Sunday, April 16, 2017

Friendship

A battle raged. One soldier staggered back to camp from the battlefront and asked the sergeant if his friend was back yet. The sergeant said, “no,” and the soldier asked permission to go get his friend. The sergeant denied permission saying, “he’s already dead and I don’t want to lose you as well.” The soldier went anyway and returned, mortally wounded but carrying the body of his dead friend. The sergeant, furious, said, “I told you he was dead and now I've lost you both. Was it worth it?” The dying soldier said, “Yes, sir, when I found him he was still alive and said, “Jack, I was sure you’d come.”

I do not tell nor share this story often. I learned it from one of Anthony de Mello's collection of tales and it is one of set of tales that I hold close to my heart. If I gave that set a name it would probably be "The Bittersweet." From Anne Carson's extended meditation/scholarly discussion on this notion, Eros the Bittersweet, I learned that "the bittersweet" is what is most true about life. Several years ago, dissatisfied by a Robert Bly translation of the Antonio Machado poem "Anoche cuando dormia" (Last night while sleeping), I studied the original and worked my own translation (which you can read here). Bly's choice was to interpret this as a poem about failure. But the word he translated as "failure" is "amarguras" which, as I explained in my blog post, means "bitternesses" which struck me as the obvious counterpoint to the sweetness of honey. This poem reminds me to reflect on those things that feel to me like failures (and there are so so many) and think again about the patterns in life and whether such things are better re:framed as losses - the kinds of losses that are simply the unavoidable stuff of the brief sojourn we call life. It feels to me that I spend a lot of the past few years thinking about losses but that's just because I tend to forget for just how long such thoughts have been part of daily meditations. If it feels like i think about such things more these days, I think it is probably simply because such thoughts are thrown into stark relief by the daily joy of the love I share with Taliesen and Thée. Joy had always felt to me like a nice option, a luxury, if you will. But having children to care for has taught me to understand joy more as an obligation. For surely there is enough sorrow in the world that both Taliesen's and Thée's lives will have the usual abundance. Joy seems the scarcer matter and therefore all the more important to feature in the lives of our children. I love Kahlil Gibran's passage in The Prophet about "Joy and Sorrow" in which he eloquently links the two together and which I see as another expression of "the bittersweet." We cannot have one without the other. And I've learned the hard way (over and over again) that to deny someone their suffering is also to diminish their opportunity to experience joy. This is a complicated truth that I think about both in my life as a parent and as a university course instructor. For in both roles I feel an obligation to reveal both the joys and sorrows of the world. I believe that as a parent, I err on the side of the former while as a course instructor, the latter. Nor am I sure that that's the right thing to do. And so I blunder along.

One of the most moving books I have read in the past decade is Arthur Frank's The Renewal of Generosity: Illness, Medicine, and How to Live. The attention he gives to "generosity" in the contexts of how we care for each other when we are ill or dying is a call to act generously with ourselves and each other sooner rather than later. For it is one of the bittersweet truths of life that we will all experience moments when we are needful of the care of others. We are born in such circumstances and, sudden accidental death aside, we die the same way. I've just re-read this book for the third or fourth time and am moved once again to reflect on the importance of generosity in our lives - so much so that I believe there is nothing more important in life than to accompany each other on this journey - to be there for each other - to be present. Which is what de Mello's wee tale acts as poignant reminder.

Spring is the season of renewal. Through the darkness of winter the seeds and bulbs of countless plants nurture a light that bursts from the Spring ground with as much dazzle as shines from the sun above. And I remember the Easters of my youth as spring-bright and filled with sweetness  - that diminished for a short while the many "amarguras" (bitternesses) of a childhood otherwise filled with immense and, at that time, mysterious sadness. Such sadness is less mysterious to me now but not necessarily diminished. It is, if anything, stronger than ever. As my favourite passage from Ecclesiastes (1:18-KJB) puts it, “In much wisdom is much grief and s/he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." Yet another expression of "the bittersweet." And it has long-since been a central tenet of my approach to learning that I choose knowledge regardless of  sorrow. From Viktor Frankl I have learned that there is no better way to face sorrow and loss than to learn from it and with that learning better choose our disposition towards suffering.

In our world in which there is so much crass talk of "happiness" that can be had by buying and buying into the many consumer choices and ideas of our capitalist economies, I feel that nothing is more important to learn than how to be generous with each other, to understand that generosity is more than kindness, that it is far more than simply giving away what one already has in over-abundance (an over-abundance that is all-too-often the consequence of histories of oppression that create the privilege of the few), that generosity only starts at the point of sacrifice, that life, for all of us, is a unique blend of sorrow and joy, suffering and meaning. At the core of all my popular education work is this truth. And I still struggle about how best to "teach" this (as well as live it as a parent and friend), inspired by Audre Lorde's famous words, "For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. (1984, Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press), pp. 110- 114.)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Cure

It was at the end of the 19th Century in Vienna, Austria where a man had begun to make a name for himself as a doctor of the mind. People came to see him from around Europe and the world. One day, a strange looking man entered the doctor’s office and stood silently before the receptionist’s desk. The receptionist looked up and saw before her perhaps the saddest looking person she’d ever seen. 

“May I help you?” she asked.

“I want to see the doctor who I have heard so much about. He is my last hope,” said the stranger. 

“You will have to make an appointment and return in a week,” said the receptionist.

The sad looking man reached deep into his coat pocket, pulled his hand out and dropped a handful of gold coins on the desk.

The receptionist was startled, coughed and said, “let me see what I can do.” She got up, went into the next room, and returned in a moment to say, “The doctor can see you for a few minutes.”

The stranger walked slowly into the inner office and sat in a chair opposite the doctor.

“What seems to be the problem, my friend with the pocket of gold coins,” asked the doctor kindly.

The stranger lifted his head and struggling to speak, said, “Lately I have been beset by ceaseless melancholy. Nothing gives me joy and everything seems pointless. I don’t know what to do. They say that you are a doctor of the mind and you are my last hope.” 

The doctor smiled widely. “You have nothing to worry about, friend. For you have come at exactly the right moment. For, you see, the circus has just arrived in Vienna and they perform this very night. I myself plan to attend. As must you. You see, in this circus is the funniest man in the world. Now he has the saddest face of any clown that has ever lived – he never smiles, they say. But it is said that when you see him perform you forget all your worries and know only laughter. His name is Grimaldi and he is your cure.”

The stranger looked even more sad, if such was possible and he said, “Then there is no cure for me, kind sir. You see, I am Grimaldi.”

The doctor nodded slowly. “I see. I see. Then there is only one thing you can do.”

The stranger looked up hopefully.

“Tonight,” said the doctor, “you must kill yourself.”

“Then it is true,” said Grimaldi. “There is no cure and I must end my life. I will do it this very night.”

The doctor held up his hand saying, “No, no. you misunderstand.”

And then, emphasizing each word, and staring intensely at Grimaldi, he said, slowly, “You must kill yourself this evening, at the circus, for all to see.”

Grimaldi, wide-eyed, looked at the doctor. Slowly a smile grew on Grimaldi’s face.

“Thank-you,” he said to the doctor and left a handful of gold coins on the desk as he left.
That night Grimaldi set about to kill himself before the sold-out audience. He first tried to cut his throat with an over-sized knife. But the blade, made of rubber, cut and cut and made no mark. Then he tried to shoot himself but the gun shot out nothing but smoke and paper. He tried to hang himself but the rope broke and he tumbled to the circus floor with the crowd roaring all the while. Finally he climbed a tall ladder to throw himself to his death. He leapt from the ladder and everyone screamed. But Grimaldi’s suspenders were caught and he was pulled back to the ladder. No circus crowd had ever laughed so loud and hard.


And they say that that was the only night in his career that Grimaldi himself could not help but laugh. And he laughed and laughed until the tears flowed.

I first heard this story in the late 80s and have learned that it is an important part of the lore of clowning. I've since learned that Freud and Grimaldi lived in different times. But, as i read in Alice Kane's The Dreamer Awakes

The dreamer awakes,
The shadow goes by;
When I tell you a tale,
The tale is a lie.
But ponder it well,
Fair maiden, good youth:
The tale is a lie,
What it tells is the truth.

I was curious to see this story pop up in Alan Moore's comic Watchmen calling the clown Pagliacci (named, no doubt, for the opera).


Saturday, January 21, 2017

Desire

There was once a man who set out to travel the world seeking his deepest desire: happiness, fulfillment, contentment, enlightenment. He didn't know what he desired most. But he would learn and would find it. From city to city, province to province, nation to nation he travelled but was unsuccessful. His deepest desire eluded him. One day he rested beneath a tree in a forest. Little did he know that he sat beneath one of the Great Trees of the world, the kalpavriksha of legend - the great wish-fulfilling tree. Whatever one wishes for while seated beneath this wonder is instantly granted. He looked at his surroundings and admired the beauty of the forest in which he sat. He thought to himself, "in all my travels, this is as beautiful a place as I have seen. Would that I had a home here." Instantly, a home appeared. He gasped with delight. "I am hungry. All I need now is food to eat." No sooner had he thought this than a table appeared before him laden with a feast of food and drink, sweet and savory, quenching and appetizing. He reached out, picked up a pastry, and ate it with more satisfaction than he could remember ever experiencing. "If only I had a family with whom to share this." And suddenly he was joined by a joyous racket of youth and a beautiful partner. Leaning back against the tree, filled with wonder and filled with food he thought to himself, "This must be a magical tree. Everything I wish comes true. But what if the magic of this tree is caused by a demon who lives within." No sooner had he thought this than a demon appeared. "Oh no," thought the man, "this demon will probably eat me up." And it did.

This is only one of the many stories i've learned over the years that simultaneously enchants and disturbs me. I know hundreds of stories - nowhere near the 3,000 that the legendary Duncan Williamson was said to have known (and, having once spent a week with Duncan as his driver and host, i believe the truth of that claim) - and I've often wondered about this or that story that i love if i would grow bored of it. Remarkably, this has never happened. At least i continue to find that remarkable. My theory of this is that as long as i have something to learn from a story, i will not, indeed can not, grow tired of it. But while many stories reside in my memory with delight and fondness, there are some that have a more uncomfortable feel to them: enchanting, yes, but also, as i said, disturbing. And, perhaps not surprisingly, i pay special attention to such stories. Though often, upon first encountering them, i will avoid them, certainly avoid telling them, and even try and forget them. But such things are hard to forget and they return again and again to afflict my consciousness - almost as if to say, "let us out, tell us, tell us now!"

This story has obvious resonance with the 1960s-inspired pop-ethic of positive thinking (and which reminds me of what comedian Ronnie Shakes once said, "I was going to buy a copy of The Power of Positive Thinking, and then I thought: what the hell good would that do?") But there is, of course, a great deal of power in what we think and it affects not only our mental health but our physical health and the health and well-being of our entire world. I've wrestled for years, and expect to continue such for years to come, with the relationship of our thinking and its influence on our material, spiritual, psychological, and social worlds. Which is why, i suppose, i have devoted my life to a praxis of popular education which is something that i believe is about creating the conditions that support us in changing the way we learn and, therefore, think. And stories, as i've often said, are the original popular education. And this story, with its grim humour, continues to teach me and it makes me smile.

image source: Banyan tree in Calcutta.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Beautiful Illusion

Mulla Nasrudin was walking along the village street with a friend when some rambunctious children surrounded him and teased him for the patches on his clothes and the worn shoes he sported.

"Stop bothering me," Nasrudin said, "and I will tell you something very interesting."

"Okay," said one of the boys. "but no philosophy!"

"Of course," said Nasrudin. "I can see that you are already skilled at discerning Truth. Well, it seems that the Emir is giving a banquet that is free to all who come."

The children yipped with joy and anticipation and ran off in the direction of the Emir's palace. Nasrudin and his friend laughed as the children disappeared in the distance. "Very clever," said Nasrudin's friend. "I almost believed you myself."

Nasrudin imagined what such a banquet would look like if it were truly happening: sumptuous fruit, refreshing drink, seasoned dishes of all kinds. He licked his lips. Somebody bumped into Nasrudin and he saw several children running along the street. "Where are you running to, so quickly?" asked Nasrudin.

"Haven't you heard? Someone said the Emir is giving a free banquet!"

"Really," said Nasrudin. He gathered up his robes and began to run after the children.

"But Nasrudin," said the friend, "you're the one who made that up."

"I know," said Nasrudin as he ran quicker still. "But maybe it's true after all!"

image: Kulliyat / Sa'di, 1556

Exercising One's Powers

Four friends once set out to learn wisdom. They each travelled far and for many years before they met once again. They met in a forest and, having learned many wonderful things, had much to share. They talked and told stories and then one friend stood up and looked around at the forest floor and found a bone. He placed the bone on the ground and said, "I can remake the skeleton of this animal." He said certain words, made certain gestures and the skeleton of the animal reassembled. It had been a tiger. One of the friends said, "Ahh, i have learned how to put sinew and blood, flesh and skin on bones." And with words and gestures he did just that. The third friend, "What fortune. For i know how to breathe life into this." The fourth friend said, "There's no need to exercise your power. We believe you." The third friend said, "But what use is knowledge if you don't use it. I've never been able to apply what i know. Behold." The fourth friend said, "Just give me a moment. There is something i must do." He looked around and, spotting a tall tree, climbed up as far as he could. Looking at his four friends standing around the body of the tiger, he said, "you may proceed." The third friend uttered certain words, made certain gestures and he breathed life into the tiger. The now-living tiger looked around, felt very hungry and leapt on the three friends who screamed and clung to each other in fear. The tiger ate them up, licked its lips, cleaned its whiskers and then walked away, purring, into the forest. The fourth friend climbed down from his tree, stood over the remains of friends, sighed, and went home to arrange their funerals.

adapted from "The Tiger-makers" in A.K. Ramanujan Folktales from India: A Selection of Oral Tales from Twenty-two Languages (NY: Pantheon, 1991), pp. 319-320.

image source: https://flic.kr/p/i7Tcu5

Saturday, January 07, 2017

The Gift

Once upon a time a poor man wished for riches. When he woke the next day he found a small leather sack on his doorstep. When he picked it up he heard a voice whisper, "inside this sack you will find a coin. Take the coin and another will appear. Take as many as you wish. But you may spend none of them until you throw the sack in the river where it will turn into a fish."

The man opened the sack and saw that inside was one gold coin. He removed the coin and looked in the sack again to see another gold coin appear. He spent all day and all night reaching into the sack and removing the coin that was there. The next morning he had filled a sack with gold coins. He was also hungry and with no food in the house and not yet wanting to throw away the sack so he could spend the coins he had retrieved thus far, he went into the street to beg. With what he was given he bought bread, returned to his house and continued to draw coins from the sack. Soon he had several bags filled with gold coins. The next day, waking hungry, he took the magical sack down to the river. But he couldn't bring himself to throw the sack away. He returned home, placed the sack on his table, and then went into the street to beg. And so it went. Day after day he drew coins from the sack and whenever he brought the sack to the river he was unwilling to let it go.

Many years later he died. And when people came to bury him they found his house filled with gold coins but not a scrap of food to be found anywhere.

How many of us hoard our gifts and beg to eat? I fear that i am guilty of this. It is especially hard, and therefore all the more important, to remember the magic of gifts when what is needed is rent money. There is such abundance all around us and yet we are dismally bad when it comes to sharing such abundance equitably. Folktales are replete with treasure, magic tables that set themselves with feasts, magic bags that fill themselves with money, magic helpers who always have the right word, deed, tool. But such things always require that something be given in advance or in return - from a kind gesture to a helping hand. The gift always has to keep moving. When the gift stops moving it dies. And so it is with stories. Every story i have ever learned has felt to me like a gift. And they are gifts. And i delight in passing on these gifts. Even while i struggle, like so many of us, to pay the rent.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Tansen's Teacher


Once the ruler Akbar called Tansen before him to sing. Akbar listened and was, as usual, amazed at the talent of this singer. He praised Tansen. But Tansen said to Akbar, “My singing is little compared to that of my teacher.” “Then I must meet your teacher,” said Akbar. But Tansen explained that his teacher agreed to meet few people. There was no guarantee that he would meet Akbar. However, if Akbar were to travel on foot wearing only ordinary clothing there was a possibility that Tansen’s teacher might agree to meet him. Akbar did as Tansen suggested and they set out on the journey together. They approached the mountain range where Tansen’s teacher lived. The teacher saw that Akbar approached on foot and wearing ordinary clothes. He welcomed them and Akbar and Tansen sat before the teacher. Tansen’s teacher began to sing. The music made the plants and the trees vibrate. All creatures paused and listened. Akbar and Tansen went into a trance and were transported beyond the world they knew. Akbar did not know how long he was in that trance but when he came out of it Tansen’s teacher was nowhere to be seen. Tansen explained that once his teacher sang for someone it was unlikely that they would ever see him again. Akbar was satisfied and returned to his palace. Some weeks later he called Tansen before him and asked him to sing the raga that his teacher had sung for them. Tansen obliged and sang. When the song was over Akbar looked long at Tansen and said, “It is true that that is the raga your teacher sang. But it is different. How is that?” “Ah,” sighed Tansen. “You see, while I stand here and sing before you, the emperor, my teacher sings before God.”

One thing i love about storytelling is the searching for stories. I love pouring through books, reading websites, browsing libraries and bookstores, observing the world around me. And, of course, listening, always listening. The 1,001 Friday Nights of Storytelling is one of the greatest places to listen in the world. It was in a Barnes and Noble somewhere north of San Francisco that i found a copy of Hazrat Inayat Khan's Tales (Omega Publications, 1980). A book with that title will always catch my attention. And, indeed, opening it to see it filled with short tales clinched it. The book is a collection of Sufi "teaching tales" and anecdotes of Khan's experience. Hazrat Inayat Khan was, amongst other things, a musician and the founder of the International Sufi Movement now known as the Sufi Order Inayati. Sufi stories are amongst my favourite in the world. Often enigmatic riddles, they move around one's consciousness like beautiful birds catching one's attention one minute and flitting away the next. I think i've come to understand that one of the essential characteristics of a "teaching story" is that they continue to teach long after they have been first encountered. For these stories, unlike a riddles, don't have just "one answer" but countless answers. Every context in which i recall a story changes the meaning of that story, adding to it, refracting it, making it new again.

ImageAkbar and Tansen visit Swami Haridas in Vrindavan. Swami Haridas is to the right, playing the lute; Akbar is to the left, dressed as a common man; Tansen is in the middle, listening to Haridas. Jaipur-Kishangarh mixed style, ca. 1750

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Turtle's Request

Once upon a time, a turtle walking along a path was stopped by a leopard that jumped in front of him. The turtle, realizing his doom, said, “Sir Leopard, would you allow me a moment to prepare myself before you kill and eat me?” The leopard thought this an odd request, but saw no reason not to agree for, he thought, he was hardly in danger of losing his meal. “Prepare yourself,” said the leopard. The turtle scurried back and forth across the path, scuffing the dirt, raising the dust, and making a mess of the path. After doing this for a few minutes he stopped, caught his breath, and looked at the leopard and said, “I am ready.” The leopard looked at the turtle and asked “Why did you do this?” The turtle answered, “So that when others come by and see what is left of my body, they will say, ‘a great battle happened here.'”

I first learned this story from Dan Yashinsky who learned it from Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah which i have since read twice. While i hope that this isn't the eventual story of my life and though it is the story of many a life, it certainly feels often that this is the story i am living.

Image: https://flic.kr/p/tCnrnf