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Archive for the ‘Healing Stories’ Category

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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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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There are times that I turn to certain stories almost as talismans that contain much needed guidance, and that help me keep my bearing.  This is one of those times and so I recently reread Leon Tolstoy’s short story- The Three Questions.  It concerns a King who turns to a hermit for answers to three pressing questions, questions that the King believes will help him know just what to do in every situation.

Who are the most important people?
What is the right thing to do?
When is the right time to act?

Here’s a link to a translation.  http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/2736/
There is also a wonderful adaptation by children’s author and illustrator Jon Muth. http://tinyurl.com/6lw64fw

I was a very curious child, full of my own questions.  Luckily I had a father who was a scientist, and I was sure that he had answers for all I wanted and needed to know.  Here’s how he handled his eager young son.

“ Dad, why is the sky blue?”

“Hmnn…I’m not really sure about that.”

“Dad, where does the firefly’s light come from?

“I wonder about that myself.”

“Dad, what happens to us after we die?”

“After we die?  It’s a mystery. I wish I could tell you. But keep asking questions son, it’s the only way you’re going to learn anything!  Now go study.”

Years later, that exchange became a kind of running joke between us.  I eventually found an opportunity to thank him for his teaching story with this story from the Hasidic tradition.

A Yeshiva student so consumed with the desire for knowledge, that his health began to suffer. His studies left no time for friends, for exercise, and finally no time to even bother eating. He burned the the candles and both ends and if there had been a third end he would have burned that one too. He burned not only with a…. fever, but a physical one as well It came to the point where his parents feared for his  very life. Desperate, his parents sent him off to the  capital city and to a wonder working rabbi.  The Rabbi met the boy with a gentle gaze.

“Tell me my son, what brings you here and how can I help”
Encouraged, the young man explained his earnest quest for knowledge and truth, and within a few minutes had asked a number of penetrating and insightful questions about difficult Torah passages.  The rabbi listened intently and then without warning he smacked the earnest seeker across the back of the head.   The boy was naturally  shocked and bewildered.

“Rabbi, Rabbi, why did you strike me?

“ My son,” the Rabbi replies, “ You have such marvelous questions.  Why would you want to ruin them with answers?”

Now I must live up to the title of the blog post.  Only six questions have been asked, and so I’ll conclude with three more questions that my father often returned to. Questions posed by Rabbi Hillel around 110 BC and as relevant today as they were then.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
“If I am only for myself, what am ‘I’?
“If not now, then when?”

Now, go study!  And keep asking questions.  It’s the only way you are going to learn anything!

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I write this as 50 heros try last ditch efforts to  avert a nuclear disaster in Japan.  The Jataka story of the Brave Parrot comes to mind.  First, here, quoted from the NY Times  is a brief description of what these hero’s are doing.
“They crawl through labyrinths of equipment in utter darkness pierced only by their flashlights, listening for periodic explosions as hydrogen gas escaping from crippled reactors ignites on contact with air.
They breathe through uncomfortable respirators or carry heavy oxygen tanks on their backs. They wear white, full-body jumpsuits with snug-fitting hoods that provide scant protection from the invisible radiation sleeting through their bodies.”

Once, Buddha was reborn as a beautiful parrot who brought joy to those who saw him flying through the forest.  One day, the parrot witnessed a flash of lightning and a quickly spreading fire.  The forest animals ran every which way in great panic blinded by the smoke.  The parrot flew again and again to the river, diving in, then flying through the heat and the smoke in a desperate effort to put out the fire by shaking down what few drops of water that remained on his wings.

For the rest of a beautiful version of this story, retold by Rafe Martin, which is featured on the Learning to Give website- follow this link.
http://learningtogive.org/materials/folktales/BraveParrot.asp

We will soon know if the efforts of these brave souls will prove effective.  We wait in gratitude for their sacrifice.

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Imagine that you’re on your boat spending an idyllic afternoon on a favorite lake. The weather is calm and  perfectly clear.  Suddenly you see another boat bearing down on you, headed for a collision.  You sound a warning but to no avail.  The boat broadsides you.  How do you feel?  What do you say to the pilot of the offending vessel?

Now, imagine exactly the same time of day, the circumstances are the same, except that now there is a thick pea soup fog.  You can’t see your own hand in front of your face.  Again you are broadsided  Are you as angry as you were when it was perfectly clear?  Now, once again imagine, the same place and time, and again in a thick fog, and once again you are broadsided.  This time you discover that there is no one on the other boat.  Now, how do you feel about the situation?

The Taoist  Chuang Tzu posed this scenario…… years ago. But it could not be more contemporary.  Hardly a day goes by when there is not an opportunity to reflect on this tale. From the most insignificant sleight, to the most egregious acts, it is worth asking if the mental weather is clear and calm, or foggy and clouded.  We joke about other people not playing with ‘full decks’ but if truth be told much(most?) of our actions and reactions arise in less than the equivalent of a calm and cloudless day.  Knowing that, might we be a little more understanding, sympathetic, helpful and forgiving?  Perhaps until we can really tame our egos, it might be best to consider than many of the ‘collisions’ we experience are the result of fog and the absence of truly accomplished pilot.  Everybody complains about the weather.  Maybe we should try and do something about it.
My guess is that most of us will have a chance to reflect on this timeless tale quicker than we can say, “ Hey buddy, what the hell are you doing?”

Onward through the fog!

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I bought the first bag of wild bird seed for the feeders today and remembered this journal post from last year…

I bought a 50-pound bag of bird seed at the feed store and carefully laid it in the trunk.  When I got home I found  the bag  inexplicably leaking seeds .  Then I remembered that earlier  I’d brought an old car battery to the drop off center.  Mystery solved.  Acid leakage from the battery  had eaten through the bag.  I wondered if  any of the acid might have come in contact with the seeds.  Certainly not much, I thought.  Then, as  lifted the bag from the trunk,  a handful of seeds spilled onto the pea gravel in the driveway.

I immediately started calculating the odds.  Out of the  thousands of seeds in that 50-pound bag, it wasn’t likely, that any of the spilled  seeds would have acid on it.  But if by chance they did, and a a bird ate it? My offering turns to death.

I had to admit I was complicit due to my earlier inattention.  I got down on my hands and knees and began to pick the possibly poisoned seeds from the gravel. I started with the easy targets, the black sunflower seeds.  But as I brushed away the larger pieces of gravel, more and more tiny millet seeds appeared. Every time I thought I’d found the last seed, I’d brush away a little more sand and gravel and more seeds appeared.   Many times I thought, that’s  probably good enough. But I kept coming back to the thought… what if  a bird picks out that one seed, and that seed is poisoned?  The sunlight was rapidly fading.  I couldn’t wait till morning to finish the job  because  the birds would be up and eating before me.

As I stayed with the task, I remembered the story (from Afghanistan) of the man who  meticulously swept and swept one small spot.  He explained his actions to a passerby by telling him that God sometimes came down to dance right there in that very spot. He wanted it always to be ready.   Today, this patch of gravel was that spot.

Can I live like this everyday?  More attentive to what I sow and what I say,  more careful to do less harm in word and deed? My lesson began in my own driveway in a circle a foot across and widening.

The next morning I  woke up to finches chirping in the sage brush.

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