Friday, September 2, 2016

The Purpose and Art of Re-Telling Stories.

Making Hay

Rule #1 (maybe): Tell from memory, not from rote but from the heart. If the saying in the Gospel of Thomas applies, the necessity of bringing forth the gift from the heart is serious business. 
"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you" (#70). 
I recommend the commentary on this passage by Professors Elaine Pagels and Helmut Koester provided by PBS Frontline.  The elaborated passage propels us into a primary goal of our story-work, especially related to the necessity of knowing ourselves at a deep level. 
This first week in our Good Stories course, we interwove the threads of treasure flowing from four tales (links to versions of the stories are given at the bottom of this page). By opening with “Buried Treasure,” we confronted a tendency to lazily accept conventional values. The protagonist, Luis, is labeled the Lazy Man (see Wilson Hudson, cited below, & the version in Diane Wolkstein’s Lazy Stories)—but we know the way tricksters often play opposites. And, like a parable, this story complicates our own lazy acceptance of stereotypical labelling by showing that the character we might appraise as lazy is the one who manifests the divine mystery instead of the character who models our culturally approved ethic of hard work.  For it’s not the Working Man, but it’s Luis who lives in the light of his favorite saying: “To whom God wishes to give, God gives—even if God has to push it through the window.” To prove it’s not just an idle mantra that he recites, Luis reaches to the mouth of a runaway horse, risking life and limb, and receives the blessing of the spirit-rider. Further, given a vast treasure, Luis takes only what he can carry and shares both with family and with his untrustworthy neighbor, Working-Man Wally. Both of these sides of us are in need; but perhaps it’s the worker-side, the part that thinks to have earned the blessing by being industrious, that is the one most needful, because it’s the worker who needs to be convicted of the reality of faith, of the trustworthiness of providence. The real treasure comes through living the conviction.
 “Lazy Jack” extends the exploration of just rewards. How can it be fair that Jack, who continually fails to adapt, is the one to win the hand of the rich man’s daughter? He’s never successfully brought home his payment for a hard day’s work! Each time he gets told how stupid he is for losing his earnings and he gets told what he should have done. All Jack can say is “I’ll do so another time.” Then the next day he goes out, follows the previous day’s directions literally. He fails again and again to adapt as anybody with common sense would see to do. Does he end up with the beloved simply because he shows up, even when there’s no reward to show off? Perhaps the story offers insight into the persistence that is required to build the inner dimensions, the ones invisible to the external world. A person true to the inner journey has to continue even when the outer response feels harsh and critical. To escape from dependence on the approval of others demands walking a rough road.
When Epaminondas did like Jack and failed to adapt, the repeated response was “You don’t have the sense you were born with!” How many times do we have to experience this judgment until we advance into serious searching out our individual inborn sense, the unique stamp like a fingerprint that codes a person’s authentic destiny! Perhaps the final act of Epaminondas, the footprint left in each of the six pies, marks the decisive step. To claim identity, a person has to escape, has to break free from the collective mind, from the archetypal mother, from the uniform, the corporate approval, the merit-pay. The fourth story of the week reifies the message in the chilling theme: die before you die. The spirit bird, the merchant’s parrot, languishes inside the cage until breaking the secret code and then—freedom!
 Good stories carry secret codes, secret in the sense that the meaning and direction encased within them must be refined by the heart, the mind, and the body into the unique solution where the alchemical process is the person’s being, always in flux, burning, purifying.
          These stories are often classified as nonsense tales. Through our play-work with them as teaching-stories we’re hauled into the difficult movement from nonsense to sense.  I think there’s a connection with the manifestation of gift noted in the passage from Thomas cited at the top. If we gain or are given the capacity to make this passage, to transform straw nonsense into golden sense, we owe a debt to humility. Society, especially the well-educated layer, often favors a presumptuous attitude, evident in tossing out parabolic discourse with “there’s nothing here but nonsense!” Sometimes the story gets cheapened just to get a laugh. 

This presumptuous kind of attitude, along with sarcasm, hits a dead end from which a person cannot proceed to enlightenment.  To join the path of light, a person often has to nurture “not-yet-sense.” The capacity to move from nonsense to not-yet-sense faces extinction in a world hung up on speed and certainty. Instead of engaging these four stories as nonsense tales, our willingness and work in letting them serve as parable offers to liberate our connection with the sense we are born-with, the gift, the talent, each person’s genius. Or in Wordsworth’s beautiful phrase, our “trailing clouds of glory.”

Video versions of three of the four stories can be seen by following these links:
Buried Treasure:
Epaminondas & Lazy Jack:
The Merchant & Parrot is found in Rumi’s Mathnawi & in earlier work by Attar. A version is also given as “The Indian Bird” on Page 189 of Idries Shaw’s Tales of the Dervishes.