Story-telling is in our bones. It rises through us like sap through roots and leaves into the air. It began when galaxies spun star-dust into the atoms that spin still through our bodies, reminding us that the stories of our births go back eons and stretch far away into a future we are spinning still.
The poem below by Lisel Mueller says it all, and inspired this post.
Why We Tell Stories
I Because we used to have leaves and on damp days our muscles feel a tug, painful now, from when roots pulled us into the ground
and because our children believe they can fly, an instinct retained from when the bones in our arms were shaped like zithers and broke neatly under their feathers
and because before we had lungs we knew how far it was to the bottom as we floated open-eyed like painted scarves through the scenery of dreams, and because we awakened
and learned to speak
2 We sat by the fire in our caves, and because we were poor, we made up a tale about a treasure mountain that would open only for us
and because we were always defeated, we invented impossible riddles only we could solve, monsters only we could kill, women who could love no one else and because we had survived sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, we discovered bones that rose from the dark earth and sang as white birds in the trees
3 Because the story of our life becomes our life
Because each of us tells the same story but tells it differently
and none of us tells it the same way twice
Because grandmothers looking like spiders want to enchant the children and grandfathers need to convince us what happened happened because of them
and though we listen only haphazardly, with one ear, we will begin our story with the word and …
Lisel Mueller, Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. (LSU Press October 1, 1996)
I’ve been working on a poem I began here on this blog. It is a process, a gentle undoing and reweaving. An opening and letting go.
Recently a confluence of events inspired me to write a new ending. First I read an article on the importance of helping children discover a sense of awe and how beneficial that is, making us more curious, more humble and altruistic. Taking them on nature walks was one way it suggested.
Then only days after I learned about my 9-year old granddaughter’s startling discovery that Santa isn’t real. It was a blow to her, although she had begged to know the truth. What about the Easter Bunny? she asked. Horror upon horrors. The Tooth Fairy? she cried in alarm. Even the Elf on a Shelf, alas, poor dear.
I shared her pain. It seems only yesterday I took her for a walk in the meadow behind our home after it had rained the night before. We were searching for toadstools to see if fairies might still be sheltering beneath them. We found patches of bright green moss and ran our fingers along the soft furry carpet knowing how fairies like to danced there in moonlight. We imagined them wearing the silvery, pearl-studded gowns made from the spider webs glittering with raindrops we found nearby.
Why does the mind devise such dreamy comparisons? What is its purpose? To inculcate the capacity to marvel? To help us see beyond the ordinary sense of things (moss, toadstools) to their vast potential? To encourage us to see the fractal similarities between disparate things? There is something important and necessary in such devising. It feeds the soul by giving free rein to the imagination. It helps us to see beyond the surface of things, to look for the invisible within the seen, and inspires us to create our own works of wonders.
To marvel at a tree, to find awe in it, we must see it with new eyes. It must come alive in our minds. We must see the sap flowing upward beneath the bark from root to leaves. We must see the dark labyrinth of gnarled roots below the ground. We must hear the whisper of voices flowing through the neural-like network of fungi as one tree communes with another. We must see autumn leaves like high-wire dancers letting go of all they’ve ever known so they can twirl for one endless moment in the air before falling gently on their sleeping sisters. All of this is true, scientifically speaking. None of it is false.
I wrote the poem Field Notes from Within as if I was a student of physiology wandering through the fields of my own body, looking for those awesome wonders within, noting how well the part serves the whole. Just as we might when taking a child into the forest as that article suggested to discover for herself a sense of wonder in the world that envelopes and sustains us.
What could be more awe-inspiring than the human body? Than a beating heart? Than the twirling atoms that comprise the very substance of all that exists? We, ourselves, are a marvel.
I’ve been searching for a way to end my poem, to perhaps make it more comprehensible to the reader. Do I end it as I did the first time, with “dervishes of devotion“? Or do I add clarity to that as I did in the second re-making? Is doing so like painting a second tail on a dragon, a redundant addition? Or does doing so make its eyes come alive and breath fire?
I do not know. But here is my latest trial and error. We’ll let it sit a moment and see.
I don’t know when this poem will ever be finished.
And that’s the marvel of every living thing that longs to be.
Field Notes from Within
My heart is a staunch defender of all I am, beating with relentless passion the wherewithal of my being.
My bowels are alchemists skilled in diplomacy, sifting silver from dross passing peacefully away.
My cells are seeds of a pomegranate, deftly designed for simple pleasures, lushly dense and sweetly sated.
My atoms are ballerinas, twirling on ecstatic toes, arms flung wide, faces like suns, dervishes of devotion.
Marvelous is the kingdom within and without all things. Marvelous the Mind that designs such things and marvels.
Time-travelling—that’s what it feels like when listening to Erik Satie’s Gnossienne. When I close my eyes and let the music move me, I’m transported to faraway places and distant times. I can see the mist rising from the river, the arched bridges, the damp gray stones of gothic towers tilting toward sullen skies. I can feel the cool breath of the river, smell the sweet-dank dampness of rain-drenched streets, hear the clatter of distant hoofs on cobblestones. It’s almost as if I’ve entered some strangely familiar dreamscape, or the distant landscape of an idealized past.
These dark, insistent, melancholy notes play us and ply us across space and time in rapturous eloquence. It reminds us that we share so much of our common past, our common humanity, to the art and music and literature that inspires us.
I’m reminded of the short story “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges, and this particular quote:
“This web of time – the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries –embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and yet in others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favored me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words but am in error, a phantom Time is forever dividing itself toward innumerable futures. — Jorge Luis Borges, from “The Garden of Forking Paths,” Collected Fictions. (Penguin Books September 1, 1999) Originally published 1941.
And also, this from Rilke:
Even the past is still a being in the fullness of its occurrence, if only it is understood not according to its content but by means of its intensity, and we–members of a world that generates movement upon movement, force upon force, and seems to cascade inexorably into less and less visible things–we are forced to rely upon the past’s superior visibility if we want to gain an image of the now muted magnificence that still surrounds us today. — Rainer Maria Rilke, from “On Life and Living,” The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke, ed. and trans. Ulrich Baer (Modern Library, 2005)
And finally, from a Nobel Prize winning physicist, this:
“This life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance. This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula which is yet really so simple and so clear: Tat tvam asi, this is you. Or, again, in such words as ‘I am in the east and in the west, I am below and above, I am this whole world’.
Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground, stretched out upon Mother Earth, with the certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you. You are as firmly established, as invulnerable as she, indeed a thousand times firmer and more invulnerable. As surely she will engulf you tomorrow, so surely will she bring you forth anew to new striving and suffering. And not merely ‘some day’: now, today, every day she is bringing you forth, not once but thousands upon thousands of times, just as every day she engulfs you a thousand times over. For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.” ― Erwin Schrödinger,
The self you leave behind is only a skin you have outgrown. Don’t grieve for it. Look to the wet, raw, unfinished self, the one you are becoming. The world, too, sheds its skin: politicians, cataclysms, ordinary days. It’s easy to lose this tenderly unfolding moment. Look for it as if it were the first green blade after a long winter. Listen for it as if it were the first clear tone in a place where dawn is heralded by bells.
And if all that fails, wash your own dishes. Rinse them. Stand in your kitchen at your sink. Let cold water run between your fingers. Feel it.
By Pat Schneider
This poem speaks to me. The older I become in years, the rawer and newer I feel, the more unfinished. The more expansive. As if there never will be an end to me, and I will ever be unfolding in some time out of mind, or mind out of time.
Yes, cold water running between my fingers. I’m like that. The cold, the water, the fingers. The wet, raw, feel of it all. Just like that.
In several of his films, Ingmar Bergman plays with the notion of multiple layers of reality. This can be seen as early as The Seventh Seal, and continues with Autumn Sonata, and Wild Strawberries, culminating in what was intended to be his final film, Franny and Alexander.
In some ways, Franny and Alexander is a tour de force. It speaks to us on so many levels. It can be seen, in part, as a family saga, a farce, a fairy tale, a theatrical play, a Gothic Romance, and a supernatural horror story. It is, in fact, all these things at once.
Yet each differing perspective can be seen as a different layer of reality, a different way of looking at the same material. Each appears as a separate backdrop against which the film can be seen, which, when lifted, offers a new view, a new level of perception, a new “reality.”
We can see this in the opening sequence. The first shot reveals a close-up of what appears to be an ornate building. As the camera moves down the building, we see a row of footlights and what now appears to be a stage. A series of painted backdrops are lifted to reveal new scenes. But it is only when the last backdrop is raised that we see a child’s face, huge, behind the scenes. This is when we realize that the stage is but a child’s theater and the row of footlights are candles. The camera seems to be inviting the viewer to see through these multiple layers of “reality,” perceptions of the real, to the final revelation, the child, or rather, the child’s imagination, as revealed through his dreamy gaze.
The film continues to pull back layer after layer of curtains to reveal the tenuous and shifting nature of reality.
In the final scene, the grandmother is reading from Strindburg’s “A Dream Play.” She reads: “Anything will occur. Anything is possible and likely. Time and space do not exist. On the tenuous ground of reality, imagination reaches out and weaves a new pattern.”
Reality is seen to be not singular, but as consisting of ever-deepening layers of reality, one on top of the other, in a richly dense and complex multiplicity.
I was reminded of this film when listening to one of Alan Watt’s talks that I wrote about in another post. And I wonder if the reason Bergman’s films resonate with so many people is that we sense a truth here. We see this perspective not only in film and art, about the mystery of things, these shifting perspectives and “layers of reality,” but we see it in science, how beneath these seemingly solid bodies lies unseen, shifting worlds that swirl and collide and contradict each other.
I question often what is real and not-real, and wonder if it’s more complex than that. Perhaps it’s not a case of what’s real or not, of one or the other, but shifting perceptions of what’s real, some dark, some light, that weave together a reality that is deeper and more complex than our superficial lives allow us to see.
POSTSCRIPT: In searching for photos for this post, I happened upon Roger Ebert’s review of the film, which also, surprisingly (or maybe not so), refers to the film as having “shifted into a different kind of reality.” I’ve added an excerpt of his review here:
“There are fairy-tale elements here, but “Fanny and Alexander” is above all the story of what Alexander understands is really happening. If magic is real, if ghosts can walk, so be it. Bergman has often allowed the supernatural into his films. In another sense, the events in “Fanny and Alexander” may be seen through the prism of the children’s memories, so that half-understood and half-forgotten events have been reconstructed into a new fable that explains their lives.
What’s certain is that Bergman somehow glides beyond the mere telling of his story into a kind of hypnotic series of events that have the clarity and fascination of dreams. Rarely have I felt so strongly during a movie that my mind had been shifted into a different kind of reality. The scenes at night in the Jacobi house are as intriguing and mysterious as any I have seen, quiet and dreamy, and then disturbing when the mad Ismael calmly and sweetly shows Alexander how everything will be resolved.”
What do you think? Have you seen any of Bergman’s films? Do you think there’s more to us, or reality, than what we experience in the everyday?
I first posted this, in slightly different form, in 2014.
I came across this much beloved sailing poem recently, which captures so beautifully and vividly my own exuberant experiences at sea aboard La Gitana. I’ve paired it with paintings by the “Poet of the Sea” Winslow Homer, along with some classic sailing songs: Christopher Cross’s “Sailing” and Loggins and Messina’s “Vahevala,” which includes some beautiful sailing video as well as some amazing guitar, flute, and violin riffs.
There’s noting that captures the joy of summer more than sailing.
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, And the wheel’s kick and wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, A gray mist on the sea’s face and gray dawn breaking. I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied; And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the seagulls crying. I must down to the seas to the vagrant gypsy life. To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife; And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow rover, And quiet sleep and sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
by John Edward Masefield (English poet, writer 1878-1967)
Three summers I spent by the river in the heat of a homeless camp. (Having left my father’s home, which was my home, though I knew it not.)
Three summers of night terrors howling through my tent as the stars threw down their furious spears. (Having left my mother’s home, which was my home, though I knew it not.)
Three summers trolling the streets in blistered feet while eyes turned sideways at my glance. (Having lost all I loved, which loved me still, though I knew it not.)
As I walked the flesh melted from my bones, my teeth melted from my mouth. My thoughts dried up and blew away. Past and present dried up and blew away.
Nothing was left behind to claim a name, to know what I was or wasn’t.
Empty, careless and carefree, I danced along the street like a wind-tossed leaf, like a moon-mad fool, marveling at how all I saw danced with me.
Now my tent is my temple and the river flowing past me washes through me—mother and father and all I love and always was and ever will be.
Now as I walk the streets flowers grow at my feet, and every eye turned toward me is mine.
By Deborah J. Brasket
The story of the Prodigal is a favorite found in almost every faith because it tells deep truths we all recognize. We are all prodigals in some ways, whether living homeless on the streets or in the home of our dreams, if we have not, as this Prodigal has, returned home to our true self. If we have not gone through the weaning process that strips us of all we never were and gives back to us all we are, the magnificence of our oneness with the All-in-all.
This poem, too, is influenced by the tales of the old Zen Masters, relating their journey to enlightenment, a process known as “losing and losing.” Often they began their journey in abject poverty. Chuang Tzu describes how he was able to free himself from the limitations of the finite mind and gain an insight into his innermost being: First freeing himself from the concerns of the world, then from all externalities, from gain and loss, right and wrong, past and present. Finally he was freed from his own existence, from birth and death, I and Other. He sees the One and becomes part of the One. At that point, he was able again to enter again into the world of men, but this time with “bliss-bestowing hands.”
The photo above is one I took at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. I wrote a blog post about that visit called “Fascinating Faces, Tao and the Arts.” I wrote: “Some works of art speak to you on a level that is hard to define. You gaze and are drawn inward. Something in you identifies with what you see there. It’s not outside, it’s in here. It was there before you saw it, and the seeing is just a reminder of its presence.” I felt an especial affinity with this face.