On Sunday evening, I was driving home from a student's house, and I turned on the radio. Krista Tippett was intervening Maria Tatar. I read Dr. Tatar's work on fairy tales in college when I was working on a semester-long project on Baba Yaga in Russian folklore. When I heard her talking as I steered the car down the cold freeway towards home, I heard a voice that was speaking to all I hold to be true about our need for stories.
Not so long ago in our human evolution, the day's work had to end at the end of day. True, there were tasks that could, and would, be done in the flickering dimness of firelight, but there was an acceptance that night was the time to gather closely around the fire, to share warmth and food, and, if you weren't entirely exhausted, conversation. In winter, when that twilit dimness extended for hours into the daytime, evening brought time for longer, more emotional tales-- "A sad tale's best for winter; I have one of sprites and goblins," says the doomed child of Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. Young and old alike took in these stories.
When I read and tell fairy tales, both traditional tales and well-crafted modern ones, I feel the thread connecting me to the women and men and children who heard these stories years and years ago. I feel the tug in my heart and my mind, to open to the journey of the story, which is the journey of humanity, the journey of life. In each moment, I find myself within the tale. Sometimes, I am not the heroine. Sometimes, I am the wise woman, or the weary king, or the magic horse. At a storytelling performance last September, the wild poet Martin Shaw stopped in the telling of "Tatterhood" and asked us who we were in the story, where were we? Everyone nodded. We knew we were there, we were in that moment. The story was living n the room with us, and we were living there, in the forest, in the castle, at the edge of the wood.
In my second year of college, I was going through the kind of soul-searching, identity-seeking journey of most young people. As I envisioned my conference project-- a year-long independent study on an aspect of my coursework-- for Russian language and literature, I felt my love for folklore and stories rising to the forefront of my mind. Together with my professor, Melissa Frazer, I envisioned a two-part project: a paper on the role of Baba
Yaga as both villain and fairy godmother, and a storytelling performance. The paper was adequate; reading it now, I see how much deeper I might have taken my research. The storytelling performance was more than adequate.
It was a chilly spring evening when my friends and classmates, and their friends and classmates, packed into the campus Teahaus, a tiny building in the center of the lawn. It had once been Joseph Campbell's office. Perhaps his spirit's echo was with us that night. I don't remember which tales I told. Probably, the evening included Vasilisa the Beautiful and Marya
Morevna. What I do remember, is the rapt attention of the students in the room, the quiet breath, the startled laughter and gasps of dismay. These were not children, really, these college students in their sweatshirts and jeans, living on coffee and cigarettes and Postmodernism. But they were desperately hungry for these stories. They talked to me about that evening through my senior year. Some recalled it to me at our reunion years later. It was not me they remembered, though. It was the stories, or more, it was the talisman within the stories, the gift of a moment out of time, and the satiation of a hunger carried from childhood.
Eugene Schwartz has written about how college students who are starved for childhood stories and play as children, seek it out in college, buying themselves stuffed animals and Lego sets, but those who had their wells of experiences filled with real, living stories and true heroes when they were little, decorated their rooms with modern art. Can it be, that by allowing children the kind of stories they need when they are small, we are equipping them to be real heroes as adults? Not the kind with capes and crowns, but the kind that sees the need and suffering in the world, and seeks to assuage it, and the kind that quests after the grails of justice and truth?
I don't know the answer to that question. All I know, is that I need stories, and I suspect you do, too. And if I need them now, as an adult, then I am sure in every fiber of my being, that my child needs them. I don't always have the strength or energy to find them within me, or even to retell "Sweet Porridge" or "The Little Red Hen", for the hundred thousandth time, but I seek out books with real stories in them, and I can read those aloud in the moments when I need to be fed on stories, too.
Spring is supposedly here, though Minnesota is laughing at that idea. Getting Boyo to bed early becomes more and more difficult as the days get longer. Stories help lure him towards sleep. Dreams are a kind of storytelling, too, and perhaps the dreamlike imagery of fairytales helps us to make the transition from the waking world to the world of symbol and memory we visit in our dreams.
Dr. Tatar talked about bedtime stories, and about the importance of that time of day for creating connections with children. I am at work on a resource for you, on creating a magical, comforting bedtime for your child, built around the gifts of ritual and story. There will be snack and story ideas, recordings of stories for you to learn and retell, tips for creating a cozy environment for sleep, and more! Not every evening will be sparking with twinkly stars and sweet, sleepy smiles, but the more often they happen, the more possible they feel.
All I can really tell you, over and over, is this: stories matter, and they are food for human development and growth. Like food, the kind of stories matters, too. Let's feed our children the best we can, without becoming so orthorexic that we cannot allow a little fluff now and then, too. Even the most awful drivel can contain a pearl.
I have anxiety attacks. I didn't know what to call them when they started, when I was around 14. I didn't know that it was my heart causing the world to feel like it was falling down around me. I couldn't explain it. All I knew was that suddenly, nothing felt safe, and I would dissolve into panicked, sobbing tears, unable to go on.
When I learned at 31 that I have a heart murmur and mitral valve prolapse and I started reading about the effects of these conditions on the nervous system, it suddenly made sense. It's a vicious cycle, though. Stress or lack of sleep leads to poor eating and poor self-care, which makes my heartbeat irregular or more irregular than usual, which makes me think the world is ending, which makes it hard to sleep or care for myself properly... I get edgy and I yell a lot. I cry.
There's not a lot that can be done. Exercise helps, if I can actually do it. Crying relieves some of the pressure, but not always, and not always enough and it's not acceptable in all situations. Mostly, I have to wait it out.
For much of my life, I figured I was just too sensitive, that I was weak and should be able to handle life. Everyone else seemed to. I am learning, though, to name what is happening and to take steps, tiny steps, to ameliorate the situation before it becomes too much to bear.
Recently, a woman in an online group I'm in said, to someone else, "Your intensity is your gift." These words hit me right in the gut, and in the heart. For so long, I've considered my intensity a liability, a failing, a wound. But the mystics say, Your wound is your gift, and your gift is your wound. And somewhere inside me, those words are echoing. The defect in my heart, though small, is a wound. It makes me hyper-aware of my heartbeat with its skippityhoppity rhythm. Lubdub lubdub lub... Lub... Lubdubbydubbitydub. Lubdub. When I feel for my pulse, when I slow down, I can feel its dancing beat. My heart is not a steady drum, it has the breakbeat, the complex rhythms that make the music more alive.
In "Finist the Bright Falcon", the girl who loved Finist, and whose sisters forced him away from her window with glass shards and knives stuck into the frame, must seek him in the Thrice-Ninth land, in the
Thrice-Tenth Kingdom. That's Russian fairytale-speak for, "the other side of the earth, the end of the world, the underworld, the farthest shore." When she arrives, one of her tasks, as she tries to free Finist from enchantment and betrothal, is to wash blood from his snow-white shirt. It is not water she uses, but tears. Only tears can wash blood away; laundry experts recommend salt for bloodstains, but this is not just about laundry. It is the same as the quote from Isak Dinesen, "The cure for everything is saltwater: sweat, tears, or the sea." For anxiety, it seems the only cures are salt. Tears, baths in hot saltwater, yoga in hot rooms, sweat. But also, the wounds of the past cannot be cured by hiding them away. The girl in the story washed away the stains of the past with tears. She freed herself of that part of the enchantment, proved herself with her tears.
Fairytales tell us that weeping is not weakness, that youth and foolishness are not curses, and that the very qualities in us that mark us as wounded in the eyes of the world, are our greatest strength.
Your wound is your gift, and your gift is your wound.
This morning, Boyo and I made a wire ball filled with bits of colored wool. Lest you think I am the kind of mother who has lightweight silver wire and bags of colored wool batting just lying around the house, waiting to be put to use in some inspired craft or other, I will tell you that Boyo was given a subscription to Donni's gorgeous crafting boxes by his grandfather for Christmas. Each season, a box full of glitter and butterflies and flowers arrives with four all-inclusive craft projects; this was the easiest one. I was astonished at how much the little bag of wool bits expanded as we teased out bits to stuff into the wire ball we'd made. We had to stuff and tuck the soft bits of fluff into the edges, but it all fit. Then we pulled on outdoor clothes (Boyo put his over jammies), and went outside to hang it in the branches of the crabapple tree so the birds can tug out bits of soft wool to line their nests.
Friday's blog post struck a chord. I have never had so much response to anything I've written. Thank you so much. Since then, of course, I've been obsessively checking my blog stats and pushing down the anxiety rising in me -- now what do I do? I am fearful that I will never write anything that meaningful again, that I've peaked early, that it's all over. How can I go on?
Weekends are busy here. My partner works at our coffee shop in the mornings so that Boyo and I can ease into the day, so you would think it would be all Lazy-Saturday around here. Some of it is. There is time for lots of reading aloud. This morning, I changed sheets, made these pancakes, built a fort, and made the aforementioned wool ball. We took the dog for a walk around the neighborhood, ate lunch, and fought over where that lunch would be eaten. Exciting, no? Yesterday morning was much the same, only it had laundry in it, and I got to spend the afternoon with fellow alumni of my college, discussing Poe and Dostoyevsky and video games and mystery novels with my Russian professor; Faculty on the Road is a cool program, and I can't believe it's taken 12 years for me to attend a second one.
Tonight, it's back to my "day job" of tutoring. I feel like I am trying to fill my life like that wool ball, squeezing things in around the edges. Honestly, though, the more there is to put in, the better and more expansive I feel. I can't stand always rushing around, but I also cannot stand too much unstructured time. I need plans. I need ground to stand on. Once I have some framework, some wire, I can begin to fill in with all those gorgeous, bright bits of wool. Without the frame, the wool seems contracted and lumpy, and I have no idea how to begin.
I had never intended to be an at-home mother, but every summer since my son was born, it has gotten harder to go back to school, whereas I used to crave the structure and rhythm of school. Now I have to make my own rhythm, create my own routines. And it's hard. It's also hard to write this with my son yelling, "That's boring work! It's not fun for you! Stop writing and read to me!!" So, my publishing days are likely to be Thursdays and Fridays, when he is at school, and when I can sit quietly for a while and just settle in to writing. That will be a piece of wire for my frame, something to let me collect my little bits of color, and perhaps you can take them home to your own nests to make them more cozy and warm.
Thank you for reading.
I'm going to tell you a story today, one that has been long in the making, mostly because I had to let it sit within for many years before I could tell it. The other people in the story are grown up now, but we were all children then. Nothing huge happens in the scheme of things; it is just the way of the world, the way of children, but in the moment, it meant everything. I did not ask anyone if I may tell this story, so I'm changing names.
When I was nine, I started reading Anne of Green Gables. I didn't finish it then; I didn't like how old she seemed. The next year, a girl in my class, whom I'll call Diana, encouraged me to read it. So I did, and I found myself. I was Anne, dreamy, imaginative, given to ignoring plain speech when there was a bigger and more beautiful word that could be used. And I cast Diana as Anne's Diana, and I decided she was my best friend.
It didn't really dawn on me that I wasn't Diana's best friend. She didn't always choose me for partner work in class, the way I always chose her. She was nearly a year older than I, since her birthday fell after the cutoff for starting school and mine just before. She was pretty, with dark, curling hair, fine skin, and long fingers. Diana was chubby in that leggy way of girls who will later stretch into tall, slim gorgeousness. I was chubby in the way that would settle into my hips and thighs later.
Most of the time,we were happy, real bosom friends. I took on that dream world of Mongomery's books full force, reframing every experience and person in the language of the stories. At Diana's urging, I read the Anne books until she grew up and had her own children. I read the Emily books. I loved them, reading and rereading them.
At the end of fifth grade, I had what in hindsight was a foretaste of things to come. Diana inexplicably stopped talking to me. She sent notes back with "no comment" carefully printed at the bottom. I took it in stride; I had a good role in the spring musical, I had Girl Scouts and church choir. I had other friends. And eventually, she came around, and things went on as before.
Sixth grade came, with a move to middle school and the advent of boy-girl parties and changing classrooms. Diana and I were in the same class again, and I loved it. I had two or three little circles of friends, some of which included her more than others, but she was still my best friend. I included her in all my plans, called her every evening, chose her for group work. Perhaps she liked my company as much as I liked hers. We had other friends, people to invite for sleepovers and parties. Still, I loved my time with her, when we would call one another Anne and Diana, or Emily and Ilse, and everything was beautiful.
The axe fell at the beginning of seventh grade. She came to my birthday party at the end of August, a small gathering of girls, and brought me a Judy Blume book about best friends starting seventh grade. She seemed cool and distant but I chalked it up to there being other girls there, and we had a nice time. And then, there was the first day of school, when I ran up to compare schedules, and she turned and walked away. She would not speak to me, ignored my notes, wouldn't come to the phone when I called.
I tried for weeks to get her to tell me what I'd done, why she was treating me this way. I was devastated. My first period came, and she wasn't around to talk about it. She avoided me at all costs. I was lucky, though. I wasn't a complete pariah, and for that, I am so grateful. I had friends, though no one would go into those fantastical worlds with me any more. At twelve, I still played with dolls, still loved make-believe. Mine was the house where the too-cool girls could relax and be children for a few hours. But at school, no one wanted to acknowledge it, no one wanted to be a little child with me any more, and I longed for it.
I wrote melancholy poems in my diary, poured out my heart, asking why, why, why? The year went on. A friend's father died of cancer, another's committed suicide. We performed the HMS Pinafore. I went to parties, had a boyfriend for two weeks, planned to go to Chinese camp. And Diana was not there for any of it. She glittered in my peripheral vision, sitting at the other end of the lunch table, on the other side of our groups of friends, never looking directly at me, never speaking my name.
There was one afternoon, at a middle school dance, where we ended up sitting together in the cafeteria, taking a break from the pop music in the gym, with one other girl, who asked Diana why she didn't talk to me. There was a whole conversation, all through this other girl. We were all laughing, and I thought perhaps this might be it! She might want to be my friend again! But she didn't. She drifted back to the gym and ignored my attempts to talk to her without the medium.
In August, a few days before my thirteenth birthday, a letter came in the mail from Diana. "Happy birthday," she wrote. "Are you surprised to hear from me? I wanted to tell you that though we will never again be friends as we were, we shall always meet as acquaintances." I was delighted,and so goddamned grateful that she would be speaking to me again. My mother was disgusted.
Why m I telling you this? Because it is part of my story, and because it has so deeply influenced how I interact with people even today. Isn't it amazing how much those slights in childhood still hurt, decades later? Part of me wants to write to Diana; last I heard, she was working in a former Soviet republic, where she had been in the Peace Corps. We were cordial in high school, but she was right: we were never friends again. Something had broken; I don't if she had broken it on purpose, or if she had simply recognized that she was growing up faster than I and had to get out of a constrictive friendship that no longer served who she was. I hope it was the latter, that we were just sad little girls who didn't know how to do anything better, didn't have the vocabulary or judgement to talk rationally about the pain of change and the need to explore life beyond Avonlea.
Somewhere, deep inside me, is that twelve-year-old girl, still mourning the loss of her bosom friend. I wish I could hug her, tell her that better, bigger things were coming, that this was freeing her to find something more real. But sometimes, I can only react as little Me did, and I am filled with fear that I will be too much, too demanding, and that I will squeeze my relationships to death, harmed by my own intensity. So I dim my light, I pull back, I put weights on my my feet to ground my ebullient nature.
Let's let them out, our little selves. Let them breathe, let them dance. Let those children shine their light, create their worlds. Let them be as big and bright as they are, so that we can find again the fearlessness that they had, before they were hurt. That is the only way to heal, and the only way to forgive our Dianas, for they were little children, too, struggling to shine.
Today, I feel like this is storytelling itself. When I start a story, sometimes I have an idea of where we're going, and I can take the listener by the hand and lead them down the shadowed paths. But other days, I just start. I don't have any idea where we are heading. I just go, and the listeners go with me. None of us know where we'll end up, but they trust me to open the doors. Sometimes there's a dragon behind the door, sometimes it's nothing. I prefer when there's a dragon; otherwise, it's boring. I fear boring you.
I'm tap dancing around something here. Being a parent is hard. Trying to start a business is hard. Every word of this blog, I am second-guessing myself. I don't think I can write anything anyone else would want to read. It all sounds so self indulgent and silly. And this fear, this deep fear of being boring, of letting you down, dear reader, keeps me from saying anything.
A friend named this for me once: imposter syndrome. It's the fear that someone will figure out that I don't belong in the group, that my credentials are false. My mask will slip, and there will be a scream, "who do you think you are? You don't have any right to be here, let alone to speak!" It's a fear that shakes me to my core. A belief that I am an arrogant fool creeps into my mind when I start to write, whispering, "there is nothing you have to say. You have no views, no ideas, nothing worth sharing."
This is a lie. Somewhere in this post, there is something that will speak to someone. You will feel permission flowing around you to be yourself, because I am daring to be myself. And that makes it worthwhile.
I have this idea, that everything I publish here needs to be about storytelling and about only that side of my life, but when I read others' blogs, it's the ones that include something of the writer's daily life that keep me coming back. "Tell me how to live," I breathe, and perhaps by reading that,I can learn to order my life in such a way that it becomes beautiful.
I crave a beautiful life, one with light and shadow and adventure. People have those things in their lives, but they get stuck in the mundane, in all the stuff that isn't in the stories. I like to read the blogs that tell about the adventures, too, but also about the small details, giving them loving attention so that they can take on meaning and become holy.
Right now, I'm writing in a coffee shop. There's a young man in here who uses crutches and is wearing a Twins jacket. He is short and shuffles as he walks; he hasn't actually used the crutches since he came in. And he is making the counter staff uncomfortable as well as some patrons. He is not following the rules of interaction, and there is something in his manner that makes others want to tell him the rules. I just called him out for taking the sharpie from the pen caddy by the register.
I'll put it back, he said.
Yeah but you have to ask first. It's not yours.
I always put back what I take,he says, talking over me.
It belongs to her,I say, indicating the woman behind the counter. You have to ask.
I'm going to, he says, as if it was his plan all along. I was going to when you said something.
He wasn't, but I say nothing as he goes up to the counter. The woman says no.
This morning, my son woke me at 5:30 after he had a nightmare. It was about dinosaurs, he said, but he didn't offer any details. Sometimes, you just want to make sure someone knows who you are,and loves you. No one got any more sleep after that. I made bacon and coffee and toast. The pets were fed, and we all got dressed. As we rode to school this morning, I pointed out the crystalline hoarfrost on the trees and bushes. Spring is coming, when the air can hold enough moisture to allow those sparkling sugar-white tracings to line the leaves and bare twigs. I am hungry for the spring.
I am trying to uncover the plan for the next phase of my life. Classroom teaching needs to rest for a while. There is something in what I am starting now-- stories and parent work and writing, plus one-on-one tutoring and teaching-- that wants to grow into sustaining work, but it is still tender and new. I am trying to quiet the voice in my head that says, AAAAAGH! FIND A JOB NOW!!! Steady predictable work!!!
It's a voice that really wants to help me, to take care of me, so I try to be kind and gentle with it. But really, I am not sure that is the way to go. I think I can offer something of substance to the world, something needed and longed-for. I just have to figure out what it is, and the only way to do that is to walk forward into the shadowed forest, trusting that I will lead myself to the right doors, and that behind them will be, not a dragon, but my secret dreams.
Sara is a storyteller, writer, artist, teacher, wife, mother, and singer living in Minnesota. I write about storytelling, and about living a life with stories.