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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!

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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.

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“What do a light bulb joke, your great aunt’s cold remedy, and a poem scribbled on the door of a bathroom stall have in common? If you know the answer, you may have taken a class from the late UC Berkeley professor Alan Dundes. Each of these, Dundes would have said, is an example of folklore—a category of knowledge that many people associate with the legends, old-wives tales and superstitions passed along by preliterate societies in the times of yore.
But Dundes taught that folklore, rather than being an erudite study of ancient ways, was alive, it was relevant, and it was everywhere. It was the jokes people told, the stories they shared, even the graffiti they wrote on walls. Every person, Dundes believed, was a walking treasure trove of folk wisdom.”
http://caa-web-prod-01.ist.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/just-in/2014-12-10/lord-lores-papers-berkeleys-famed-folklorist-alan-dundes-open
Though I was not a student at Berkeley, professor Dundes generously allowed me to sit in on his introductory folklore class.  That led to further investigations in the crowded room that at the time served as the repository of his folklore archives.
On the occasion of the opening of these archives to the public, and because my wife Liz is at this very moment en-route from the market with a chicken that shall soon be transformed into liquid Puerto Rican, Jewish penicillin as a remedy for the cold that is keeping me from work today, and because it is the eve of Chanukah, and the candles have just arrived via the deity Amazonia… I offer this memory.

 
Many years ago I had an opportunity to hear, for the first time, the brilliant and  often hilarious Northwest Native American healer and storyteller Johnny Moses Though I  certainly remember his folkloric stories of Octopus Lady, and Boogie Woman it was a family story that sticks  with me more than the rest.  After all these year, I may not have the details exactly right, but here is the gist of it.

 
Apparently a Catholic priest tried mightily and over a long period of time to convert Johnny’s grandfather- a Native American traditionalist and healer.  As Johnny told it, the priest finally wore Grandfather down.  After a due course of study, the day came when the cleric sprinkled holy water on the old man and said, “you were a Heathen, now you are a Catholic.”  Sometime later, the priest was out and about in the village on a Friday and got a whiff of roasting meat.  To his chagrin he found Grandfather roasting venison and was quick to make known his disappointment and disapproval.  Grandfather took the tirade in stride.  He removed the meat from the fire, walked to the river, sprinkled a few drops of water on it uttered these words… “ You were a Deer, now you are a Salmon!”   images-3

 
No sooner had I heard this tale then I said to myself, “Dad must have been right… the Native Americans ARE one of the lost tribes of Israel!  I’d heard that story before.  In fact I’d heard it quite a few times before.  It was one of Dad’s oft repeated tales when I was growing up in the 50s.  Well, it was mostly the same story.

 

As Dad told it, it was a priest in a suburban neighborhood… friends with his neighbor the rabbi, and again the priest worked mightily to convert the rabbi.  The rabbi too finally agreed,  went through with his studies, and he too was sprinkled with holy water.  “You were a Jew, now you are a Catholic.”  The priest was out for a stroll on, yes…Friday. This time he smelled barbecue chicken.  Again there were remonstrations of great disappointment, and again these were met with equanimity.  No doubt you see where this is going…. the Rabbi reached for a glass of water, dipped his fingers in and sprinkled a few drops on the grill.  “ You were a chicken, now you are a salmon!”

 
It was only years later that I realized that some of Dad’s jokes were actually teaching stories… this one of course was about identity. At that time, the Holocaust was a very recent memory and Dad set the hook of the lesson by reminding me that it didn’t matter what you said you were, if you had Jewish ancestry you were on your way to the camps.  It was a lesson about the dangers of assimilation.

 
After hearing Johnny tell his tale, I made my way to Dundes’ folklore archives and discovered close to one hundred versions of the story.  I still recall Johnny’s thunderous laughter after telling the tale.  As the soup cooks, I remember my father, who shared love through food and stories.

 
We put up a Christmas tree last night.  Tonight, we’ll light the Chanukah candles.  But sadly, there is more gruesome news today of barbarism and slaughter of the innocents under the guise of religious orthodoxy.

 
It’s time for  some more holy water.  You don’t need to give up your venison, your chicken, your hummus or tofu… sprinkle yourself and simply say… I was a drop… now I  am the ocean.  Now I am a human being.”
May the stories continue.  May we find and deeply know our common humanity  May peace prevail on earth. images-2

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IMG_1006Attention Walmart Shoppers!

There’s  an Aesop’s Fable where a dog, lucky enough to have found, a juicy bone, crosses a stream, sees his reflection in the water and thinks he sees another dog carrying a bigger better bone. He drops the bone, jumps at the dog in the river and has to swim like crazy to save his life.  A sad episode for Rover, but at least he doesn’t get trampled.

It has been said by a Siberian elder that if you don’t know the trees, you might get lost in the woods, but if you don’t know the stories you might get lost in life.
This Aesop’s fable might be a good one to help you stay found and keep in mind as Black Friday approaches.  If you don’t have a copy of Aesop handy… no home should be without one but they are not on sale… Google Black Friday Trampling and there will be no shortage of cautionary tales  to be found, lavishly illustrated by You Tube clips of frenzied shoppers and barbaric yawping.

No doubt someone’s handicapping the odds that there will be more mayhem and deaths again this year.  Place your bets ladies and gentleman.  Win big then turn around and buy the latest steroidal  HDTV screen that money can buy.  But wait, there’s more!  This year we don’t have to wait until Black Friday for a better bone.  We can trot home with our bounty beginning at sun-up Thanksgiving Day courtesy of Walmart, and a host of other American companies who are drafting their ‘associates’ to assist us in the Big Grab.

Yes, Grabitude has replaced Gratitude on the 4th Thursday of November.  Perhaps it’s only a natural next step in the evolution of Homo Corportus and I should put aside my dismay, and pick up my credit card.

But I will stay home on Thanksgiving.  I’ll be with friends and family enjoying the meal, the company, and the stories not the stores.  Same on Black Friday, but I’ll add a walk in the woods and watch the river flow, the cranes dance in the sky and the last of the cottonwood leaves flutter to the ground.

Some of the Sandhill Cranes that winter here in the Middle Rio Grande of New Mexico have migrated down from the Yukon Delta in Alaska.  They’ve been doing this for about three million years.  I used to make my own yearly migration to and from Alaska and one year while kayaking on the Yukon River I met an old- timer,  Meska Savage, and Athabaskan man who at the time was 85 but looked no older than sixty.  I was fortunate enough to have been invited into the village sweat bath and even more fortunate to have met Meska there and heard this piece of advice from him.

“Never rush, live long time!”

So what I’ll grab on the 27th and 28th this year is time.  Time with friends and family, time to chop and peel, and cook and talk and reflect, and time to appreciate every blessing that I can think and feel.

Time is NOT money.  Never was, never will be.  Not money earned or money spent.

Carl Sandburg had this say-so about time…
“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”

Barbara Bush said it well another way…

“At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent.”
Barbara Bush

To this I would add, you won’t regret missing that Night Bargain Super Quartz Analog Handyman Thingamajig Sale on Black Thanksgiving.

But if you are drawn to the Big Box Store, as inexorably as the crane answers the migration call, may I suggest this.  Don’t rush, you have all day, and when you get there, don’t buy a thing.  Just bring a gift, a treat or a thanks to the person who has had to give up their most precious time to keep their job and show up for the hoped for National Day of Grabitude.  Then go safely home in gratitude for the day that is given to you.

(This one, I’d love if you’d share.  Thanks!

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I’m writing in the late afternoon amber light, a week past solstice, sensing but not quite sure that the daylight is lingering for a minute or two longer. I can use such encouragement at the moment, and am grateful for the returning of the light.  But at the same time I’ll relish these short days and their invitation to rekindle the practice of kaartsiluni. Read on and and you’ll l soon find a contradiction here since what follows is a repost from a few years ago… but rising to my own defense, I can already tell you that the new stories are announcing themselves.  Some of the new ones are ancient ones.  More about that in the next post.  For now… consider Kaartsiluni!

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Here are the words of Majuak, an Inuit elder from Diomede Island in Alaska, describing karrtsiluni to Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen in his 1932  book The Eagles Gift.

‘What is karrtsiluni?’  I’ll tell you that now.  But you won’t get anything more from me today.’ In the old days, every autumn – we used to hold great festivals or the soul of the whale, and these festivals were always opened with new songs which the men made up.  The spirits had to be summoned with fresh words – worn-out songs must never be used when men and women danced and sang in homage to this great prize of the huntsman – the whale. And while the men were thinking out the words for these hymns, it was the custom to put out all the lights.  The feast house had to be dark and quiet – nothing must disturb or distract the men. In utter silence all these men sat there in the gloom and thought, old and young -ay- down to the very smallest urchin, provided he was old enough to speak.

It was that silence we called karrtsiluni. It means waiting for something to break forth.  For our fore-fathers believed that songs are born in such a silence. While everyone is trying hard to think fair thoughts, songs are born in the minds of men, rising like bubbles from the depths – bubbles seeking breath in which to burst.  ‘So come all holy songs.’”

I like this idea of silent, patient reflection in a spirit of homage to great life holy and full of awe.  So, let’s enjoy New Year’ eve, eat, drink and be merry, but hold off on those calendar driven resolutions until we’ve sat quietly with good company.

Let’s give ourselves some karrtsiluni time (skip the dark and gloom if you must).  Let’s think fair thoughts, alone and together, and may our new songs, rise to the surface and break forth, carrying us together in our quest for a life of meaning and contribution to each other and the planet.  I look forward to the  expression and celebration of these “new songs” together.  For the moment, I’m turning down the lights.

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granddaughters reading peterHappy Happy!  My granddaughters are happy! Their grandmother is happy!  Their great-grandmother is happy! I’m happy! Following up on my previous Reading Legacy post- Cartoonist/Ilustrator and great friend Peter Menice (Petermenice.com) ‘translated’ the photo of Maya and Raina reading together.  Here is what he created.  Peter populated the illustration with author Sandra Boynton’s characters from But Not the Hippopotamus- the book the girls are reading in the original photo.  The signed print is my New Years gift to the girls, and another copy a birthday present to Belen, my mother in law.

I’m thinking about how much fun this collaboration has been with Peter and also looking forward to our upcoming first live presentation together… The Toonist and the Teller Together at our local library in Rio Rancho New Mexico.

I recently encountered this wonderful sentiment from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi whose book,  from Aging to Sageing has inspired  me to further my explorations of Legacy.  The Reb says…”The only way to get it together is….together!”

May this new year bring my friends and colleagues a legacy of wonder, discovery and rich collaborations large and small! TTogether!

ReadingTogether-1

 

 

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New Years Resolutions? Not So Fast! Try Some Karrtsiluni First.

(This is a repost from last year- so in reflection and moving forward….)images

It’s time to make some New Years resolutions.  Or is it? Maybe it will be more productive to sit together in the dark and gloom for awhile.  Consider the practice of karrtsiluni.  Here’s  Majuak_an Inuit elder from Diomede Island in Alaska, describing karrtsiluni to Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen in his 1932  book The Eagles Gift.

‘What is karrtsiluni?’  I’ll tell you that now.  But you won’t get anything more from me today.’ In the old days, every autumn – we used to hold great festivals or the soul of the whale, and these festivals were always opened with new songs which the men made up.  The spirits had to be summoned with fresh words – worn-out songs must never be used when men and women danced and sang in homage to this great prize of the huntsman – the whale. And while the men were thinking out the words for these hymns, it was the custom to put out all the lights.  The feast house had to be dark and quiet – nothing must disturb or distract the men. In utter silence all these men sat there in the gloom and thought, old and young -ay- down to the very smallest urchin, provided he was old enough to speak.

It was that silence we called karrtsiluni. It means waiting for something to break forth.  For our fore-fathers believed that songs are born in such a silence. While everyone is trying hard to think fair thoughts, songs are born in the minds of men, rising like bubbles from the depths – bubbles seeking breath in which to burst.  ‘So come all holy songs.’”

I like this idea of silent, patient reflection in a spirit of homage to great life holy and full of awe.  So, let’s enjoy New Year’ eve, eat, drink and be merry, but hold off on those calendar driven resolutions tomorrow.

Let’s give ourselves some karrtsiluni time (skip the dark and gloom if you must).  Let’s think fair thoughts, alone and together, and may our new songs, rise to the surface and break forth, carrying us together in the great 2012 hunt for a life of meaning and contribution to each other and the planet.  I look forward to the  expression and celebration of these “new songs” together.

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