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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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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.

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“Hey Bob, aren’t you too old for this?  I guess you didn’t get the memo!” IMG_1298

That was my friend Dave’s response when I told him that I was putting my storytelling business on hold and would soon be leaving for a guiding job in Alaska. Then with a laugh, he continued, “I guess I didn’t get the memo either!”  After a long career in social services, at age 67 he enrolled in a masters program and is now close to certification as a  psychotherapist.   Maybe we should both have our heads examined.

IMG_1383_2But then there is Captain William Moore, the first resident of Skagway. (formerly Mooresville) His crude log cabin in the center of town was one of the first stops on my tour. I’d tell people how along with his First Nation’s guide, imgresSkookum Jim, he had blazed the first trail from Skagway and up the White Pass, then staked out 120 acres, built a pier and warehouses and  confidently and correctly predicted that someday there would be hordes of gold seekers who would use his route.  As I pulled away from his homesite I would add that I was withholding an important part of his biography. Then, on the way up the pass, I’d stop at a pullout, point out his original trail clinging to the side of a long and difficult cliff face, and then fill in the missing detail.  He was 64 when he made that first trip and he was 74 when he won a contract to deliver the mail on the 600 or so mile route to Forty Mile on the Yukon River   So folks I’d say, “ It’s not too late for a career change.”

I guess Moore didn’t get the memo either.

Then there is the example of Pablo Casals, one of the master cellist’s of the 20th century who was still practicing for hours and hours every day.  When asked why, he responded, “ because I’m beginning to sense a little improvement.”

“I’m beginning to sense a little improvement.”  That phrase has become like a mantra for me, having passed retirement age and with no ability and even less interest in hanging up a career where it’s often hard to delineate where work ends and play begins. It also helped me through this interval where I took people up the same route over 200 times.  I prepared long and hard for this assignment, but by the time I’d finished my last tour, I still knew that there is still much room for improvement.

But I invoke Casals for another important reason.  He stands firmly in the lineage of elders of the tribe who have guided my own path and career.  Here’s how.

In 1961 (?)Casals came to California to teach a weeks long master cello class.images-1 People came from all over the country to attend  including an engineer from the Bay area, in his mid 50’s named Josh Barkins.  Because he was local and knew the area so well, Barkins often took on the role of local guide during breaks.  As he would tell me later, towards the end of the class, Casals took him aside and in essence said, “ Josh, you’re a good cellist, but you’ll never be a master cellist.  But in another way you are a master.  You’ve been a master guide.  Have you ever considered doing that for a living?”  The very next day, Josh quit his job, and applied for a job as a groundskeeper for the East Bay Regional Park Service.  He quickly worked up through the ranks and eventually became not only the chief interpretive naturalist for the regional parks but a legendary trainer for the National Park Service.

Here’s a quote from the NPS
“He practiced the best interpretation, both whimsical and profound. He was equally adept at interpreting for children, engineers, clergy, and fellow interpreters. He was equally at home giving “‘gutter walks” in the city and alpine meadow walks in Yosemite. He thrived on creative use of gadgets, puns and riddles, puppets, music, poetry, world religions, history, and philosophy in his programs. Not only was he unafraid of integrating ethical and moral issues in his programs, he often insisted upon it.”

Fast forward to 1977.  I was visiting Berkeley and Tilden Park with another mentor of mine Herb Wong, who was both a jazz and environmental educator.  Herb invited me to accompany his class to Tilden to witness Josh Barkins in action.  (Freeman Tilden, by the way is known as the father of modern interpretation.) Josh did it all that day, took us on the trail, brought out  puppets, children’s books, told Sufi and Zen stories, showed us small wonders with a magnifying glass, and recited poetry.  Poetry!  At the end of our nature walk we sat in a circle and Josh began,

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

“Ah… Walt Whitman!  Song of the Open Road,” I exclaimed.  ((How could I  not know the poem.  These words are carved in a huge glacial erratic next to a statue of old Walt in Bear Mountain Park near my boyhood back yard and Mecca overlooking the Hudson River) 20140715_104422_zps5wetrmnt

Josh looked at me, beamed, took off his Smokey the Bear style ranger hat, put it on my head and said,  “You recognized Whitman!  You can DO this!”  I count this as one of or perhaps even the most affirming and encouraging moment of my life. Trying to lead the life of a environmental educator,  storyteller,  and sometimes guide all these almost 40 years now has sometimes felt akin to walking that precarious and difficult path that Moore ‘found’ and the Klondikers followed, but I continue on, for after all, “there’s gold in them thar hills,” even if it’s fairy gold!

I’ll pitch my blog tent here for the day with this final quote from the Maestro Casals.

” On my last birthday I was ninety-three years old.  That is not young, of course.  In fact, it is older than ninety.  But age is a relative matter.  If you continue to work and to absorb the beauty in the world about you, you find that ages does not necessarily mean getting old.  At least, not in the ordinary sense.  I feel many things more intensely than ever before, and for me life grows more fascinating.”

I guess he didn’t get the memo either!

(As always, your comments are fuel for the fire and keep me going!  How is life growing more fascinating for you?  Can you remember a time when you felt truly encouraged by someone you admire?)

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What does an irascible 90 year old curmudgeon and a disruptive and seemingly thick-skulled 8 year old have in common? They have both have surprised me with deep life lessons they’ve imparted to me during the time I’ve spent with them telling, teaching and listening to stories together. Let me tell you about Alexi and Bill. Alexi is a student in one of our long running school residency programs. Bill is a resident at an assisted living facility where we’ve been volunteering to help with a monthly story swap for a couple of years. We’ve known Alexi since he was in first grade. I’ll start by revisiting something I posted 5 years ago that concerns him and then fast forward to the present.

January 13, 2010

images“With his hands trembling slightly, “The Listener” rang the Tibetan Bells and convened our class this morning. The care he took and the look of awe on his face might have led you to believe he was holding the Holy Grail itself. Alexi, is “The Listener. He’s a third grade boy who rarely speaks and when he does, often does so in a mumbling and not always coherent manner. He can be disruptive and often finds himself the object of his teachers frustration and even ire.

Last year, somewhat reluctantly, I let him join a smaller group of students who were practicing a story for our school-wide “Tellabration.” At first the goal was simply to have him in a smaller and more controlled group which might let the rest of the class proceed with fewer interruptions. When Alexi asked me what his ‘part’ in the story was I told him that he had one of the most important parts of all. He was the listener! From that point on, his demeanor changed dramatically. He listened with rapt attention to his classmates as they worked through their rehearsals. When performance day came, the storytellers took the stage. They were just getting ready to begin when Alexi, stood up from his place in the audience and took a place next to the tellers.
I was momentarily taken aback. What was he doing there? Alexi caught my surprised expression-and announced in a clear, confident and strong voice, “I’m the Listener!” No laughs from the audience, no snickers… the kids got it. This boy, so often the outsider, was there to remind us that without listeners, there is no living storytelling.

Who better than Alexi to ring that bell and call our attention to the need for deep listening ”

That was 2010. Alexi is now with a small group of 8th graders that we see once a week and we still ring the bell before every class. We haven’t had him in one of our classes since 5th grade. In the two years following the events described above- from all accounts Alexi pretty much continued to be a source of frustration for his teachers, but when he was with us he was a rapt listener though still pretty much ‘on the outside looking in’ when it came to other activities. To tell the truth, as much as I appreciated his presence with us, I’d come to think that he really didn’t have much on the ball or for that matter much of a future ahead of him. We lost track of him.

So here we are in 2015- working with an assortment of Aesop’s fables, Russian Wonder Tales, Spanish Fairy Tales and guess who our star student is? It’s Alexi who remembers story sequence. It’s Alexi who in a clear and confident voice can express the main idea of the story. It’s Alexi… still alert staying with the story from beginning to end. Alexi the “Listener!”

Every year we are surprised by students who seem to have come out of the shadows… kid’s who may not get as much attention as they deserve because they are quiet, or seemingly unengaged and who then amaze us- perhaps by announcing that they are ready to tell a story start to finish, or in other cases running down a long list of stories that they remember from years past. But surprised doesn’t even begin to describe my experience of Alexi’s transformation. Astonished is more like it. But here’s the lesson for me. I think of myself as someone who is tuned in and sensitive to kid’s potential. And I missed it with Alexi. Thick-skulled? Nothing on the ball? No future? Wrong, wrong and wrong! Alexi has taught me more about human potential then any class, book or seminar ever has.

Now, what about that nonagenarian curmudgeon Bill? What a pain in the ass he was at some of these swaps. He’s a fine storyteller, with a resonant voice, and a large repertoire to pull from. But what a contrarian he can be. One day there’s too much personal storytelling- he wants to hear more folktales. The next, it’s too many folktales. Sometimes his comments to others in the group- including the facilitators, seemed abrasive and designed to hurt. I’d find myself wishing that he’s stop showing up. And then one evening he told us that he was not coming back. Somewhere toward the end of a long story he’s been telling (and telling well) he lost the thread. It took him only perhaps 10 or 15 seconds for his memory to kick back in, but those seconds must have seemed like an eternity for him and this lapse troubled him deeply. It was the first time. Bill is a proud man and this laid him low. He was not about to let it happen in public ever again.

Exit Bill to the relief of the crowd? No! First of all his tales- and they were all folktales- were beyond question the most entertaining of all the residents. They didn’t seem as troubled as I was by his abrasive personality. Secondly, our co-facilitator had been counting on him as an anchor for the group. The facility liaison also encouraged him to stay. We all said what you might expect about all of us having our own lapses… about professional tellers having theirs, etc. etc. But it didn’t seem that we were getting through. And then the next session rolled around and as promised, Bill was not there. We had a decent night of telling but Bill’s absence was present.

But Bill did come back. Bill came back, having made peace with his own perceived shortcomings. And he seemed to come back in peace. He came back and told a personal and revealing story from his past about a failed marriage, and a place of sanctuary where he could heal.He asked people to think about that word sanctuary and tell the group what it meant to them. Not everyone spoke but everyone listened to Bill and those who did share, with as much attention and presence as Alexi shows now in 8th grade. We reached a place of conviviality and fellowship that evening that brought us unmistakably to a new level.

Here’s what I learned from Bill. Even at 90, if one has the will and the spirit… one can take chances, learn,adapt, grow and make a contribution. It took a lot of guts to return,to come back humbly,and share a leadership role… because that is exactly what he did. It is something I admire and aspire to.

So these are two of my teacher/mentors Thank you so much Alexi and Bill!

Dear readers… who are you learning from these days?

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Yukon-286x173

I’m heading to Alaska again this summer to tell stories in libraries and at a festival and starting to think about a new adventure.  Here below is an article I wrote 44 years ago about a trip I took with 3 friends down the Yukon

‘A journey of 1000 miles begins with one step’ and with this in mind I began to  plan a float trip down the third longest river in North America, the Yukon. From the high country lakes of British Columbia and flowing northwest through the Yukon Territories, the Yukon was the water route for thousands of gold seekers in 1898. Seventy-three years later, this same area to Dawson and the Klondike gold fields is almost completely uninhabited. Except for a small mining community, this land returned to wilderness and wild animals, where the imagination can still run free. Not ending at Dawson, this cruise and exploration was to continue for an additional 1500 miles across the entire State of Alaska and finishing at Norton Sound on the Bering Sea.

Preparing a trip of this magnitude required two basic steps and involved hundreds of small detail preparations. First and most important I found able and willing travel companions in my friends Doug Stakes, Eric Skidmore and Ken Jones. Providing the best equipment and proper supplies was the other big step. My long experience with Folbots around southeast Alaska convinced me to select two Super folding Folbots for this great adventure. The four of us met at Ketchikan for a departure by ferry to Skagway. A day and a half later we disembarked at Haines to visit friends. Here we sorted out a veritable mountain of supplies, assembled the boats and to our amazement discovered that there was room for it all.  After we surveyed the lakes by air, complements of a willing pilot and found them free of ice, we proceeded to the headwaters of the Yukon via Railroad. ‘Nobody buys a one way ticket’ exclaimed the reluctant railway agent, but we did and got off the train at Lake Bennett, the first of a chain of lakes we’d have to navigate before getting on the river itself.

Under brilliant clear skies, on June 5th we assembled, loaded and eagerly pushed off our Folbots. We paddled into a light northern wind, which later turned into quite a tempest. Churning up waves from 4 to 5 feet, we experienced an exciting hour after which the weather returned to almost a dead  calm. By 9 o’clock we camped under clear skies and observed the first of many beautiful sunsets we would see during what would be a 80 day trip. Almost uninterrupted good weather favored us for he following three weeks. We alternated paddling with a little sailing, did some unexpected ‘ice skating’ over frozen stretches and enjoyed mostly carefree and unforgettable wilderness cruising. Three days after starting we caught up with winter. Rounding the windy arm of Tagish Lake, we were stopped by a sheet ot ice, clear across the lake. We had to make camp and wait. Despite hard winds all night, we awoke to the encouraging sight of an open passage across the mile wide lake. We paddled to the far shore and continued along open water on that side. We dragged our Folbots over many stretches of ice without harming them and felt rather elated over this experience. When we reached ice free waters again we benefited from good winds in our direction. We tested our sailing abilities with a home rigged sail for twenty miles across Marsh Lake. Entering the main current of the river we could afford to sit back and let the Yukon push us. Ahead of Whitehorse, the provincial capital of the Yukon Territory, we passed Miles Canyon, once the most dreaded section of the river, where men and boats were lost in their race to the Klondike. The canyon waters have since been tamed by the Whitehorse Dam. We procured last minute supplies during a brief stop in Whitehorse. Returning to the swiftly flowing river, we headed for the famous Lake Laberge, the scene of the cremation of Sam MgGee. For this occasion we made a commemerative bonfire and read Robert Service’s immortal poem, on the ‘marge of Lake Laberge’.

The next morning brought clear skies and fair winds as we sailed to the mouth of Laberge. We passed the rotting hulk of a long forgotten sternwheeler and entered the Thirty mile stretch of the upper Yukon. Turning around the many tortuous turns of the Thirty mile, we noticed a most awe inspiring array of wildlife. Within two short hours we watched a bobcat or lynx casually stretched out on a high bluff, a coyote running along the beach, two large grizzlies huddled near a log and a cow moose grazing in the underbrush. Above in a clear blue sky we noticed many ducks, terns and gulls flying profusely overhead. At that time we appreciated our smoothly running and silent Folbots the most. It would have been impossible to approach these animals closely with noisy motors or metal boats. We felt quite assured in seeing those big grizzlies from our Folbots rather than from land.

Following the way of the gold seekers we observed many relics and silent reminders of their one time presence. Now and then appeared old stern-wheelers washed ashore, parts of old dredges, a wheelbarrow by a creek and numerous tumbled down cabins. Our minds wondered and questioned. Would the men who broke their, backs, hearts and left families behind to trek across this primitive land, understand us young men, as we followed their path for recreation and to prove to a changing world, that we could still travel long distances on our OWN and without internal combustion engines.

Five Finger Rapids was the last major obstacle for the Klondikers. Three huge pillars of rock protrude in the Yukon to create five narrow channels of surging waters with tremendous turmoil of frothy waves and spray. Consulting our map we decided after inspection for the right hand channel. Our Folbots seemed tiny amidst these powerful masses of turbulent water, but they handled splendidly. We passed in perfect form without any trouble, only to regret that we could not repeat it. The challenge of these strange environments like a set of tough rapids is equaled by the joy of meeting a stranger in the wilderness.

Sitting over a campfire and sharing coffee, our new friend was Roger Mendell- son. He had just come down from Whitehorse in a freight boat in the company of two dozen sled dogs, huskies and malamutes. He was repairing an old cabin for a season of winter trapping. We shared food, drink, stories galore and helped placing moss on the cabin roof before we proceeded to Dawson.

We pondered over the matter of timing as we paddled into Dawson some 460 miles downstream from Whitehorse. We arrived on June 21st, the summer solstice and longest day of the year. That night we climbed with local folks a hill, known as the Midnight Dome. This is an annual ritual, watching the sun go below the horizon at eleven thirty and come back up at one in the morning. Traveling further north we would cross the Arctic Circle at Fort Yukon. If we had reached there around the 21st of June, we would have experienced the phenomenon of the midnight sun. However, we had an unexpected delay, as the Canadian Mounted Police appealed for our assistance. A forest fire was burning about 20 miles from Dawson and we were asked to lend a hand. Four days later we were back in Dawson, tired and grimy, but celebrating with gusto. We surfaced a few days later to return to our river.

From the peak of Midnite Dome we had already a good preview of the country and the course of the river. As far as visible the Yukon twisted its way between range after range of the Ogilvies Mountains. Leaving the Yukon Territory we re-entered the United States for Alaska, which greeted us with rain and lots of rain. Wet and miserable we discovered an abandoned looking cabin, which displayed the following note: ‘Welcome, feel free to use this cabin and the wood; we ask only that you keep things clean and replace any wood that you use.’ We learned of an unwritten code of this great land, as we warmed our bodies and raised our spirits by the fire of a welcome Yukon stove. This was the first of more cabins with similar invitations which we used overnight as our home.

Past Eagle, the first town on the Yukon in Alaska, the river spread out into the famous Yukon Flats. The water meanders for 300 miles over a broad plain, attaining a width of over ten miles in spots amid a veritable maze of islands. Our maps became useless because the rampant river cuts new channels, creates new islands and removes previous land areas in its restless advance. Thankful again for our preference to paddle cruising, we could carefully inspect and then follow the main channel at our relatively slow speed. We had the joy and benefit of being on our own, while motorized boats require a pilot for navigation. Near Circle at the beginning of the Flats we passed a sign: ‘End of the Road’ to mark the northernmost end of the American Highway system. With an air of glowing satisfaction we had passed beyond the realm of the automobile. Hereafter we pondered often over the silent atmosphere, which at first seemed overwhelming, but gradually became a welcome feature of our wilderness journey. Each sound that breaks the silence takes on important dimensions. The crack of a twig, the song of a bird, the splash of a fish and the echo of our names as it rebounds many times from the surrounding hills.

The Flats came to an abrupt end beyond Stevens Village, where we approached Rampart Canyon. Here the Yukon compresses its huge volume of water into a passage of barely 300 feet width. Extremely swift we advanced some 90 miles in 16 hours of an exhilarating run and then rested a day at the village of Rampart. Almost like clockwork the King Salmon were running and the big fish wheels creaking. The water of the Yukon is so silty, that fish can not see a lure and consequently we had been fishing along the clear side streams. Mostly we landed Arctic Grayling, Pike or Whitefish, but those Kings given to us by local fishermen added a delicious variety to our diet. We also bought more food and supplies at some villages. Although we could easily have subsisted on bear or moose we encountered, we refrained from wanton waste of life and meat, because we had only the four of us to feed. Yukon hospitality was not limited to the use of cabins, because in many villages we were befriended with offers of food and lodging. We appreciated these conveniences after three or more days on our own in the woods. Sometimes the villager’s hospitality is abused by “drifters or floaters’’ as they call them. One can only hope that outsiders will consider the extra strain that even a lone individual can bring upon the resources and graces of a small village in the North. By the time we reached Kaltag we had made and left behind many fine friends to be long remembered. From Kaltag the river turns almost due south for 150 miles toward the town of Anvik. The Yukon runs straight and wide along this stretch with a reputation for ferocious winds to cause high and choppy waves. Our Folbots had already established their ability to navigate safely in roughest sea. Without any trouble we met this challenge and pushed merrily ahead in spite of unusually rough conditions. However we found ourselves plagued by mosquitos, which were by far the greatest nuisance, if not hazard of the North country. Mosquitos shared our living by constantly appearing in our soup or tea. Some of the available repellents provide sufficient protection in all but the most severe conditions, when it becomes advisable to wear a head-net and keep the mouth closed.

The miles fell quickly behind us and we soon passed Holy Cross, where the Yukon turns toward the west at Devil’s Elbow. We experienced a complete transition of landscape and inhabitants near the village of Russian Mission. Instead of Athabascan Indians we met smaller sized Eskimos and their way of life as forests changed to tundra. It was August now and berry picking season. Our pan fried bread was enriched with blueberries. The Kings had stopped running and were replaced by Chum Salmon. With the fish wheels gone, the fishing method changed to set and drift nets. Timing continued to play an important part on our trip. Paddling was not only good exercise and our means of travel, but provided time and inclination for meditation. Just when we arrived at Russian Mission, the Orthodox bishop made his annual appearance by float plane. We witnessed a solemn and impressive Eskimo service.

Further downstream at St. Mary’s we arrived in time for the annual get together celebration of the people from the lower Yukon. We joined the merry making and renewal of friendships and watched the wonderful performances of latest Eskimo dances. Hereafter the days were getting shorter and the nights distinctly colder We had reached the Yukon Delta as we headed for Alakanuk, situated on the southernmost of the three main channels. Still thirty miles to go, we faced the most violent winds we had been prepared to expect. Unbearable conditions forced us to take refuge on a small island, where we spent two miserably wet and cold nights. Calmer waters returned on the third day and so we proceeded into Alakanuk  and then  paddled the ten more miles to the Bering Sea.

The last few miles of our long journey turned out to be beautiful, where the low land meets the sea in a hardly distinguishable way. Standing at the last point of land, surveying the vast Bering Sea to the west and looking back to where we had come from, our thoughts turned to many wonderful as well as trying adventures we had gone through. My friends and ! will never forget the moment of arrival at our journey’s end as we exclaimed in jubilation: “We have done it!” The echoes of the surfing waters and the triumph of this episode will often be remembered as the high time of our young lives.

We paddled back upstream to Alakanuk and bid farewell to our friends. Reluctantly we packed up the Folbots and hitched a ride on single engine Cessna plane to Anchorage. During the homeward flight we started making plans for our next adventure.

Bob Kanegis

 

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One spring evening, as people were out strolling, they saw Mullah Nasruddin on his hands and knees under a lamppost searching frantically for something or other.

“I’ve lost my keys” replied Mullah, when one of the curious onlookers asked about the object of his search.
“Let me help you,”said the man, and it wasn’t long before a half dozen more good Samaritans joined the search in ever widening circles. But their efforts were to no avail. The keys did not appear.
“Mullah, are you quite sure you lost the keys near here?” one of the search party asked, when it became obvious that the keys were nowhere to be found.
“Oh no, no no, not here, I didn’t lose the keys near here,” Nasruddin replied, not looking up, as he continued crawling around on all fours. “I lost the keys in the house.”
“Then why in the world are you looking for it them here the street?” asked one of a now incredulous member of the ad-hoc search party.
“The answer is obvious,” said Nasruddin. “The light is much much better here.”

Several weeks after the incidents of 9/11 I was drinking coffee at one of the sidewalk tables outside  the French Hotel, a favorite java joint in Berkeley.  I looked up from the book I was reading and was alarmed to see an Arab looking man, fast approaching, obviously distressed, and furtively looking first one way and then the other.  As hard as I tried to avoid falling prey to stereotypes and jumping to conclusions, I felt a gathering anxiety about his behavior and purposes, and then even more anxiety when I realized he was making a beeline to my table.  A few seconds later, he was looking straight in my face and informed me…that he’d lost his keys.
Whew! Here now was a chance to redeem myself (in my own eyes) and transform myself from a paranoid and suspicious neighborhood watcher to a helpful citizen.  Living the storied life that I do, my next thought was to remember Nasruddin and his keys.  “Let me help you look,” I offered.  “Do you think you may have left them here near the cafe?” I didn’t have to wait for a response.  I’d risen from my chair, ready to jump into action.  No sooner did I stand up then the keys appeared.  Right on the chair where I’d been sitting!”

Whose lapse, I wonder was greater, the absent minded suspected terrorist, or me, so oblivious to my environment, that I neither saw nor felt the keys when I sat down on them?

Now, at risk of illuminating a character fault that is well known to friends and family, but perhaps not known to readers of this blog.  I offer this sad story, as a cautionary tale.

A few weeks ago, I turned the key in the ignition of my car and heard something snap.  After that, the key simply pivoted in it’s lock and the engine would not turn off.  Luckily, Luis, my father in law was willing and able to come to the rescue.  It would be no big deal he said to replace the ignition. A trip to Auto Zone and twenty some dollars for the part later and Luis had the old one out in a matter of minutes… BUT, it turned out that the problem was deeper…a 10c spring in the steering column was broken and the ignition could not be properly set in.  Long story short (this part anyway) the entire steering column would have to be replaced.  Here, I offer some good news. You no longer need to rely on either the overpriced dealer or mechanic and the local U-Pull junkyard  to replace an expensive part.  Google what you need, and the whole world of junked cars becomes available.  A week later, a beautiful steering column, complete with all wiring harnesses, ignition switches and a a single key was delivered for the relative pittance of fifty dollars and change, shipping included!  Luis, had it all installed in half a day and I was on the road again having saved many hundreds of dollars.

On the road that is until yesterday, when I lost the one key that came from the eBay steering column. I spent several frantic hours scouring the house…and another surveying the garden where I’d been working the previous day.  I checked around the horseshoe pit in the backyard.  I called the restaurant where I’d eaten the previous night.  All to no avail. Then I remembered that that replacement ignition that we were not able to use and I’d forgotten to return.  Ah…what a relief!  The solution was at hand! Just, admit to Luis that I’d lost the key and hadn’t had the foresight to make a duplicate, and ask him to remove the ignition assembly that now had no key, and slap that extra ignition into the new steering column.   Easy enough. So we both thought.

3 hours later, after trying a half dozen solutions that included fashioning makeshift tools, and all to no avail, Luis was using a high speed drill to blast out what had proven to be an otherwise immovable object.  I have never, ever seen Luis fail to solve a mechanical problem, but this one was truly baffling him, and the drill was the tool and method of last resort.  A slip of the drill could have resulted in damage that would require yet another complete steering wheel, but he has the hands of a surgeon, and the patience of Job, and little by little the stubborn part fell away and late in by afternoon, all was well again. Everything except my self esteem was back together and the key worked like a charm.  Luis was a good sport about all the extra work, and amenable to a visit to the local pub for a thank you beer and some nachos. I learned more about his 50 year career as an auto-body mechanic, starting as a boy in Puerto Rico and working on Rolls Royces, Mercedes, Corvettes, and Cadillacs in the Bronx and Queens.

We drove back to the house in Luis’s Jeep and I remembered that I’d been having an intermittent problem with brake lights.  Luis suggested we take a quick look, and take a quick look we did.  Luis pumped the brake pedal, and I went to the rear of the car, and there…were the missing keys…dangling in plain sight, from the lock of the wagon’s rear door.  Luis never said a word, or if he did, I didn’t hear him.  I was too busy, flattening my forehead with the palm of my hand, and blathering a sheepish and pathetic apology.

I’m going to look for a connection between these three stories, but first I’ve got to find some better light.

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