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

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

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

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

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

“ What has befallen you dear snake?”

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

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

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

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

Two other things come to mind.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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