Stories– we love to hear stories, especially the ones that echo the universal dilemma of being human, of coming into the world from mystery, and vanishing back into mystery. A story reminds us that we are part of something much bigger:
You can see this any day. It is both time and place at once. It is of transcendent beauty. It is the agent of all transformation. It is the origin of all things. It is so familiar that it is known by all. Yet so familiar it is forgotten and unseen. But even forgotten it is the one essential thing: the dawn.
(Susan Brind Morrow, The Dawning Moon of the Mind: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts)
Stories remind us of what is essential. The universal stories or myths passed down come from the same place as dreams. Myths and dreams are not dogmatic– they transcend the dualism of right and wrong, good and bad, true and false. The aim is not for concrete answers, but to ignite questions and the imagination. What they give us is a bigger picture, something that moves beyond culture or the details of everyday life. Stories have the power to bring us back into accord with the larger patterns of death, renewal and birth reflected in the natural world, in the moon, the sun and other stars. Stories ask the big questions and can give direction when we are lost. They have become my map. I ask myself, especially in more difficult moments: Where in the story am I now?
Once upon a time, suggests a place beyond time– yet both time and place. Something lies upon this surface called time, yet is timeless. Upon suggests elevation as well as contact. Once can be defined as past, present or future: ancestrally, primordially, archaically, aforetime, of yore, until, till now, ever, simultaneously, formerly, immediately, both, as soon as. Always, nowadays, and towards.
Where is the map that shows us how to make the most of the time we have? How do we keep awake by continuously reinventing who we are?
Soon I will be teaching at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The context is an exhibit: She Who Tells A Story. The artists are Iranian and other Arab women speaking out, redefining who they are, taking down false assumptions about their culture. They are weaving stories out of their experience, demanding a fresh look. Each photo tells a story, gives us a new map.
Poetic language, the language of myths and dreams, allows us to leave room for the mystery. Metaphor and image point us in a direction that says there is something timeless lying upon the surface of this place we are in– once upon a time. This surface, this planet, our bodies–every living thing is permeable, less solid than we think.
This includes the image we have of ourself, or the one others project onto us. Stories can inspire us to reach for what we think we cannot do, to re-imagine who we are.
Mythologies are not invented; they are found. You can no more tell us what your dream is going to be tonight than we can invent a myth. Myths come from the mystical region of essential experience.”
― Joseph Campbell
Sometimes I say to my students: Where are you stopping yourself? For most of us, this requires some thought, and the line we think we cannot traverse is always moving. As you know, the heroes and heroines of our stories continuously cross lines they are not supposed to cross: the forbidden fruit, Psyche opening the jar of ointment, Lot's wife looking back, etc. From the perspective of story, this is how our awareness grows. Whoever you are, and whatever your narrative of despair is, you are not alone. The heroes and heroines of all time have gone before you, leaving their footprints in stories.
What stories inspire you? Have you given yourself permission to do something you thought you could not do? I'd love to hear from you.