Monday, October 13, 2008


I have annoying epiphanies. It’s not the epiphanies themselves that are annoying; it’s what I do with them. I file them away in my journal or in the inner reaches of my consciousness, and when the same epiphany presents itself to me a while later, I shout “Eureka!” (figuratively, at any rate) and then go and confide it to someone who will (usually with a bit of annoyance) remind me that I’ve had that same revelation at least once if not three times within recent memory. I’ll then thumb through my journal and there it is. I’d put it down to creeping age, but the same damn thing was happening to me when I was twenty. (It’s cold comfort, but I’ll take what I can get.)

So I had a recurring epiphany a few days ago as I was posting a comment on Abby’s Course in Miracles blog. The revelation was hammered home, when a bit later she honored me by writing a post about my comment. (Mind you, I’m still new to this blogging thing, and being mentioned and quoted in a post is about as thrilling as opening on Broadway. My friend Gillian_y just gave me a stellar review and I’m thrilled.)* The comment in question contained a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “The American Scholar”:

The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation, the act of thought, is transferred to the record. The poet chanting was felt to be a divine [wo]man: henceforth the chant is divine also. The writer was a just and wise spirit: henceforward it is settled the book is perfect; as love of the hero corrupts into worship of his[/her] statue. Instantly the book becomes noxious: the guide is a tyrant. The sluggish and perverted mind of the multitude, slow to open to the incursions of Reason, having once so opened, having once received this book, stands upon it, and makes an outcry if it is disparaged.

My epiphany is attached to the second sentence: “The poet chanting was felt to be a divine [wo]man…”

Several years ago I was part of a Zen Sangha in Pasadena, California. We’d sit in the basement of a metaphysical bookstore on Monday evenings and meditate. It being a Zen sit, founded in the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, there would be no chanting; we’d listen to ourselves breathe.

Of course, I had terminal monkey-mind. During one meditation the Jamaican bobsled team came into my consciousness and refused to leave until they’d instilled in me a desire to watch Cool Runnings and cook up a batch of jerk pork.

At the end of one meditation, when we compared notes, a young Australian man related how an altar had fallen down at his home and how after an initial bit of annoyance he and his life partner had set about repairing and reconsecrating it. The incident had been foremost on his mind before he had meditated, and now he was able to step back and review it. His last remark was, “It’s odd, but this whole thing didn’t have any meaning to me before I talked about it here.”

The epiphany came like a brick to the back of my head. This was the poet chanting. This was the “why” of all literature – and “illiterature” too: written and oral tradition. I went back to “The American Scholar” and found that Emerson had had the same realization:

The scholar…received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him life; it went out from him truth. It came to him short-lived actions; it went out from him immortal thought. It came to him business; it went from him poetry. It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing.

Nothing has meaning – not unless we talk about it. That is the purpose of the playwright, the poet, the journalist, the diarist, the historian, the singer, the blogger, and the storyteller.

The ubiquitous bumper sticker was right: shit happens. Both physically and mentally. But the act of a human being reflecting upon and relating the occurrence transforms it into matter of meaning. The act of a human being taking random motifs of action and image and forming and shaping them into a narrative or lyric is the creation of literature.

It’s all just a lot of stuff until we shape it into a story, a poem, a white paper, a song, a letter, an essay, a prospectus, or a joke.

So that’s just one of the many epiphanies that come around every so often to visit. But yesterday, at the storytelling stage at the Taste of Encino festival in Encino, California, her sister epiphany sat down next to me and gave me such a nudge with her elbow that she nearly broke a rib. My friend True Thomas took the stage and told the “Lay of Thym” with such boisterous humor and detail that I was indeed hearing it for the first time. He was the poet chanting. Through True’s voice, gesture, and detail, Thor, Loki, Freyja, Thyrm, and the rest all took life for the space of twenty minutes.

Storytelling, as True practices it (and as I pursue the practice of it) is like verbal jazz: the words are not memorized, but the story is a part of the teller. The teller sees the story in his/her mind’s eye and tells the audience what that mind’s eye sees. The dialogue comes straight from the teller’s ear. When the teller is in that transported state of mind s/he and the audience share an experience that is both auditory and visual – and it is spontaneous and extemporaneous. It is life on a higher level of consciousness.

Is it any wonder that the griot, the bard, the skald, the scop, the shanachie, were considered treasures?

Every so often, I have to get reintroduced to this and my other epiphanies. Every so often we need to remember just why it is we do what we do and love what we love.

*I had more than one professor in college who complained that I used too many parenthetical statements. What can I say? I’ve got ADD.


Abby said...

I have a couple of thoughts prompted by this post. (They haven't yet matured into a complete post of their own, but you never know. LOL)

I discovered kirtan, the Hindu practice of singing (i.e., chanting) the many names of God and Goddess, 8 years ago. Ever since, it has played an important part of my life on almost a daily basis. In many cases, I know some of the story behind the figures whose names I am chanting, but in many cases, I have no idea of the exact meaning of the words. However, kirtan has become important to me not because of the words I am singing, but because of the experience it brings: it transports me outside of myself so that I can again experience my connection to the greater Universe and all of the Mystery and Truths it contains. And through that process, I find a greater sense of peace and contentment with my place in this world that helps me to continue on each day despite the terrors that my ego (falsely) tells me lie ahead.

As for story telling, I learned many years ago that we all have our personal stories, those events in our lives that we retell because they contain a truth about who we are and how we have come to be who and where we are today. In the retelling, we connnect with our past and those with whom we are sharing, as well as the universal experience embodied in the story. I know the stories I retell -- my parents telling me in junior hig school how proud they were of me for getting straight A's and how disappointed they and my teacher were because they were sure I could do better if I just put some effort into it, for example -- and allow myself to retell them because of the meaning they convey in the moment of the retelling. I have also learned that Spirit will guide my words, so I need not worry about being sure I tell the story the same way every time. Instead, I allow the moment, and my audience, to inform and influence the retelling. I love the art of storytelling and, although I am nowhere near an artist of that genre, I love the meaning and connection with the world around me that it brings to my life .


Gillian said...

Hi Abby. Sorry not to have gotten back sooner.

Isn't the power of the word and the voice wonderful? And I'm using the original sense of that word: full of wonder.

Often not knowing the language adds to that wonder. Back in the seventies, when I was stationed in Japan, I lived on a hill above a shrine. I could hear the chanting on summer nights and was filled with an otherworldly sense of awe and fear. (And I think fear is just as much a spiritual experience as joy.) And, of course, I didn't understand a word. I can understand why so many older Catholics were devastated back in the sixties when the mass was translated from Latin to whatever was the language of the congregation. The mystical became the mundane.

I have to admit here, that though I've quested for most of my life, I've not found the kind of ecstasy (great word: outside one's self) which you describe. Once, while I was teaching a class in myth and legend, a student who was apparently a gang member said to me, "Have you ever felt the spirit of God? I have." Being a practicing Catholic at the time, I went to my priest and said, "I've been trying to have a religious experience for forty years. How does he rate?" My priest gave a Barry Fitzgerald laugh and said, "Well, maybe yer tryin' too hard."

I've found, though, that as I have come out more and more and interacted both as a performer and on a personal level, that I seem to be a conduit for Spirit. When I am telling a tale (and my storytelling is almost all traditional - myth and folktale) there is a transportation for myself and for the audience, whether I'm telling about Isis or Inana or if it's simply a Russian or Scottish folktale. I've heard storytelling described as a "shared hallucination."

You're right about Sprit guiding one's words. I don't memorize, and each time I tell, it's a new experience it's risky to the ego but fantastic for the soul.

By the way, regarding you as a storyteller, Epictatus said, "If you would write, write." If you're at all interested in honing the craft, I'm sure there is a storytelling group in Prescott. (Actually, that is where I saw my first storyteller, back in the early 80's, at a folk festival at the Sharlot Hall Museum.) Storytellers, I've found, are approchable, accepting, and loving and are a fantastic audience.

Abby said...

Wait! You've been to Prescott, and to Sharlot Hall? Did you tell me that before? If so, I must have missed it.

The folk festivals at Sharlot Hall are wonderful. The folk music fair on the first weekend in October is my favorite, but the folk arts fair in June is good too. Unfortunately, I missed the folk music fair this year because I went to Tucson instead to visit with Liz and Lori. Ah, choices.

I don't know that I'll ever get into storytelling in a formal way. Right now, at least, I prefer to keep it as something more personal that comes from the heart, when and how it needs to.