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Recent events which seem to me to be heightening a national zeitgeist of fear of the “other” have prodded me to republish this post from 2014.  I was back in Alaska earlier this month and ran into an elder from Kake Alaska- the scene of both the personal and folkloric tales that follow.  I’ll write about that encounter in another post, but for now please consider ways in which we can break bread together and build bridges instead of walls.

As we enter this particular Thanksgiving day, with the unfortunate pall of not just smoke but, mistrust, fear, anger and racial tension sparked by the events in Ferguson Missouri, I remember the time that I first experienced myself as a stranger in a strange land, a very obvious young, unexperienced, 20 year old white kid in the Tlingit Native community of Kake Alaska.(1970)

I want to share two stories from that time.  One, my own, which is how I cam to be there, and how I was treated.  And the other, a Tlingit folktale that I heard told many years after I’d left, and then found even many years latter in written form. This story has guided since it ‘found me’  but I have resisted telling it in deference to sensitivities about cultural appropriation.  But my personal connection to this story feels so strong, and now that I have seen numerous retellings in print and on the internet, my feeling is that this story is screaming to be told at a time like this, a time when we simply cannot remain as strangers to each other.
Off on an adventure, I’d landed in Petersburg Alaska in the early spring, totally broke and desperate for a job, any job.  In a small cafe, a Vista volunteer working in Kake, suggested that I take a boat to this island community and try a get a job as a deck hand on a fishing boat since the Halibut season was not far off.  The conversation was overheard by some of the locals who exhorted me mostly as follows…”Don’t do it kid.  Those natives will throw you overboard and you’ll be food for the sand fleas.”  They truly were trying to dissuade me.  I don’t know if it was providence, stubbornness, curiosity, or simply my desperate financial straights, but an hour later I was on my way to Kake.

Here’s how I was greeted.  After being introduced by that Vista volunteer to one of the prominent families in the village, I was offered a place to sleep on one of the village fishing boats and a place at the table to eat with the family every day for several weeks until the fishing season started.  Some inquiries were made and when fishing commenced, I had a job. I was the greenhorn and I mean true greenhorn on a halibut boat where the next youngest member of the crew was 80 years old. No doubt I was somewhat of a curiosity , but the point is that as an outsider, I was welcomed and embraced, and this proved to be just the first of many years of my experience of native hospitality.  Had I listened to the bigots, and yes, that’s what they were,  and not ventured to the village, my life might have proven to have been very different.
Now the folktale.  It’s important to remember that I did not encounter this tale, from this village until years after I left.

The Man Who Entertained the Bears

A man of the Raven clan living had grown very old.  His friends were gone, passed away and he felt sad to think that he was left alone. He began to think about how he might leave that lonely place or even end his own life.  He thought that he might paddle away to another village, but then said to himself, ” I will be a stranger there and if  the people there see that I am alone, they may think that I have run away from my own village,  or been banished for some disgraceful thing.

It then occurred to him to go to the bears and let the bears kill him. The village was at the mouth of a large salmon creek and there found a bear trail and lay down right in the middle of it.

“ Let the bears find me here at eat me,” he decided.

Soon after, as he lay there, he heard the sounds of twigs and bushes breaking and saw a large number of grizzly bears coming toward him.  The largest bear was in the lead,  a huge old Silvertip- the tips of his hairs were white as that old mans hair.  Suddenly the man imagined the sound of his own bones breaking and thought that perhaps being eaten by the bears was not such a good idea.

Very quickly now the bears were close upon him. He jumped up. The  Silvertip stoop so that they were facing each other.  The hair on the man’s next stood up.  The fur on Silvertip’s neck stood up.

“I  am here,” said the man,  summoning his courage,  “to invite you to a feast.” I have come to invite you to a feast tomorrow, but, if you are going to kill me,  I am willing to die. I am alone. I have lost all of friends,  my children, and my wife.”

At this, Silvertip grunted, turned about and led the other bills back up the trail.

“I think they have accepted my invitation,” the man thought.

When he got home he began to prepare for the feast. He cleaned and made his house a welcoming place,  then he told the  other people in the village about his encounter with the bears and invited them all to the feast.

“You have done a very foolish and dangerous thing,” they replied.  The bears are our enemies. We will not come!”

For the feast, the man prepared dishes that the bears would enjoy, salmon,  berries, and more.  The next morning he saw the bears coming from the mouth of the creek. The other villagers saw them too, peeking from their doors but afraid to come out. But he stood still to receive them. brought them into the house and gave them seats, placing Silvertip in the middle of the house and the rest around him.

The feast began with large trays of cranberries preserved in grease.  Then tray after tray of salmon and other foods were passed from bear to bear.  When they they were finished, Silvertip rose on his hind legs and began to address the man  for quite some time. Then he turned and led the other bears out towards the forest.  As each bear left, it licked the paint with which that the man had adorned his arms and chest with.

The next day, the smallest of the  bear came back, but it seemed to the man to be in almost human form and spoke to him in  his own Tlingit language.

“I was once a human being. I was a young baby, lost in the forest.  The bears adopted me, protected me, and taught me their ways. Now I am mostly a bear, but I still remember my childhood language.  Silvertip asked me if you understood what he said to you at the feast yesterday?”

The man replied, “I felt that he was thanking me, but no, I did not understand everything.”

“He was telling you,” the bear man said, “that he is in the same condition as you. He too has lived long and has lost all of his friends. Many are the ways in which we are the same.  He had heard of you before he saw you. He told you to think of him when you are mourning for your lost ones. or when you are lonely.”  And with that the bear man returned to the forest and his companions.

(Here’s a link to the original English version of the story.

http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/nw/tmt/tmt088.htmI’ve shortened and adapted it slightly but trust that the intent and spirit of the story has been conveyed.  Again, this is offered humbly and with thanks to those who have told and may continue to tell the story in and around Kake.  Please know that my time there was a turning point in my life, a time when I began to see and understand my place in the world in a much broader way,  way that opened up a whole new way of seeing, thinking and relating)

This story was narrated to Swanton by a man named Kasank, who added this commentary to the tale.

“From this we learn,” said Kasank, that when when we give a feast, no matter if a person may be an enemy, it is good to invite him to the meal and become friends just as this man did with the bears.”
This story began working on me as soon as I heard it.  I was early into my storytelling career and discovering that for me, storytelling was not so much about performance as it was about encounter and being together with people in an authentic and convivial way.  It lead me to work with my wife and storytelling partner Liz and a great group of friends to create community events we have come to call F.E.A.S.T!  Families Eating and Storytelling Together.  The intent has always been to bring people together – people of different ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds for a shared meal, and shared stories.

Food and stories are what I’d call the universal solvent of  differences and mistrust.  Break bread with each other, share stories- true stories, stretched stories, hard stories, folktales, jokes, jests, stories of fools stories of wise ones, love stories, reconciliation stories… and we find out, like the man and Silvertip, how beyond the knotty differences, just how much we have in common.

Finally for now, I’d just like to add, that it’s not just about sitting down with an adversary or an enemy.  Families have their daily, and sometimes drawn out stresses, arguments, and grudges.  We can start on Thanksgiving day of course, but any day, any meal can be a time to be together, eat together, and make peace with ourselves and each other.  And that would truly be a grace and a blessing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’m pretty sure that this will be the first time that Wayne Dyer, the motivational speaker, and Uncle Remus will ever have been mentioned in the same sentence. In his latest book, Wishes Fulfilled, Dyer writes about imagination as the foundation for manifesting one’s desires. “Everything that now exists was once imagined. And everything that will ever exist must first be imagined.”

A few nights ago I watched the PBS special that complements the book. Dyyer was passionate about the primacy of imagination.  He exhorts the audience repeatedly that the imagination is yours and yours alone.  It’s sacred.  Don’t let ANYBODY tell you what you can put in it, or what is possible or not possible. We must take particular care to nurture the imagination of children so they grow up to be adults who can manifest their highest dreams and potentials.

So where does Uncle Remus come into this?  Joel Chandler Harris, (the author of the Remus tales) knew something about the power of imagination.  The Uncle Remus tales, in my opinion, stand as the great Arabian Nights of American literature.  More than mere entertainment though, Brer Rabbit and his cohorts show us the way, for better and worse to navigate the world of human circumstance and nature.

Listen! Here comes the Teenchy Tiny Duck waddling along this way.  What is that she’s cackling about?

“Purty Money, purty Money, Who lost their purty money?”  It seems that Teenchy Tiny just found a purse full of gold coins.  Here’s the gist of the story and the gem of it.

A rich man hears Teenchy’s cry and quickly claims the purse as his own.  When Teenchy’s master finds out about the find and quick loss of the purse, Teenchy is banished until she can retrieve the treasure. She disconsolate, but then who should appear but Brer Rabbit with this bit of encouragement.  “There’s always a way if not two.”

Fortified with this sage advice,  a very determined duck heads out to reclaim her fortune.  Along the way she meets Brer Fox, Brer Wolf, Uncle Ladder, Grandpappy River, and a hive of bees.  All of them offer to help.  Each of them then jumps in her ‘stretching satchel’ and  each in turn plays a part in saving Teenchy from the murderous schemes of the rich man to eliminate the duck. Spoiler alert … against all odds Teenchy returns with the loot.

As Uncle Remus relates the story to the Little Boy, the child grows increasingly incredulous.  He wonders aloud what his mother would say about a ladder fitting into a sack let alone a river. But Remus chides him.  His mother isn’t there, she isn’t likely to be there, and there’s no reason this isn’t as worthy as any of the  many other tales the boy has heard.

Uncle Remus takes an uncompromising stand for the imagination.  He’s not even going to let the boys mother interfere in the realm of possibiliites.

Between Brer Rabbit who reminds Teenchy that there’s always a way, and her stretching sack, Teenchy Tiny can prevail against all odds, and by inference in this tale and so many of the others, so can we.

We just need a good stretching sack, and as Uncle Remus and Wayne Dyyer remind us, we’ve all got one. Our imaginations are our stretching sack, and we can put anything we want to into that sack. We have to guard it and not let any other presume to tell us what it can hold. If we can do that,we just may find a way, or two out of whatever predicament we find ourselves in.

What will you put in your stretching sack today?

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I just remembered a story my father related to me on more than one occasion. I’ve always though of it as Dad’s Jack Story.  A little research today quickly reveals the lineage, or part of it.  Turn’s out that this is  a “Danny Thomas signature story.  Here it is.
“There’s this traveling salesman who gets stuck one night on a lonely country road with a flat tire and no jack. So he starts walking toward a service station about a mile away, and as he walks, he talks to himself. “How much can he charge me for renting a jack?” he thinks. “One dollar, maybe two. But it’s the middle of the night, so maybe there’s an after-hours fee. Probably another five dollars. If he’s anything like my brother-in-law, he’ll figure I got no place else to go for the jack, so he’s cornered the market and has me at his mercy. Ten dollars more.”
He goes on walking and thinking, and the price and the anger keep rising. Finally, he gets to the service station and is greeted cheerfully by the owner: “What can I do for you, sir?” But the salesman will have none of it. “You got the nerve to talk to me, you robber,” he says. “You can take your stinkin’ jack and . . .”
Upon a little reflection,seems to me, that I’ve been down that road with a flat tire and no jack many, many times.  Making assumptions, creating scenarios from them, working myself into a state, and acting in accordance… but of course, not acting in accordance with what was REALLY happening in the moment.

Years ago, we moved into a new neighborhood- our son was 14 and fond of playing rap music, playing loud rap music on his boom-box.  We had a neighbor two doors down, an older woman who we would often see walking, walking past our house, or a mile away making a long loop home. Her stride was always fast and determined, she looked straight ahead, and it seemed to us that she had a perpetual angry and sour look on her face.  Certainly when she walked by our house, she never slowed or made the slightest gesture in our direction.  We quickly decided that Hildegarde was probably annoyed or worse by the sound of that rap music. She didn’t like us and she really didn’t like our son.

The first time we ever spoke a word to her must have been 5 or 6 years later. She was still walking that long loop every day.   She knocked on our door and introduced herself to Liz who was home at the time. The purpose of her visit?  She asked Liz if she could pick some of the wildflowers that were growing in our front yard. (We’d traded a small lawn for wildflowers and a raised bed vegetable area.)  She quickly added that the flowers were for her son who had recently been diagnosed with a late stage cancer, and that he loved flowers… but only wildflowers.  Then Liz learned more.  Just about the time that we’d moved in, H’s husband had died of cancer.  These long walks that she took were her way of healing from this great loss.  What we’d interpreted as anger was much more about loss.  For six years, assumptions we made and a story we’d told ourselves had shut the door on the possibility of knowing our neighbor and what she was going through.

More years passed, and the time came when Liz and I jumped at an opportunity to live in New Mexico (the subject of another post) It was a good time for our son to be out on his own.  Long story short here.  When Hildegarde heard that we were leaving, she immediately asked what our son would do?  Where would he live?  She would be happy to offer him a room in her house.  She had always thought of what a nice kid he was.

I sit here, wondering what other opportunities for authentic engagement with others I’ve missed, what problems I might have more easily solved, what challenges more easily overcome had I not filled my mind with assumptions, scenarios and limiting beliefs.  Perhaps I’m doing that right now…

You knock on a door to ask for….
What are you thinking?

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

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

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

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

“ Dad, why is the sky blue?”

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

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

“I wonder about that myself.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Rabbi, Rabbi, why did you strike me?

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

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

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

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

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Listen!  Do you hear it? Nasruddin, the holy fool of so many Middle-Eastern stories is playing his Kemenche again.

One day Nasruddin’s wife entered the house to find him playing the ancient instrument, drawing his bow over one of the strings…  playing the same string, and the same note, over and over and over again.  He went on for hours, until finally his wife could no longer take it.  Still, she tried to be diplomatic.  “My dear husband,” she said, “Do you know that when some musicians play the Kemenche, they sometimes play notes that are higher, and sometimes play notes that are lower than the one you have been playing over and over and over all these many hours?”

“Of course I know,” he replied, “That’s because they are trying to find this note… the one I am playing.”

A world away and quoting now from Frank Water’s World of the Hopi, here is a fragment of the Hopi creation story…

“Palongawhoya, traveling throughout the earth, sounded out his call as he was bidden.  All the vibratory centers along the earth’s axis from pole to pole resounded his call,  the whole earth trembled, the universe quivered in time.  Thus he made the whole world an instrument of sound and sound an instrument for carrying messages, resounding praise to the creator of all.
“This is you voice, Uncle, Sotuknang said to Taiowa,( Creator) ”Everything is tuned to your sound.”

Listen!  Do you hear it? The sound of all creation?  Nasruddin’s one note? Today, I’ll be playing and living notes higher and lower, but I’ll be listening and perhaps by effort, with the help of grace, find a moment to be in tune.

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