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Welcome! I  hope you’ll find something here to warm your imagination and spirit, and spark some thoughts. What I  really hope is that you’ll ‘add a log to the fire,’ by way of a comment,observation, or a story!

Please visit my other web-site http://www.storyconnection.com where with my partner Liz Mangual we showcase some of the ways you can engage us with your school, library, or organization.

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Rattlesnake Peace

He’d been struck by lightning three times, had barely survived a bout of hanta virus, and of most immediate interest and concern for myself, been bitten by rattlesnakes three times in this area where we were now walking. I told my local guide that I didn’t know whether to stay as far away from him as possible, or cling close to his side since he must be the luckiest man in the world to have survived all that. Every since I was a kid and had a fleeting encounter with a copperhead in my backyard, I’ve been afraid of snakes. When I confessed this to my old Lakota friend Sid Byrd, he shared what he called an OIT with me- Old Indian Trick. “Bob! It’s very easy. If you see or hear a rattlesnake., jump as fast and high as you can. Now listen carefully, because this is the most important part. Don’t come down.”

These were my thoughts as I read the story of the snake and the wise man this morning. Here’s a quick retelling. (I found a version without mention of original source in an small volume called Stories from and Eastern Coffeehouse, adapted by Elizabeth Retivov.

For many years the people of a certain village lived in terror of vicious snake. Though not poisonous, his bite had sickened many. It so happened that a wise man passed through this village on his yearly pilgrimage, offering blessings to all who asked. The wise one listened as one of them asked if he could free the village of the torments of the snake. He agreed to try and was led to the hole where the fearsome serpent lived. He found the snake, fat and glistening, coiled in the midday sun.

“Snake! Please listen carefully. Your life, like all life is short. Your wickedness may be returned to you in many reincarnations of suffering. Turn from this path and embrace a life of peace and harmony. Please, you must stop biting the villagers. Try this for a year and I will return, and we can discuss your progress.” The wise man’s gently words and demeanor seemed to sooth the snake. The sun grew low in the sky, the air grew cool and the snake returned to it’s lair.

The year passed and the wise man returned to keep his appointment. The snake emerged from his hole. But the wise one was shocked to see the great change that had come over it. It was emaciated and covered with still bloody wounds and bruises.

“ What has befallen you dear snake?”

“ I have kept my promise to you,” the snake replied. But as soon as the villagers saw that I would not bite nor harm them, they began throwing rocks and sticks at me. Still I did not hiss nor bite. And so they were emboldened to approach me, even when I was asleep in the sun, kicking and beating me until I have become as you see me now. You are responsible for this miserable condition in which you find me.”

“I owe you an apology,” said the wise man, “ for it seems that I was not entirely clear in my explanation. I wanted you to stop biting the villagers. But I never meant that you should stop hissing in order to caution them about your powers.”

My father was fond of this quote (paraphrase I think) by Israeli diplomat Abba Eban. “I have no doubt that the meek shall inherit the earth. My only question is, after they do, will they still be meek?”

I wish I could say that this story leaves me with a clear moral and political message and compass. I can’t help thinking about the current frightening standoff as leaders of North Korea and the United States both threaten each other with first strike nuclear destruction. Politicians and their pissing contests. Little fingers on big triggers. The world trembles.

Two other things come to mind.

There’s a saying. “Rattlesnake does not bite man. Rattlesnake bites what man is thinking.” They are incredibly sensitive to even the most minuscule changes in heat. It’s one of the ways they find their prey. If you approach a snake with fear, or especially hostility, your body temperature will rise. Snake knows. We need to find a way to turn the heat down in this world.

What are your thoughts?  Can or how does a person, or a country, defend themselves, or  become a peacemaker without admitting or hinting at one’s capacity to use destructive force?

Finally, I invite you to watch and listen to the marvelous tale of Soft Child- How the Rattlesnake Got it’s Fangs, told by my good friend and master storyteller Joe Hayes. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

 

 

It was over my morning cup of coffee today that it occurred to me that as much as I like to think of myself as a spontaneous and free spirit, there are realms in which I am very much wedded to my habits. The coffee itself is a case in point. If there has been a day in the past decade that I didn’t begin the day with ‘the black water medicine’ I can’t recall it. I can stumble out of bed, dreams still clinging, barely awake, and make my way, eyes closed if I wanted, and find the drawer with the filters, the cabinet with the ground beans, the bottled water dispenser, the electric pot… each in a different place, and complete the morning ritual. At about 6AM everyday, you will always know just where to find me.

And so it was with the philosophy students and the beggar. Each day, a certain beggar would cross the bridge into the university district, and occupy his customary spot, propped up against the wall next to the coffee shop. Tin cup in hand, he would bless those who offered him a coin or two. At precisely 3PM, he would rise, proceed to the corner grocery for the makings of a simple meal, and walk back across the bridge to his humble home.

It happened that that he became an object of curiosity and discussion for the students, who at the time were engrossed in a heated back and forth about the nature of constancy and change. “It is clear the everything changes, and yet, it appears that for some, nothing changes at all. Take the beggar for example. Day after day, year after year, no matter the weather, there he is, at the same place at the same time.”

They wondered if it might be possible to disrupt the constancy of the beggar by drastically changing his circumstances. To this end, they found a way to put the proposition to a test. Each of the students contributed a gold coin, and this small treasure was deposited in a brightly colored small chest. Just before the beggar passed by the next day, one of their party, placed the open chest with gleaming gold on the bridge where the beggar could not possibly miss it.

Remarkably though, the beggar did not pause, nor slow, nor show the slightest interest in this treasure that would have substituted for a years gleaning from his battered cup. He continued on his way, then took his place by the coffee shop just as he did every other day.

A fierce debate now ensued about the beggars state of mind, his convictions, intentions,the vagaries of existence, the persistence of habit, and other associated matters of more or less great depth. But by the end of a long evening, they could agree on very little, other than that it might be best to ask the beggar himself about his experience earlier that day.

The following day they gathered outside the coffee house to question him. “ We often walk the same path across the bridge, and were wondering if you noticed anything unusual yesterday morning?”

“It’s so interesting that you would ask,” the beggar replied. “No, I did not see anything different or unusual at all. But then I actually didn’t see anything usual or unusual. This morning, just before I crossed the bridge, a curious thought came to me. What a creature of habit I am! Everyday it’s the same thing. Day after day after day! So yesterday, I wondered, just for a change, just for fun what life would be like if I was blind. So I walked across the bridge with my eyes closed. Blessings to you, young men. May your studies serve you well!”

(I’ve adapted this tale from a wonderful collection called Walking into the Sun, Stories My Grandfather Told, Collected by Jon Schreiber, California Health Publications, 1991)

I took my coffee out to the back porch. It’s the time of year now that the hummingbirds predictably return southward from their earlier spring migration. I closed my eyes, Suddenly the close buzz and whoosh of tiny wings woke me once again to the moment.

The Touch of Time- Stories Told by the Man of True Grace

My friend and colleague Jackson Gillman sent me birthday wishes a few days ago, and as always with Jackson, there was both levity and depth, and an annual assortment of quotes… this year about time and aging.  I spent my birthday, soaking in hot springs with a vantage that allowed me to watch the Rio Grande River flow by.  Sunset found me 100 miles or so upstream, at a wildlife refuge, and witness to the fly in of thousands of Sandhill cranes… a migration that scientists believe have been uninterrupted for tens of thousands of years.  So Jackson’s missive, along with the inevitable reflection of an amateur elder with another year over the dam, found me particularly tuned in to meditations about time.img_0359

wbbv4fyvm5zjkk718uxw2oipxdqqopfpygrqbkjcwjb8ozm5snib0agdu_aorztm9d3o3qs130The first time I heard Jackson tell, he told, mimed, and completely astonished me with a portion of an intricately nested Hasidic tale; Rabbi Nachman’s story of the Seven Beggars.  Stories, within stories, within stories!

That was 25+ years ago and I am still trying to learn this story not so much as to be able to tell it, but much more importantly to understand it more fully.

Here, in my own words,  is a piece of what he told that night, and what I have returned to so many times over the years.  Each of the Beggars appears to have an infirmity which as the story unfolds is revealed as a gift, and shared with two orphans who are about to be married.  Here, the Third Beggar speaks, the Beggar who had earlier appeared to be a stutterer.

“In truth, I am the greatest speaker and singer that there is.  Every living thing in the world will stop to hear my words.  The Man of True Grace, will tell you that I speak the truth.

At the top of a high mountain there is a waterfall.
At the top of another mountain way across the earth is the heart of the word. Yes… the world has a heart!

The heart of the world and the fountain love each other and want to be together forever.

The heart thinks… If I cannot see or be with the fountain forever-  I will die.

And God forbid that the heart of the world should die… because if it did… everything would die.

And this is why the heart is afraid. The heart is afraid that there will be no tomorrow.  Because, every day is the last day of the world.  Every day is the last!  Unless!  Unless a new day can be created and this is the part I play…
Because of me, each new day is created.

At the end of each day, I go about the world, gathering all the acts of kindness- large and small from that have been performed that day.  From these acts of kindness I use my great power of speech and compose a story or a song. maya heart 1

Then, I tell this story to The Man of True Grace, and from this story,  The Man of True Grace creates a new day.  Then he takes this new day and presents it to the Heart of the World.  The Heart of the World presents it to the Waterfall… which is in fact the Water of Life.  And so their love continues, and so time itself continues.”

Today, I am here to share how many of the days of our lives have been created.  I went to Jackson’s web-site after I received his message, and read a recent story that he shared there.  Here is the link, and if you read it, you will understand why the Man of True Grace has made many a day from Jackson’s acts of kindness.

http://www.jacksongillman.com/astory.html

The short story here is that he has been going into children’s hospitals and tuning in deeply to the children he visits there… children who are struggling to live, often isolated in their rooms.

Here is a quote from a mother of one of these children.

“Once a stranger and now a fellow traveler on this ride with our Special One.  He gave Aidan his first smile of the day as he sang silly songs and used Aidan’s body as an instrument. Tapping on his fingers, playing his ribcage, knocking on his knees.  He used Aidan’s hands to tell a story using each finger as a member of a family who ended up living in Aidan’s heart.”

bronx2Now let me tell you about another touch.  If you are old enough you will remember the Vietnam era photo of a terrorized 9 year old child, on the road, fleeing naked, her skin seared and melted in places from napalm dropped from the sky by American planes.  We want to turn away from these images, and let time heal the wounds of war.  But time is not always that generous.  And certainly “humanity,” this flawed sum that we are, is not that kind because 45 years later children are still burning in their homes and on the refugee roads.   Perhaps it would be better some think if the next day for our species should cease to come.trangbang

But the Man of True Grace undoubtedly will hear the story I just read in today’s newspaper and give us another day.  Phan Thi Kim Phuc who has been living with the pain and scars all these years heard about a new laser therapy being pioneered by Dr. Jill Waibel at a clinic in Miami.  Dr. Waibel offered Phan Thi free treatments there. They are almost complete.
Read  now the words of Phan Thi and rejoice for at least a day…

images-11“Before, somethings would touch me and I wouldn’t know what it was.  Now I can feel my little grandson’s hand on my arm.”

Thank you Jackson Gillman, thank you Phan Thi and thank you Dr. Waibel.  If there are more like you and I know that there are, among them those reading this, the world may go around and continue for another 365 years, and god willing, spirit willing, inshallah, I may soak in the springs and watch the cranes arrive from the venerable vantage point of 70!

tumblr_neyavfON8m1s0sc01o1_500

Recent events which seem to me to be heightening a national zeitgeist of fear of the “other” have prodded me to republish this post from 2014.  I was back in Alaska earlier this month and ran into an elder from Kake Alaska- the scene of both the personal and folkloric tales that follow.  I’ll write about that encounter in another post, but for now please consider ways in which we can break bread together and build bridges instead of walls.

As we enter this particular Thanksgiving day, with the unfortunate pall of not just smoke but, mistrust, fear, anger and racial tension sparked by the events in Ferguson Missouri, I remember the time that I first experienced myself as a stranger in a strange land, a very obvious young, unexperienced, 20 year old white kid in the Tlingit Native community of Kake Alaska.(1970)

I want to share two stories from that time.  One, my own, which is how I cam to be there, and how I was treated.  And the other, a Tlingit folktale that I heard told many years after I’d left, and then found even many years latter in written form. This story has guided since it ‘found me’  but I have resisted telling it in deference to sensitivities about cultural appropriation.  But my personal connection to this story feels so strong, and now that I have seen numerous retellings in print and on the internet, my feeling is that this story is screaming to be told at a time like this, a time when we simply cannot remain as strangers to each other.
Off on an adventure, I’d landed in Petersburg Alaska in the early spring, totally broke and desperate for a job, any job.  In a small cafe, a Vista volunteer working in Kake, suggested that I take a boat to this island community and try a get a job as a deck hand on a fishing boat since the Halibut season was not far off.  The conversation was overheard by some of the locals who exhorted me mostly as follows…”Don’t do it kid.  Those natives will throw you overboard and you’ll be food for the sand fleas.”  They truly were trying to dissuade me.  I don’t know if it was providence, stubbornness, curiosity, or simply my desperate financial straights, but an hour later I was on my way to Kake.

Here’s how I was greeted.  After being introduced by that Vista volunteer to one of the prominent families in the village, I was offered a place to sleep on one of the village fishing boats and a place at the table to eat with the family every day for several weeks until the fishing season started.  Some inquiries were made and when fishing commenced, I had a job. I was the greenhorn and I mean true greenhorn on a halibut boat where the next youngest member of the crew was 80 years old. No doubt I was somewhat of a curiosity , but the point is that as an outsider, I was welcomed and embraced, and this proved to be just the first of many years of my experience of native hospitality.  Had I listened to the bigots, and yes, that’s what they were,  and not ventured to the village, my life might have proven to have been very different.
Now the folktale.  It’s important to remember that I did not encounter this tale, from this village until years after I left.

The Man Who Entertained the Bears

A man of the Raven clan living had grown very old.  His friends were gone, passed away and he felt sad to think that he was left alone. He began to think about how he might leave that lonely place or even end his own life.  He thought that he might paddle away to another village, but then said to himself, ” I will be a stranger there and if  the people there see that I am alone, they may think that I have run away from my own village,  or been banished for some disgraceful thing.

It then occurred to him to go to the bears and let the bears kill him. The village was at the mouth of a large salmon creek and there found a bear trail and lay down right in the middle of it.

“ Let the bears find me here at eat me,” he decided.

Soon after, as he lay there, he heard the sounds of twigs and bushes breaking and saw a large number of grizzly bears coming toward him.  The largest bear was in the lead,  a huge old Silvertip- the tips of his hairs were white as that old mans hair.  Suddenly the man imagined the sound of his own bones breaking and thought that perhaps being eaten by the bears was not such a good idea.

Very quickly now the bears were close upon him. He jumped up. The  Silvertip stoop so that they were facing each other.  The hair on the man’s next stood up.  The fur on Silvertip’s neck stood up.

“I  am here,” said the man,  summoning his courage,  “to invite you to a feast.” I have come to invite you to a feast tomorrow, but, if you are going to kill me,  I am willing to die. I am alone. I have lost all of friends,  my children, and my wife.”

At this, Silvertip grunted, turned about and led the other bills back up the trail.

“I think they have accepted my invitation,” the man thought.

When he got home he began to prepare for the feast. He cleaned and made his house a welcoming place,  then he told the  other people in the village about his encounter with the bears and invited them all to the feast.

“You have done a very foolish and dangerous thing,” they replied.  The bears are our enemies. We will not come!”

For the feast, the man prepared dishes that the bears would enjoy, salmon,  berries, and more.  The next morning he saw the bears coming from the mouth of the creek. The other villagers saw them too, peeking from their doors but afraid to come out. But he stood still to receive them. brought them into the house and gave them seats, placing Silvertip in the middle of the house and the rest around him.

The feast began with large trays of cranberries preserved in grease.  Then tray after tray of salmon and other foods were passed from bear to bear.  When they they were finished, Silvertip rose on his hind legs and began to address the man  for quite some time. Then he turned and led the other bears out towards the forest.  As each bear left, it licked the paint with which that the man had adorned his arms and chest with.

The next day, the smallest of the  bear came back, but it seemed to the man to be in almost human form and spoke to him in  his own Tlingit language.

“I was once a human being. I was a young baby, lost in the forest.  The bears adopted me, protected me, and taught me their ways. Now I am mostly a bear, but I still remember my childhood language.  Silvertip asked me if you understood what he said to you at the feast yesterday?”

The man replied, “I felt that he was thanking me, but no, I did not understand everything.”

“He was telling you,” the bear man said, “that he is in the same condition as you. He too has lived long and has lost all of his friends. Many are the ways in which we are the same.  He had heard of you before he saw you. He told you to think of him when you are mourning for your lost ones. or when you are lonely.”  And with that the bear man returned to the forest and his companions.

(Here’s a link to the original English version of the story.

http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/nw/tmt/tmt088.htmI’ve shortened and adapted it slightly but trust that the intent and spirit of the story has been conveyed.  Again, this is offered humbly and with thanks to those who have told and may continue to tell the story in and around Kake.  Please know that my time there was a turning point in my life, a time when I began to see and understand my place in the world in a much broader way,  way that opened up a whole new way of seeing, thinking and relating)

This story was narrated to Swanton by a man named Kasank, who added this commentary to the tale.

“From this we learn,” said Kasank, that when when we give a feast, no matter if a person may be an enemy, it is good to invite him to the meal and become friends just as this man did with the bears.”
This story began working on me as soon as I heard it.  I was early into my storytelling career and discovering that for me, storytelling was not so much about performance as it was about encounter and being together with people in an authentic and convivial way.  It lead me to work with my wife and storytelling partner Liz and a great group of friends to create community events we have come to call F.E.A.S.T!  Families Eating and Storytelling Together.  The intent has always been to bring people together – people of different ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds for a shared meal, and shared stories.

Food and stories are what I’d call the universal solvent of  differences and mistrust.  Break bread with each other, share stories- true stories, stretched stories, hard stories, folktales, jokes, jests, stories of fools stories of wise ones, love stories, reconciliation stories… and we find out, like the man and Silvertip, how beyond the knotty differences, just how much we have in common.

Finally for now, I’d just like to add, that it’s not just about sitting down with an adversary or an enemy.  Families have their daily, and sometimes drawn out stresses, arguments, and grudges.  We can start on Thanksgiving day of course, but any day, any meal can be a time to be together, eat together, and make peace with ourselves and each other.  And that would truly be a grace and a blessing.

imgres-1Tomorrow, as an American President visits Hiroshima for the first time since the atomic bomb was dropped, two stories bubble up for me.

Many years ago, I spent the month of October  picking apples in the Okanagon Valley in Washington State.  I’d spent the summer working as a seasonal employee of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, supervising a Youth Conservation Corp Crew, monitoring wildlife on a refuge near the Columbia River and I wanted to add a little to my winter grubstake.  I also had enjoyed the camaraderie of the orchards during two previous harvests- crisp early mornings around a small campfire to warm our hands for the work ahead, the Mexican migrants singing from the treetops as they picked, the assortment of hippy types sharing meals and swapping tunes in our small trailers at night.

A rare day off found me driving my old beater of a Rambler south down highway 97 from Tonsaket , a town by the Canadian Border.  Suddenly by the side of the road I saw a small wisp of a man, don’t think he would have hit the 100 pound mark, running in place with his thumb jerking repeatedly in the hitchhikers salute, certainly the strangest hitchhiking posture I’d ever seen.  Since I’d hitched thousands of miles over the previous years, I was prone to pick up just about any brother of the road who  didn’t look like he posed an imminent threat, so I pulled over and opened the door.  Before he gingerly hopped in,  my guest put his palms together and bowed deeply to me, and I could see that he was a Japanese fellow probably about in his mid- sixties.  I noticed right away that he was holding a large ziplock bag with an eagle feather, whose quill was beautifully beaded in a traditional peyote stitch.  He noticed  me looking at the bag and said,

“Ah…. Eagle Feather.  Must Not Have Eagle Feather!  Today, I am coming from court.  I am arrested for Eagle Feather.  ( At that point, it was not lost on me that it was my previous employer, The Fish and Wildlife Service that enforced the ban on possession of eagle feathers by non natives)  But I tell judge, that Eagle Feather given to me by chief  ___ when I walk from Alcatraz to Washington D.C. for peace and justice.   Judge let me go and keep eagle feather!”

“You walked 3000 miles across the country?!”

“Yes!  Walk across country for peace 3 times.  Now I walk again for peace again from Los Angeles to New York. But pick apples first for little money.  Picking apples very hard, but good… empty mind.  Walk across country easy!”

I had lots of questions of course.  What did he eat along the way?  “ Ah… Dumpsters and Dunkin Donuts!”   It turned out that this man, belonged to an order of Japanese monks whose lives were  dedicated to walking for peace.  “ I am survivor of Hiroshima.  Must never happen again. Never! ”  I have always remembered this day as an encounter with someone who walked his talk like no other  person I have ever met.

My friend J.K was among the first to arrive in Taos NM during what has been called ‘the Hippie Invasion.  Perhaps the most notorious of the communes that popped up like mushrooms at that time was the Hog Farm of  Merry Prankster fame.  This next is a story that John related to me about a fellow named Little Joe Gomez- an elder of the Taos Pueblo who took in on himself to help some of the new comers learn how to live and get by in their new surroundings.

Up in the Jemez Mountains in the 1940s Los Alamos NM was the secret cradle of the Atomic imgresBomb.  After the war, I’m not sure how much later, the town’s existence was revealed and the first tours were offered.  Little Joe was there for on of those tours.  When it concluded, the guide asked if there were  questions.

“Who is responsible for this?” asked Little Joe.  “ I want to talk to them.”
The guide seemed puzzled.
“What do you mean by responsible sir?”
”Responsible… I want to talk to the people who are responsible for this.  Now!”
The guide then suggested that Little Joe talk to his supervisor who was duly summoned.  Little Joe repeated the question and again was greeted with a baffled expression. “What do you mean by who is responsible for this?”

Joe was frustrated but kept his composure.  He explained.

campfire1In Taos… we have a tradition.  At a certain age, when the elders determine that a young man is old enough to be responsible for fire, we take him up into the mountains, we show him the different kinds of wood… we teach him which is best for kindling, which woods send sparks, which give the most heat. We tell him how to tend it, to keep it to an appropriate size… to be aware of the wind… We remind him of it’s power to give life , but also to destroy.  We come back to the village, and the boy lights his first fire.  We teach him to be responsible for it and then we celebrate with him..
Here at this place I have just seen… you created the greatest fire in the world.  One that can destroy worlds.  I have been asking and asking and yet I can find no one who will tell me that he is responsible for this fire.”

I thought I might simply wrap up the post here and let those stories speak for themselves.   But I experienced the a fire earlier today while trying to relax in the sauna at my gym.  I’m not referring to the electric heater and hot rocks.  As I sat on the bench I listened to a man and woman ranting  and raving to each other about “Mexican criminals” invading our borders.   It was quite clear to me that they were profiling their remarks,  well aware of the others in the room with them, including someone who was quite likely an Hispanic immigrant.   “ I know what I’d do, said the woman.  I’d line each and every one of them up against a wall, take a machine gun and kill them.  Kill them all and dump their bodies on the border wall were going to build.”   The fire of intolerance.  The fire of  anger and hatred. Reluctantly,  I have to admit that at that moment I felt the fire of my own anger towards them flare up and I wanted to lash out.  Yes, I did say something.  No I didn’t let it pass. But did I come from a place of equanimity?  Probably not.  Did I dampen the flames, their or mine?  Probably not.

Where does disarmament begin?  Who is responsible?  Can I even take one step let alone walk this way for a lifetime?  Who is responsible?  Who is responsible?  Let Peace Prevail on Earth.

Once again I was approaching the Canadian Customs and Immigration station on the Klondike Highway. Looking ahead I could see that the wait would be at least 15 minutes if not longer.  We  had just crossed the summit of the White Pass, and images-8I’d been telling the guests on my tour bus about the “one ton rule.”  During the 1898 Gold Rush, the Mounties required the Argonauts as the gold seekers were called, to carry an estimated one year supply of food with them as a condition for entering the country.  Now as we waited at the border I considered what story I might tell to pass the time as we sat there waiting to show our passports before proceeding into British Columbia and then into the Yukon Territory.

Then it occurred to me.  The border!  Why not give the Gold Rush a rest and tell a smuggling story!  “Folks,” I confided in a mock conspiratorial tone, “let me tell you…”

I introduced them to  Mullah Nasruddin, or the Hodja as he is also known, the often foolish but somehow wise hero of hundreds of tales told in coffee houses across the middle east and beyond.

Once a week Nasruddin crossed the border pushing a wheelbarrow heavily laden with merchandise.  One week the wheelbarrow was full of melons, the next week it might have been dates, or bottles of rosewater.  Come each Tuesday morning, Nasruddin would faithfully arrive at the crossing, produce the necessary  paperwork, the border agent would examine his cargo  then wave the Mullah through.  But the agent always suspected that Nasruddin was pulling the wool over his eyes and engaged in some kind of smuggling racket.  Try as hard as he could though to catch him in the act, the agent couldn’t catch him in the act.  Week after week, month after month, and then year after year, a wheelbarrow full of this, that or the other thing  and  the agent growing increasingly frustrated, sure that Nasruddin was having a great laugh at his expense.

Now it was many years later.  Both men had retired and one day they encountered each other sitting at adjacent tables at a coffee house.images-12

“Nasruddin,” you old rascal.  “You can tell me now.  I have no authority, You’re beyond the reach of the law.  All those many years when I would see question you each week, I suspected that you’d been smuggling something .  Admit it! Admit it now and ease my mind.

“Oh yes, indeed my friend.  It is true. Your suspicions were well founded and I profited greatly each week with my clandestine cargo.”

“Tell me, tell me,!  must know or it will drive me crazy!  Just what was it that you were smuggling?” the agent fairly begged.

With a great sly grin, Nasruddin replied, “ Wasn’t it obvious?  I was smuggling… wheelbarrows!”images-9

I would have occasion to tell it dozen’s of times over the course of the summer while waiting either to cross into Canada or back into Alaska. Once, I even told it to one of the U.S customs officials as we sat at a cafe at adjacent tables in Skagway.

“ That story is truer than you even think,” he told me, and then related that when he was working at the U.S and Mexican border, there was a guy who came across often with a bicycle heavily laden with merchandise.  Eventually the agent figured out that he was crossing into the U.S. with a new bike and returning with a beaten up one, and that he was smuggling… bicycles!

Sometimes it takes a long time to catch on to something ‘hiding in plain sight.’

In one venue or another, I’ve been telling the Nasruddin wheelbarrow story for years, but it was just the other day on the way to the Taos storytelling festival when I saw this story in a way that I’d never thought about it before.  This is not uncommon for storytellers.  .  Another layer of the onion peels off to reveal  a previously unrecognized  dimension of a tale. Here I am thinking that I’m bringing people to a wading pool, and unknown to me someone in the audience is off in the deep end of meanings and associations.

Storyteller as “Smuggler!”   Wittingly or unwittingly, we carry messages across borders and boundaries, stealthily slipping in meaning that is reveals later when the time or conditions are right.   I thought I was telling a story about smuggling wheelbarrows and lo and behold, I finally figure out that it can be construed as story about smuggling stories!

When they could afford it, the Klondike gold seekers would hire Tlingit packers to haul their good up the passes.  Their strength and endurance was legendary.
Still, all who watched one day were astonished when one Tlingit man strapped a cast iron stove on his back and without faltering proceeded to make the long ascent the summit.  As a crowd at the top looked on in astonishment, he put the stove down, then opened it’s door, and took out a 50 pound sack of flour!

Storyteller!  You approach your listeners with a story. You’re at a border. ( of the storyteller/story/listener)  Here’s the agent waiting for you with a question.  Just what are you packing in that story bag?

images-11(Fellow storytellers… what story have you discovered hiding in your stories?)

This morning here in Corrales, New Mexico,  a small flock of lesser goldfinches feed on the Maximillian Sunflower seed heads  growing on their giant stalks in my front yard.  And so blows a blogseed northward to another one of my talismanic moments on the Klondike guiding trail.

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Tutshi Lake Reflections

May 20th 2015, I pulled over at Tutshi High… a place to get a spectacular view of the 20+ mile long glacially carved Tutshi Lake.  My guests that day were all physicians from Thailand.  As always the far scenery evoked appreciative utterances, cameras clicked and I took lots of group pictures.  Then a woman noticed something closer to her feet.  “What  flower is that?  It’s beautiful!”  She was looking at a dandelion.  Apparently dandelions don’t grow in Thailand, because none of the other 20 or so folks had ever seen one either.  Good thing I didn’t say, “just a dandelion,” because what is so common to me was a source of wonder to all.  It occurred to me then that lacking familiarity with the flower, it was likely that no one there knew about making wishes on the seeds.  So I demonstrated.  I’ll just say this.  I had to skip the next stop because these doctors became kids again right before my eyes, and it took considerable time to pry them away from their delight.  Wishes flew on the wind!2015-05-20 12.35.19

Just a dandelion, just a crow, just a seagull?

Now, no one ever says just a bear.  Every time we’d encounter a bear, the bus became electrified.  I’ll write about bear encounters in another post, but at this point it bears mentioning that dandelions are a favorite food of ursus major and ursus  in the early spring, and grew in profusion by the side of the road.  If you consult the herbal books you’ll read that dandelions are a strong diuretic.  There’s speculation that a dandelion diet helps jumpstart the bears urinary system after their long winters sleep.  (No more dandelion wine for me before bed).

IMG_0565So here we were, still in May, the snow not that long gone, and already making wishes on the spent dandelion flowers.  How quickly from blossom to seed I thought.  And that’s when I first thought of holding my sex education seminar as part of my Klondike tour.  And what better group to initiate it with then a group of the doctors!

Before I even began, I swore the group to secrecy.  Don’t let my boss know that I’m teaching sex-ed here on tour.  (Okay boss… now you know.)

I began in the spirit of the Socratic method… asking questions.

“Do northern species or more southerly species of birds  have longer incubation periods?

“ What do you think?  Do birds up north or birds down south, once hatched take more time to fledge (grow their feathers)?

Arctic Tern Fledgling

Arctic Tern Fledgling

“What about time from germination to flowering and seed producing with plants?  Do you think that northern or southern species go from sprout, to flower to seed more quickly?”

Fairly quickly, the consensus came around to the conclusion that life cycles in the north were probably accelerated because of the short summer season. ( Two seasons in Alaska as the joke goes….winter and the 4th of July.)

That’s when I pointed out that all these questions were fundamentally about sex.  The need to reproduce and ensure the continuity of future generations.

“ What about humans then?” joked one of the quicker wits.  “ Do kids in Skagway grow up faster?”

What I was really getting at though (shtick aside) was the palpable feeling of the great urgency of life that one feels in the north.  To me it has always seemed that life fairly buzzes at a higher frequency.  The long daylight hours undoubtedly add to the effect.

fireweedHere’s Jack London, who of course was familiar with the route we were on,  taking the fierce urgency of life to another level…

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Fireweed gone to seed

“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.”

So now, reflecting on Dandelion Day as I have come to call it, I conclude that

I would rather be ‘just a dandelion’ rather than an exotic orchid, so that flying on the wind and on the breath of children and grownups , I could be a hundred wishes, planting myself in the soil of wonder and love for our common earth, North, South, East and West.

coda:  A few hours after I posted this, my great friend Mike Seliger replied with a poem he wrote this spring.  Here it is…

Dandelions

I open the Book of Wildflowers,   randomly,
And there on page one hundred three,
My much maligned friend,
The ubiquitous Dandelion,
Scourge  of  lawn perfectionists,
But Friend of  Lovers  of Yellow Intruders
In the middle of shades of green…

“I am everywhere,”  she  says.
“Attend to me, and I can be
A Helpful Friend and Ally…”

The book calls her Common,.
But acknowledges her Power
As a wild universal Healer.
Every part of the plant Useful—
Root Potions for Healing the Liver,
Vitamin-rich Leaves for Salads,
Yellow Flowers good for Dreaming
And also for making Wine…
Seeds that feed the birds
While the  Seed Puffs  soar  skyward
Dancing on  Winds and Waving
To small children, calling
“Chase me, Follow me, catch me!
–and when you finally learn
How to Hold your Hands in Stillness
So I can be caught and held,
Your Breath, like the Wind,
Can send me skyward again…”

The Book shows, in yellow,
The parts of these United States
Where this “Common Weed” is found.
Yellow  fills the  entire Map…
—Mike Seliger, 4/23 15

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