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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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While waiting in the cattle call line to board a Southwest  flight from Oakland CA to Albuquerque, I struck up a conversation with the stranger standing next to me. I learned that he was a physicist working at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories and now on his way to Los Alamos Labs… the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

At that moment I remembered Albert Einstein who said,

The most important question you can ever ask is if the world is a friendly place?”

This fellow seems friendly enough, I thought.  Here’s a chance to ask him about his big question…Referencing Einstein, I asked if he had one big question, or if there was something developing in physics that he was most excited to be learning about.

Just then the line  began to quickly move towards the boarding jetway.  Time was running out.

With what seemed almost like a conspiratorial whisper and a wink and backward look, he answered,

Time Travel!  It’s real.  It ‘s possible.”   And then…. he was gone.

Time Travel!  I first started thinking about In the early 60‘s watching the Rocky and Bullwinkle  cartoon episodes that featured Mr. Peabody, Sherman and the Waybac Machine.  imgres

From time to time since, I’ve speculated about where I would set the dial on a Waybac machine should I be so fortunate to have the opportunity to take a spin.   What period if history would I most want to witness or participate in?. 

Last week, I found myself having multiple ‘flashbacks’ while visiting a marvelous exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum, called Voices of the Counter Culture in the Southwest.”

Among the assembled treasures, were blotter acid pages, a tipi, geodesic dome, a classic perfectly restored  VW van, and the original manuscript for Ram Dass’ classic book of the era, Be Here Now.

BE       HERE     NOW.

29254At that moment, I had an epiphany to pair with the flashback.

If time travel IS possible, the most difficult period of time to travel to… the most exotic and unfamiliar time and place, is the present.  And of course, on the improbable chance that you ever make it there, the signs are posted… no loitering and no lingering. 

But linger and loiter in the past we can and do. Here is a ridiculously trivial example to make a larger point.

I’’ll be going to a neighborhood mayoral candidate forum later this afternoon.  Last night while sipping on a glass of wine I remembered an incident many years back with one of my neighbors.  He has a fairly good size back yard vineyard and a number of years ago put out a request at harvest time… there was a thin window to pick the grapes at their best. Neighbors were invited to help out, with the promise of a bottle of wine at the end of the day.  It was a wonderful day of hard work and good company, with the backdrop  the Sandia Mountains rising to 12,000 feet,  through crystal clear blue skies, made all the better by the anticipation of bringing home a bottle of a previous year’s vintage… I’d enjoy that wine and have the added satisfaction of knowing that I couldn’t possible me more of a  wine locavore than that!  The work done, I presented myself for my reward.  And received it… a bottle of Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck!   Have I let go of that deception, that betrayal, that bait and switch all those years ago?  Apparently not!  Last night, lost for a moment in memory, I drank sour grapes and missed the opportunity to enjoy the far better wine I was drinking in the moment.imgres-2

Here is a story that gets to the  bone and marrow of the matter.  I’ve excerpted it from Mo Yan’s acceptence speech in 2012 for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

“My most painful memory involved going out in the collective’s field with Mother to glean ears of wheat. The gleaners scattered when they spotted the watchman. But Mother, who had bound feet, could not run; she was caught and slapped so hard by the watchman, a hulk of a man, that she fell to the ground. The watchman confiscated the wheat we’d gleaned and walked off whistling. As she sat on the ground, her lip bleeding, Mother wore a look of hopelessness I’ll never forget. Years later, when I encountered the watchman, now a gray-haired old man, in the marketplace, Mother had to stop me from going up to avenge her.images.jpg/

“Son,” she said evenly, “the man who hit me and this man are not the same person.”

Consider this parable from Paul Reps classic collection, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

The Muddy Road

“Tanzan and Eido were once traveling together down a muddy road.  A heavy rain was still falling.

Coming around a ben, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once.  Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple.  Then he could no longer restrain himself.  “ We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely one.  it is dangerous.  Why did you do that?”

“ I left the girl there,” said Tanzan.  “ Are you still carrying her?”imgres-1

I have to be honest with myself and admit that barely a day goes by when I

don’t find some some traces of old muddy roads on my time traveling boots.

From small grudges, to estranged friends and relatives, on to seething century old  animosities between people and nations; the road towards healing, towards peace, towards our better natures and possibilities is littered by the seldom discarded anchors of the past.  Burdened and blinded by these obstacles which include by the way, our  often worn thin ideas, it becomes impossible to really take stock of the moment, and respond in a way that makes it more rather than less likely that we’ll achieve what really matters most to us.  To love and be loved in return.  To know that all our children, and they are all our children will be safe and healthy and provided for on a healthy planet.

We are like that monkey, hand stuck, clutching a banana in the bottle with a narrow neck.  Trapped by what we won’t let go of,  even to save our individual and collective skins. images-3

Here’s a thought experiment.  Suppose that banana that our monkey minds are clutching is an idea, and suppose that idea, is that the world is a dangerous and unfriendly place and always will be as evidenced by our personal and collective ‘historical record’ Let’s return to the rest of the Einstein quote now.

“For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.

 If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.

 But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives.”

As part of understanding that universe, we need to understand our minds and hearts work.  We need to understand how we thwart ourselves by holding on to the past when it no longer serves. 

I’ll close with one more passage, this from Joan Halifax in her remarkable book Being with Dying.

“Some years ago, walking across the Himalayas, I realized I would never make it over those mountains unless I let go of everything extra.  That meant I had to lighten up m mind as well as my overloaded day pack.  It all came down to one simple sentence:   Nothing extra!   Just as these two legs carried me across mountains those same words carry me through complicated days.  They always remind me to let go.  The also remind me of the weightlessness and ease of a whole and dedicated heart.”

I see it’s about time to head to that neighborhood meeting.  Now, all I have to do is remember…  Nothing extra… and….

“The man who hit me and this man are not the same person.”

“ Mr. Peabody, please set the dial the Waybac Machine to Be Here Now.”

May peace prevail on earth, and sooner rather than later.  

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?)

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