By Madonna Hamel
In my 20s I had a friend who described the love between a man and a woman as two wings of one bird. The love-bird needs both wings to fly, he cooed. My friend and I wrote, painted, danced and laughed together, often skipping classes and missing appointments and once getting fired because we were caught in a kind of foolish collaborative artistic frenzy. Often we were selfish in our exclusion of the rest of the world. Selfish, irresponsible, and hugely protective. Protective of what, I’m still not exactly sure, but it resembled some kind of tenuous, fragile, burgeoning creature. We reviled the critical world of facts and figures and sullied mergers and pointless acquisitions capable of dealing our poor creature a single ham-fisted death-blow.
As I look back I see what he called “bird” and I called “creature” was Story. Perhaps I can stretch the metaphor to say that one wing was teller and the other was listener – you can’t have a living story without both wings. The bird’s body joins the stories, gives them flight beyond the personal narrative of our self-absorbed individual lives – important and relevant to us, but not necessarily something we need bore others with. Not any story is unworthy, by the very fact of its being in the world, it has its place, as does its teller.
I’ve quoted Joan Didion’s phrase often: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Sometimes I misquote it as “We tell ourselves stories to keep ourselves alive.”
I may have morphed her phrase to accommodate her reality after her husband, the author John Gregory Dunne dropped dead at the supper table in their New York City apartment. They were about to celebrate their 40th anniversary. They both worked from home and spent their entire married life “writing and reading together.” She got through the days after his death by writing “The Year of Magical Thinking”; it was her way of “being alone with her husband so he could come back.”
She told his story, right down to the details of his autopsy. She told their story. She included everything, as editor of The New York Review of Books, John Leonard wrote: “Scraps of poetry, cramps of memory, medical terms, body parts, bad dreams, readouts, breakdowns” which amounted to “a kind of liturgical sing-song, a whistling against the dark against a ‘vortex’ that would otherwise swallow her whole with a hum. This then is how she passes the evil hours of an evil year, with spells and amulets.”
In other words, our stories do keep us alive – they don’t have to be tidy plots, blistering narratives, formula-driven scripts. They are what we recall, what inevitably describes our character. I had a writing professor who swore, in fact, that you could nail your characters by answering three questions: What makes them laugh? What makes them cry? Who do they want to sleep with?
Those three questions reveal something essential to every story: emotion. Passion, pity, humour, wonder, yearning, indignation, doubt. And they all reside in flesh and blood. None of them require an advanced degree in narrative structure or semiotics or even good grammar. They require knee-jerk responses to life’s blows and blessings. They require deep inhalations, they require being present, inhabiting the body. They may, if you feel so inclined, require a three-day walk down a dusty road, a 40 day fast in the desert, a long night on a mountaintop or a canoe trip down a rousing river: all things that necessitate and facilitate bodily presence. But, as the nature-loving poet Mary Oliver writes: “You do not have to walk on your knees through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
This week I am telling stories to honour and celebrate World Storytelling Week. I get to finally share the “stage” with fellow artist Joseph Naytowhow, who is trained and raised by his people to pass on traditional Cree stories.
Living in Saskatchewan, where it’s basically World Storytelling Week 52 weeks of the year, it shouldn’t be hard to drum up tellers to come by Val Marie’s Senior’s Centre on Saturday, the evening of the 18th, to share a tale at one of our events; you’re all invited!
I have not been traditionally trained as a cultural storyteller. I count the liturgy of the mass and the lyrics of the folksongs and carols that shaped my upbringing as part of my formation, as well as my degree in performance and my days as a journalist. But my training comes also from those winged days with my friend in my twenties. There are “seed” people, story-tellers, who have been given the gift at birth and and trained in the art of healing through stories. But sometimes, writes the cantadora and Jungian psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes, the “story summons us”.
There are families with tellers who continue to pass on stories. I don’t have a “people”, a tribe, a culture of seed people or elders in the way Joseph does.
And I have no children to whom I can pass my stories. I do my best to ask the kinds of questions that elicit them from others. But I have many recurring stories that summon me. They come to me often, and in dreams. Here is one I had again, just recently:
Three small boys land on my doorstep. They are lonely, scared, naked and hungry. They are covered in dirt, tearstains and their own feces. The world they have left behind has hardened them; they are huddled in a circle of longing and sorrow.
I pull them into the warm house and I draw them a bath. I wash away what I can, and wish I could wash away the hurt. Then I lift them. I lift them and they float like birds, they are so light and they are made of light, as well. I wrap them in big warm blankets.
By now we are all being silly, laughing infectiously. I feed them butterscotch pudding and cocoa, cinnamon toast and hot dogs. We are all huddled on my couch, singing. Then, they droop in their weariness, and I read them stories. And they trust me. This I know, because they fall asleep when they are tired.
Of course, it matters very much what stories I chose to tell the three sleepy boys. In his Massey lecture called “The Triumph of Narrative” Robert Fulford writes, among other things, about “master narrative”. “Children grow into adults by learning stories. And so do nations and communities,” he writes. “Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted anxious stutterers, in their actions as in their words … In Peter Pan Peter describes himself as a lost boy who has not been told stories; that’s why he can’t grow up and inhabit stories of his own, as others do. He cannot become an adult because he lacks the narrative equipment. At one point he tells Wendy, ‘I don’t know any stories. None of the lost boys know any stories’, and Wendy responds, ‘How perfectly awful.'”
At the same time, as a society we develop a main or master narrative, and we refer back to it often, as a nation, especially in times of national crisis. Add to that the claim that “it is the fate of all children to be conscripted into a drama they did not write but must perform” and you can understand how discerning we must be in the stories we share, and the stories I will chose to tell the three little boys the next time they enter my dreams.
This morning as I stood steeping my tea, staring out the window at the steadily falling snow, I wondered how I’d start this column. As I lifted the teabag string from my cup I remembered that Traditional Medicinals prints little sayings on their tag. I saved a small handful of them, I’m holding them in my hand now, like a clutch of old fortune cookie fortunes. One says: “If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” Another says: “The difference between a flower and a weed is a judgement”. The one from this morning reads, simply: “Be Heard”.
To tell our story is to not be alone. Is to be heard. Is to lessen the grip of judgement on whose story is important and on who belongs where in the hierarchy of history. To tell a story takes a kind of pace and patience, an openness and a space. Southwest Saskatchewan is a canvas for stories. While it has stories buried in it, its endless, raw and naked space draws our own tales up from their oft-forgotten depths. With the relative absence of corporate and urban culture’s restraining and imposing outside forces and stereotypes, we are free to tell, from the inside out, what drives our laughter, tears and desires. We are more than just one story-bird – we are many birds now.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.