Our fascination with Story is so deeply embedded I would be surprised if genetic researchers haven’t turned up a receptor gene for it. We are almost as fond of categorizing things as we are of telling stories, so I wasn’t surprised recently to come across an article about the seven archetypal stories. This take on it says that the seven stories are: overcoming the monster, rebirth, quest, journey and return, rags to riches, comedy, and tragedy. Other genre categories break it down differently: love story, thriller, murder mystery, epic adventure, etc. The point is, we relate deeply, even subconsciously, to stories that have familiar themes and structures.
Just as there are types of stories, there are also types of storytellers. Some we call entertainers, others leaders or politicians. Some we call teachers, or pastors, rabbis or imams. Some are advertisers, others activists. All understand the power of Story to help us make sense of our lives, to show us our struggles and shine light on a pathway through them. It’s telling that this particular article ran in an advertising magazine. Continue reading
We always have the choice to choose joy and love over resentment and misery. I’ve had two great reminders of this recently. Michel Martin’s editorial on NPR makes the case for rejoicing rather than lamenting opportunities for activism. And Liz Gilbert, in Big Magic, echoes with her challenge to the cult of anguish that hangs over creativity. Martin asks why so many people who offer themselves up for leadership these days do it with an air of “Why me?” Then she holds up the example of inventors:
“When do you ever hear people say, ‘Why didn’t somebody else invent the airplane, the smart phone, solar panels, the tea infuser, for heaven’s sake, so I didn’t have to?’ We even have commercials featuring the tiny garages and attics where supposedly this inventing took place. We understand that discovery is a joy that can feel like a physical sensation.”
Under the tyranny of the Old Story of Separation, “No pain, no gain” is infused into everything we value most. War metaphors may be the currency of our culture, but I wonder if our allegiance to struggle and competitiveness is thinning what could be a much-needed flood of creativity into more of a trickle. Martin again: Continue reading
I am one of those cautious people who resist speed. I harden up in fear and can’t relax into it, let alone feel the thrill and joy of being on the edge or out of control. I had a flash of insight this morning after a heart-opening yoga class that my problem with speed extends to a wish to stop time from passing so quickly. The correlation drew me in and showed me something surprising.
I had had a late night, one of those unavoidable parenting experiences that at first I resisted. Once I acquiesced, the night was quite revealing. Our 13-year-old son had taken the light rail with a friend downtown, to attend the Orioles game. The O’s (who’ve been in a long downhill slide since July) scored ten runs in the bottom of the eighth inning. That’s two grand slams and a couple more homers just for good measure. All those at-bats take a lot of time. My son’s friend had already fielded his own father’s warning that they must leave after the seventh inning or find another way home. The friend volunteered me; they stayed, and were rewarded with a spectacular homer-fest. Continue reading
I am fascinated by the power of story to sell or derail an idea. Sometimes I think of storytelling, that ancient and most connecting of arts, like The Force in “Star Wars.” Story can be used for good or for evil. Even with good intentions, it tends to be used as mindless entertainment, or for selling products or launching a mission-driven campaign. A fine example of the Dark Side of Story is found in the documentary, “Merchants of Doubt,” which jumps off from the 2010 book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.
These are the players who sow doubt in the public’s mind about the credibility or consensus of the scientific community around a specific topic. They do this to stall or scuttle environmental and health regulations. They started with tobacco, then moved on to toxic chemicals like flame retardants, and now are using the same proven techniques on climate change. The film employs imagery in creative ways. A sleight-of-hand magician demonstrates misdirection and murky banks of hidden files signify the “playbook” of confusion and lies. Archival footage of experts is intercut with contemporary interviews of the same people, to dramatize the passage of decades, the sweep of lives dedicated either to scientific study or to its obfuscation. Continue reading
British mythic storyteller Martin Shaw says that the stories we most need now arrived right on schedule, 3,000 years ago. This story is a reimagining of the Greek myth of Ariadne that I put together from various sources. (Since this isn’t a scholarly work, I didn’t footnote it, but the references are cited at the end). I told it last weekend at the Restorying the Heroine’s Journey retreat to a circle of women gathered in a clearing in a very special forest in West Virginia. While it is about a woman’s journey to authenticity, it is relevant to men, and to our culture at large.
When Martin Shaw told an old fairy tale to our group seated around a campfire on a rainy summer day at Schumacher College, he prefaced it with a suggestion. Certainly, the effect of a story is heightened in a setting like that, gathered in a circle before a fire, listening to a master storyteller. Reading written words off a computer screen strips out the mysterious process that the collective unconscious works on us, the sensual connection to ancient practices. Since these old stories carry their own power, his advice has a place even here. Continue reading
Part of living into new stories of connection and belonging is to recognize that our body is an incredible gift, an ally in this life, and a teacher. Recently, in the middle of a particularly grueling interval training class at the gym, this thought hit me: the only way to become the sort of person who can do these exercises is to do them. In one of the cruelly brief breaks between stations, I mentioned it to the class leader. Joking as I struggled to catch my breath that it’s a good lesson for life. She said, not only that, but you’re not supposed to get good at the exercises. It works this way: as soon as you can do them, you have to find a way to challenge yourself again. You always want to be reaching to the point of failure.
Reaching to the point of failure is the opposite of how I was raised. I was taught that whatever you do, at all costs, never, never, ever fail. Play it safe, go easy, don’t make waves, toe the line, do what you’re told. Oh, and excel at things. At everything you try, preferably. Bonus points for making it look easy. If you can’t excel, don’t try it. If this sounds unfamiliar and sadly neurotic to you, congratulations. You’re probably better equipped to live in these crazy times than I am. My inherited aversion to risk seems related to my disconnection from my body. Both come from and engender a lack of trust. Continue reading
When I am unconsciously following the rules and stories installed in me during childhood, I sometimes worry that I am doing my life wrong. For instance, I was never taught that there are times when it’s perfectly justified to follow my instincts, to do or be what my heart urges. In fact, a life well-lived is a life entirely guided by the heart’s urgings. Still, I can feel a bit guilty when I need to withdraw from the world’s demands on me.
For so long, I believed that my retreat from conflict, difficulty, boredom, hostility, shame or blame was a bad thing that I inflicted, selfishly, on my close relationships. In this beautiful essay on hiding, the poet David Whyte sees it as a form of self-preservation, a drawing inward to prepare for transformation, and a necessary storing up of vital energy for growth.
“Hiding is one of the brilliant and virtuoso practices of almost every part of the natural world. . .”
I see a Baltimore who mines her gold
from the shadows behind abandoned houses.
I see a city of parks
with tree roots reaching deep beneath surfaces
tapping hidden sources
and joining the disconnected
with living bonds
visible even to eyes grown weary of witnessing.
I see neighborhoods of parades
of dancing and singing
lighting sacred fires
standing arm in arm in solidarity
kneeling down on cracked pavement to pray
to ask blessings and invoke peace
to appeal to the wisdom of the ancestors
the vision of the young. Continue reading
All told, we’ve collaborated to offer eleven Restorying retreats over the last two years, with more in the planning stages. They’ve come to have a dynamic balance between structure and improvisation. We are learning as leaders to be present and notice the field, to give ourselves over to what wants to happen next, what the earth is dreaming for us. Within a framework of ritual and ceremony, poetry and mythic time and space, we enter the door that leads to the realm of heart and soul and mystery.
Themes, questions, and insights begin to weave into and through the assembled group from the first gathering. We are getting better at tuning into that and inviting participants to join in the fun of giving ourselves over to what Mystery wants to do with us. It reminds me of what Malcolm Gladwell had to say about improvisation in his book, Blink. Using basketball as an example, he wrote that in practice, the players drill patterns and set-ups relentlessly, and then every game is totally improvisational. The patterns are strung together in completely new ways in every game, every moment. I can guess from the way my son talks about soccer that it’s much the same. Continue reading
To be understood as to understand,
The need to be understood has been a lifelong struggle for me. I suspect I am not alone in this, but admit to having very little perspective, as immersed in that longing as I’ve been. The problem is, during an encounter or argument with a loved one, to keep insisting on being understood closes me off from their needs and leads to repetition and stridency.
It strikes me that one of St. Francis’ overarching messages is that we always have the choice between turning inward and reaching outward, between isolation and connection. Between victimhood and generosity. It’s no accident that connection feels better. That being true, I wonder what stops me. Other than years of habit (not to be underestimated), why do I so often fall into the trap of insisting on being understood? Continue reading