A Story is an entire, distinct world. It has a heart that acts as dynamic center for the sake of revelation and healings. Story is an exact and particular, dynamic emergence, in time, the emergence of a particular configuration of meaning from several or many particular intersections and interactions.
It is not a chronological sequence but it can contain one. It is a magnetic center, like the dark hole, let’s say, at the core of the Milky Way, or our sun as the energy that holds our solar in dynamic relationship, or the heart from which wisdom arises. Events, moments, synchronicities, surprises, dreams gather mysteriously into meaning that reveals a path,
Like the world, it is not created exclusively by human means. Stories are not only of our invention. Stories are not manufactured. They happen spontaneously.
A Story is given and our task is to recognize it and then live accordingly.
Story does not tell us what to do in a simple linear fashion. But it is revelatory. It awes and surprises us, once we recognize its presence. It opens a path that is healing. But a healing path cannot be healing only for ourselves. A healing path cannot be walked in the midst of devastation or in despite of surrounding contamination. A healing path heals what is within its perimeters and seeks to extend the area of its purview to meet the life of the individual, the times in which she or he lives, and the future for all beings.
Story, as I have come to know it over many years of study and investigation, is an insight or vision on behalf of all our relations. The Lakota Sioux end their communications with the sacred phrase, mitakye oyasin, all my relations. It is an equivalent of saying, Blessings, when the word is sincerely meant. It invokes the harmonious and the sacred. mitakye oyasin.
Story brings together everything that is related to its magnetic heart. Some elements may be invisible but they are still present. A story is whole and, therefore, is complex. That is why and how it heals.
Story is whole AND also it is particular.
(You may have heard me tell, or read some of the stories I am telling here. But stories change according to their context. This essay is not about each story per se, but what is revealed when the stories are in new relationships to each other.)
In 1976 I was teaching at the Center for the Healing Arts. The first Center for the ancillary treatment of cancer. It predated, even sparked everything we now call CAM or complementary and alternative medicine. A man whose life was profoundly changed through the deep healing process we were exploring as Westerners, having forgotten the old and indigenous ways, wanted to create a bumper sticker – Cancer is the Answer.
When I had cancer in 1977, I began to understand that I there was a Story that included the illness and was leading me toward healing. I was in that story. For story is not finite, it is a dynamic event that may have no end. As I entered a healing path, carefully following the emerging story as it was being revealed to me, I also received a wisdom teaching that has become my foundation: Heal the life and the life will heal you. Then I understood that the healed life was not for myself alone. I was not to focus on healing my life first in order to offer healing to others. But rather the goal is to heal the life, to heal life itself, and then all, I and you, we will heal accordingly.
I will tell some of this story further on.
Healing stories are given to us so our times will heal. These times are critical. Life itself is endangered. Some years ago, I keynoted the annual medical conference of the American Holistic Medical Association. In my talk I said, Medicine, medical ways and the Earth are our patients today.
This cannot and must not be denied. All life,, and so all lives, are gravely endangered, physically and spiritually. And so we gather in the pleasure of each other’s company, in the relief of each other’s company, in the wisdom of each other’s company in order to see what we might offer individually and together to the future – mitakye oyasin.
Stories are like interlocking circles. 19 interlocking circles make an ancient image called the Flower of Life. It speaks of the akashic records. It speaks of the eternal hidden wisdom stories. A story integrates other stories. Becomes wisdom.
Here is a true story. Three weeks ago, I was flying from NJ to Los Angeles. Preparing to give a talk that is the basis for this essay at a SoulCollage® (http://www.soulcollage.com) Conference. I was reading about archetypes, Neters, as they are called in the ancient Egyptian pantheon. I glanced up at the film that I was occasionally s‘watching’ without words as I do when I fly. Briefly, an Egyptian image appeared on the screen. Horus, I think. And a word: Neter. Horus is one of the Neters who maintains the divine order. The film was called “Now You See Me…” Horus. But maybe Tehuti. Why not. Tehuti has been a profound influence upon me. Tehuti the great healer.
Tehuti came. In Story. We will speak of Tehuti later. Suffice it to say here, that I was preparing to give a talk about Healing Stories, preparing actually to give this talk, and an image appeared on the screen that corresponded exactly to the book I was reading, Soul Collage Evolving: An Intuitive Collage Process for Self-Discovery & Conmmunity, by Seena B. Frost.
Story gathers into itself events from the inner and outer worlds. Much of story derives from our own activity and thoughts, but some of it derives from real energies outside of ourselves. I look at Stories and Dreams in the old ways. My hope is to contribute to restoring the indigenous wisdom that recognizes that Story and Dreams are gifts from the Spirits. The Spirits are real. Our task is to learn to recognize them so we can live in what the Native Americans would call The Good Ways.
The Kogi, one of the few most intact peoples on the planet, call us the Younger Brothers (or Sisters). They are the Older Brothers. The know what we are doing to the earth. They know we do this because we are young, callous, self-centered, greedy and naïve. We don’t know how to listen to the Earth and the Spirits. We don’t realize that we have not invented, are not giving words to the Spirits (archetypes) orto the Beings of the Earth but sometimes, when we are fortunate, they speak to and through us. Story is one of the languages through which they speak.
We need to yield to wisdom wherever it is. And we are children before Wisdom. Story can teach us how and when to yield: when it is our thinking we encounter and have to step away, when we have to get out of the way, and when it is Spirit who calls to step forth.
I have over the years encountered Tehuti and learned how to serve this Neter. To be graced by his energy and wisdom, sometimes having the fortune of moving in the world in ways he might be directing. In my novel, Doors: A Fiction for Jazz Horn, Tehuti is central, is the core, the energy, is an actor in the book. It is his book. So let us say, the Neter in the silent film – designed by the filmmaker but only partially perceived because I only looked occasionally and didn’t hear any sound, so also designed by the great silence — was Tehuti. It makes a good story. No one says we can’t add imagination to the Story. And now I ask the question, did Tehuti appear to emphasize the reality of Spirit and also did he come to remind me of a sacred relationship that was no longer prominent in my mind.
This Neter, or energy, Tehuti, that appeared ten years or so after Doors:… appeared within the activity of my preparing to speak. The intersection of the film’s story and the story of the SoulCollage gathering, a focus upon Story itself and the nove,l published ten years ago or so, became a living Story in that moment.
The Neter or energy or Spirit often expresses itself in Story. Stories emerge from such energies in the way that stories are also connected with place and event. A story that has associations, in the way of collage, may have origins, development and futures.
When I had cancer, I was a given a question that has served me and those with whom I work: Why did this event, or dream, or illness, in particular, come to me, in particular, at this time in particular? And now I add another essential element to the question: At this time in our lives – at this time in the life (or dying) of the earth, of our beloved planet?
In looking at the particulars, Story appears. But not merely a Story of beginning middle and ending, but of origins developments and futures.
Beginning, middle and end yielding to origins, developments and futures.
What if events in our lives, or afflictions lead us to stories so that we learn to live on behalf of yourself and the future for all beings. Ecology. The Story of all beings.
What gives me hope – in such dark times – when I know that we don’t know how to meet the times or the consequences of our own behavior – is that Stories emerge, is that inexplicable events are enacted in our lives – and so confirm, as the only logical explanation – the Presence. The Old Ways, of whatever tradition, recognized Dream as a gift from Spirit or the Divine. Story is the same. The Presence announces Itself through Story. And the Story teaches us how to live. When we live in healing ways, we are healed. When we live in healing ways, the world is healed. Our healing. The world’s healing. The same.
Because we can’t invent a Story, in the way I have understood Story all these years, we sometimes really need a story.
Fifteen years ago, I was in Berkeley preparing to give a talk at the California Institute for Integrated Studies. In order for the talk to be successful, I needed the right story with which to begin. I had spoken there several times over the years and so I needed a different story from which a new focus would follow. The entire week before, I had been reviewing my life looking, but no formerly untold story emerged.
As a writer and teacher, I live by story. Not only these classic or cultural stories that have sustained people for centuries or for the life of their tribe, but the stories that emerge in our individual lives from the dynamic between experience, events, synchronicities, dreams, sometimes divinations, and history. One way of understanding this is that Spider Woman is present among us and She is weaving a story from the bits and pieces, shards and threads of experience, or she is about to weave strangers into an unexpected fabric of connection through the revelation of their common and overlapping experiences, through sharing, becoming part of a common story. In an alienated time, we can become kin or members of the same tribe through recognizing unexpected connections. In the ways a cliché can allude to a common but powerful truth, we are made whole through the gathering together of the scattered parts as wholeness and healing are of a single root.
When the needed story did not manifest before I began traveling, I was certain it would come to me on the plane or in the hotel room that night or …. Now it was a few hours before the talk. I went to a local sidewalk café for coffee to take a break from my desperation. I had back ups and there were always myths I could tell to weave a talk, but ‘the’ story eluded me.
Some weeks before I had read an article about Dr. Jean Achtenberg. She said that she often prayed to the Four Archangels before meeting a difficult case or before entering the surgical theater. I hoped that the unlikely remembering of this essay might be a sign. I understood that the four Archangels are Judeo-Christianity’s way of recognizing and calling on the sacred energies of the Four Directions and so it was neither alien nor inappropriate to invoke these sacred beings whom I knew from my birth tradition. And so, having the security of a cappuccino at my small table, I pleaded for a story to Archangel Michael in the East and Archangel Gabriel in the North both messengers and protectors, to Raphael, the angel of healing in the West and Uriel the angel of Sacred fire and vision in the South. Please, I begged, remind me of, send me a story so that I can bring some insight and wisdom to the community. I ended, as I always do, “On behalf of all beings and the future.”
Some minutes later, a small man in a worn brown gabardine jacket began lurching from table to table asking for moneys. Soon he made his way to my table. Aware that under his jacket, he was clutching a brown paper bag with a beer bottle in it, I wondered if I should give him money as it would obviously feed his habit. But recognizing that he had lived his entire life without my advice, I gave him a generous donation and exchanged blessings with him. He continued through the maze of tables and then stopping at the edge between the shaded café and the no man’s land of the street, he turned and looked at me directly:
“Would you like me to tell you a story?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” I answered passionately, “I would love you to tell me a story.”
“Do you know,” he began, “what General Patton said when he was preparing an offensive in Africa?”
“No,” I answered. “I have no idea what General Patton said.”
“He said,” the man’s gaze was steady and grave, “Tho I walk in the valley of the shadow of death…”
The man stopped, turned and began walking away. Then he turned toward me again and certain he had my attention, he began speaking again. “Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death…” he repeated the words but with a different emphasis that called us both into our common mortality. Within a moment he turned the corner or disappeared.
I had my story and we have this story now.
Versions of the story of the beggar who is an angel appear throughout the world. It is an analogue of the beggar, the disreputable, needy or unpleasant old man or woman who appears to test us and who offers us gifts if we respond appropriately.
When we hear these stories, we want to identify with the ones who recognize the angel or who always act as is appropriate to an angel, or who treat everyone like an angel, but we rarely expect the angel to appear. Appear, really!
A healing story is a living or a lived story. It is a story that arises out of our lives and teaches us how to heal, how to live. In its classic form, it requires an exact action and an offering. True stories may seem random but they are precise.
Stories, such as these, which are gifts from Spirit, seem obvious in the telling but we can easily miss them. They require us to be awake. The one who is living the story may miss it and we hope that the one who is listening, the storyteller /healer will recognize it. Our training through listening to the traditional and classic stories can alert us to the lived story when it appears. Listening to and telling classic tales, reading books, literature, myths imprints the patterns on our hearts and so we are alerted when something similar begins to appear. If I didn’t read voraciously, I could have missed this story. If I didn’t know myth ot the Old Testament, I would have missed the story. It could have turned to ash in the guise of an old drunk weaving through a café, easily dismissed, unless you know the sacred relationship between beggars and angels.
In this case, I had prayed to the Archangels and not the Four Directions. Had I done otherwise, I would not be thrust so particularly into the story of the Angel and the Beggar. But if I were out in the wild, I probably would have prayed to the Four Directions. Because every medicine person knows that we must honor the Gods of place first. And then, perhaps, a bear would have appeared. Or a Wolf. And I would have another story altogether. I will tell such a story later too.
If only the beggar came, it would have made a good story but not as good as it is with the angels invoked and an angel appearing. Not as good a story as to know that Spirit really exists, that the Angel is not a metaphor. Spirit exists. The angels are real. And so are the beggars. Such stories understood in the old, old ways, teach us the etiquette and ethics required in both worlds, in the world of the angels, that we rarely enter or are visited by, and in the world of the beggars, where, unfortunately, so so many people live most of the time. A Story can bring these worlds together.
During a teleconference renowned storyteller Laura Simms and I participated in on June 13th, 2012, Laura spoke of the Story as inherently creating, reconciling or teaching relationships. This Story reestablishes an ethical world of exchange and respect that also reunites the spirit world and the secular world.
The beggar and I had an ordinary exchange. I gave him money, he gave me a blessing. A kind but not memorable event. He is still merely a beggar. But then he turned to me: “Would you like me to tell you a story?”
Now I the storyteller, the healer, the story carrier must pay attention.
Now we are in the miracle. Now Story comes alive. Now he is also an angel. Now we are in the unfathomable. Now Spirit is present. What is happening now is entirely outside of human intent. A dimension opens to the Great Mystery. For the Lakota Sioux, the name of the Divine, of God, if you will, is Wakan Tanka. Great Mystery. Ahh.
This would be more than sufficient but we need to pay attention to the Story the Beggar /Angel will tell. It is a story of the human condition. It is the story that levels all distinctions between a General, a beggar and the listener. “Do you know what I thought when I was in the Valley of the shadow of death?” Now we are all in the story for each of us have been or will be in that Valley. We are companions as we will all face death. No exceptions. Such deep equality. The profound question that we are each being asked is – Will we under similar circumstances, turn to Spirit?
The beggar offers me a surprising healing of whatever fear I might have of death. For Spirit has just made itself known through the beggar/angel’s presence as he asks me (asks you) what might I / you think when ….?
One way of thinking about a healing story is that it reveals a path that the afflicted one is to follow. In this instance, among other things, I / we are enjoined to recognize the existence of Spirit and the way it works in our lives. To recognize Spirit even though we will die, even in the face of death. And to recognize and listen to the teachings and guidance of Spirit as it comes to you, in particular, in its particular form, in the face of the possible death of the planet. Our individual deaths are certain. The death of the planet is an aberration. Can we devote our lives to turning this around?
In this case, we are invited to recognize Spirit twice – through the Beggar turning to me and answering my prayer and through the content of the Story he tells.
First it is necessary to recognize the Story that is coming to us, or that we are in or that we are called to live.
At this point in the essay, I turn back to the Conference and write the words I spoke then:
“In this moment, speaking to you, I am in another Story. As Stories are co-existent and co-extensive, I can, we can, be in many stories at once. A conference was planned, I was invited, and here we are. All of you brought me here.
“But something else happened. Someone you do not know brought me here. Someone I scarcely know. Someone I didn’t know before I accepted your invitation. Someone I encountered many months after accepting the invitation and just a few months ago. Someone named Terrence Green. He is a character in a novel I am writing.
“When I “met” him, I knew nothing about him, except that he was connected to the protagonist, Sandra Birdswell, of the work in progress entitled, A Rain of Night Birds. He didn’t tell me anything about himself, but in the way of novelists, I began very slowly to know something of his story. I began to know that he made a shocking discovery and it brought him to his knees. I learned, doing the calendar for my novel that this happened in 2007. And so doing research I found something that could have been the cause. It was a publication of the United Nations: The Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007. And when Terrence Green who is a Climatologist held this in his hands and saw that it mentioned – for the first time – the validity of indigenous knowledge in understanding climate change – he had to leave his western office so he could read this where he could understand it best. He had to be in nature. He had to be on land he knew well. He jumped in his car and took off. For where? For a place that appeared on the page but I didn’t really know where it was. Mind you this occurs in July 2013.
“This conference has been planned for almost two years and its location well established. On my page, he takes off for Mt. Hood. Confession. I didn’t know where Mt. Hood was. So I began researching Mt. Hood and tried to understand why he went to Mt. Hood. I began reading about Native American life in Washington and Oregon, about the ways the Europeans colonized the native people, took the land, destroyed tribal life, forced the end of their spiritual lives and languages. The under history, untold history, real story of Lewis and Clark and all that followed.
“So please, please imagine my fearful astonishment in late August, early September, when I began to map the drive to this Conference, having decided more than a year ago that I would drive but not knowing why, not having paid any attention to the Conference’s location, not having any idea where it was to be except somewhere on the west coast of United States, when I realized that I would be driving through what I had been learning is Terrence Green’s territory. And beyond that, this Conference is being held in the shadow of Mt. Hood. This sacred co-incidence made it possible for me to drive the Mt. Hood loop visiting ALL the places in that loop I had researched for other reasons altogether, ending up Thursday afternoon just before the opening at the foot of this road, where the First People exhibit has inscribed sacred stories of Coyote the creator. Coyote, the trickster, indeed.
“Who brought me here? Terrence Green. Why? I don’t know yet. Accept to say, I am living a Story. When there is a call and we answer, then we are in a Story.
“In my community, when events like this occur and a Story begins to form itself in this way, we say, “You can’t make this shit up.” And then we follow the Story.”
Community, which we call, Daré, (which means Council in the Shona language) gathers monthly meeting at my home in Topanga Ca – and in other places across the country — on behalf of healing. We meet all issues through council and we speak in council by telling the stories and experiences of our lives. We also ask the afflicted ones who have come for healing, to tell as best as they can, the story of their pains or illnesses.
A story is complex and carries a reality that the recitation of events, the offering of a diagnosis or the recitation of ideas cannot match. When someone tells a story that carries such an imprint of Spirit as in the Beggar and Angel story, or the presence of Tehuti or Terrence Green, we frequently ask – What is the true nature of the world in which such events happen? Such stories, especially when they have mythic resonance as do the Beggar and Angel story, the Neter story, the Terrence Green, the Coyote story, reveal the true nature of the world. The stories have other meanings and functions but in categorizing stories, I would say that is their ultimate purposes are to reveal the true nature of the world.
They call us as listeners or members of a tribe to ask – How shall we live? They call us to remember how we must live. When we are in alignment, healing can occur.
Folk tales, fairy tales often have miraculous circumstances, which, as westerners, we are led to quickly deny or subsume or perhaps even colonize as parts of ourselves. The fairy godmother, the wizard, the magic wand, the myriad givers of gifts are relegated to the realm of make believe or psyche.. But what if such narrative devices are actually metaphors for the inexplicable events that sometimes occur in our lives and that change a set of linear experiences into a real story.
Storytellers healers work in different ways. Some, like Native American physician and ritual practitioner, Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD may offer the patient a traditional story to consider as a template through which to understand their lives or to reveal healing procedures. In these instances, mentioned above, we are also asked to traditional or mythic tales as part of the narrative structure of the Story we are in. Other story healers, listen for the Story that the illness or affliction is telling in order to attain a diagnosis and find the healing path. All such stories often have a common basis: Spirit exists and Spirit wants to heal. Spirit wants or is willing to come to us, to move through us, to affect healing.
And what is healing? In the world of Story, healing can be physical, as in cure, or it can be emotional, and or spiritual, or all. It can bring us relief, ease, restoration and it can bring us meaning. It can also direct us to change out lives. We may still have the physical condition but when we are living differently, it may not matter so much. Sometimes healing moves the illness, distress, affliction away from the center of our consciousness and allows our different ways of living to come forward.
Preparing to give a talk, I needed a story. Ideas alone would never have served me or the community. But a Story, as we just heard, is a small but complex world and if we enter it, we can be transformed.
In the land of Story, the particularity of any physical illness may point us to understanding our deeper suffering and the path to heal it. When I first understood this, I realized that illness can be a messenger directing us to live in a different way. So when I am ill, or when I am called to meet someone who is ill, I / we need a story or we want to know the story that the illness is telling and the path of healing it suggests for our future.
Sometimes, of course, an illness is just an illness, and sometimes there is something profound we need to learn for the greater healing. Often I say, “Don’t heal too fast, so that the deeper questions can be addressed before the field of inquiry vanishes. Our culture draws us to focus on the physical. A Story based culture would look to the medical, physical or body event, as well as the Story that encompasses the distress. We look to body, mind and spirit to heal us and we look for the Story that includes all of these as well.
In 1975-76, I was teaching at three different educational institutions with very different women’s populations: a community college, California Institute for the Arts and the Feminist Studio Workshop, the first feminist institution outside of a university for the arts and social change. In each school, there were high percentages of women suffering breast cancer. I began writing a novel, The Book of Hags, which became a radio play produced by KPFK, Pacifica Radio, with this question at its center: Why were so many women suffering breast cancer, why at this time in history, and why so young?
In July 1976, I had had a dream in which I was being tortured by a matron from a concentration camp whom I recognized from documentary footage in the Alain Renais film, Night and Fog. In the dream, pretending she wanted me to give her information, she commanded, Sveig. Silence. I understood torture seemingly inflicted to get names or information is primarily designed to silence the population. In the radio play, cancer and silence were intimately related.
I finished writing the novel in December 1976 and discovered I had cancer in January 1977. I had a map for healing – it was within the Story that I was living. I took a typewriter to the hospital and placed it on the little table that in those days opened so that the patient could use the mirror to put on eye shadow and lipstick. As the typewriter was one of those IBM monsters, I gave up the cosmetic table for consciousness.
Might the woman who came to the Woman’s Word’s Conference I organized a the Woman’s Building in 1975 two years earlier have been correct about her life when she took the microphone on the stage and whispered, “I never spoke and so now I have cancer of the throat?” Not that her silence caused the cancer but that the body inevitable carries the imprint of the sorrows and difficulties we carry and, also, it may begin to heal when it receives the energy of understanding.
My full story of cancer and healing developed over several months and then became the book Tree. I was alert to the appearance of the Nazi matron from the Camp, and so I was willing to follow my intuitions when I saw cancer also as an act of imperialism, or as a conquering army.
Tree was published with another story – The Woman who Slept with men to Take the War out of Them – not an unrelated story, because it is a story of healing war and healing the General – and with several essays on healing which I wrote as the years developed. But that first story, writing the text that became a radio play and writing the journal that became the book Tree, taught me that Story is at the essence of healing and through that teaching fashioned me into a Healer.
A friend and colleague has been on the land where I live as I have been writing this talk. She came because a death in the family dispirited her and she needed soul company and she needed silence and we could provide both. One evening, we offered her what we call a Music Daré, a music council. Some healers, energy workers and musicians gathered to hear the story of her despair and anguish and then to offer an improvisational sound healing to call her spirit forth. It is our custom to offer such an event to someone who is suffering an illness and is need of such deep attention. The two essential elements are the exploration and telling of Story of the affliction, followed by the music that in its way develops according to the story line as we experience it. In the course of examining her life, my friend traced her grief to an earlier time when she began to lose her life force, strangely enough just after she had completed a book about her journey to Spirit. The book, as it happened, unwittingly held the story of her affliction AND a path for healing.
Story has the capacity to awaken physical healing, emotional and spiritual healing. Once in a Daré Council, two women, the daughter of a holocaust survivor and the granddaughter of a Minister whose Church had opposed, even plotted against, Hitler realized they were both profoundly connected through the stories and dreams of these events they had carried all their lives, which, for each, centered on the Nazi death camp, Matthausen. Listening to them find each other and make an alliance across history and war, bringing their ancestors into the room through storytelling, it became plain that we had been called together that night so that their two personal stories could weave together into a new, distinct story, this unexpected common moment of understanding, compassion and forgiveness.
A similar event occurred at a Healing Intensive that I led in Pine Mountain California. Of the twenty-four women in the room, two were the daughters of Holocaust survivors and another had been born in Switzerland and spoke German fluently. One of the fathers who had been in the Camp had been born in Germany. When his daughter collapsed remembering her father’s story, the Swiss woman embraced her and the women whispered to each other in German, the common language of their grief.
Silent, but present in the stories we tell, are the listeners from the past and from the future. The story is not whole or full until we hear all of it and then because we inevitably breathe our own understanding and associations into it, blowing it up like a ball, like a world map, even the old story is vitalized by our participation through listening to it.
After writing much of this talk, I went out into the field and sat on a stone bench at the graves of my wolf hybrid companions Cherokee and her daughter, T’schee Wah Ya. It was a beautiful day, the sun bright on the dry grasses and the brilliant oranges of the feral orchard lighting up the royal purple of the self seeded jacaranda tree. I realized that I was re-enacting the scene of the story opening this essay. I was asking Spirit for the story or stories with which to conclude. I was focusing on the questions that have engaged me for more than thirty years: What is story? What is healing? Why are they intrinsically related? And what does it mean to live a story? What does it mean to recognize the healing path revealed by Story and live accordingly? What stories reveal the healing paths for the Earth?
Once again it seemed that hat only stories could answer these.
Sitting by their graves, I was pondering another theme in stories, as frequent as the theme of beggars and angels, the theme of animals as helpers or wisdom carriers. I began to remember Cherokee and T’schee Wah Ya stories and how deeply connected I had been with them and with all the animals of my life. To recognize the animals as kin has been part of my development as a person and as a healer for the earth and these times. I believe that many of our illnesses and the harm we are doing are caused by our profound disconnection from and lack of understanding of the beings of the natural world. Folk tales, fairy tales most often included these others and when these stories were at the center of our lives, the animals and plants were as well. Much of our troubles come, then, from the destruction of an ecology of mind and spirit, as well as from our destruction of the earth. Listening for the connections that still exist, both the animals we live with as well as the animals that come to instruct or enlighten us, listening for the stories that contain these connections or point to the disconnections, can lead to personal and global healing.
Sitting at the gravesite, I remembered many stories of my growing relationship with animals and my coming to understand that they are intelligent beings who can act with intent, even spiritual intent. My first experience of this was with a squirrel in the forest twenty years ago. She or he stopped me and we engaged in a back and forth communication for close to an hour. It changed me entirely, especially as I was carrying the guilt of having killed a rattlesnake with an axe when I first moved to Topanga.
In 1996, I was co-editor of a groundbreaking anthology, Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals. As my contribution, I was writing the essay, Coming Home, “ to assert my recognition of animals as kin, as in the fairy tales,. The essay was an apology to the rattle snake and as one might expect from a good story, a rattler appeared once again at the threshold. This time I did not kill it but gratefully noted its appearance.
After, the book was published, I became aware that the arthritis I had been suffering in my right wrist had disappeared. I am not certain exactly when my wrist healed. Maybe it was when I told the story. Maybe, it returned, years later, when I had no choice but to watch the death agony of a harmless gopher snake that a meter man had killed, before I could stop him, also by cutting off its head. I watched the severed head and severed body reach toward each other in a horrific dance of longing that went on for almost an hour. Maybe telling this story, maybe feeling compassion, will heal my wrist again.
At Cherokee’s grave, I remembered another story. It was the last time that my friend Hella, ill with cancer, telephoned me while I was teaching a writing class. “Are you dying?” I asked her. “I don’t know, she answered, I’ve never done this before.”
In our work together, she had described the cancer pain she was feeling as a porcupine in her gut. Returning to this image again and again, she recovered a lost memory. Her country house had been infested with porcupines and she had insisted that her young son, who had an aversion to violence, take a gun and shoot until it was dead. She had never apologized to him or the porcupine for this breach of right relationship until these last days. She and her son had had a difficult time for many years but now he was at her bedside and in the moment of her dying, she rose up and fell across his lap, a pieta in reverse. And their lives reconciled.
The greater healing affects the individual, the community and the earth – all beings. Many of our stories point toward that unification. I write it again: Heal the life and then the life will heal you. It is the wisdom that I carry since I had cancer.
In 2000 I met an elephant in the wild. We call him the Elephant Ambassador. I met him again, four times, four different years, at the same place on the very last day of my journey, at the same time of day. You can read about it on my website The Language of Relationship: Engagement with Elephants, https://deenametzger.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/the-language-of-relationship-engagement-with-elephants/ and in From Grief into Vision: A Council. The true story of meeting the Elephant Ambassador heals the world. It establishes right relationship with the others.
Children’s stories classically involve animals but we may have forgotten that they are also calling us into right relationship with the wild. From this perspective, the Bear’s poignant questions: “Who has been sitting in my chair, eating my porridge, sleeping in my bed, may be calling us to see how we are overrunning the habitat and taking the food of the animal world as our own.” Goldilock’s intrusion into the bear’s territory, takes on other meanings if we look at the story from the bear’s point of view.
Sighting of animals on the land may signal healing and restoration. Peter Nabokov, Where the Lightning Strikes, defines sacred land as a recurring place of ceremony or a location for sacred events or visions. When the land is occupied by the original people or when it is restored, the sacred occurs again and again. Sometimes we say, the land is storied by these repeated events.
Sharon Simone was one of several participating in a ceremony of restoration, designating the land in Topanga as a sanctuary for all beings. As if going on a quest, the participants spent the night in silence on the land without tarp or tent while others kept a sacred fire. Not surprisingly, the wind came up fiercely that April 1st night. Huddled in prayer under what she calls the Guardian Tree, she saw a large animal move across the field in front of her. It stopped to look at her and she looked back, frozen, as she was eye to eye with a large cat. A bobcat, she reassured herself, though she saw the animal’s long tail. She pulled a tarot card to give her bearings. The card was mountain lion. The card spoke to her of leadership which was very appropriate to events in her life. However, it also revealed that the animal that she was seeing was indeed mountain lion. It had come to her before, through scat she saw when hiking during a quest, but never in the flesh. Now the land as sanctuary carries the story of mountain lion as totem, spirit and presence. When we live a story, as Sharon Simone is doing, it alters us to the sacred presences around us.
The concern with body, mind and spirit extends to body, mind, spirit, community and earth in the process of becoming whole. To repeat what feels most important here: Healing occurs when the essential relationships that have been broken are restored. Another way of thinking of story is that it chronicles the ways in which these essential relationships are restored as it gathers into itself all the disparate pieces. It is possible to see that everything can be part of a story. Seeing relationships is creating a story that heals as it restores the fragmented and diminished world–
Terri Many Feathers returned to the Red Path after years of having been disconnected. When she returned, she devoted herself, becoming a Pipe carrier, a Sun Dancer and holding Lodge. She also began teaching her children the sacred songs and prayers. One day, she heard the growl of a bear on the hill outside her house and then the breath of wind as her son rushed past her toward the outside. She was alarmed but it was too late to stop him. Slowly and quietly, she made her way toward where she thought he had gone. Within a few feet, she saw her son in the distance, singing the bear song, he had just learned, and the bear sitting, facing him, listening.
For the Diné (Navajo) illness occurs when the relationship with the community, the land or the spirits has been violated.
I met a Navajo professor of anthropology at a Conference on Sand paintings in Santa Fe, NM. He had been skeptical of the old practices and decided to put his native medicine to the test. He had had a chronic skin condition that was not yielding to conventional medicine. The hand trembler (a Navajo diviner) who looked at his rashes told him he had offended the Red Ant people. When he made amends, he would be healed. Well, the educator had offended the ant people. He had used gasoline to burn an area where they had been living in order to create a place for his sleeping bag. Chagrined, he made the required offerings. He acted for the land in ways the Ant people demanded. (He did not speak of what he was asked to do, but certainly telling the story in academic circles to honor his people was one requirement. ) The infected rash disappeared. Right relationships were restored. A healing occurred that all the steroids in the world had not been able to accomplish.
I don’t know if he had had a Singway ceremony to cure this condition. But if he had, it would have included various rituals that restore hozho, a term that means a combination of beauty, stability, balance, and harmony. These might include gathering the community for the Red Ant Way ceremony, creating a sand painting of a moment in an appropriate myth, and perfectly singing the myth and saying the prayers in ceremony so that the entire perfect world implied in creation can be restored. The story, the healing, the world become one.
We can look to Navajo wisdom to see what aspect of community, earth or spirit has been violated so that we can find the Story and the path that might set things right and bring healing as well. In as much as our physical illnesses are increasingly the consequence of our assault on the environment, finding the Story of our illness in relationship to the earth and making amends can lead to healing beyond the personal. Looking to Navajo wisdom, respecting and honoring the wisdom ways of the First People begins to heal the great illness, Europeans imposed upon the people and the land.
When we meet with a patient in a ReVisioning Medicine Council which brings together as peers, physicians and healers, medical people and medicine people, therapists and story tellers, we enter into what we call Indigenous Grand Rounds, listening together for the story. We are honoring the medicine ways of the First People as way of healing conventional medical ways and their dire consequences that all of us suffer that result also from the disconnection from the land and all our relations.
The most important part of this healing work is the listening. We have to listen between the lines, we have to listen to what was not said. We often have to listen to many stories that gradually interpenetrate each other to reveal a single story that can point the way to healing.
Here is a Story from the September 2013 ReVisioning Medicine Council in Nashville, Tenn. When she was a very young child, a woman’s uncle committed suicide. The event entirely overwhelmed the family and so her life. The effect of the suicide reverberated through her childhood and then adulthood in its subtle but persistent way. Many, many years later, when she was leading a workshop on veterans and the wars, a homeless veteran approached her. He said, “I have killed so many. Forgive me.” She embraced him, held him, forgave him. He left gratified. Many years later, she told the story to us and, to her surprise, added a detail that had not been part of the story before: just before his suicide, the uncle had returned from World War II. In that moment, we/she grasped so many years later, that she had, in her gesture to the veteran, actually forgiven her uncle, also. The story of her grief and his was over. And, perhaps, a new story, arising out of forgiveness, was beginning.
Healing is rarely the reinstatement of the former condition or the status quo. Healing brings the parts that have been broken, scattered or disassembled together again but in a new pattern that is more true to the complex nature of the world than to the simple assembly of technology. Story also gathers distinct parts into a new configuration. Healing invites us to be in resonance with all life. So does Story.
Stories also bring us to the spiritual entities who inform our lives. In these stories, the Beggar, Horus, Tehuti, Terrence Green, wolf dogs, rattlesnake, porcupine, elephant, the wounded uncle veteran, arise into our lives out of the soil of the stories.
We are all descendants of indigenous wisdom communities from which we have been separated by global tragedies. Every such community has a tradition of healing and story and their relationship. The Navajo, as above, speak of it in their way. The Jewish tradition speaks of it another way:
When the Divine poured itself into vessels in order to create the world, the vessels could not contain the energy and they broke. The task of every conscious person is to gather the broken pieces of light that were scattered everywhere. This act is called Tikkun Olam – it means mending the world. A healing story is the vessel that gathers to itself the broken pieces of the afflicted one, of the wounded community and the broken earth as a spiritual act of healing the world.
We have to listen back into the past and into the future. We have to listen in non-linear ways. Origins. Developments and variations. Futures.
Here is a final story: Orland Bishop is a healing presence in Los Angeles, devoted to human rights advocacy and cultural renewal with an extensive study of medicine, naturopathy, psychology and indigenous cosmologies. He is director of Shade Tree Multicultural Foundation, pioneering approaches to urban truces and mentoring at-risk youth that combine new ideas with traditional ways of knowledge. He told this story to a ReVisioning Medicine Council in Topanga in February 2012.
As a young man, Bishop had befriended a young ex-felon, becoming his guide and teacher as the felon transformed his life entirely. One day, it was revealed that the young man had AIDS. Bishop stayed beside him. At that time in his life, he was attending Charles Drew Medical School with the hope of becoming a physician. His young friend became increasingly sick. Bishop visited him in the hospital knowing it was his last hours. He sat by his bed. The young man was unconscious. Bishop said good-bye and got up to leave. As he reached the hospital room door, he heard a voice: “Do what you came here to do.”
Bishop was startled to hear his friend’s voice so clearly. He turned around and went to the bedside. His friend was still unconscious. Bishop left again. At the door, he heard the voice again, even louder and more vigorous than before. “Do what you came here to do.”
Because three is, as you know, a magic number, the voice spoke a third time with final emphasis. Bishop left the room and went directly to the medical school and resigned. The work he was called to do was healing work of individual and community that goes far beyond what he could possibly do as a physician.
As I record this story hearing it yet again, having heard it and told it so many times, I hear something else. Bishop told it to a room full of physicians. It was about becoming a healer in the way that Story and Spirit intend, which may be far beyond the conventional ways of healing.
I offer it to you at this moment. What if that voice is speaking to each of us as we wonder how we may heal and bring healing to ourselves and others, to humans and non-humans alike – May you each do what you came here to do.
And so this final coda:
Here are words from repertory of the Traveling Jewish Theater, from their opening play Coming From a Great Distance:
“Stories move in circle. They don’t move in straight lines. So it helps if you listen in circles. There are stories inside stories and stories between stories and finding your way through them is as easy and as hard as finding your way home. And part of the finding is the getting lost. And when you’re lost you start to look around and to listen.”
For further information about the books mentioned, Daré, and ReVisioning Medicine please see my website: