Monday, May 30, 2016

Just Two Words

There was once a woman who entered an order of holy sisters that practiced a vow of silence. The nuns were only allowed to utter two words every ten years. At the end of ten years in the abbey, the sister met with the Abbess and uttered her two words: “bed hard.” Another ten years passed and once again the sister met with the Abbess to utter her two words: “Food stinks.”  After yet another ten years the sister met once again with the Abbess to utter her two words: “I quit.” To which the Abbess responded with, “I am not surprised seeing as all you do is complain.”

My dad told me this joke last week. For him it was one of many catholic jokes that we have shared over the years. And, having been raised catholic (despite that the whole religious part didn't quite stick) catholic jokes can still make me laugh more than jokes from other cultural/religious traditions. What i didn't realize growing up with catholic jokes is that they are mostly cleverly disguised wisdom tales and/or wry (even diabolical) acts of resistance against any number of pieces of church dogma. The latter purpose is the more obvious and certainly what i came to appreciate first about such jokes. Learning to see the wisdom in these stories took more time. As well as having the vantage of revisiting many of these jokes with my always-growing knowledge of stories from around the world. One of the great delights of storytelling research is finding similar stories in different traditions. The shock of recognition is always a pleasing experience. And this certainly fuelled my search for many years. But as i studied anthropology and comparative mythology/religion, i grew suspicious of this "shock of recognition" and the easy (even facile) conclusion that all stories are similar, that all cultures have the "same" stories. I read a good deal of Joseph Campbell's  work (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The 4-volume Masks of God, The Flight of the Wild Gander, The Power of Myth) and i was greatly moved by his work. But as enthused as i was to learn of the the story pattern of the "hero's journey" which Campbell researched and analyzed so well, i grew increasingly discontent with his notion of the "monomyth." 

Having opened myself to the influence of feminism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism and more, the idea of a "monomyth" seemed suspiciously aligned with the global domination of western culture. It was only when i came across the work of Wendy Doniger (Other Peoples' Myths: The Cave of Echoes) that i was finally able to articulate my discontent. Briefly, Doniger made the point that Campbell never moved beyond the thrill of the similarity of all stories. Such similarity is what, perhaps for most of us, is first noticed. But, as Doniger points out, where things really get interesting is how the stories are different.

This wee story about two words is one i first came across as a Buddhist tale. And it's pretty much the exact same story - just swap the nun for a monk and the Abbess for the head monk of a monastery and you've got the version that i have been most familiar with. But seeing this story cast in the context of a catholic joke and it takes on a fantastic array of other resonances. Their similarity is, indeed, pleasing. But their difference is wondrous.

The Cracked Pot

A water-bearer made the journey from the stream to the master’s house each day. The water-bearer did this with two large pots hung on opposites ends of a pole which she carried across her shoulders. One of the pots had a crack and, while the other pot was intact and always delivered all that was put in it, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For years the water-bearer delivered only one and a half pots of water to the master’s house.

One day, another water-bearer noticed the cracked pot and asked, “do you not realize that you lose much of your water from that pot as you walk?”

“Yes, I am aware of this,” said the water-bearer.

“You are foolish to waste such effort. Why do you not repair that pot or get a new one?” asked the other water-bearer.

“Walk with me tomorrow,” said the water-bearer, “if you want an answer.”

The next day the two water-bearers began their journey from the well to their masters’ houses. The water-bearer with the cracked pot asked her companion to notice the surroundings. After a while the other water-bearer noticed that one side of the path was abundant with flowers of all kinds while the other had few.

The water-bearer said, “I spread flower seeds on one side of the path, and every day while I walk from stream to house the cracked pot has  watered them. For years I have picked these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table, my own home, and to share with friends. My cracked pot brings beauty into the world."

I haven't the foggiest idea where i first heard or read this story. In fact, all i remembered of it was the cracked pot watering flowers and the walk back and forth from the stream. So i've spun it up into more of a tale.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Rogue Who Conquered a Village

Once there was a clever rogue who plagued a village and who, after some time, was caught. He was tied to a tree with a sack put over his head while the villagers went off to deliberate his fate. A simple shepherd came along, saw the hooded man tied to the tree, and asked, “why are you tied to the tree?”

The rogue replied, “I refused to take money that these people were forcing upon me.”

“But why would you not take their money,” asked the shepherd.

“I am a holy man and exist only to serve the divine. I would not let these godless people corrupt me!”

The shepherd, much moved by this stranger’s predicament, suggested they switch places and that the rogue should flee for his safety. And so it was. The villagers returned after dusk having decided the throw the rogue into the sea which they did straightaway. The next morning the villagers were astonished to see the rogue walking into the village with a flock of sheep.

“How is this possible,” a villager asked. “Where did you get those sheep?”

The rogue explained, “there are kindly spirits in the sea who take pity on those who drown in the sea. Their reward was to revive me and return me safely to the land with this flock of sheep.”

The villagers wasted no time. They turned, ran to the sea and threw themselves in.

And thus the rogue had conquered the village.

I learned this Sufi story from Idries Shah's The Way of the Sufi and i can remember being bothered by it. It was a familiar and persistent bother that reminded me of a story that i learned from my friend dian marino. It was a story she had learned from sociologist and writer Philip Slater: a man who was blinded and who lost his legs in an accident became a wonderful musician. So impressed were people that some of them had themselves blinded and their legs amputated. When i first heard dian tell this story when i was studying with her in 1991, it sent a chill down my spine. My immediate reaction was to hate the story which i quickly learned was a shoot-the-messenger ploy to tame this wild tale. The image of people blinding and maiming themselves has stuck with me all these years - it is seared into me. dian used this story, in her essay Landscape for an Easily Influenced Mind: Reflections on My Experiences as an Artist and Educator  (in Wild Garden: Art, Education, and the Culture of Resistance, Between the Lines, 1997) to discuss the political theory of hegemony and how it allowed her to examine her own ideas as a woman and artist and connect this to how society bends and shapes people to its needs. dian writes:
"This parable shocks us. "Certainly none of us would be so stupid as to blind or maim ourselves," we respond. Yet, frequently, to interpret our experience we have been persuaded to use categories (names) that are self-destructive or distracting. When I was thirty I was still using the category "girl" to organize how I thought about myself. No one had to come and point a gun at my head and say, "dian, don't take yourself seriously." The attitude came with the name (category) that I was using to think about myself. Where did I learn to interpret myself in this less than empowering way? All those everyday spots - the family, school, media, work, even play - persuaded me to see the world from someone else's point of view, without questioning how it might work differently for me." (p.20)
 It seems like my whole life so far has been about learning to see (and resist) these limiting"categories" acting on and in me. And i'm still working at undoing the "maiming and blinding" that, for me, started so young. Once again i am struck by the power of story - this Sufi tale - to bear such profound and powerful truth. All stories reveal the world in surprising ways but Sufi stories are, perhaps, unique in their practice of revealing the multiple levels/truths of our life and world - simultaneously corporeal, political, spiritual, pedagogical, emotional, wondrous.

image: Rasmus Landgreen

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Fox and the Raven

A raven seized a piece of cheese and flew onto a tree branch when a fox came along. The fox, looking up at the raven, said, “such a beautiful black sheen to your feathers, my friend raven. They glisten midnight blue at the right angle to the sun. Why, your plumage is that of a king of birds. I am sure you have a voice to match it. Would that I could hear such a voice and then I would surely know that you are, indeed, a king amongst birds. I would proclaim this to all I met.” At that that raven let out a loud squawk and promptly dropped the cheese. The fox grabbed the cheese and, walking away, said, “You have quite the voice, my friend. Too bad you haven’t the brains to go with it.”

A well-worn fable from Aesop's Fables. Ive been revisiting many of these stories which i find i take far too much for granted. I think our familiarity with such stories tends to let us think we've "gotten the message" and, having done so, the story loses any novelty and appeal. But i think it is a mistake to allow ourselves to overlook these stories. They are, after all, thousands of years old, perhaps much older than we tend to think given that we often point to a date of publication as the origin of such tales. However, these tales no doubt preceded publication by a considerable amount of time - existing within oral tradition, certainly for many generations and possibly for millennia. I've read scholarship about Aesop for some time and have seen it suggested that Aesop, often described as an ugly Greek slave, was actually from Ethiopia which suggests an African origin to the tales. Across the India Ocean in those long ago days there was another collection of animal tales assembled for the purposes of instruction:  The Panchatantra (attributed to Indian scholar Vishnu Sharma, 300 BCE). These collections share some stories in common which implies that the trans-Indian Ocean-Mesopotamian traffic of the ancient world was a transmission route not only for goods but, as is the way of human culture, stories as well.

Thinking of this story in today's context i am reminded of a friend's advice about receiving complements and insults. My friend is an in-demand public speaker and is certainly one of the best i have ever seen. Her talks draw a great deal of praise and also, as is the case with public figures who speak their mind, scorn. My friend says that it is important to let neither praise nor scorn sway you. She says that she's learned that if you let yourself be pumped up by the praise it makes you more vulnerable to be hurt by the scorn. And i appreciate this reminder of how such scorn can be the flip-side of flattery. Which also reminds me of a story from Aikido, a martial art that puts great emphasis on staying "centred" and balanced. Terry Dobson, a great aikido teacher who passed away some time ago, describes one of the most difficult lessons he had to endure in learning aikido. It began with him being surrounded by other students for a round of randori in which several people attack one person. However the style of attack was verbal and students hurled insults at Terry. He found it easy to remain calm and centred. Then the "attack" changed to a round of praise and expressions of love and respect. Dobson was reduced to tears within seconds. When i combine my friend's advice and Dobson's story and this fable from Aesop, i see a wonderful dialogue about the ethics of communication and interconnection. I wonder about the ancient dialogues from which such stories as Aesop's Fables come down to us. And again, i question just how "advanced" we think our oh-so-modern world to be. When we look at the ancient collections of tales and texts such as the Rig Veda and how they continue hold relevance and powerful meaning for us today, i'm not sure we've "advanced" at all.

Taking Aim

Nasruddin’s students were gathered to watch their teacher compete in an archery contest. Nasruddin, assuming a soldier’s stance, aimed and fired and missed the target entirely. The crowd roared with laughter and the students watched to see what their teacher would do next. Nasruddin held his bow shakily, nocked his arrow and let fly a shot that barely made it halfway to the target. The crowd laughed harder than before. Nasruddin looked at the crowd, looked at his students, then quickly turned to face the target and had let loose a shot before anyone knew it. The arrow landed with a thud in the bullseye. It was a perfect shot. The crowd, ready to laugh a third time, had to choke their laughter and a stunned silence fell over the assembled. Nasruddin grabbed his prize and strolled away from the crowd. The astonished students and the silenced crowd demanded an explanation. Nasruddin paused, turned, and faced everyone and said, “Well, for the first shot, I took the stance of a soldier who was face-to-face with an enemy. Fear made the shot go astray. For the second shot, I was like the man who, having failed, was timid, anxious, and so eager to please that he cannot concentrate. The shot had no power.” “And the third shot?” asked a voice from the crowd. “Who shot that one?” “The third shot?” said Nasruddin, “ That was me!”

Pedlar of Swaffham

Hundreds of years ago in Swaffham in Norfolk, England, there lived a poor pedlar by the name of John Chapman. He worked hard to sell his wares and was always about with a pack on his back and his dog at his heels. One night he had the most peculiar dream. In the dream he stood beside London Bridge and a voice said that if he did this he would hear good news. He ignored the dream as nothing but a passing fancy. But when the dream repeated the next night and the next night after that, he resolved to make the trip to London town.

He found London Bridge easy enough as well as the place he had been standing in his dream. He took up the station with his dog ever-so-faithfully beside him. But by the end of that first day, though he had heard many things from the passers-by, nothing sounded like the good news prophesied by his dream. And the second day was much the same. Now, on the third day, just as he was contemplating his journey home, a shopkeeper came over to speak with the pedlar. “Good fellow, though I am not sure you aren’t a fool, I’ve watched you from my hat shop for three days. You sell nothing, you beg for nothing. What are you doing here?”

“To tell you the truth, I have come here because of a dream in which I stood by London Bridge and heard good news,” the pedlar explained.

“Then you are, indeed, the fool I took you for. Why I had a dream three nights running, in which I stood in an orchard behind the house of a pedlar who lives in Swaffham, a place, I daresay, I’ve never heard of and probably doesn’t exist. In my dream I stood beside an old oak tree and thought that if I digged I should find a treasure. Anyone can dream of treasure. And fancy me travelling to a place I’ve never heard of for a dream of a treasure beneath a tree? What a fool I would be! And I would deserve it if I should lose my hat shop. Take my advice and be off with you, go home, mind your own business.”

The pedlar thanked the shopkeeper for his advice and made his way home. He digged beneath the old oak tree and found a large box with an inscription carved into the lid that he could not read. The box was filled with treasure. He placed the lid with its inscription in his window and after some time some school children came by who could read Latin and they said, “look, that writing says,

Under me doth lie
Another much richer than I”

The pedlar, hearing this, dug more deeply beneath his old oak tree and found a treasure much greater than the first. Thus made rich, he hired men to repair Swaffham church. And today in Swaffham you can see statues and images in windows and on signs of the pedlar and his faithful dog. 

I first came across this story in Joseph Jacob's More English Fairy Tales, a book i learned about from Joan Bodger, my first ever storytelling teacher. This was the first book from which i formally learned stories to tell and after which i dared to call myself a storyteller. I remain especially fond of several stories in this collection, Tamlane, The Buried Moon, Tattercoats, and several others and, of course, The Pedlar of Swaffham. But it was only when i heard my friend Alec Gelcer tell a version of this story that it lodged in my heart. Alec, who died many years ago now and whose voice is still sorely missed, told a version about a poor jew in a polish town who, in standing beside the bridge of his dream, is mocked by a soldier who notices the man and, of course, tells him of his own foolish dream. I can still hear and feel the derision with which Alec imbued the soldier. Though i forget most of the details, Alec's version remains my favourite. The tale, in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification system, is type 1645 "The Man Who Became Rich Through a Dream," and of which there are numerous versions around the world. Many years after learning this story, i read Paulo Coehlo's The Alchemist. I enjoyed this novel immensely and recall the pleasant shock of recognition as i realized, only towards the end of the novel, that it was a retelling of this ancient tale.

image: from "The history and antiquities of the parish of Lambeth, and the archiepiscopal palace .." (1827)

Riding Bicycles

An old monk who was a Zen master, walking in front of the monastery, saw five young monks returning from the market on their bicycles. When they had dismounted, the old monk asked, “Why are you riding your bicycles?”

The first monk said, “The sack of potatoes is heavy so I let the bicycle carry them.” The old monk said, “You are smart. And when you are old you will not walk hunched over as I do.

The second monk said, “I love to watch the trees, fields and sky pass by as I ride along.” The old monk said, “Your eyes are open. You see the world.”

The third monk said, “When I ride my bike, I like to chant Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō.” The old monk said, “Your mind will roll with the ease of a newly aligned wheel.”

The fourth monk said, “While riding my bicycle, I live in harmony with all sentient beings.” The old monk said, “You are riding on the golden path of non-harming.”

The fifth monk said, “I ride my bicycle to ride my bicycle.”

The old monk bowed and said, “I am your student.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Wishing Ring

Once upon a time, a poor farmer was making his way to market when he came across an old woman who was sitting by the road wheezing. He asked if she needed help and he offered to share his meagre food and drink with her. When she had rested and eaten a bit and was refreshed with the farmer’s water, she stood up to continue her journey. The farmer, seeing that she was going in the same direction, suggested they travel together. And so they walked and talked until they came to a crossroads and parted ways. Before they parted the old woman said, “let me give you something for your kindness.” And she handed the farmer a small ring. “This ring will grant the wearer one wish. Use it wisely,” she said. The farmer accepted the gift and the two travellers bid farewell. The farmer didn’t think much about the ring to begin with. He wasn’t sure it was real. But he had a good day at the market and, it being too late to make the journey home, he stopped at an inn for the evening. As he ate a small meal, the innkeeper sat and they chatted about the day. The farmer mentioned his encounter with the old woman and the strange gift of the wishing ring. The innkeeper asked him what he planned to do and the farmer said that he would take it home to his family and discuss it with his wife. The innkeeper eyed the ring closely as the farmer tucked it away in his shirt pocket. 

That evening, once the farmer lay sleeping, the innkeeper snuck over to where the farmer had lain down. Slowly and carefully he found the shirt pocket, slipped out the farmer’s ring and replaced it with one that was almost identical. When the farmer woke, he was none the wiser even after taking the ring out for a look. The farmer continued his journey home. Meanwhile the innkeeper closed up the inn for the day and put up signs on the road so no one would come near. When he was certain he would not be disturbed, he sat at a table and said, “I wish for one million gold coins.” Instantly, a gold coin appeared and fell onto the table before him. He was overjoyed. As he examined the coin, two coins appeared and fell to the table and then four and then eight and before long hundreds and thousands of coins were raining down upon him. Before he knew it his legs were trapped by the weight of the coins which, of course, continued to pile up. Before long he was buried and very soon suffocated and crushed to death. After many days his relatives came to see what had happened and discovered the innkeeper’s gruesome fate. They collected all the gold and divided it amongst themselves.

Now, when the farmer returned home, he told his wife what had happened. They discussed what they should do and how, if the ring was actually a wishing ring, they should make their wish very carefully. The wife suggested that they wish for additional land which would help them be more prosperous. But as they pondered this, they agreed that if they worked hard and were lucky enough to have a good growing season, they might have enough to buy the land for the following growing season. And so it was. After some time, they spoke again about the wishing ring and thought about buying a cow and a horse. Again they decided instead to work hard and trust in the weather for a good crop and indeed, with good weather and the additional land that they had bought, they were able to acquire both horse and cow. And so it was that year after year they considered making their one wish and always decided on a different course. Always preferring to save the wish for when they thought they really needed it. When their great-great-grandchildren were going through their great-great-grandparents’ things they came across an old ring that looked like it was made of gold. No one knew the story of the ring though everyone in the family knew that it had been a favourite of their great-great-grandparents.

I came across this story many years ago while researching stories for some popular economics curriculum me and the Catalyst Centre were developing. One of my many sub-interests in storytelling is stories about economics, its ethics and practices. As many of my friends know, i have a particular interest in the economics of the gift. I find that when we recognize gift-giving as an economic practice, we see it in many places in our lives (though it tends to be seriously crowded out by the dominant capitalist economy) and we see it in abundance in folktales.

image: Ring Han dynasty, 206 BCE-220 CE

The Field and the Brothers

Once upon a time two brothers farmed the land on which they lived. They each worked the land and divided equally between them all that the land produced. One brother lived with a wife and two children while the other lived alone. One evening the married brother’s wife said, “your brother works the land as hard as you. But with no family, what is he to do if he should fall ill or, when growing old, he cannot provide for himself?” Together they agreed that they should share some of their bounty. So that evening the married brother took part of his harvest and snuck it into his brother’s barn. It so happened that the single brother had been thinking about his married brother. He thought about how his brother had to support a family while he had merely to support himself. He decided secretly to take some of his harvest and put it in his brother’s barn. Now , for some time, each brother after their harvesting, would secretly bring part of his harvest to the other’s barn. And each was puzzled that their grains and vegetables never seemed to diminish. One evening, the brother’s bumped into each other as they were about their secret sharing. The brothers stood in silence, looking at each other. Then they embraced. Many years later when the people were choosing a site on which to build a temple to their god they chose the fields on which the bothers had lived.

image: Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds, van Gogh

Monday, May 23, 2016

Heaven and Hell

A man died and found himself before the gates of heaven. He was relieved. But curious. So he asked the gatekeeper, “I was just wondering if it would be possible to see Hell before entering Heaven?” “Well, no one has ever asked such a thing before. But why not? Let’s go,” said the gatekeeper and in a flash they stood before the gates of Hell. The gates opened and there before their eyes was an endless table. On it was piled the most amazing and abundant array of food, drink, dessert. Every imaginable delicacy was to be seen. As soon as the man thought of a food he noticed it somewhere on the table. And along both sides of the table were seated people as far as the eye could see. He turned to the gatekeeper asking, “This is Hell?” “Look again,” he was told. He did so and saw that each person had four-foot wooden spoons attached to their wrists and elbows. So no matter how hard they tried they could not bring the food to their mouths. “Ah, yes,” said the man. “This is Hell. I am ready to enter heaven.” In a flash he was once again before the gates of heaven. They opened and he was surprised to see an endless table heaped with the same abundance of wonderful food and drink he had just seen in Hell. On each side of the table for as far as the eye could see were seated people with four-foot wooden spoons attached to their wrists and elbows just as he had seen only moments before in Hell. “This is Heaven?” asked the man of the gatekeeper. “Look again,” said the gatekeeper. And he did. Now he saw that all the people seated at one side of the table were using their four-foot spoons to feed everyone on the other side of the table. “Ah, now I see,” said the man. “This is heaven.”

This story has been making the rounds for quite a while and i have come across many versions including, recently, an animated version you can probably find on YouTube. As always, these stories that i have known for many years continue to reveal new meanings. Having recently re-read Victor Frankl's work and having just read several memoirs (Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy If You Could Be Normal; Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle); and re-read several others (Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby and Mary Karr's The Liar's Club) i am reminded of our power (and responsibility?) to make meaning out of whatever we confront.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

How Sweet

A man was walking across a field when he noticed a tiger stalking him. He ran, the tiger chasing after him. He came to a cliff, looked over the edge and saw a tree root jutting out from the cliff face. He climbed over the edge and caught hold of the root.

The tiger sniffed at him from above but could not reach the man.  The man looked down and saw, far below, another tiger prowling the forest and anticipating a meal.

Two mice, one white and one black, began to gnaw at the root. It would be only a matter of minutes before the root was chewed through.

Just then, the man noticed a fat and ripe strawberry dangling from cliff wall. He knew if he grabbed the strawberry his grip would not last long.

He plucked the strawberry and ate it. It tasted so sweet.

This story has been an enduring favourite for so long that i have no recall of my first encounter. It may seem strange but this story holds powerful consolation for me when i am, as at the moment, most stressed about life. It is, like so many tales, ancient. And i found a version in the Gesta Romanorum (a 13th C Latin collection of tales). That version ends with the the doomed man falling into hell which, in that version is only the beginning of the tale. But i have also read reference to other versions of this tale which end with, "and the strawberry was poisoned." Perhaps not as consoling as the version i prefer.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

One Wish

In a small cottage beside a stormy sea there once lived an aging couple who lived a hard life. The man’s blind mother lived with them. They were poor but they were kind. No matter how little they had they were always willing to share with those who were in need. They asked little enough for themselves. Though there was one sorrow in their life they wished dearly to end, and that was their lack of a child. One day the man went down to the seaside where he cast a line absent-mindedly into the surf. He wasn’t trying very hard to catch anything so he was quite surprised to feel a strong tug on the line. He pulled it in and saw that he had hooked the largest and most colourful fish he had ever seen. He walked into the surf to grab the fish and remove the hook. The fish spoke: “Kind sir, please release me and I will give thee a wish.” The man had heard of many strange things in his life, but a talking fish was surely a stranger sight than he ever imagined seeing. “Surely, I will release thee, magical creature. But I cannot make a wish without asking my family. Might I ask that I return here tomorrow to tell you my wish?” “I will be here tomorrow,” said the fish. And the man freed the fish, made his way home and told his wife and mother of his strange encounter. They spoke about what they would wish for. The man suggested riches, saying that they could live better, have more to share, that life need not be as hard as it had been. The woman reminded the man that his mother was blind and that he could use his wish to make her see once more. But the mother said that she knew their fondest desire was to have a child. And, beside, she would dearly love to have a grandchild. The wife said to the husband, “go to sleep, trust in the divine, the morning is wiser than the evening.” The next morning the woman woke her husband, leaned over him saying, “This is what you will wish for.” And she leaned closer and whispered. The man nodded and smiled and said, “You are the wisest woman in the world.” He made his way down to the sea and sure enough, the magical, colourful fish awaited him. They greeted each other cheerfully and the man told the fish how hard it had been to decide on one wish. “And what would be your wish, kind sir?” asked the fish. The man looked calmly at the fish and said, “I wish that my mother lives long enough to see her grandchildren eat from golden plates.” And it was so.