Memory is mother to the muses, and in my playshop on the Healing Power of Story in Maryland over the weekend we found, again and again, that the best stories sprang from life memories, often from early childhood.
One participant held us spellbound as she recalled how, when she was very small, she would climb into bed with her grandmother – by day a prim, impeccably coiffed matriarch – and Grandma would regale her with reminiscences from her own girlhood, of riding wild ponies and paddling a canoe on a northern lake.
An older lady in the group named Sharon told a strange story of how, aged seven, she cut her foot on a sickle on her father’s farm, standing up in the back of the truck, and did not notice until grandmother screamed at her and her father that both of them were bleeding – and her dad poured out a shoe-full of blood. Neither of them, though wounded deeply, had felt any pain or even noticed that they had been cut. I probed for whether the story teller found some meaning in the return of this memory some 70 years later. She said softly, “It doesn’t hurt.” In that moment, we felt the gentle presence of Death in the room. He is often depicted as carrying a sickle, ready for the harvest. Sharon smiled as she recognized that she was being prepared for the journey through Death said she would now be open to renewed communication with her father and grandmother, on the Other Side.
Leila remembered, eyes shining, the nights she would spend, aged ten, lying in the backyard looking up at the Milky War. A night came when she realized she had to sleep in the house, which she found hot and unpleasant and confining. She felt she had lost something vital of her ten-year-old stargazer, and longed to have it back. I suggested that she might want to make a journey with the drum, back to the place on the grass where she watched the stars, with a dual intention: to play mentor and big sister to her younger self at a time when she may have desperately needed someone to play that role; and to see whether she could bring vital energy and imagination from her child self to live with her in her adult body. The journey was brilliantly successful. It amounted to effortless soul recovery, as Leila met her ten-year-old self and embraced her, and their energies fused. Now she is going to paint the stars, as she saw them with unfiltered eyes.
Some favorite memories out of childhood that surfaced as we hunted up story material involved stories we remembered from our early years. I thought of “The Velveteen Rabbit” and its perennial message that if you love something strongly enough, you bring it alive, and of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, the imperfect and incomplete one who has the valor and steadfastness to accomplish what the regular guys cannot. Another person spoke of the enduring effect of “The Dark Crystal”, the marvelous Jim Henson movie that depicts the eternal battle of dark and light, and how it can be healed with the help of the child.
Alla spoke of a Czech story the rest of us did not know, a tale by Zden?k K. Slabý titled “The Three Bananas, or Peter on the Fairy Planet”. The lead character is given what sounds like an all -important assignment: to go on a quest to find three bananas that appear to have magic properties. He has grand and indelible adventures on his quest, and succeeds – braving fantastic dangers – in bringing home the bananas. The wizard who gave him his assignment shrugs when Peter asks what will become of the bananas now. “So eat them.” We get the message that what inspires us to set out on a quest may be insignificant compared to the quest itself. It’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.
We live by stories. Our first and best teachers, in our lives and in the evolution of our kind, instruct and inspire by telling stories. Story is our shortest route to the meaning of things, and our easiest way to remember and carry the meaning we discover. A good story lives inside and outside time, and gives us keys to a world of truth beyond the world of fact. If you have lost your story keys – if you have forgotten that you can choose the story you are living – then ask the child in you to help you find them again.
Labyrinth at Blueberry Gardens in Ashton, Maryland, the site of the Story workshop