Monday, May 18, 2020

Eco Spring

The old story. The oppressed and under-served majority finally revolted against the imperialist tyranny of the Old Regime. It began violently. Fire, flood, famine. Whole rainforests went up in smoke. Riots of locusts. Then, social networks went viral. Success. People took their feet off the gas pedal, planes were grounded, and the Old Regime was shut down.
This was the Eco Spring of 2020.
Celebrations!. Dancing in the street. Or rather, tromping, hopping, waddling, and cavorting in the streets, bays, canals... Land, air, and water, were free at last.
For a time.
Then, despite all the talk about a Green New Deal, despite the promise of a renewed covenant with Earth, the Old Regime reasserted itself.
We've seen this before. The "Arab Spring." The "Prague Spring." Now it's the "Eco Spring."
The auto factories are back into production, the oil is burning once more.
Listen. Earth is singing "We Won't Get Fooled Again!" Here comes an early Hurricane Season.

Friday, April 24, 2020

A Deathless Wound

We often expect stories to have a meaning. We are mistaken. "A meaning" is a thing, an object. I believe that stories are verbs; active, dynamic, and living. Stories do not have a meaning, they mean. How a story means depends on where it grows.
For many (many) years, I carried this story in my heart and nurtured it to mean. It means much to me. It draws nourishment from my experience and my questioning. Question is quest after all.
Our stories tangle together forming the mysterious fairy tale woods we wander through.
My question: how did my story come to this entanglement?
The story below is drawn from a Scandinavian folktale, which is linked at the end of this post.
How does your story mean?

I fed the hungry wolf, then let him lead me where he will.
He promised a happy ending.

He brought me to a ruin
by the sea,
arrested in time.
A castle containing a maiden,
in thrall to a heartless ogre.

He could not die.
She could not depart,
though the ogre often left her there
for days.
Still, at night, the ogre returned
to take possession of her.

I came to her as the wolf prompted.
I hid beneath her bed
where she lay with the ogre.

Why would he not die?

She asked.
     (It had to  be her question even if it was also my quest)
He answered:
He could not die
because he had no heart
in his body.
In truth his heart was hidden.
She questioned more:
where is it hid?
He answered deceivingly
    (though perhaps he had lost the memory of his heart's hidden place)
it is in the kitchen.

She went to the kitchen while he was gone
yet found no heart.

She questioned again.
It is under the door stone.
Again it was not found.
Again she questioned.

This time his memory awoke - slowly:
it is far away and long ago
my heart was taken
in the church
far from here in a long past place
on an isle in a sea.
In the church there is a font.
Therein lies my heart
encased in an egg
so long ago.

I left her bed then
and once again called upon my wolf
to take me there so distant.

Long years did I travel
until, with the help of animal relations, mentors, and guides,
I found the errant heart.

My wolf brought me back to her
where she lay
in ruins
in the place where she was stuck.

What then?
I placed the ogre's heart into her hands.
Then, as the ogre watched,
begging for his life within her,
she crushed the frail egg.

When the ogre fell,
there at her feet,
lay her grandfather,

dead at last.

So Time began again.
This was the happy end.

The Giant Who Had No Heart In His Body

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Give Voice To The World

Fred was an Anole Lizard who lived in our terrarium and ate crickets. He enjoyed stories. One of his favorites was The Itsy Bitsy Spider. We would often discuss the story, Fred considering himself something of an expert on spiders. He would muse, "Itsy might be a recluse...but, if he is, he's a pretty dumb one. A water spout is a stupid place to hide, as the story points out. I hope he isn't a black widow, for obvious reasons. If he were a Daddy Long-Legs, he'd be a small one and I'd probably wait at the water spout to snatch him up. Might be tasty. They are properly called opiliones by the way, and are not poisonous despite rumors."
Another story Fred liked was The Old Woman Who Swallowed A Fly. However, I could hardly get through the story without him interrupting me on the refrain. "That's ridiculous!" He'd exclaim. "It's obvious why she swallowed a fly. Who wouldn't? Really!"
Fred eventually died and I was broken-hearted. I feel bad for having kept him in my terrarium when he might've had a fuller and richer life out in the wild. But I am grateful to have shared his company and learned from him that we human beings are not the only "people" on this planet.

It is human nature to look out at the world and see the world looking back. The art of the actor and the storyteller puts us regularly in touch with the thoughts and feelings of others. In story, especially, we hear the voices of the world. Lizards, wolves, bears, ants, and all living creatures speak up in our stories. Not only animals, but plants and elements speak too. (Consider Grandfather Stone in the Seneca story of the origin of stories.)

These spring mornings, filled with birdsong, I often think of the Russian folktale, The Language of The Birds, and our desire to communicate with the natural world.

This Earth Day, practice your acting and storytelling skills by stepping out of doors and speaking the thoughts and feelings of the birds, the squirrels, the flowers, grass, and trees. Give voice to all the people of the world and share their stories.

What are they saying?  

PS- To learn more about the mythology of the language of birds (and hear a beautiful recording of the whistling "bird Language" used in Turkey to communicate over distances) check this page on crystalinks: )

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Of Mice and Elephants

Many of my peers in the storytelling revival years of 1979-99 will remember the growth of storytelling publishing, evolving from self-published books and audio - first vinyl records, then cassettes - garnering the interests of larger media companies. At one point Disney, in the Eisner years, flirted with Jonesborough as a model for theme-park development, inspiring part of the Disney Institute model. Before that, though, came Rabbit Ears Audio, a "storytelling" audio and book publishing venture that featured big name celebrities reading books for the benefit of our nation's children. The celebrities were crashing our party. Never mind if they could tell a story well, they were screen personalities who could do a decent dramatic read-aloud and command the attention of millions. We rebel storytellers, always a marginalized bunch, stood on the sidelines and felt our thunder stolen.
Or maybe it was just me.
At some point along my path I realized that I had a choice of two business models: the elephant or the mouse. The elephant is the big corporation, big publishing, the media machine, the industry. What it wants, it gets. When it does something, it does so in a very big way. The elephant consumes great swaths of resources and dominates the attention of any audience it seeks to command, and devours whole forests of the economy. The mouse, on the other hand, is the little guy, scampering about between the elephant's feet, trying not to be squished. Mice are not elephants. Mice cannot conquer and control the kinds of territory an elephant can.
But elephants are traditionally afraid of mice. Why? Elephants are slow to move and slow to change. They need large quantities of energy to survive. Mice are quick and fit easily into small spaces. Mice can survive on very meager resources. Mice can do things in small ways that elephants are incapable of.
So when I had an idea for a project, I had to ask myself: is this an elephant thing or a mouse thing? Yes, it would be great to create a nation-wide program for connecting schools and young children with living, breathing storytellers. Yes, it would be a valuable resource to publish a cross-indexed library of storyteller recordings (call it the U.S.A., the United Storytelling Artists) and establish listening centers in every classroom and public library. Yes it would. But... those are elephant dreams.
With the growing interest of big media, I thought naively that if I could become a published recording storyteller and author, I could extend my reach, enlarge my impact, and create a new artistic ecosystem for storytelling. So when I was invited to contribute my recorded work to a publishing house for national distribution, I thought I was on the way to the big dream.
But I discovered that the royalty I received was much less than my self-published efforts, despite the broader distribution. (I still get royalty checks in the absurd amounts of 35-50¢.) I discovered that I became a sales representative for my publisher and was expected to promote the entire catalogue. I discovered that my self-published media, sold at live performances, offered a better cost/benefit ratio. My small (mouse) runs of recordings, while costing more to produce in small batches, were more profitable. I was a mouse.
So I used the elephant/mouse metric to help me decide which dream was worth attempting. I chose to be a mouse, so that I could also be a father, and a husband, a human being, and an artist. I decided that I could get by on enough rather than a lot. I was a gig artist. And gigs were real, present, and cost-effective. I could earn what I needed to earn because the overhead was low, the entanglements were few and the rewards were human and immediate.
Then along came the internet and, with it, the internet "platform." Self-publishing was a media revolution. Publishing was so easy, everyone could do it. The field was overrun with mice. Meanwhile, the elephants took control of the territory. The elephants owned the platforms and learned that they could turn a profit by running mice across their stages for the mere remuneration of "exposure." So the fields of media were feeding elephants more than mice.
But that was okay, because we mice could still be present in ways that elephants cannot. Yes, a producer can create a high-production-value product featuring a Hollywood celebrity, a household name, but they still cannot be present. No amount of virtual reality, online streaming, youtubing, insta-gramming, snap-chatting, could take the place of the truly present person.
So I committed to the idea of being present. I sit on the floor with the preschoolers; I stand in the room with the creative team; I look in the eyes of my audience.  I practice the art of being there.
Then the pandemic delivered that last real platform to the elephants. And now we are scampering across the big platforms, offering our little art from our little lives and in little voices screaming, like Jojo, 'we are here! We are here!'
Now the storyteller mice must yield to the celebrity readers: the Imagination Library, the @Save With Stories, and so on.
In the first days of isolation and loss due to the pandemic, I posted stories and I volunteered my art online to the artist rosters in various school districts and to all the schools I have worked with in the past year. The silence is deafening. This mouse art does not compete with the online net-o-sphere, the media-land of celebrity, brand, and business.
So this mouse is changing. Don't know how, don't know when, but the cheese has moved and the mouse must follow.
Here's a thought from Agnes Demille:
"Science has got us doing cartwheels in space. We have reached the moon. Can we reach the face across the kitchen table? Over the back fence? Across the railroad tracks? Have we ever thought to explore the universe in the seat beside us? Or the constellations locked inside our own skulls? We are in orbit all right. Alone, like no astronaut ever was. Calling out all our lives. 'This is my name! This is my name! Who are you? Speak!'

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Other Eyes

A Story:
The Sky Woman's Basket1

The Sky Woman's Basket gives us a useful image for discussing the problem (and opportunity) of engaging with stories from other cultures, other times, and other traditions than our own. At issue is the act of looking into the basket. Consider two options and outcomes available to the man in the story. In the first, he can look into the basket and, seeing nothing there, conclude that the basket is empty and not worth any more consideration. This is indeed what he does.  In the second option, he could look into the basket and, seeing nothing there, realize that he is missing something and that the basket is worth closer consideration. The first option is the end of his relationship with the basket and his wife. The second option might be the beginning of his relationship with both of them.

Option one exemplifies the modern narrative about indigenous, oral traditional myths. This is the story many of us were raised on. In my youth, the teacher (usually female) would turn on a slide projector and put a record on the record player with a narrator timed to the slides. (A loud beep would signal the teacher to change slides.) The narrator (usually male) would intone his wisdom thus:

"Long ago people invented fantastic stories to explain their world because they were afraid and did not understand the forces of nature." (beep)  "Thunder, lightning, and the changing of the seasons were a mystery to them." (beep) "Today, through Science, we understand these forces of nature..." and so on.

This narrative of the inferiority of early people and their traditions continues today. Consider these remarks from Kenneth C. Davis' introduction to Don't Know Much About Mythology:

“One of the chief reasons that myths came into being was because people couldn’t provide scientific explanations for the world around them. Natural events, as well as human behavior, all came to be understood through tales of gods, goddesses, and heroes. Thunder, earthquakes, eclipses, the seasons, rain, and the success of crops were all due to the intervention of powerful gods. Human behavior was also the work of the gods…”
––– Kenneth C. Davis, Don’t Know Much About Mythology 2

I imagine our early ancestors huddled in a cave during a wild thunder storm. The child asks his father, "What is that booming? What is that flash?" The father replies, "well, my child, because I cannot provide you with a scientific explanation let me invent a story about giants doing battle with dragons in the sky..."

Davis continues:
“… Obviously, we now have many more scientific answers for most of our questions about the world and universe. We know why the sun rises and sets. Why the rain falls in some seasons and not in others. What makes crops grow. We have a much better understanding of where we came from. We understand illness and death – to a certain degree. And although the source of evil in the world – and why bad things happen to good people – is still a mystery, we have even begun to unravel the beginnings of the universe.
            But in earlier times, people invented stories to explain these beginnings…” 3

Essentially, Davis, in his introduction to a compendium of world mythology, is telling the reader at the start that myths are devoid of truth or validity. He is telling us that the Sky Woman's Basket is empty.
 This idea about myths has long been part of the Western narrative that science, as the highest expression of Truth, is superior to myth. Has our science, in an effort to create a language of knowledge with clarity and consensus, so shaped our perception as to render it blind?

Sadly, this notion is perpetuated in the modern storytelling revival. Too often have I heard a school assembly, a classroom lesson, or a festival performance introduced with a parroting of Mr. Davis' view that myths are a product of pre-scientific ignorance and fearful imagining.

But look again at The Sky Woman's Basket. This African story tells of women stealing milk and taking it into the sky. That may seem absurdly juvenile. But we today still refer to the outer arm of our galaxy as "The Milky Way." We can see in the story many embedded ideas: domestication of animals for dairy, promise-keeping, marriage, and so on. Because we have never seen a "ladder from the sky" we consider the story fantasy. But we have seen lightning. We have seen tornadoes. We have seen many phenomena that could well be described as ladders from the sky.

Look Again

It is easy to look at an old story that tells of seemingly impossible characters and events and say 'that's entertaining but it is obviously not true.' Take, for example, the traditional Klamath story concerning a battle between the chiefs of the world above and the world below. The story was first written down in 1865 by a young soldier at Ft. Klamath. The story was dismissed as primitive fantasy until geologists discovered that it parallels the volcanic eruption that formed Crater Lake, OR, over 7,000 years ago. Native American author, theologian, historian, and activist, Vine Deloria Jr., points out in his book Red Earth, White Lies 4, that the story successfully carried the memory of the event in oral tradition for over 7,000 years.

Some western scientists are taking a second look at oral traditions. New hybrid disciplines, such as archeoastronomy and geomythology, are forcing a reconsideration of the established narrative of western superiority which has so long limited our appreciation of traditional stories.

"The fact that virtually all traditional knowledge keepers believe myths (and legends) to be historically true whereas nearly all scientists presume they do not represent factual historical events is a disquieting conundrum that tells us more about the biases of western science than the nature of myth." – WB Masse et al.5  

New insights from the fields of linguistics and anthropology are helping us take a second look. Dr. Lynne Kelly in her research of primary orality observes that "Traditional peoples would not have survived had they lived, as so often portrayed, in a fog of superstition and pre-logical, irrational thinking." Kelly argues that "oral cultures use complex and sophisticated artificial memory techniques that are no longer in broad use because the advent of writing takes away our need to commit to memory the knowledge on which our lives and culture depend." 6

So why do the stories from oral cultures so often appear in our juvenile reading lists as quaint, fanciful 'pourquoi' tales? Consider our modern educational process. The early childhood curriculum teaches the basic elements considered essential for higher learning: shapes, colors, ABCs, numbers, and nursery rhymes. Why would a rhyme like Itsy Bitsy Spider be important in early childhood? It establishes the narrative elements critical to understanding our greatest literature. Like a fractal element in a complicated system, the Itsy Bitsy Spider teaches a pattern of story that will be reiterated into such epics as The Odyssey. Additionally, it describes the narrative actions seen in nature. Yet, if a foreigner to western culture only encounters the Itsy Bitsy Spider, they are not likely to intuit the formation of The Odyssey. They are more likely to conclude that our culture is juvenile and ignorant. Now imagine that an non-literate, non-western adventurer arrives on a university campus and demands to know what the people of the university know. Where will they start? In the early childhood classroom. Our educational system is scaffolded for the vertical alignment of knowledge. You must complete course 101 before you can complete course 201, and so on.
So it may well be that western adventurers encountering oral cultures received the equivalent of the early childhood curriculum and concluded that the culture is ignorant.

This is not to suggest that we remove or rewrite the pourquoi stories, myths and legends, and the other material from oral cultures. We have an opportunity to look at these stories a second time and consider what role they may play in their cultural scaffold of knowledge. For example, the Cherokee story of The First Fire, is a popular and entertaining story of the animals acquiring fire for the world. At first glance it may appear fanciful and insubstantial. But at second glance, we see a cultural memory of the Pleistocene era, the end of the last Ice Age, and a catalogue of the fauna inhabiting their world. The story in literary form tells of a few select animals attempting to capture fire. Each animal is changed in  such a way that it can be clearly identified. The story in oral form can expand as a container of knowledge, introducing the hearer to a wide variety of animals and their attributes.

There is a story about Coyote's Eyes that is told by many First Nations people in North America.

The gist is that Coyote comes upon someone, usually Rabbit, singing his sacred song and performing an unusual feat: throwing his eyes out of his head and into the sky. As he sings, the eyes return to Rabbit and return to their proper places. Coyote barges in (typical, rude behavior for him) and demands to learn the secret of this skill. After much insisting, Coyote learns to throw his eyes. He goes straight away to show off his new trick in the village so the people will admire him. After over-doing his trick, his eyes fail to return. In many versions, they are caught in the high branches of a piñon pine. I think, perhaps, they simply continue into the sky and become enchanted by the stars. In any case, Coyote has thrown his eyes away. He can no longer see.

Coyote stumbles on blindly. He comes to mouse. Mouse offers to give one of his eyes to Coyote. Coyote takes Mouse's tiny eye, which rolls about in his empty eye socket. With Mouse's little eye, Coyote can only view things that are small and close up. He next comes to Buffalo. Buffalo gives an eye to Coyote. But Buffalo's eye is too big for Coyote's empty socket. Buffalo's eye sees far and wide. So Coyote wanders with one eye seeing up close and the other eye seeing far and wide. So Coyote goes, dizzy and disoriented because he has lost his own eyes. Perhaps he continues borrowing eyes not his own. In some versions of the story, the birds make new eyes for Coyote from the sap of the piñon pine. Alternatively, if you look out at Coyote in the night time, you will see him singing to his eyes, calling them back. If you look at his face, you will see starlight where his eyes once were.

However this story signifies for its culture of origin, I am inclined to see in it a parable for this discourse. Coyote strikes me as western, scientific, culture. With Mouse eyes and Buffalo eyes, we look up close and out far, but we do not clearly see where we are. We threw away our original eyes - those eyes that were pre-scientific, pre-Christian, pre-dogmatic; our earliest, native eyes. We try to see with other people's eyes by co-opting their cultures. [Perhaps that is what I am doing by using this First Nation's story!] But if we do not inhabit their world view, we walk away with a dizzying effect rather than an insight, misconstruing the validity of their stories and reinforcing our own narrative of superiority.

Astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, writes about his experience viewing earth from space:

“I realized that the story of ourselves as told by science—our cosmology, our religion— was incomplete and likely flawed. I recognized that the Newtonian idea of separate, independent, discreet things in the universe wasn’t a fully accurate description. What was needed was a new story of who we are and what we are capable of becoming.”
–– Dr. Edgar Mitchell, The Way of The Explorer 5

In an earlier post I wrote about the language of truth. [No Knowing What: Truth Post Truth] Scientific language is one language of truth. Myth is another. Their styles might be contrasted as:
Myth = subjective lyricism  /  Science = objective accounting

"The loss of the lore of a group is also the loss of the justification for their lifestyle."
––– V.F. Cordova, How It Is 6

Conversely, then, the maintenance of the lore of a group is the maintenance of the justification for their lifestyle. By holding onto the lore of western superiority do we promote the justification for an earth-exploiting, alienated lifestyle? Cultural Genocide removes a language and lore from a group of people in order to destroy their lifestyle and culture. Is it time to consider, if not the removal, the replacement, of our own destructive lore and language?

With what new eyes might we see the world?

1This is my adaptation of a story recounted in Laurens van der Post's "Heart of the Hunter." He attributes it to his Zulu nanny from his So. African childhood. I do not claim to represent or misrepresent any indigenous oral traditional cultures, though I tell stories that trace their origins back to such peoples. I do claim to gain insights from old stories which inform my choices in telling them anew.
I and my family line are not indigenous to Africa or North America. As far as I know, my ancestors were indigenous to the Rhine valley and the mountains of eastern Bohemia. In the Middle Ages they survived the bloody Northern Crusades by converting to Christianity. I do not know for certain, but it seems entirely likely that they played part in a violent, generations-long game of 'pass on, no pass back' by passing on that trauma to the indigenous peoples they displaced when, in the 19th century, they emigrated to the western United States.

2 Davis, Kenneth C. Don't Know Much about Mythology: Everything You Need to Know about the Greatest Stories in Human History but Never Learned. Harper, 2006.

3 Ibid.

4 Deloria, Vine. Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. Fulcrum Pub, 1997. 

5 Masse, W. & Barber, Elizabeth & Piccardi, Luigi & Barber, Paul. (2007). Exploring the nature of myth and its role in science. Geological Society, London, Special Publications. 273. 9-28. 10.1144/GSL.SP.2007.273.01.02.  

6 Kelly, Lynne. Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory, and the Transmission of Culture. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015.

7 Mitchell, Edgar D., and Dwight Arnan. Williams. The Way of the Explorer: an Apollo Astronauts Journey through the Material and Mystical Worlds. New Page Books, 2008.

8 Cordova, V. F., et al. How It Is: the Native American Philosophy of V.F. Cordova. University of Arizona Press, 2007.

Linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf put forward the notion of a linguistic area comprised of the Romance, Germanic, Balto-Slavic and Balkan languages which they termed "Standard Average European." Furthermore, they propose that the language we speak greatly influences our world view. more