Telling StoriesPosted: October 25, 2009
We have started a new custom here at home, that we have not had here for a while. I have begun to read stories to Noah. Not the usual picture books, but stories from the Pantheon book series on folktales, of which I own several volumes. Somehow my son has resisted this custom. He usually busies himself until late at night. Reading picture books or working on reading using I Spy has been a staple, but he has resisted listening to stories where there are no pictures. Suddenly he is willing.
This custom actually started some years back with my two older daughters, especially my first. But to tell you how I got involved with stories, I am going to have to tell you one.
Around the time I had met my first wife, and was pushing 30, my mentor and spiritual guide, Jerry Brewster, had instituted a new weekly ritual. A small group of men would gather 1 evening a week and head to a Korean sauna in midtown. I did not attend many of these sessions because the cost was a bit beyond me. But I did attend a few. They even gave me one as a bachelor party, without the heavy drinking. As a cap to the evening, us men would gather at a nearby Greek diner for a late meal. Usually there was lite banter, and the clumsy attempt at joke telling. To put a word in here, Mr. Brewster, who passed away earlier this year, was a master raconteur.
Our jokes were sad adventures into apparent ineptitude while Jerry’s jokes stood as time tested homilies. I come from a good line of joke tellers, so my jokes were usually well received. My Uncle Rocky is a constant joke teller.
But Mr. Brewster soon became impatient with us. He told us that our jokes needed to get out of high school. As a solution, we were instructed to now forsake the jokes at these meals, and bring a story, as the price for the right to attend these gatherings.
The race was on. Everyone scoured the book shelves of stores to get some good books of short stories. Stories of the Mullah Nassr Eddin were the most popular. Mullah is a 12th century character that comes out of the Moslem world. These stories are actually at he root of most of our jokes, but they always have a spiritual lesson hidden in them. Here is an example of a typical Mullah story:
One day , one of Mullah Nasruddin’s friend came over and wanted to borrow his donkey for a day or two. Mullah, knowing his friend, was not kindly inclined to the request, and came up with the excuse that someone had already borrowed his donkey. Just as Mullah uttered these words, his donkey started braying in his backyard. Hearing the sound, his friend gave him an accusing look, to which Mullah replied: “I refuse to have any further dealings with you since you take a donkey’s word over mine.”
Now these were popular with us because they always got a big laugh. But these are not the end all of stories. My good friend, Angelo, who was not comfortable with this exercise, soon surprised us all. He began to memorize weekly, short passages of a synopsized version of the Indian epic, the Mahabaratta. I was really impressed. Not only did he memorize the story, but he would blurt out these very difficult to pronounce Hindu names. Each week, he would bring to dinner another segment of this long epic.
Angelo and I were like brothers. That said, we were like very competitive brothers. I was so deeply impressed with his effort that my respsonse to it must have it’s roots in deep spiritual work. I was going to do him one better.
I started my quest by delving into volumes of stories from all cultures. Indian, Native American, African, Celtic, Norse, Russian, Grimm, Chinese, and the list goes on. But the one that caught my attention was “the other” Indian epic. The Ramayana. This was the book for me.
As I began to delve into this story of kings and princesses, monkey gods, fighting bears and ten headed demons, I soon forgot my competition with my friend. What happened was a transformation in attitude. I began to really love the search for stories.
So as part of my research, and now with a 2 year old daughter, I began to read from these volumes every night. And Sarah (who is now 23, and living in Geneva, Switzerland) would lie back on the pillow and listen very intently. At first, we read from the Grimm collection, and moved on to the similar Russian Fairy Tales. These are not small books. They are indeed volumes. And to my good fortune, Pantheon Books was constantly putting out volumes which heralded from just about every corner of the world. So now my 9 year old lego fanatic is ready to benefit from a venture that began over 20 years ago. I truly believe that my study was so intense at that time, that it may be the equivalent to a Masters degree in folklore.
The reason I was inspired to tell all this was that last night, I watched the movie Notorious. If you are not familiar with the title, it is not about Al Capone but rather the rapper Biggie Smalls otherwise known as the Notorious B.I.G. The movie for me was not very satisfying and if my wife hears me practicing guitar scales while watching a movie, then you know that it is not too engaging. But at the end of the film, when they are burying B.I.G., his mother pines that her son “told stories. Some of them funny, some of them sad, and some of them violent.” And I was down with that because that is why writing this blog has become so interesting for me. It is a way for me to do something that I have always loved to do: tell stories. And I have to thank Mr. Brewster and Angelo in helping me find my way to this. It is what I will be trying to perfect on a regular basis. My ability tell you the reader a story.
This is what our world is all about. It is what enriches the connection between us. And if you have read as many stories as I have, you will soon realize that all peoples, tell the same stories. That we, as human beings are connected by our stories and that it is the story of what it means to live on earth. The Mullah became a rebbe in eastern Europe. Anansi the spider in Africa becomes Ikatomi the spider in Native American stories. There are pranksters in every culture. Sometimes they are wise, at other times fools. From the People of Chelm in Poland, Till Eulenspiegel in Germany or the Hodja in the middle east. Cindarella, for instance, has show up in at least 200 variations that span the globe and seem unrelated culturally, but somehow the same basic story is there.
And it is in the spirit of a rich tradition of telling these daily bits and pieces of my sorry life, that I relate here. I hope you enjoy it. And if you do, please tell me. My self esteem needs boosting now and then.