Possessed by Riding Swift Horses
Good Stories entertain and engage Big Questions such as: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? Like life, the question is seldom underlined as a heading or even as an explicit interrogation. The search for identity, the thrust into mission, and the hand of destiny rise up in the moments of living: “What’s for dinner?” “Dad’s got a fever!” and “What! You got sacked from work!”
Told in traditional tales, character develops fast-forward, in condensed form, thereby allowing us to see the changes that in normal life-pace progression often go unseen because they happen slowly or they're taking place internally in our mind, heart, and soul. With the expanse of mythic landscapes, stories push us to wonder about our own connection with divinity and with powers beyond normal expectation. In the Kanu story when Chameleon sits next to the Chief and takes on kingly attributes, we might be inspired to search out models of magnificence. Do we devote ourselves to be near virtuous models so our aspirations rise above the mundane? When we engage stories archetypally, we are able to empathize with the characters and use the stories as rehearsals for our own lives.
In our Good Stories class, we extend this stage by active participation with the resources of creativity, play, and imagination. As we design and develop digital media productions, the modeling allows the compressed archetypal power of stories to expand our vision and motivation and vitality. What is real beauty? What demands does my psyche face in dealing with depression? Which of the paths that I'm choosing leads to the treasure?
Our Good Stories have spiraled among variations of characters who are finding their treasure. Luis is given the tatema, a chest with silver coins. Jack gets the rich man's daughter, contrasting sharply with Epaminondas who messes up each gift. Psyche has to go through many trials in order to re-unite with her beloved. Love is perhaps the greatest treasure of all. Other stories show the quest for the Water of Life. Through this amplification of the archetype of treasure, we are enriched with better preparation to develop our inner gift, the essential "self," and to build character needed to take on the journey.
Many stories present this treasure hunt in relation to the bridging of sky and earth. We watched Spider make a web-ladder to reclaim the Daughter of the Village, and we might wonder if the relationships we build with strangers could retrieve the life-saving quality of compassion. Jamake Highwater in Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey continues the journey of the woman who lost her only child after challenging the demands of death. She climbs the sun’s rays to search for her child leading us to ask how much we’re giving for enlightenment.
In a variation on Highwater’s Anpao, Robin Wall Kimmerer adds a wonderful note of grace about the earth-sky bridge in her books and in an interview.
The idea of reciprocity, of recognizing that we humans do have gifts that we can give in return for all that has been given to us is, I think, a really generative and creative way to be a human in the world. And some of our oldest teachings are saying that — what does it mean to be an educated person? It means that you know what your gift is and how to give it on behalf of the land and of the people, just like every single species has its own gift...
I think of my writing very tangibly as my way of entering into reciprocity with the living world. It’s that which I can give and it comes from my years as a scientist, of deep paying attention to the living world, and not only to their names, but to their songs. And having heard those songs, I feel a deep responsibility to share them, and to see if, in some way, stories could help people fall in love with the world again.
Good Stories cross the oceans to further amplify the treasure of the bridge. Among the many gifts in Joseph Campbell’s legacy, comes a story of Kuan Yin (in Myths to Live By, pp. 139-140, & in The Mythic Image, pp. 327-328). The Bodhisattva bridges the way so that compassion may enlighten the darkened hearts in a village possessed with racing on swift horses and shooting arrows. Engaging the treasure of the beloved requires the work of memory, then of explaining the memorized sutra, and finally the realization of the meaning. In Good Stories, as we engage Kuan Yin we search for the sutra, the sacred text, that we dedicate to memory. We translate this into image and word and we wonder into the embodiment of the treasure in our identity, mission, and destiny.
Support for our treasure hunt also comes from our textbook, Brian Boyd’s On the Origins of Story: Evolution, Cognition, & Fiction:
Minds evolved to respond to their immediate surroundings and could hardly do otherwise. Yet nature has prepared minds to attend to, and to act in response to, other agents and actions, and has shaped human minds to play, through their long childhood, with models and ideas of agents and actions and reactions. As we grow, we learn to dispense with physical props and to rely more and more readily on the cultural props of our narrative heritage, always on call in memory, in order to think in sustained ways beyond the here and now… Because fiction extends our imaginative reach, we are not confined to our here and now or dominated by automatic responses. We can think in terms of hidden causes, of inspiring or admonitory examples from the past, fictional or real, of utopian or dystopian models, of probable scenarios or consequences, or of counterfactuals whose very absurdity clarifies our thought. We know that there are always other spaces of the possible we can explore. And much of the indefinite enormity of possibility space has been made concrete and particular through the examples of story.This may be the most important function of pure fiction. By appealing to our fascination with agents and actions, fiction trains us to reflect freely beyond the immediate and to revolve things in our minds within a vast and vividly populated world of the possible. (pages 198-199).