Tag Archives: storytelling

The Art of Community

 

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Saturday night I attended a monthly open mic event called The Coffeehouse. It took place in the basement of a local church, which is also where our Tai Chi group meets. People came from far and wide to participate. I was there to tell stories for the first time since I came to Maine.

My partner came with me, and I knew two other people there from Tai Chi. Otherwise, everyone was a stranger. I sat quietly in a corner and watched the place gradually fill up. I could see that many of these folks were old friends. In fact, during the course of the evening I learned that The Coffeehouse has been happening for more than 20 years in that very basement, hosted by the same man since the beginning. I heard stories, both on mic and off, of cancer, divorces, moves, jobs, remarriage and grandchildren.

Cases were opened and out came guitars of every description. Musicians sat together, teaching one another chords and fingering, and playing together. Ragged sheet music, song lyrics and notes lay on every table. In front of the mic, I heard about being a cafe musician, playing music for weddings, and stories from a couple who composes, writes and performs music together, splitting their time between Arizona and Maine.

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One man stood up and read a short story he’d written. Another gave a hilarious rendition of a Shel Silverstein poem I used to read aloud myself as an elementary school librarian. Yet another read one of his own poems in between playing his guitar. A woman performed on her autoharp.

Many of the performers expressed nervousness, but each was volubly supported by the audience. Jokes were cracked, stories exchanged. Everyone was applauded warmly, including me.

When it was my turn, I stood before them, my heart throbbing uncomfortably in my chest, looking out at a roomful of faces I’d never seen before. I introduced myself briefly and told a short peace tale from China, followed by a longer story from Jane Yolen. The audience was generous, attentive. The memory of other, more familiar audiences in my old place was poignant and caught at my throat. As I wove the stories, I looked from face to face, speaking directly to each one as though we were alone. Their expressions softened as they entered into the stories with me, seeing what I was seeing and feeling what I was feeling. I know my own face wore exactly that expression as I listened to their music and songs.

Each performer took his or her fifteen minutes or so to share their art. It was a long night. In fact, it started about the same time I like to be heading for bed. Yet that evening fed something in me that’s been starving for three years. I had a strange sense of coming home, of belonging and kinship.

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My partner and I talk a lot about community, how essential it is, how to create it, how to join it and how to support it. I believe, as humans, we must find some kind of community to meet our connection needs if we want to live well. We’re social animals, and I think we’re beginning to see the high cost of isolation and disconnection play out in suicide rates, violence and addiction.

The Coffeehouse clarified for me an aspect of community I haven’t really discerned before. Right now, the world is chaotic and increasingly complex. We’re faced with serious issues and changes that we’re ill-equipped to deal with. I’ve been thinking about the local food movement, grassroots politics, permaculture, and alternative energy and housing through the lens of community. All of those issues are vitally important, and becoming more so by the day, but I’ve been skipping over the most important thing that community can give us, the aspect that must be present, supported and nurtured before any kind of problem solving or effective organization can happen.

The Coffeehouse is, essentially, an adult playgroup. I heard nothing about diet, gun control,  immigration, politics or climate change. I heard nothing about social justice or gender politics. We all shared the same bathroom, the same coffee and snacks. We all put a voluntary donation in the basket. Instruments were shared. We shared time, microphones, personal stories and creativity. There was no talk of cultural appropriation.

We laughed together.

We played together.

We were kind and generous with each other.

We took turns.

As I sat there watching it unfold, it occurred to me to wonder how we’re ever going to manage to address all the pressing problems in the world today if we can’t come together as human beings and play with one another first. How do we find our way to collaboration and cooperation unless we build trust and respect and are able to just have fun together? The Coffeehouse showed me humans at their best. Heck, I was at my best. In such a warm and supportive atmosphere, my social anxiety was not disabling. People talked to me, welcomed me, expressed appreciation for the stories and received my appreciation for their contribution in return. I recognized that several who performed were more nervous than I was. None of us were hiding behind technological screens. There was no escaping a forgotten lyric, the wrong chord or symptoms of performance anxiety. One of the musicians talked ruefully about a new tremor in his hands that impeded his playing. We could all see it. He played anyway.

In the days since The Coffeehouse, I know I’ve found something I’ve been looking for since I came to Maine. I thought I just wanted a place to share stories again, and I do, but this gathering is about something much bigger than that. This is about mutual authenticity, creativity, contribution and play. It’s about friends. It’s about celebration and connection in the midst of a dark and stormy time.

I can hardly wait for the next one.

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All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

As an oral storyteller, I’m committed to gathering old tales from all over the world and retelling them because they contain blueprints for life. Each story is a teacher, a small piece of code, a seed, a fragment of wisdom, a snippet of DNA. Stories speak to us about who we are, who we have been and who we might yet be. They speak in the voices of place, people, history and culture.

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Story does not exist without storytellers. Literacy is not necessary, as long as people remain connected enough to pass story on orally. A culture which unravels and frays in its ability to form healthy connections and bonds and at the same time stifles the acquisition and sharing of knowledge is in grave danger of losing stories, and when old stories are lost much of the collective wisdom of our ancestors is lost with them. We become crippled and impoverished. We lose our way in the world and we have to spend time and energy reinventing wheels we learned how to make hundreds of years ago.

As a storyteller, then, I come to you this fine spring week when the snow is ebbing in Maine, leaving behind rich, greasy mud, with the old story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Every old story is in fact many stories. A piece of oral tradition is like a many-limbed tree. As it grows and matures it branches out over and over. Every teller who passes on the tale adds or takes away a piece of it, reshaping it according to the teller’s context in history and place. Still, the skeleton of the story remains recognizable, because the bones contain the wisdom, the old truth, the regenerative pieces that are reanimated over and over by those of us who share them.

The essential truth contained in the idiom “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” is evident to any investigator, because it has appeared in so many times and places. According to my research, the first time it appeared was in the Bible, in the Gospel of Matthew, as a warning against false prophets. The sermon goes on to suggest that actions speak louder than words. Thereafter, the phrase was repeated in other Christian religious writing and from there entered into European vernacular. A Latin proverb arose: “Under a sheep’s skin often hides a wolfish mind.”

A 12th century Greek wrote a fable about a wolf who changed his appearance in order to get access to ample food. He put on a sheepskin and mingled with a flock of sheep, fooling the shepherd. The disguised wolf was shut up with the sheep for the night. The shepherd decided he wanted mutton for his supper, so he took his knife and killed the deceitful wolf, mistaking it for a sheep. Here is a branch in the story tree. The Gospel reference warns against deceitful teachers. The Greek fable warns that evil-doing carries a penalty. The bones of the story — the consequences of a wolf disguising itself as a sheep — are the same. The story is now two-dimensional. Such a pretence is dangerous for both wolf and sheep.

Another iteration occurs three centuries later in the writing of a 15th century Italian professor. A wolf dresses himself in a sheepskin and every day kills one of the flock. The shepherd catches on and hangs the wolf, still wearing the sheepskin, from a tree. When the other shepherds ask why he hung a sheep in a tree, the shepherd replies that the skin was of a sheep, but the actions were of a wolf. There it is again: Actions speak louder than words.

Aesop wrote two fables having to do with wolves gaining the trust of a shepherd and killing sheep, but the wolf is undisguised in these cases. Even so, the common theme is clear. A wolf is a wolf, and cannot be trusted with the sheep.

In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Italian, French and English writers adopted versions similar to the early 15th century Italian tale, in which the wolf pretends he is not a threat to the sheep.

Most of us know the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, whose origins can be traced back to 10th century European folk and fairy tales. In the familiar modern version, a wolf disguises itself as Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and the innocent too-sweet maiden is fooled and subsequently eaten.

My favorite story of wolves and, in this case, goats, comes from my own childhood, the tale of the wolf and the seven kids (young goats). The mother goat must leave the house and warns her seven children about the wily wolf who might try to gobble them up. She says they will recognize her by her sweet voice and white feet, and they mustn’t open the door to anyone else. I was mightily amused by the wolf’s machinations in trying to fool the kids: Swallowing honey to make his rough voice sweet, whitening his black feet with flour. Of course, he does fool the kids and they are eaten, but, much like Little Red Riding Hood, the kids are saved from the wolf’s stomach in the end.

As an adult, this tale doesn’t seem nearly so amusing.

Lastly, modern zoology makes use of the term “aggressive mimicry,” which describes a method of deception by an animal so it appears to either predator or prey as something else.

I’m deeply troubled by what I see going on around me in the world. It appears as though many millions of people are no longer able to discern the difference between wolves and sheep, and this is creating dire consequences for all life on Planet Earth.

How did this happen? Why did this happen? When did this happen? How are we producing college graduates who don’t recognize wolves in sheep’s clothing? What kind of a so-called educational system, public or private, produces such myopia? For two thousand years we’ve understood the dangers of failing to clearly see the difference between sheep and wolves. Such a failure of judgement is bad for the wolves as well as the sheep. Tracing this old tale through time (when most of the world’s population was largely illiterate and uneducated), clearly shows us this is a learned skill. Little Red Riding Hood, the seven kids and several confused shepherds, all innocent, naive and inexperienced, had to learn to recognize a wolf when they saw one, or starve or be eaten. Critical thinking is not an innate skill. Parents, teachers and leaders must actively teach it.

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Here is a wolf. It’s an apex predator; intelligent, flexible and canny. The wolf is evolved to survive and pass on its DNA. It’s not confused about what it eats or the meaning of its life. Its job is to do whatever is necessary to survive and successfully reproduce. As a predator, wolves are an essential part of the complex system we call life. A healthy population of wolves benefits both the land and prey animals.

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Here is a sheep. It’s an herbivore, a prey animal. It’s evolved to produce milk, meat and wool, survive and pass on its DNA. It eats grass. It too is an essential part of the web of predator (including humans), prey and plants. Its presence, properly managed, benefits the land and predators.

One can certainly throw a wolfskin over a sheep and say it’s a wolf, but that doesn’t make it so. Now we have a sheep in the throes of a nervous breakdown, but the animal is still a sheep. It still needs to eat grass. We cannot change a sheep into a wolf.

Likewise, a wolf wearing a sheepskin does not begin to crop grass. Wolves eat meat, no matter what kind of a skin they’re wearing. A simple shepherd might be fooled by a single glance in the dusk if the disguised wolf mills among the sheep, but five minutes of observation will quickly reveal the truth. Sheep do not tear out one another’s throats. A wolf cannot be changed into a sheep.

The wolves of the world, those who prey on others, naturally have a large inventory of successful speeches and manipulations. They study their prey and learn quickly how to take advantage of it. They are everywhere, in politics, religious organizations, schools and cults. They’re athletic coaches and businessmen, people of influence and power. They disguise themselves and mingle freely with their prey and pick them off, one by one.

In the natural world, an overpopulation of wolves eventually runs out of prey animals. At that point, the wolf population goes down dramatically while prey animal populations recover. Nature seeks a balance of life, and if we create endless flocks of fat, stupid, blindfolded sheep, the grass will run out, wolves will increase, and slaughter will commence as the sheep begin to starve for want of food.

That’s a lot of destroyed land, dead sheep, fat and happy wolves and then, in the next generation, a lot of young wolves starving to death and, (one hopes) a few smarter and wiser sheep and shepherds.

People say we’re a superior species to wolves and sheep. I don’t see much evidence of that recently. We can’t seem to remember what we once knew well. We teach our children how to press buttons and look at a screen and pass a standardized state test, but they can’t tell a wolf from a sheep, and neither can we. The wolves are not confused, but the sheep are milling around aimlessly like … well, like sheep, ripe and ready for slaughter. We’ve allowed ourselves to be brainwashed into believing our true nature is expressed by appearance, words and socioeconomics. Actions don’t count, and neither does DNA. Off we skip to the slaughterhouse, following honey-tongued wolves dusted with flour, who praise us for our compassion, compliance, inclusivity and political correctness while they drool at the prospect of all that food. Meanwhile, our planet degrades so that no one else is properly fed and natural checks and balances are destroyed. Even the noncompliant, troublemaking sheep who manage to escape slaughter will starve. So will the wolves, eventually, after they’ve devoured everyone else.

Maybe then the complex system of life can begin to heal. I hope so.

In the meantime, I’ll be separating the wolves from the sheep and telling stories.

My daily crime.

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Selchie

Selchie: A mystical creature who takes the form of a seal in the sea and a human on land.

I have a picture book from my childhood called Greyling, by Jane Yolen. It’s one of my favorite stories, by one of my favorite authors, and I’ve told it as an oral storyteller for many years. When I began doing storytelling, I sought out all the selchie stories I could find and incorporated them into my programs.

I rarely tell a selchie story without fighting back tears.

I’ve lately revisited this wonderful material for my second book, and it occurred to me to explore why these stories touch me so painfully and deeply.

Selchie stories appear in the Hebrides, Iceland, Orkney, Scotland, Ireland and the Faroe and Shetland Islands. Like all lasting oral traditions, they contain blueprints for navigating loneliness, exile, love, loss, competition, compassion, trust and power. A good story has many facets.

A common thread in selchie stories is that a seal comes to land, takes off its skin, and becomes human, usually a beautiful young woman. Subsequently, the skin is stolen by a man and the woman entrapped. In many of the tales, she marries  the man who has her skin (always a fisherman) and bears his children. Sometimes her husband promises that after a certain number of years he’ll allow her access to her skin again, but he doesn’t follow through for fear of losing her. Inevitably, the skin is found, often by a child, and returned to the selchie, who must then face a choice between her life with her family and her life in the sea.

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It is this choice that makes me weep. I know the agonized longing for what we are made of but can’t ever quite find.

As I observe the world and people around me, I think many of us feel in some way exiled from who we were born to be, from a place, from a tribal connection, from some integral expression of self. I believe this exile creates such an unbearable hunger we grasp at anything within our reach in order to appease it, becoming addicts, developing eating disorders and body dysmorphism, and struggling with anxiety and depression. We live in a culture of distraction and entertainment. We’re busy, noisy, exhausted, and inundated with information, stimulation, propaganda, manipulation and demands.

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We want what we are made of, but how do we find what that is? Why is it taken away or withheld from us? Why are we so often forced to choose between one thing we’re made of and another? This all lies at the heart of selchie stories, for the selchie is a creature torn between two worlds and two tribes, and we instinctively recognize this conflict.

Choice is so often grief. If a selchie re-dons her skin and goes back to the sea, she cannot return, for she already knows the terrible cost of losing her skin, and though she may love her children and even have grown to love the fisherman she’s with, she cannot trust him. In returning to the sea, she is joyous, but now the grief of leaving her children and the life she made on the land replaces her longing for the sea.

I was with a man who avoided choice. He said he didn’t like to choose one thing in case something better came along. My experience of this was that he didn’t want to commit. It meant we couldn’t plan a date, a weekly ritual or even a walk. If we did, he frequently cancelled at the last minute. It was painful for me, and it frayed our connection considerably as I vacillated between hurt and anger. Eventually, I gave up and made my own plans. I told him that his maybe-I-will and maybe-I-won’t approach didn’t avoid a choice but was a choice. He refused to take responsibility for that, and he was bitter about the choices I made subsequent to his.

I’ve also been with partners who believe we can have it all. One man walked away from any situation in which he couldn’t have his cake and eat it too. It was a point of pride with him. He didn’t see why he shouldn’t have it all, and, as far as he was concerned, the world (and I) owed him that. Looking back, I see this as just another evasion of the heartbreak and consequences of having to make choices.

I think very few of us have the luxury of having it all. We come together and move apart, searching, seeking, fleeing and climbing ladders that we hope end in success. Many of us feel rootless in terms of place and tribe. We don’t really feel we belong anywhere on a map, and we have no rightful place in a human circle. We do the best we can, a choice at a time, and over the years those choices and their consequences teach us who we are and turn us into adults.

What we’re made of is not necessarily what we’re born into. What we’re made of is not necessarily the place we live in, the people surrounding us, the job we have, the clothes we wear, the car we drive or the color we dye our hair. What we’re made of is not always who we want to be, who we insist we are or who we’re expected to be. Discovering what we’re made of is an excavation of our dreams, our souls and our joyous bodies. Many of us spend our whole lives finding one piece of ourselves at a time, stumbling, groping, picking up and discarding, searching blindly in the dark with nothing but our feelings to guide us.

On one particular day of no special consequence, my small toddling self, clothed in a yellow bathing suit with white trim, was lifted into a pool of water as big as the sea. From that day to this I’ve loved the water, and during occasional long, dry spells without access to swimming I dream of water and wake myself weeping with the anguish of my longing.

I’m a creature of water. It’s part of what I’m made of.

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For some years I lived in a city and laid awake at night watching headlights move across the ceiling and walls, straining to hear a precious moment of silence in between the sound of cars and sirens and too many restless people moving through the pale night. I dreamed of high, snow-covered mountains under starry skies and the peace of trees in unbroken darkness. Every day I died a little more, but I knew in my heart one day, one day I would leave the city and live in the shadow of the mountains I dreamed of. A thousand nights later I freed myself from the tentacles of that city, but I also left behind my marriage and the father of my children, my belief in happy-ever-after, the most lucrative job I ever had and the good wife and mother I wanted so much and tried so hard to be.

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At last, I slept in the shadow of snow-covered peaks in a small mountain town without pavement and street lamps and sirens. When I laid awake at night, I heard the cry of the vixen, the rushing wind, the owls calling to one another, the sound of the bear eating apples from the tree outside my window, or the raccoons cavorting in the tops of the pear trees like furry pirates.

I did not have it all. I had another piece of what I’m made of. I chose it, and I paid for it. I’m still paying for it, twenty years and thousands of miles later, and whatever the cost, it’s worth it. I cannot live in the city.

By the time my life is over, will I know everything I’m made of? Will I have lived with enough courage to choose what I’m made of, come what may? Will living true to what I’m made of sustain me? Will I ever find my own sealskin wedged between rocks, or locked away in a chest, or hidden in the thatch?

The selchie lives in a small cottage on the shingle beside the sea. She lives with a fisherman whose face is carved with a lifetime of loneliness that she has relieved. She and her children gather seaweed and driftwood, mend nets and dry fish and watch for the fisherman’s return, lighting a lamp and setting it in the window to welcome him home in the evenings. She lies with her man at night and listens to him sleep, and the waves come in, and the wind sighs through the beach grass, and she thinks of her sea kin and wonders how it is with them and if she’ll ever see them again.

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The selchie takes the folded sealskin from her child and holds it to her breast, weeping, smelling its fading perfume of fish and sea, rubbing its softness against her cheek. She tells her children she loves them, but she must leave, and they clutch at her hands and her skirts, crying, not understanding what is happening. She tells them they will see her again, but in a different form. She cannot stop to explain, lest the fisherman return and her chance for freedom is lost. She stumbles out of the house, casting aside her clothing as she goes, until she stands naked in the surf and steps into the skin. The children follow, stricken and wailing, pleading with her not to leave, but her need for what she is made of is even greater than her love for them, and the surf takes her gladly in its embrace and carries her out. She looks back one more time, her great, dark eyes full of tears, before she dives into the arms of what she is made of and disappears.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted