Monday, February 22, 2010

The World is Made of Stories

If you don’t know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don’t know the stories you may be lost in life. —Siberian Elder

For the most part, we have lost the kind of entertainment that's still found in those rare places where old and young gather and stories are told. And in these broken times in a country that feels broken, sitting down together and connecting by telling new stories and remembering old ones could help heal us.

Storytelling is now being used by corporations to redefine or shape their vision. It's found its way globally into groups seeking to create new systems of governance; into reconciliation and peacekeeping. Stories have had a renaissance with the Internet. But like the elderly man who explained to psychiatrist & activist Robert Coles (author of The Old Ones of New Mexico) why he refused to talk on the phone with his son - ‘we can’t touch.’ The palpable excitement in a children's story circle confirms that face to face, skin to skin does make a difference. But the story telling movement into more intimate situations, from families, neighborhoods and towns still has room to grow. Using story in these places will help us find new ways of thinking about ourselves. It will teach us how to listen and share what's in our hearts and minds. This ancient tradition holds the potential for a transformative process that will ultimately empower society and individuals living through the increasing uncertainty of today's world.

Whenever I hear a story begin, I'm compelled to take a deep breath inward as if preparing my heart to receive what is about to be offered. It's the anticipation of being inspired; of feeling alive. A story is a call to dream. Really hearing a story means absorbing it through the pores of your skin. Perhaps, that's why goose bumps appear. The best of stories go right down to the marrow of our bones.

My friend, photographer Pamela Barkentin recalls cozying up with her sister under a quilt in their grandmother’s bed. An award-winning playwright, she left them a legacy of being cherished through her imaginative tales of adventure in the sky and underwater.

It’s not just children who respond wholeheartedly to a good story. Years ago I took my daughter to see the story of the hero’s quest in Star Wars. It was a matinee and the house was full of screaming, wiggling children. The kind of audience I love joining. A single seat remained – the one on my left.

As the lights went down, a tattooed, bearded & pony tailed biker in leathers and massive chains bumped my shoulder as he sat down. At first glance, he wasn’t the kind of man I wanted to meet in the shadows. I said a quick prayer of gratefulness that I was seated between him and Chloe. Little did I know that my thanks would blossom two fold. The music started and George Lucas had me from Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away. As the story progressed, Moto man upped the excitement by slapping my leg every time he experienced a peak moment of satisfaction or insight. Did you see that? Did you hear that, he queried. I asked him to cease and desist. He apologized and promised not to do it again. His good intention was soon lost to wonder and joy. His enthusiasm was so irresistible, I decided to let it go. Coming out of the theater, my leg was a bit tender, but I realized that this stranger had conceptualized the proverbial Zen ‘whack on the side of the head’ the master gives to the apprentice to remind him to pay attention.

One of the strongest story telling cultures is the Aboriginal in Australia, who have no written history and conceive of the world and live their lives as story. In the words of Aborigine story teller, Bill Neidjie This story e can listen careful, an how you want to feel on your feeling. This story e coming through your body, e go right down foot and head, fingernail and blood…through the heart, and e can feel it because e’ll come right through.

Stories that renew feelings of love and hope pop up in unexpected ways and places, renewing the commitment and promises we make to our loved ones. While walking in a mud street of a small village in Bahia, Brazil, I happened upon a story of a mother's love. Visible through the open door to a concrete block house a nut brown woman sat in her rocking chair crocheting. Not a small doily, or blanket the white web that came from those care worn hands. It crossed the floor and crept up the walls, draping around windows and the door frame. Astonished, I complimented her on the intricate pattern that stretched like a lacy snow white canvas with animals, people, hills and valleys. She smiled, and told me her daughter had left a few years ago on the arm of a traveling circus man. She hadn't heard from her since, but she'd been told to start crocheting because eventually one of those threads would bring her daughter home safe and sound.

Stories ground us and invigorate the events of our days if we framing them in story terms and structure. Today, there were dragons where I walked could be a good beginning for a story. Stories make us laugh at our fears. They remind us of the deliciousness of synchronous events that appear miraculously in our lives. As a merchant marine in WWII, my father felt like a sitting duck on a ship in the middle of the Pacific with only a small deck gun for protection. Word came of a Japanese fighter squadron headed their way when out of the blue a massive fog bank magically rolled in.

Stories sometimes arrive with a precious memento, like the ring with a heart Dad fashioned out of steel for my mother during the months he was gone. When I wear that ring I recall my father- whose name became 'love' when I tell the story of how, despite excruciating pain, he continued caring for his wife who had Alzheimer’s. Stories of atonement are particularly powerful. One hears them in small rooms, in homes or in churches where members of Alcoholics Anonymous gather to practice the twelve step program which includes asking for self forgiveness and forgiveness from others. Absorbing the words and tale, then taking it to others becomes a building block to a new life.

The artist and poet, Ed Valfre describes his close friend, Joe Frank. Years before we met, I heard him tell his strange tales on public radio. They were stories you would listen to in the dark or on a long drive through the middle of nowhere. At first they made you feel isolated and alone in some godless universe, but as they went on, the humanity and humor would transport you to a place that seemed uplifting and strangely familiar. They were like no stories I had heard before and opened me up to a beautiful and mysterious world. Today, Joe and I often have lunch together and exchange ideas and stories. I always leave exhilarated, ready to live out more stories that make up my life.

And perhaps, that’s one of the best reasons of all to embrace and share stories - if your heart is open and listening you never know where your story may lead you and what you might be inspired to do.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Have You Expanded Your Mind Out Today?

Who doesn’t know of the beauty and wonder of the ordinary may as well be blind and deaf.
The Tin Man & The Selma & Dallas County Library Book Group

It’s February and one of the coldest winters on record as a group of women in their 30s to 70s gather in a circle. All but one is dressed in black and she’s an art historian who’s come from Montgomery to attend. As the women wait for everyone to gather, they argue amiably, ask after a friend who's ill, and relate tales about the hours and days of their lives. They take orders for the book they’ll read next. Last month it was The Elegance of the Hedgehog; next month the Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Most have deep roots in this town that’s experienced violence and whose name made the front pages during the Civil Rights Era. Now, like so many small towns in the rural Deep South, it’s struggling with extreme poverty. But surfaces can be deceiving.

Today, The Tin Man, Charlie Lucas and the coffee table book about his ilfe and art are front and center. In his own words – he’s a toymaker. He’s also a wonderful storyteller. His narrative emerges in wild shapes, moving parts, canvases and rusty metal strips. A handsome dark skinned man born on a sharecropper’s farm, he’s had his share of hardship, but the mischievous glint in his eyes reveal a man who knows how to mine pain for joy.

Raised with 14 siblings he left school in 4th grade and ran away at 14. Following a serious back injury in 1984, he returned home. It would take a long time to heal. There would be no turning back to the work he’d been doing, cotton picking, unloading freight and construction. With ten dollars in his pocket and no visible answers for the future, Charlie prayed for a vision. I asked God to talk to me like he’d never talked before, to slow me down.

Not only did he receive a look at what the future held for him and his family, he saw his work would take him around the world. Already known as a bit crazy, Charlie had his kids write down what he’d seen. I needed something of substance to prove my vision was real. He had neighbors; family and friends witness it by signing those papers. When he showed them to his father, his father spit in his face.

Descended from several generations of metal men who knew how to fix things, as a boy, Charlie made toys for himself and the other kids who worked in the fields. During his recovery, bits and pieces of trash and scrap from sidewalks and junkyards found their way to his studio. They came because ‘they spoke to me.’ And before too long, the living images in his mind and his dreams spilled out of his house and into the garden. Each animal, each bird, each creature, the elderly aunts, friends, old quilts wrapped around carved table legs - each comes with a story. He hears music in them. They tell him their names. And each is signed The Tin Man, because ten dollars is all he had in his pocket when he started out.
‘Art expands you out.’ Each time Charlie sees something different he’s ‘expanded out.’ Seeing with fresh eyes happens through play. When I’m working I’m playing and when you’re playing the mind is free.

The conversation in the circle takes a turn to ‘what is art’ and ‘who is an artist.’ More than one of these ladies has accompanied Charlie dumpster diving to retrieve bits and pieces they shaped by their own vision. Charlie believes lies beyond the traditional interpretations. Being an artist and creating art has to do with how you live your life. We’re all artists.

You have to pay attention or you lose it! What you see in that fleeting moment, that idea, that image is precious. As artists creating our lives, a change in how you see sometimes means taking the side road or a footpath to take, as Robert Frost wrote ‘the road less traveled.’ Dali once suggested to a friend that to really see differently, she should spend the day walking around with her left shoe on her right foot and vice versa - a simple, and likely torturous path for the feet.

According to Ovid if a hook is always cast, in the pool where you least expect it, there will be a fish. Whether it’s a broken hose, a weathered pine board, the sound of rain on the roof, a colorful snatch of fabric, there’s magic in the ordinary. It seeks to speak to us. We have only to look and listen.
Sometimes it’s found in a book group.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Perfect Date for Valentine's Day

For the last few years, Valentine’s Day has been just another day for me simply because I wasn’t in a deep relationship with a man.

In Plato’s Symposium, the voice of Aristophanes relates that humans were once a combination of male and female, until Zeus split them apart. From that point on, the two halves searched for each other, seeking wholeness.
Looking back at two marriages and another long term relationship without marriage, I realized that the ‘wholeness’ I’d first encountered - the joining of me and my perfect partner - was based on unconscious needs rooted in old patterns and habits I had yet to be free of. Things that were holding me back.

My friend and spiritual counselor Abdi Assadi ( ) believes that loving relationships offer us the greatest opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. What struck me as I read his take on how relationships function that the same holds true for the individual. The way my conscious and my unconscious connect has everything to do with how I love myself, and whether my behavior is authentic; true to my inner Self.

“When we enter into relationship with someone, there is a conscious interaction and an unconscious agreement. The conscious part is what we are aware of—such as a physical attraction or a sense of social compatibility.
The unconscious level, as the name implies, is what is going on underneath. It is here that things become tricky because the unconscious, contrary to what we sometimes like to believe, is not our inner truth-teller. In fact, it is where most of our distortions and addictions first formed.

It is common for us to unconsciously keep in play or repeat certain deeply ingrained patterns that we are attempting to break free from. This is a way of pushing away the underlying anxiety when we are in a new terrain, no matter how healthy.”

About a year and six months ago, I consciously chose to begin the work of letting go. The force behind that first step was surprisingly powerful.

It began on an August morning at about three a.m.
In the darkness, a voice yelled through the window at the head of my bed – Attention. Wake up!
Trembling, I got up to look outside, but before I could circumvent my bedside table to reach the window, the same voice called out from the patio on the other side of the house. Attention! Wake up!
Not only were my neighbors gone for the summer, it was physically impossible for someone to run that distance unless they knew how to fly over fences and hedges and along a paved driveway. Other than the voice, there was no sound of running footsteps, no mangled bushes or vines and no one was visible.
The next day, I called a Shaman friend about what had happened. He laughed. “Don’t think the message could be any clearer!” Okay, I thought, paying attention, being awake is a good idea to apply to one’s daily life, but I couldn’t help thinking that the voice was telling me to be ready for something more.
Two months later, I attended a sweat lodge at Dave’s rural home overlooking the Potomac River. Three of us were there, Dave and a man who was moving away and had requested a ceremony for protection and new beginnings. I had volunteered to be the fire keeper, the person who tends the fire that heats the stones for the lodge and carries them in when called for.
About midway through the Inipi ceremony, sitting on a tree stump perch, I closed my eyes. An owl called from the treetops. Owls have been my spirit guides for many years. Extraordinary hunters with keen night vision, owls and I have had numerous eerie encounters. For me they are symbols of the wisdom that rises up from within. As the owl disappeared, I asked for a sign or a name for this next phase of my life – the crone years. An icon, a symbol of some sort.

Suddenly a voice spoke clearly from over my shoulder. Sarawati…. Sarabata. I hadn’t the vaguest idea what those words meant, much less what language they were. The next morning, I was reading a book I’d grabbed from a store on my way up. Written by Jean Shinoda Bolen, a Jungian analyst I’d heard of but never read, it was called ‘Goddesses in Older Women: Becoming a Juicy Crone.’ In one of the chapters she mentioned the goddess Saraswati, who was also called Sarabata.

According to some stories, Saraswati was first seen by Shiva as the perfect wave – the Becoming. He transformed her into a goddess; the goddess of learning and knowledge. The mother to the vedas, she's recognized in Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism as well. And in the Spring in India pujas are held to ask Saraswti's blessing for the education of children. As a mother, I particularly loved that idea! As a crone, I appreciated the rapt attention of a child with new ideas.

That perfect wave, 'the becoming' was a fitting image for what I'd asked for, and she suited me down to the ground. Multi-armed, Saraswati holds the vedas in one hand, a sitar in another: Wisdom and music. Having been a musician for many years, I was aware of the healing power of music for myself and others. It's a powerful tool for meditation and opening the chakras.

A week later, as I was describing the event on the telephone to a ‘sister’, I was shocked to see a hand reach into a hole in my belly where my intestines were glowing a bright orange yellow. How curious I thought as I watched the hand grab hold of my inner workings and turn clockwise. I was at once, an observer and in the middle of the kind of zone athletes speak of. Distance was irrelevant. I was both here and there.

As I began to speak about my desire to find a way to help children and mothers, a piercing ray of light flashed before my eyes as it entered my heart. At that point, my knees gave way. At that point, I said goodbye and slumped into a chair. For several days after, I felt occasional bouts of queasiness, which I'm told is common to the release of energy in the chakras.

I'm sure there are many who could describe their own experiences of becoming; tales of powerful awakenings. My initiation onto this path of cronehood was dramatic for me, but for the most part, I'm walking, not running through my days! The labyrinth of the mind is twisted! There are moments of illumination, but work with ego and old patterns I believed protected me is never easy. Time and again I find myself responding in old ways. The difference now - I sometimes manage to catch myself in the act, or at least recognize what's going on before things have gone too far. And each time an old pattern comes up I welcome this slight repositioning.

I still wrestle with the same fears. Can I do this? Who am I to think I can write? And of what importance are these stories to others... How can I create a safe place that calls for others to share theirs with me.

Oddly, I seem to be channeling Jean Shinoda Bolen when it comes not only to my initiation but to my underlying purpose. Returning to research what she'd written while preparing this post I came across her book "The Millionth Circle. I highly recommend it. Having defined the third wave of feminism as spiritual, it's synchronous with the growing desire to heal the planet (and ourselves). It's also meshes with the upward surge of women moving into positions of power. An energy shift that's coming up against fundamentalism both in the US and globally.

In The Millionth Circle, Bolen sets out to teach other women how to create circles of spiritual healing. She also refers to two people I've admired for years. Margaret Mead who once wrote Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citzens can change the world - it's the only thing that can. In the safe sanctuary of the circle is where change begins.

The second person Bolen is someone whose work I've also studied. Rupert Sheldrake, the theoretical biologist explains in his Morphic Field Theory - Change in the behavior of a species occurs when a critical mass - the exact number needed - is reached. When that happens, the behavior or habits of the entire species changes.
The crones who dare (and exceptional men who respect and enjoy them) are joining together to reach those critical numbers.

In the meantime, Valentine’s Day is almost here, and I have the perfect date. I’m going to write, meditate; take a walk if it’s sunny. And while I do, I plan to set my ego aside, to ask for Saraswati’s blessings on the pleasures of being the juiciest of crones – the perfect date.

p.s. I'm going to be posting more often and the next few will cover more about the different kinds of love, and about the awakenings that are occurring in the US and around the globe.