a hairsbreadth, suspended between fact and fantasy, singing to the most primitive part of our minds. We cannot help but let them in. With words they can enchant us, teach us, pass on knowledge and wisdom, as they had done to Marwan.

Stories are a communal currency of humanity. They follow the same patterns irrespective of where they are found. And, inexplicably, the same stories appear in cultures continents apart. How is it that similar tales can be found in Iceland and in pre-Columbian America? How come Cinderella is considered European, but is also a part of the folklore of the American Algonquins?

My father used to tell me that stories offer the listener a chance to escape but, more importantly, he said, they provide people with a chance at maximizing their minds. Suspend ordinary constraints, allow the imagination to be freed, and we are charged with the capability of heightened thought.

Learn to use your eyes as if they are your ears, he said, and you become connected with the ancient heritage of man, a dream world for the waking mind. "

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day 2011

This is an exciting time to be involved in Storytelling and Education. As I see it, our Cultural Mythology and Personal Narratives are in a state of rapid transformation. In a way, we are moving from a sky-centered story to an earth-centered story. We are truly "coming down to earth." Still, we are moving against some strong anti-earth stories rooted in our American Dream (aka Myth). For example, here is a cover story from USA Today on December 10, 1997:
We are presented with a choice: adopt the Kyoto Accords and save the Earth or reject them and save American jobs. This is a classically self-involved American Story. Unhappily, at that time, we chose door number 2: jobs. Today, I think that has begun to change. Paradoxically, the motion back to earth from sky may have been sparked by our first effort to leave the planet entirely: the moon landing. For when our astronauts reached the moon, they sent us our first look at the earth (and ourselves) from space. That image still ripples through our consciousness and seeds the rewriting of our stories.
Several years ago I had the privilege to share the stage with Martha Holloway for a joint lecture/storytelling at the University of San Diego titled "The View From Space: stories of the earth in its entirety." Give a listen:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Turn Off The Tube?

My son's school just participated in "turn-off-the-tube-week" and I had the privilege of telling stories for the school's family night program. I shared the following from E.B. White. In his column for Harper's Weekly in 1938, E. B. White made this observation about the coming technology called television:

"Clearly the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between things that are and the things that seem to be, between the chemist of RCA and the angel of God. Radio has already given sound a wide currency, and sound "effects" are taking the place once enjoyed by sound itself. Television will enormously enlarge the eye's range, and, like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere. Together with the tabs, the mags, and the movies, it will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote. More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, images - distant and concocted. In sufficient accumulation, radio sounds and television sights may become more familiar than their originals."

Welcome to the internet, Victor!

The best parts of books never survive film adaptation. Here is a prescient vision of today from Victor Hugo's Notre Dame of Paris (aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame):

"A book is so soon made, it costs so little, and it can travel so far! Why wonder that the whole of human thought should flow down this slope? This is not to say that architecture will not now and again have a fine monument, an isolated masterpiece. From time to time, in the reign of printing, we may well still get a column made, I suppose, by a whole army, from the fusing of cannons, as, under the reign of architecture, they had Iliads and Romanceros, Mahabharatas and Nibelungen, made by a whole people from an accumulation and fusion of rhapsodies. The great accident of an architect of genius might occur in the twentieth century just like that of Dante in the thirteenth. But architecture will no longer be the social, the collective, the dominant art. The great poem, the great edifice, the creation of mankind will no longer be built, it will be printed.

And in future, should architecture accidentally revive, it will no longer be master. It will be subject to the law of literature, which once received the law from it. The respective positions of the two arts will be reversed. It is a fact that during the age of architecture - admittedly rare - poems resembled the monuments. In India, Vyasa is intricate, strange and impenetrable, like a pagoda. In the Egyptian East, poetry, like the buildings, has a grandeur and tranquillity of line; in ancient Greece, beauty, serenity and calm; in Christian Europe, the majesty of Catholicism, the naïvety of the people, the rich and luxuriant vegetation of an age of renewal. The Bible resembles the Pyramids, the Iliad the Parthenon, Homer Phidias. Dante in the thirteenth century was the last Romanesque church, Shakespeare in the sixteenth the last Gothic cathedral. Thus, to sum up what we have said so far in a necessarily incomplete and truncated form, the human race has two books, two registers, two testaments: masonry and printing, the bible of stone and the bible of paper. When we study these two bibles, so fully opened through the centuries, it is permissible surely to feel nostalgia for the visible majesty of what was written in granite, those gigantic alphabets formulated as colonnades, pylons and obelisks, those mountains, as it were, which covered the world and the past, from the pyramid to the steeple, from Cheops to Strasbourg. We must re- read the past from these marble pages. We must constantly admire and turn the pages of the book written by architecture; but we must not gainsay the grandeur of the edifice which printing has erected in its turn.

This edifice is colossal. Some maker of statistics or other has calculated that if all the volumes which have issued from the presses since Gutenberg were placed one on top of the other they would occupy the distance from the earth to the moon; but that is not the kind of grandeur we mean. Yet, when we try to compose in our minds a total picture of the sum of the products of the printing-press up till our own day, does the whole not appear to us as a vast construction, with the entire world as its base, at which mankind has been working without respite and whose monstrous head is lost in the profound mists of the future? It is the ant-hill of the intellect. It is the hive to which all the golden bees of the imagination come with their honey. It is an edifice of a thousand stories. Here and there, on staircases, one can see the mouths of the murky tunnels of science, which intersect in its bowels. On its surface, everywhere, the luxuriance of art, with its arabesques, its rose-windows and its tracery. Here, each individual work, however isolated or capricious it may appear, has its own place and protuberance. Its harmony comes from whole. From the cathedral of Shakespeare to the mosque of Byron, innumerable bell-turrets jostle indiscriminately on this metropolis of the universal mind. At its base, a number of the ancient titles of mankind have been rewritten, which architecture had not recorded. On the left of the entrance has been affixed the old white marble bas-relief of Homer, on the right the polyglot bible rears its seven heads. Further on stands the bristling hydra of the Romancero, with other hybrid forms, the Vedas and the Nibelungen. For the rest, this prodigious edifice remains perpetually unfinished. The printing-press, that giant machine, tirelessly pumping the whole intellectual sap of society, is constantly spewing out fresh materials for its erection. The entire human race is on the scaffolding. Each mind is a mason. The humblest can stop up a hole or lay a stone. Restif de la Bretonne, contributes his hod-load of plaster. Every day a new course is added. And aside from the original offerings of individual writers, there are collective contingents. The eighteenth century gives the Encyclopédie, the Revolution the Moniteur. This indeed is a construction which grows and mounts in spirals without end; here is a confusion of tongues, ceaseless activity, indefatigable labour, fierce rivalry between all of mankind, the intellect’s promised refuge against a second deluge, against submersion by the barbarians. This is the human race’s second Tower of Babel."


Color Town

Here's a story from the first Synergy Story Slam here in Asheville. The series has been selling out and I am delighted to have been there for opening night! The theme was "changes" and it was MLK Day, so....

Thursday, April 14, 2011

News from Iowa

What’s the story?: Storyteller enhances learning for Linn-Mar students

ROBINS — David Novak was telling a story most of the students in the Westfield Elementary School library Wednesday, April 13, 2011, had heard before: Jack and the Beanstalk.

It just usually doesn’t involve a long loop of yellow string.

Novak, a professional storyteller from Asheville, N.C., held his hands apart forming a web of yellow lines between them in the shape of a long beanstalk as he spoke of Jack and his trip into the clouds. He then looped the string around his ears and let it fall slack against his chest forming an outline of a long beard.

“Fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman,” he bellowed as his audience of first-and second-grade students broke into laughter.

Novak is visiting all the elementary schools in the Linn-Mar school district this week as part of the school’s Stories Alive program, paid for by the Linn-Mar School Foundation and Hills Bank. He frequently travels around the country to tell stories in schools and his work as a storyteller and educator has garnered him national acclaim,

Jack and the Beanstalk is just one story where Novak uses strings as visual aids while he acts out the story, a performance he recently captured in his book “String Figure Jack.” He also uses the shoelaces in his sneakers to tell stories that will help kids remember how to tie their shoes.

Novak said his entry into the field came as a result of not being able to pick just one theatrical role for his career.

“I found that storytelling brought together all my different interests into one package. Now, I’m my own writer, director, performer and designer and I am the author of my works,” he said.

Equally important as the creative aspect for Novak is the opportunity to educate using the arts. Novak believes that the actual verbal telling of stories is an important part of any child’s upbringing.

“Stories have historically given growing children the ability to perceive pattern and shape in the world and events around them,” he said.

The school feels the same way as Linn-Mar’s Stories Alive program is now in its 20th year, according to foundation president Shelley Woods.

Whether they realized that they were learning patterns or not, the students received Novak’s act with enthusiasm. Jake Nickel, 7, said the Jack and the Beanstalk part was his favorite, and that he had only previously heard the story on a computer.

Hannah Graland, 7, preferred a story Novak told about a sinking ship where he folded a newspaper into a cutout of a life preserver.

“He did a really good job, it was very funny,” Graland said.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Origins of Writing

I always enjoyed watching the ibis in Florida poking about in the mud flats. It makes perfect sense to me that the Egyptians chose the ibis for the god, Thoth, who invented writing. Ibis mark mud flats in a way very similar to the earliest examples of writing we have: cunieform. That suggests to me that reading as a behavior for attending to the world around precedes the concept of writing as a behavior for recording narrative. For example, a hunter "reads" signs such as animal tracks. We "read" the sky for a sense of the weather, and so on. That the Egyptian god, Thoth, Ibis-headed, invents writing may come from close observation of ibis and the marks left behind after the ibis passes through.




































Sumerian cunieform writing results from pressing wedges of reeds into soft clay.

Empathy

I love this animated talk by Jeremy Rifkin on empathy. This directly relates to the experience of hearing someone tell you a story. The mirror neurons fire in the listener and create the virtual experience. All engenders empathy.

Storytelling & Virtual Reality

I have long maintained that "Storytelling is the Original Virtual Reality." Now science supports my statement. Listen UP! NPR "Reading Creates 'Simulations' In Minds"
"A study provides new insights about what's going on in your head when you crack open a good book."

Story Light

I like the expression "storytropic" Dan Yashinsky uses in his book "Suddenly They Heard Footsteps." He writes a number of times about firesides and firelight, and asks "what do we do...in an age when the story fire is almost extinguished..?"
In his introduction to the Pantheon collection of Grimms Fairy Tales, Padraic Colum writes: "The prolongation of light meant the cessation of traditional stories in European cottages. And when the cottages took in American kerosene or paraffin there was prolongation. Then came lamps with full and steady light, lamps that gave real illumination. Told under this illumination the traditional stories ceased to be appropriate because the rhythm that gave them meaning was weakened."
The prolongation of light has pushed back the shadows of the hearth where, once upon a time, stories were told. Furthermore, the prolongation of light has weakened the "rhythm that gave them meaning." That rhythm, simply stated, is the time for light, the time for dark, the time for work and the time to tell stories.
I thought it fitting that in one of the recent James Bond movies, the villain was a man who could not sleep and who wanted to shower the world (via a satellite orbiting the planet) with sunlight 24/7! Shakespeare's famous villain, Macbeth, commits his first crime and hears a voice "Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep!"

4/25/06

Sitting in my little cabin at the foot of Mt. Pisgah, I enjoyed the dramatic thuderstorms of the past week. As I read through a collecton of American poets, I came across this piece by Conrad Aiken. I think it exemplifies the idea we've been discussing about using a specific image to conjure a mood and larger pictures:

Beloved, let us once more praise the rain.
Let us discover some new alphabet,
For this, the often praised; and be ourselves,
The rain, the chickweed, and the burdock leaf,
The green-white privet flower, the spotted stone,
And all that welcomes the rain; the sparrow too,—
Who watches with a hard eye from seclusion,
Beneath the elm-tree bough, till rain is done.
There is an oriole who, upside down,
Hangs at his nest, and flicks an orange wing,—
Under a tree as dead and still as lead;
There is a single leaf, in all this heaven
Of leaves, which rain has loosened from its twig:
The stem breaks, and it falls, but it is caught
Upon a sister leaf, and thus she hangs;
There is an acorn cup, beside a mushroom
Which catches three drops from the stooping cloud.
The timid bee goes back to the hive; the fly
Under the broad leaf of the hollyhock
Perpends stupid with cold; the raindark snail
Surveys the wet world from a watery stone...
And still the syllables of water whisper:
The wheel of cloud whirs slowly: while we wait
In the dark room; and in your heart I find
One silver raindrop,—on a hawthorn leaf,—
Orion in a cobweb, and the World.