Category Archives: Old Storytelling Traditions

We’re Related to Pirates!!

pirate drawing“Pirates!” my son exclaims. “We have pirates in the family? Awesome.”

“Vikings,” I repeat, thinking that isn’t exactly the same. I’m standing next to a Viking burial mound on an island off the coast of Denmark talking to him via cell phone. He’s responding on the wavelength of the current zeitgeist that includes Talk Like A Pirate Day, every September 19, and recent books that tell how to release one’s inner buccaneer–a California thing.

The island is Samsø—an hourglass shaped landmass in an arm of the North Sea. It’s twenty miles long, six miles wide, pinched to half a mile at the point where in the year 726, the Vikings dug a canal, a remarkable feat of engineering that allowed ships to sail from the fjord to the mainland with speed and safety—polite language for outrunning another ship. OK, think pirate, raider, explorer. Then also remember a remarkable shipbuilding culture complete with a pantheon of Norse gods. The Vikings gave us Valhalla and Thor. It is said that Samsø is where Odin learned magic.

I’ve returned to Samsø where my Danish ancestors once lived to see if I can learn anything about my family’s background. Vikings and/or pirates was not what I thought I’d find.

There’s more.

Near the remnants of the old Viking canal, there is a sandbank with newly uncovered Stone Age dwellings. According to a local pamphlet, pollen analysis indicates that grazing cattle and sheep on Samsø is a tradition reaching back to the beginning of Neolithic time, in other words, since mankind first began to keep domestic animals.

Cattle and sheep! That’s what my family raised on our ranch just above Bone, Idaho, even though sheep and cattle were not supposed to mix in the American West. Here’s the larger thought, since my family goes back father than written records on Samsø, I have to consider the possibility that my roots in this place might extend to the last ice age and that cattle and sheep have been part of my family’s livelihood for tens of thousands of years. Cattle and sheep still grazed in the island pastures that I passed. It was enough to give one pause.

However, nothing stopped me like the reproduction of an old Viking house. It exactly matched the description of the first house my Danish ancestor and her new husband made from the wagon that they’d brought across the plains. According to the family stories, they turned the wagon over, mounded earth over it, and made it through the cold months.

Cattle and sheep; pirates and dugouts, until you return to the old places you might not sense how far our stories echo across time.

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Filed under Family history, Family Stories, History, Legend, Old Storytelling Traditions, Why Stories?

Fairy Folk and Family History

A couple of local gents are drinking a pint in a pub near Cushendall, County Antrim, one evening when a redhead comes through the door. “Ah, there’s that Liz Weir who believes in fairies,” one says.

Weir, an Irish storyteller with an international reputation, stops. “And you don’t?”

He smiles and shakes his head.

“So now, tell me, will you be cutting down that fairy tree on your place any time soon?” She means an old Hawthorne growing inconveniently in the middle of one of his fields.

He turns back to his pint.

“Why not, may I ask?”

He shifts in his seat. “Bad luck.”

Weir likes to tell that story because she’s not bashful about leaving the fairy folk alone. She won’t walk on Tiveragh, a well-known fairy hill, day or night, and, because we happen to be chatting on an April afternoon, she reminds me that May Eve (April 30) is coming. I should avoid all dairy that day because it will sour. She also advises that I plant primrose around my newly remodeled house to keep the fairies away and never throw water out the door for fear of drenching one of the little folk and making him/her angry. Before building, I’m to place a brick at each corner of the new structure. If next morning, the bricks are still in place, I can build. If one is knocked out of place, I’d be advised to build somewhere else.

Every one of my grandmothers gave me similar advice. Sophia, the no-nonsense founder of the family ranch, left drops of water in teacups to keep the fairy folk happy. She thought it made good sense. Since nobody has enough good luck, why risk bad? Likewise Weir is one of the most sensible people I know, computer savvy, widely traveled, a former librarian, who simply chooses to acknowledge what most of us try to ignore—the fact that things are not always what they seem. She’s not alone. Witness how casually we talk about Karma, practice Feng Shui, and bury St. Joseph statues upside down in the backyard.

When the poet W.B. Yeats traveled through the Irish countryside in the late 1800s, looking for stories of the fairy folk, he titled his resulting book, The Celtic Twight. When Eddie Lenihan traveled the same areas in the late 1900s also looking for old stories, he found a tradition as lively as ever. His book, Meeting the Other Crowd, begins by wondering if another book on Irish fairies is really necessary and never expresses any concern that the fairies will go away any time soon. Of course, his fairies aren’t fey. They are described as dangerous, a source of taboos, and otherworldly enchantments, that sound closer to alien abductions than Disney films. He prefers not to mess with the fairy folk and, evidently, you don’t want to mess with Lenihan. He got an Irish highway routed around a fairy tree.

Like Lenihan, Weir doesn’t worry that the fairy folk will disappear. They have the gall to exist even when we don’t believe in them. Instead she worries that folklore worldwide will be dumbed down by mass media. Among other things, I suspect she means—pan flutes. Last time I was in Sedona, Arizona, every tourist shop had flute music playing the in background. Same music in similar shops all over Dingle Penninsula in Ireland. Here’s the point, if you decide to look for your family stories, expect the trolls, fairies, and talking animals to tag along. The fairy folk are everywhere. We disguise them as children’s stories, laugh them off as nonsense, but, like the old gents in the Cushendall pub, we know better.

Keep in mind that encounters with the magical world does not mean going for easy solutions. A wave of the magic wand can conjure as much trouble as help. The charm of these stories is that they often focus on the youngest child or the smallest animal. Clever wins the day. Evil is not defeated. It’s tripped up, tricked, outwitted, making it something less feared than fooled.

Likewise, don’t let that simplicity fool you. The fact that you find these stories mixed in with the family stories regardless of family origin or cultural traditions suggests something psychologically deep. Stories old enough to have mingled with the fairy folk require a different attitude. Slow down, take a deep breath, open your imagination, and close your eyes. Remember, nobody asked you to go looking for old stories. You went anyway. Dug around, and, when the dead rise to be kissed, don’t back away. You can’t claim you didn’t know how deep the roots went. This is old memory, soul talk, the awakening of inner rhythms. This is the long ago and far away land of repeated dreams, songs that linger, footsteps we don’t expect but recognize.  I have a friend who introduced me to Trouble Trolls. When they knock, you don’t hide behind the door, you open wide, invite them in and dance with them. They’ll never be your friends but they might like the music and they could have gifts wrapped in their gnarled fists. Every story is wet like that with symbol—folklore even more so.

Even so, Mark A. Finlayson, doing research on artificial intelligence at MIT, believes that stories allow us to communicate complex ideas on a low bandwidth, which is why they work so well for children. Also why we never out grow them. Consider the complexity of modern parents who pay for two eggs and hire two surrogates to gestate two children at the same time so they will be like twins, but not really. How do you explain that to the children? According to NY Times Magazine (1/2/2011) you call them “twiblings” and invent a fairytale: Once, there was a couple who wanted to have babies. They tried and tried, but no babies arrive, and they were very sad. But then a Fairy Goddonor brought them some magical eggs . . ..

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Filed under fairytale, Family history, Fantasy, Old Storytelling Traditions, The Little Folk

The Ancestor Effect!

family tree graphicThinking about your ancestors makes you smarter!
Recent research at the University of Graz has identified an “ancestor effect.” Individuals who think about their ancestors just prior to a job interview or college exam boost their chances of success. Dr. Peter Fischer hypothesizes that “thinking about one’s origins . . . provides people with a positive psychological resource.” In other words, reminding the brain of the difficulties your ancestors overcame, you are able to approach a task with a stronger sense of identity and self-esteem—an edge that can make a measurable difference, which is probably why families continue to tell stories that emphasize how hard it used to be, how lucky we are now, blah, blah, blah, etc, etc, etc.
Is there a family that doesn’t tell their stories that way?

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Filed under Definition, Family history, Family Stories, Old Storytelling Traditions, Why Stories?

Family History: 25 Years of Storytelling Wisdom

Cherie SchwartzWhen I said lots of people think stories are just stories and not always true, I happened to also sneeze. Cherie Karo Schwartz’s comeback was a Yiddish proverb “Sneeze on the truth.”

Families, she told me, are like the 33 Chilean miners recently rescued from half a mile underground. To survive, they organized themselves. They designated parts of the mine for sleeping, eating and other purposes. They picked a leader. They sang and told stories. Families do the same. They create space and tunnels and make decisions. A spiritual leader arises to hold the sacred space. “It’s really the only way to stay sane,” she added, “especially when you’re stuck in the dark.” In her mind, “soul” and “story” are nearly the same, I realized, and she defined “sanity” as something akin to preserving and perpetuating our stories–our souls.

I’d driven to Denver and I was sitting in her kitchen, eating honey cake that morning, because I wanted to know why people came to her sessions on family folklore. I thought she’d know. She was a professional storyteller who’d made a specialty of family folklore for more than twenty-five years. I also thought I knew the answer. I expected her to talk about a need for roots, a place in history, a search for identity . . ..

We touched on those things but, deep down, she seemed to think story existed on an even more primal level. Quoting Bary Lopez, she said, “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory.” She continued, “We need stories to stay human, like those miners trapped with no obvious help. Stories are heartbeat, everything.”

Circle Spinning BookCherie Karo Schwartz descends from a Rabbi, known as a lawgiver, mystic, and storyteller. He said a malech or angel sat on his shoulder and whispered stories to him.  Her grandmother, her bubbe, used to say, “Sit down, let me tell you a story and make you a part of the family.”

When I asked if people came to her sessions because they felt they’d lost their family stories, she shook her head. “We’re human beings; we have stories.” Nevertheless, she provides a page of  questions to get people started. Asking good questions applies to a lot of things, she believed. “When children come home from school, don’t ask what they learned, ask whether they asked good questions . . .”

I left hoping I’d asked one or two.

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Filed under Family history, Family Stories, History, Memoir, Old Storytelling Traditions, Story pegs, Uncategorized, Why Stories?

Once Upon A Time . . .

Don’t be fooled. The little folk of fairytale and fable are the keepers of the wisdom. What’s more, they’re not stuffy about it. Worldwide, no matter the tradition, folk tales challenge the norm, encourage creative problem-solving, even question who you are in order for you to grow into someone else.

We need these stories. Proof is in the fact that if our families don’t provide, we will look elsewhere for them. I have a Native American friend who lives near Taos Pueblo in New Mexico who will not tell a story of the Corn Mother unless her listener also shares a story from his or her tradition. She worries that there are not enough storytellers. She believes that when we forget our stories, we forget everything.

Ireland, of course, is known for its storytellers, as this little video advertises . . .

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Filed under Animal Stories, children's stories, fairytale, Fantasy, Old Storytelling Traditions, Storytelling, Uncategorized

Finding Wisdom

I have a frieChinese word wisdomnd who got a PhD based on a thesis about wisdom. Where do you find it? Can it be taught? She traveled worldwide, Lapland, Kenya, Japan, deep south of US, etc. asking who was considered wise in varying cultures and then interviewing those people. She was looking for a commonality. What made people wise? What made others call someone wise?

No surprise, none of the people she interviewed considered himself/herself wise, not even Wangari Maathai, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize that same week. Most were surprised that they’d been nominated for her study. None were too busy to talk. All gave full attention to the questions being asked. The commonality? Without exception, they had all lived through difficult times, suffered enormous personal losses, and somehow risen above their own suffering to assume a life-affirming role in the lives of others.

For example, Wangari Maathai’s husband sued her for divorce in 1979 saying she was too strong-willed for a woman and he couldn’t control her. When she protested, saying it was a ruse to get her to quit her leadership of the Green Belt Movement, the judge sent her to jail for six months and told never to use her husband’s name again. It was assumed that without her husband’s income, she would be unable to continue her efforts against corrupt land practices in Kenya. In one of the hardest decisions of her life, when she was released from prison, she left her children in her husband’s care, and continued her efforts.

Chinese word wisdomWhat wisdom did my friend find? The interviews ended without great nuggets of knowledge. Her candidates had no answers, claimed no special powers, most advocated no particular religion or lifestyle. Many, like Maathai, had causes, but felt no need to force their agenda on anyone. Most felt that right would prevail without resorting to hate or arms. Although they were not naive about the difficulty they had faced or would continue to face. Above all, they told stories. Lots and lots of wonderfully moving stories about themselves and others. Hard questions, it seems, don’t have answers. They have stories.

Oh, and they all laughed easily and often.

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Filed under Definition, Life Story, Old Storytelling Traditions, stories, Story Motif

Nigerian Novelist on Why We Need All Our Stories

photo Chimamanda AdichieChimamanda Adichie, Nigerian novelist, makes a dramatic argument on the danger of a single story. This is worth 18 minutes of your time! I’ve watched it three times.

She argues that when we think we know someone’s story, we limit them. When we try to make our lives fit some story, we limit ourselves. We need all our stories. We need to tell them, listen to them, search and preserve them.

http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html

Chimamanda Adichie was born in Nigerian in 1977. Her novels are Purple Hibiscus and Half a Yellow Moon.

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Filed under Family Stories, History, Old Storytelling Traditions, Personal Narrative, stories, Storytelling, Uncategorized, Why Stories?