Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sense and Simulacra

I lived briefly in Berkeley, CA, many years ago. Along The highway to the Bay Bridge, just below Emeryville, wide flats of mud stretch along the edge of the tidal basin. The mud flats are a sludgy, dull, repository for trash. One can see half-submerged tires, cans, bottles, planks of various lengths, and large appliances, scattered across the mud like a bizarre elephants' graveyard. I would often stare across that wasteland with a sad confusion over our modern habit of disposal. But every now and then I would spy mysterious creatures rising from the junk, assemblages of trash forming great dragons and upright giants, transforming the sad bones of urban disjecta membra into fanciful images of whimsy. Artists made their way into the junk field of the flats and pulled together crazy, ephemeral creations, turning ugliness into beauty, chaos into art.
I think the modern mind is sometimes like those mud flats. Our thoughts are filled with a confusion of images, random bits of distraction clutter our minds. But when we organize our thoughts around a coherent story, we build from our mental and emotional flotsam and jetsam, images and experiences alive with meaning. Stories help us turn our inner lives from chaos into art. 
That is why, I am fond of saying that storytelling is aerobics for the mind.
Now science backs me up. There is an interesting article, Your Brain On Fiction, by Annie Murphy that appeared in the NY Times last March. She writes:
"Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life." Read the entire article
Just as this was being printed in the Times, I was working with a class of third graders at Jones Elementary School in Asheville. My residency was based on the book, Something Beautiful, by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. We were working on the discovery of beauty and the ability to effectively tell about beautiful places and people so that we could give the beauty to others. 
I realize we had to be like those artists in the mud flats. We had to wander across the wasteland of daily life - that is, the wasteland of impoverished language about daily life - find and conjure forth the inherent beauty that is there. We did it by rehearsal.
"Rehearse" is a word derived from farming. It literally means "harrow" and refers to the act of raking back and forth across the land, breaking it up into smoother and finer furrows, to be more fecund. To rehearse is to open up the earth for more life. A clear example of that occurred when one of my third grade students spoke about the scene outside her back door. At first, she dismissed the backyard as "ugly" saying that there was merely an "ugly pile of mulch." But as she went back and forth over the scene, her language opened up, revealing "A large, brown pile of mulch, rough and mouldy, that smells damp, with green sprouts growing out." 
That is an image to stimulate the mind, and create a virtual experience of beauty.