storytelling

Clap your hands, Blue Jay

Eskimo medicine man, Alaska, exorcising evil spirits from a sick boy (The Library of Congress)

Eskimo medicine man, Alaska, exorcising evil spirits from a sick boy

 

Native American myths and legends often deal with death, and I often wonder how today’s children would like them. When I was little, my mother thought that H. C. Andersen’s or Grimm brothers’ fairy tales were too cruel, so she’d change the endings as she read them to me. She feared I was too sensitive. I don’t think so; I would have just probably pestered her with questions she wasn’t sure how to deal with. I remember finding a collection of Inuit stories in my parents’ large library and being absolutely terrified and yet drawn to their stark universe, in which life and death coexisted, not peacefully, but not at polar opposites either. Last night I read the story (not Inuit; this one’s from the Pacific Northwest) of Blue Jay and his sister Ioi, who married a ghost. Blue Jay went to visit her in the land of the dead, where he had a grand time switching skeletons’ bones, ripping them off, and being generally wicked. The story ends thus:

Eventually, the ghost people complained about Blue Jay’s tricks, and Ioi’s husband told her to send him home. At first he didn’t want to go, but he finally left. On his way, he came to a prairie that was ablaze, and Blue Jay burned to death. Then he went back to the land of the ghosts. His sister met him at the river and went over to him in her husband’s canoe. . . . When they came to the village, the people were playing games and singing. Blue Jay shouted at them, trying to get them to fall into piles of bones, but the people just laughed at him. He kept pestering them to no avail until finally his sister told him that he was dead, too. And then he became quiet. (72)

I like how there is justice and there is logic to the story, but also this soft transition from the living to the dead, the consciousness of illusion, and the life that goes on, regardless of death.


Interestingly enough, the day after writing skeptically about “the power of storytelling” and feeling terribly bold about it, I read a 2010 BOMB Magazine interview with Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst and essayist I’d just discovered. Here is a passage that made me prick up my ears :

SP: One of the things that most resonates for me in “On Balance” is your writing on the dissonant, disjunctive, essentially random nature of existence. My last question concerns this state of incoherence. A word that is bandied around a lot at the moment is storytelling. It’s applied to branding, marketing, everything. In its wide, popular usage, the word is becoming increasingly incoherent. I literally don’t know what it means anymore. Could you talk a little bit about that?

AP: You can see the issue in a current debate in psychoanalysis. One version of psychoanalysis will say that the definition of mental health would be the capacity to tell a coherent narrative. From another psychoanalytic point of view, that would be precisely the problem. I think both things are true. People who have suffered ruptured, violated lives need and want some narrative coherence, but narrative coherence quickly can be a problem when it becomes a refuge from thinking. I agree that the idealization of narrative coherence is a bizarre cultural development. The problem is finding forms of incoherence that are listenable to. . . .  Somebody’s got to find a way of making a form of incoherence extremely revealing and alluring. It’s a really interesting cultural task—not that we should become better storytellers, because that’s the most boring thing on earth, but let’s become better antistorytellers. There is more to life than the stories we can tell about it. . . .

People need to be educated into believing that evocation is more important than information. If we could bear listening to people, without trying to understand what they’re saying, we would get more from them. Effectively, psychoanalysis listens for the incoherencies that are saying more, or something other, than the coherences. It’s got something to do with the musicality of people’s voices and intonations; it’s a form of listening that’s less hypnotized and distracted by their coherences.

There is something about this idea that makes my heart beat faster. Maybe it’s because I have tricked myself into believing my own story, and playing the character I imagined I was with laughable zeal and conviction. It’s true that words have a life of their own. The ease with which they come to me is deceitful, because it also signals that I am always up for one hell of a ride. Fiction writers often describe how, in the middle of the book, characters seem to take a life of their own and, at some point, almost hijack the story and dictate it back to the writer. I think this might be true in life as well. I wish I could meet Blue Jay and see if, when he claps his hands, I’d really turn into a pile of bones? Or not yet? 

Lastly, Phillips’ statement that “there is more to life than the stories we tell” and his call for incoherence of narratives reminded me of this brilliant documentary by Sarah Polley. You can watch it here. It is so worth it.

Silver spring

The participatory photo exhibit went well. I was kind of relieved to see a small group attending and I am happy to move on to other things. I got to ask a couple of people involved in film making how to proceed with the documentary, now it’s up to me to make it happen. I have all it takes – except the microphone, but it’s on the way. I’m stoked again. What I needed.

I’ve finished the full engagement bible and, again, it is implementation time. The toughest and the most desired.

Yesterday, in the Metro, a black boy sitting next to me was reading Krishnamurti on his iPhone, in French

As for me, I think I’ve had enough self-help for the moment (mind you, I might change my mind again tomorrow). Right now I’m treating myself to two books: Handbook of Native American Mythology” by Dawn E. Bastian and Judy K. Mitchell, and “The Illustrated Guide to Native South American Myths and Legends: Tales from the Aztec, Maya, Inca, and Amazon Peoples,” compiled by Geraldine Carter.

I have been fascinated by Native Americans ever since, as a kid, I discovered suitably themed adventure novels (in Polish, many of them by Polish authors). I soon realized that no happy ending ever came to stories of noble warriors and their tribes. They were always tragic. I remember that it made me sad and angry at the white man’s, my, destructive civilization. I think I never quite got over that anger.

I’ve often wondered how it is possible that, as kids, we are taught very clearly what is right and wrong by so many books and films: we learn that greed and war and destroying nature is evil – we all do! And then we grow up, rationalizing that, after all, grades, productivity, efficiency, jobs and economy and this thing called “progress” are the most important. We need to make more money, people! Screw the forests, we need to build highways; fuck the mountains, there’s precious stones inside them! And stinky liquid under the ocean floor! And gases trapped in the Earth’s belly! We’ll have fuel and fighter jets and space shuttles and no oxygen! Won’t it be grand. And so we deride the same values we should have absorbed and followed through, calling them “idealistic,” or “utopian,” or “unrealistic.” Is this a naive rant? Oh yes, very. And very, very true. And everybody and their gut knows this to be true. But there’s no happy ending for us either, I’m afraid.

This is what makes me wonder about the value of stories and “storytelling” as such. It’s one of the words used so much today, and it’s been commonly accepted that it’s good and important because hey, that’s how we think, that’s how we understand the world, right? True, no doubt. But, as Krishnamurti points out, if we look at our model of knowledge critically, including the storytelling part, we see that accumulation of facts and narratives did not make us a better humanity. It is actually this greedy, agglutinating paradigm that makes us continue in our suicidal ways. Maybe we don’t need more stories, you know? Maybe we need to really listen to some old stories, and really learn them, and live them through, in silence. Again, I realize I am contradicting myself here, because I carry on with this blog, and I have plans of writing this, and filming that, but really, I think I want to do all that mostly to validate my existence. To show that I have something to offer. I feel forced to show, to prove, to be deserving. I wish I could just sit down, shut up, and be, and I wish that were enough. But I’m not ready to be homeless.

I’m clearly oversaturated with language and verbalized thought processes. So why do I read Native American stories? I think it’s the mystery that attracts me. Elements that will never be known or explained; sequences that escape my logic; unfathomable, and yet strangely relatable, gods and goddesses with as much to lose as us humans. Just listen to this Aztec myth:

ITZPAPALOTL

Itzpapalotl, the horrible “obsidian-knife butterfly” is a supernatural being who combines attributes of the butterfly, or soul, with the knife of sacrifice. The butterfly in many mythologies is the ghost of the dead, and in this ghostly creature it is associated with the horror of the altars of blood. She is one of the Tzitzimime – “the demons of darkness.” Her dreadful face is tricked out with the cosmetics of the Mexican court ladies – rubber patches and white chalk. Her claws are borrowed from a jaguar, and sometimes she is represented as having a skull instead of a face.

The Expulsion of Itzpapalotl from Heaven

Itzpapalotl was expelled from heaven because, as she pulled up some roses in a garden of great delight, the tree suddenly snapped and blood streamed from it. As a consequence of this action she was deprived of that place of enjoyment and was cast into the world. (36)

Simple, almost familiar, and yet so foreign. The above excerpt comes from the “Guide to South American Myths,” indeed beautifully illustrated. It’s the first time I’ve actually taken a close look at Diego Rivera’s murals. Genius.

All in all, fascinating as these stories are, the language used to transmit them in the books seems inadequate. Maybe it’s the oral tradition that dies in the writing. There is definitely a big SOMETHING lost in translation. Something eludes me, like a beautiful fish I see swimming in shallow water and cannot name, even though I Know it. Actually, I’ve decided, I don’t even want to know its name any more. Seeing is enough. The “Handbook” is on to something when it explains that

Long before Newton, Kant, Einstein, or Minkowski, ancient cultures around the world understood that there was a relationship between time and space. They understood that an event happening right here, right now could be imbued with a sacredness that not only set the event apart from the mundane, but also set apart the time and the place where it occurred. In the remembering of the event, whether by telling and hearing oral narratives, or by participating in or viewing various ceremonies, people were able to transcend the present and become part of the sacred. . . .

Native American people believe that time is cyclical and dynamic, and that this cyclical time functions not only in the spiritual realm, but in the day-today existence of all living things. One Hopi scholar has called this relationship “mythic reality.” In other words, the truth of this present, physical world exists simultaneously with that of the mythic, spiritual world. (36)

The past and the future coexist with the present. There was no bing bang. There is just this constant growth and death and overlap. And we within it. And I am just beginning to feel this pulse.

Malinche by Diego Rivera

Malinche by Diego Rivera

 

 

Grandiose Little Me

I participated in a digital storytelling workshop yesterday, in preparation for next week’s group photo exhibition, and it made me very emotional in all sorts of ways: what surfaced included excitement, choking ambition, perfectionist tendencies, and desire for praise. I was yanked out of my contemplative little cell, faced with the world inhabited by other people – under the most benign circumstances – and shaken.

One of the things that struck me most was how actually uncomfortable I felt in this group setting. I worked as a teacher (i.e. leader) for a long time and found out that being on the other side was extremely difficult, especially since we were working on a group project. I want to say that I hate group projects, but hate is not the word. I just panic because I have no control over their results. No control! Even though I sit in the first row, trying to communicate to the teacher, in this case a sweet-tempered and witty young woman from Vancouver, that I indeed am the best. “How do I get your job?” is actually what I wanted to ask her, but didn’t. And while I realize how ridiculous my controlling impulses are, I want to see them clearly, without condemnation or justification.

The idea for the exhibition and workshop came from a young woman,  recently graduated from journalism at Concordia University, whose goal is initiating more citizen participation and involvement in public affairs. She searched for people coming from varied backgrounds, selected about a dozen, furnished us with single-use cameras and asked to document a day in our lives.

I followed her instructions to the letter (I am certainly well schooled), and even though I can shoot pretty well and own a decent camera, I stuck to the disposable one and to the project’s raw, documentary purpose. I used to play with disposable cameras years ago so I knew that the key to getting anything out of them was using flash all the time (except in sharp direct sunlight). Anyway, I told myself, the point is not to look good in this. The point is, in my case, to say something honest about living unemployed in Montreal.

At the workshop it turned out that most people’s pictures did not turn out well, or that they hadn’t even picked up their single-use cameras at all, so they worked with digital photographs. The day-in-a-lifetime frame was not respected by anyone but me, and so I felt a pang of irritation, thinking, man, if I made a slide show of the best pictures taken over my time in Montreal, I would blow your minds. I felt like I was being unfairly limited in my output just because I stuck to the rules. I also went for a very basic narrative of my day, including revelations such as “In the morning, I do yoga, and have breakfast. I like to cook and eat well, so the BIO label really gets me going.” Others mostly went for philosophical and poetical treatises on Montreal, in French – I was the only one doing it in English.

Then there was the audio recording. It was the first time I’d ever worked with iMovie and I couldn’t make it do all the things I wanted it to do… I almost punched the computer at some point, at the same thinking, whoah, whoah, what’s with all the anger? What is this? And I realized that I wanted it to be perfect, but I was given only 4 hours to write the story, select, edit, and time the pictures, and finally record the voiceover. The vision engrossed me completely and made me feel like I was actually fighting for something real. I had to remind myself that I was not there to make my name known, but to represent Montreal’s diversity. The project really was about humility, but even though I feigned this quality in my amateurish pictures, I couldn’t bring it to the creation process. To me, it was mostly ambition and stress and anger. Interesting, eh?

The end result is far from good. If I had more time, I’d change the narration in a few places, choose better soundtrack, add a few final strokes. I’d stick to the choice of photos though.

I am a bit apprehensive and worried about the exhibition, even though it is going to show at a university gallery, and is not about me, really. But when I think it will be available online later on, with my name tagged to it forever, I squirm. Here I am, showing off a bunch of pretty bad pictures with a dull, halting voiceover. But hey, I did it and I am glad.

Thing is, I actually like the punk rock aesthetic of these stills – they just seem out-of-place in this particular context.

Also, I know more about myself now. I’ve learnt about digital storytelling and iMovie. Nothing stands in the way of me making my own stories and not worrying about the context someone else may place them in. If I want to control it, I will, but didn’t I want to let go of control? There goes, that’s how it feels. I used to spend hours editing pictures, a long time ago when I was still shooting film, and I remembered it yesterday. Except in the past, nobody would rush me. Yesterday I was rushed and it made me impatient. Pictures are dear to me. I’m serious about them.

Then again, why so serious? Why was I so solemn about it all instead of relaxing my shoulders and having a bit of fun? I think it was partly because I found myself in an environment where I would actually want to work, and so I purposefully set myself up for a test. In the end, I don’t think I passed it – I tried too hard.

What also dawned on me was that I did have a strong work ethic. Sometimes, when I look at job ads and see requirements such as “sense of organization, time management skills, self-starter,” I wonder if there is a place for me in the working world, because I often cannot bring myself to do the above. Not because I can’t, but because deep inside I don’t really want to, or because I feel that the job is demanding too much for purposes that have nothing to do with me, for some high organizational goal which I don’t actually support. But if I focus on a thing that fully matters – lo and behold, I come alive. It was a beautiful realization and it just confirmed that I need to keep on writing, filming, telling stories.

Yesterday exhausted me emotionally but also sowed the seed of something good for the future. I am grateful for having faced the repressed, frustrated artist in me with full force. Sure, I would like to start with a Pulitzer and a MOMA retrospective before getting one thing done and exposed to criticism and ridicule. I thought of what Brené Brown said about embracing one’s own imperfection and stepping forward. In 2010, she delivered a TEDx talk which became incredibly popular, and had this to say about what happened next:

“One of the things that I’ve learned, that I didn’t know before that talk exploded, is how hard I’d been working to keep my career small. And that was a little bit heartbreaking for me, because I usually thought of myself as being pissed off because I couldn’t get my work out there enough. But really I think I was engineering that, because I was afraid of these things that actually happened, like the personal attacks.

For people to look at other folks who are trying to come up and share their work with the world, or their art, their ideas, their writing, their poetry, whatever, and say “You can’t care what other people think” is bullshit. When you lose your capacity to care what other people think, you’ve lost your ability to connect. But when you’re defined by it, you’ve lost your ability to be vulnerable. That tightrope is what my talk is about, and I think that balance bar we carry is shame resilience. I think it’s the thing that keeps us steady. If we can understand that: I’m not the best comment, I’m not the best accolade I’ve received, and I’m not the worst. This is my work.”

Before drifting off last night, I watched a documentary on Krishnamurti, possibly the worst documentary I have ever seen. It starts interestingly enough, recounting the myth of his childhood and beginnings with the Theosophical Society (by which he was “discovered,” like America, like gravity), but the storyline ends with his dissolution of the society and start of an independent teaching “career.” Similarly, all the sources I can find offer more or less detailed accounts of his childhood and teenage years, and then BAM! enlightenment strikes under a Californian pepper tree and he stops being a person! He ascends to another level! The rest of the documentary are excerpts from his various public addresses and dialogues in India, the US, and Europe. He really says the same things over and over (I don’t get the impression that he read much himself) and insists that he does not want acolytes, but people follow him like sheep nevertheless. Just check the Krishnamurti Educational Center of Canada’s website, where he is depicted like a saint and seems venerated in a way he would surely bash. I found this funny exchange in the transcript of a 1967 public dialogue in Saanen:

 “Questioner: I am very conscious of my share of responsibility in this disintegrating world. The rich have even more responsibility for this disintegration. There are rich people who have listened to you, some of them for forty years; they are still more responsible. The presence in this tent of such persons represents a static force in contradiction to what you have been saying for forty years. There is an urgent need for each one of us to understand what you are saying, because of this disintegration. But whose role should it be to denounce vigorously the sabotage which this static force constitutes?

Krishnamurti: I don’t know why we are concerned with the rich or the poor, nor who is disintegrating or not disintegrating; whether somebody is using the speaker as a drug, to stimulate himself and therefore remains static, or those who take actual LSD and remain static. . . . Now I don’t see . . . why we are concerned with another. We are concerned first with what we are – you and I. Leave the others alone! Whether rich or poor, Communist or Socialist, Hindu or Buddhist – leave them alone! You and I are responsible! You who are listening and I who am talking. I am responsible. And whether you use me, the speaker, for your own amusement, enjoyment, as a drug – that’s your affair, it’s your misery. . . .

I believe the speaker has talked for more than forty years. It’s my tragedy, not yours. And it would be a tragedy to the speaker if he was expecting something out of it, expecting people to change, to bring about a different society, a different way of life. If I was expecting it I would be disappointed, I would be hurt, I would feel I had not done what I started out to do. It doesn’t affect me at all! Whether you change or don’t change, it’s up to you.”

I fell asleep musing about change, again, after reading and reading and reading and watching so much of what others have done and thought and invented. At night, all I dreamt about were very mundane things: a friend, a young mother, talking to me about her baby’s allergies; buying furniture; taking a bus, making phone calls, trying to be lovable. I woke up late, tired and sad. Snow storms over Montreal. I am writing.