“Whoever you are holding me now in hand,
Without one thing all will be useless,
I give you fair warning before you attempt me further,
I am not what you supposed, but far different.” ~ Walt Whitman.
Story-telling is in our bones, in our genes, in our blood. It is how we know who we are as a people. It is how we explain the inexplicable, how we relate to each other, how we entertained ourselves before we invented electronic story-telling devices. The fascinating thing about our ancient stories is that the patterns are very similar. The characters may differ, but as Joseph Campbell uncovered, the plots often follow similar paths.
The Welsh have the Mabinog,ion a collection of ancient legends of heroes and struggles, of men with god-like abilities to move mountains and command the seas. Welsh folk-tales are full of encounters with the ‘little people’, mystical fairy type creatures. When I moved to Jamaica as a child, I soon heard a different type of fairy tale, one which starred the amazing ‘Bra Anancy’, a spider with human characteristics who was almost always able to get the better of the other animals in the forest by his conniving and cunning ways. He was a real trickster. His stories traveled with the West Africans who were brutally yanked from their homeland and dumped across the Caribbean and North America as slaves. How amazing is it that these people, who were treated so inhumanely, were able to pass down their folklore of a trickster, one who always overcame his circumstances?
It seems as if story-telling has a power beyond mere entertainment. These stories have a message, a lesson hidden in the amusing tales. We all remember how Brer Rabbit (another immigrant from Africa) tricked Brer Fox into doing what he wanted by asking for the opposite. In Native American tradition, Kokopelli is a trickster god who also represents fertility (a sack full of corn on his back) and music (he plays a flute).
In the classroom I use stories to help reinforce concepts. When teaching about the physiological responses to the sympathetic nervous system (our ‘fight or flight’ response), I use Red Riding Hood to help students remember that our pupils dilate in this condition. ‘My, what big eyes you have, Grandmama!’
What I love about all of these characters is that they present themselves as something other than what they are, they have learned to underplay their talents in order to obtain their goals. Many of us do the opposite, we tend to oversell our abilities in order to get ahead, and then fall short when tested. It can be dangerous, to have a co-worker that you think is capable and competent, only to be let down in a crisis. It may be a feature of survival, especially for migrants in a strange land, to play a role of fitting in. Soon after arriving in this country, I discovered that I was supposed to ‘sell myself’, tout my assets, toot my own horn to get ahead. I was far more comfortable being underestimated, keeping quiet until I trusted people, hiding my light under a bushel.
I suppose there are many examples in nature. We have insects that can blend in with the undergrowth, moths that appear to have huge eyes on their wing span, to deter predators. We also use nature to inspire us. We remind children who feel ugly and unlovable that the butterfly is a weird looking caterpillar before it metamorphoses into the beautiful delicate fluttering creature that delights the eye. But everyone deserves to be treated with love and respect. My daughter had butterflies released at her wedding ceremony. It was more complicated than it sounds. The butterflies are shipped in a cool environment, to keep them subdued for travel. Before being released they have to be individually warmed up to room temperature, to bring them back to life. Turns out, my daughter had been to another wedding where that had also been the plan. Unfortunately they had not followed instructions on the warming up phase, and the poor butterflies when released had tottered to the edge of the container and then plummeted to earth!
In the case of our wedding, the butterflies had been warmed and awakened as instructed (courtesy of the godmother’s hot-flashing hands!), but they were also hungry! A few of them headed straight for the flowers in the flower girl’s bouquet, sending her leaping backwards in horror! But they made for some memorable photographs as they posed nicely.
In Native American traditions, young people go off on ‘vision quests’, a time away from family and home, to spend time fasting and communing with nature, and discovering their ‘power animal’, a spirit that will help to guide them. I have oversimplified the process, but I wonder what ‘spirit animal’ appeals to you? Barbara Walters in her interviews would often ask of celebrities, if they were a tree, which tree would they be? Fascinating questions indeed!
This Friday morning I honor the holders of stories, the ones who carefully tended them and passed them on to the younger generations, despite horrific circumstances. The griots, those holders of memories, they enabled a culture to hold tightly to their roots, despite upheaval, disruption, torture and death. I honor the spirits of animals and trees that have supported our story telling and helped us to relate to each other. I thank the ancestors for finding ways to amuse and entertaining us while teaching us what we needed to survive in this world. May you have stories to tell, and those who will listen. Have a wonderful weekend, Family!