I have been close to home lately with the unpredictable coronavirus showing up in our area; it is also generally quite cold, often cloudy or foggy and damp again so I am not tromping far afield, though I keep up my walks. So I looked through old posts and found one that provided some good cheer: “She Who Rules Wisely: Troll Runs the Show”, posted in 2013. It was a visit to a local arts museum that inspired this. It may not seem like a meander at first glance–more an outing and experience–but imagination can take us anywhere, and I revisited past pleasures so this time it counts! I hope you enjoy foolish, fun time I had with the above troll. (She still resides with me on a bookshelf.)
She Who Rules Wisely: Troll Runs the Show
My family recently enjoyed a reunion for a week. We shared a variety of activities and talked from morning until evening. Our five adult children landing within the same city limits is a rare event. They got to reunite with an uncle and three aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews.
One sunny afternoon we explored a few offerings of downtown Portland. My oldest daughter is an artist and since we all love the arts, we visited the choice Museum of Contemporary Craft. We saw an exhibit of bowls in many mediums displayed as part of a project organized by Ayumi Horie in partnership with the museum entitled “Object Focus: The Bowl”. Particularly curious was a table lined with bowls that we could pick up and examine, think about, admire. An option for the visitor was choosing an artist whose bowl was enjoyed, thus being given the privilege of taking a similar bowl home to use by checking it out at the Circulation Desk. This part of the project is called “Object Focus: The Bowl, Engage + Use.”
Yes, that’s correct–we got to utilize the very art that museums typically discourage us from touching. What an adventurous concept! I was all in, especially when the others encouraged me. We all agreed we would at least use a unique and beautifully crafted bowl for an upcoming family BBQ. The daughters started to think of foods the bowl might hold. I finally chose one created by Mike Helke. It is an unusual shape, and the glazes are lovely. I knew it could make something good happen.
We did fill the bowl with a luscious fruit salad for our family reunion meal. But we had a few other ideas and I seized upon one in particular.
It involves a troll. My troll.
She Who Rules Wisely (aka Crone aka Old Troll) was given to me by my mother over thirty-five years ago, following a Scandinavian trip my parents took. I think of this carved creature as an ancient and watchful being from first, another dimension, and second, a region that attracts me with its natural grandeur and history. Since her kind supposedly has power there and in my house, I afford her respect and a prominent place of repose.
Every now and then we talk a little in secret, I must admit…she is reassuring yet stern, frank but humorous–much like my mother and her sisters have been, reasonably…. But most of all, “SWRW” is a survivor and considers herself queenly when at her best. In fact, she confides she borders on goddess-hood. She is part of a long and dignified history whether or not we humans get it. (In truth, she is a bit raggedy after her nearly legendary life, but I would never mention it to her face…)
There was no question that she would chime in when she saw the bowl brought home. She has opinions, after all–and does adore the limelight. What follows is a transcription of her responses, aided by pictures she has allowed.
“I see. Trying to get this one over me, eh? I happen to have been thinking about boats and beds, either of which this great piece of ceramic might become. Allow me to investigate further. I can’t sleep anyway, with all the racket.”
“Yes, yes. About the right size. Sturdy yet elegant. Best colors I’ve seen in eons. But which to use it for…no, no suggestions needed!”
“‘Oh, sail me across the great Atlantic, take me back to my fiords, my dear! Make me a bed in the deep velvety forest, my true love does awaitme there!’ What? My voice needs a tune up, you say? Rude…never mind. This suits me well. But would it sink…anyone check that out yet? What are the specs?”
“This looks and feels nothing whatsoever like the ocean…”
“That was extraordinarily taxing to flip over. No, I didn’t need your help. I need to get my exercise regimen in gear, anyway. I am aged, I do need my cardio. But now, what to do, what to do? I feel at home in here…A bed, a boat. Shhh…! I’m cogitating. “
“Brain fatigue. I might need to rest up first. Not as quick as I used to be. Wait….that gives me another thought. Watch this.”
“Not so easy to get comfortable, I admit, but I’ve known rocks that were much worse. The three rectangles are a deft touch but this rounded side sleeps poorly. I could use a cushy bed of moss about now. What did you say the craftsman was building? Right, bowls.”
“Okay, it’s the fabric that is half the problem. Where did you get this? I don’t like it. Cheap. Remove at once.”
“An improvement but somewhat claustrophobic. Reminds me of some fishing boats I’ve sheltered under during my unbelievably long, occasionally nomadic life. I could tell you stories!– another time. If I could, I’d close my other eye and sleep away the rest of the evening. This whole experience is inspiring but, I have to admit, tiring.”
“You know what? I appreciate the generous offer, but you may keep it, Cynthia. It looks good, you like it, but to me it’s a boat that won’t float and a bed that hexes snoozing. My tail is starting to drag now. Let me give you some advice. Next time you want to bring home art, take me with you. I’m available for consulting for a reasonable fee. Speaking engagements, as you know, are a heftier investment. But they might not be about any arts that you’d appreciate. I know things, you know.”
“Hey…okay, here we go again. Storytellers–you all have to have the very last word. Wait–keep that profile shot–my best side! I do look pretty good, eh? Yes, I do. And I’ve got my eye on you, my dear!”
Scenario 1: A parent settles against a pillow propped on a bedroom wall next to his young son, now curved about the warm bulk of his father. Readied for a visit to a marvelous world, then sleep, dreamtime. A worn book is drawn from a jumbled pile on the nightstand and opened. The first well-thumbed page is gazed upon, soon given life as the father reads beginning paragraphs of a familiar, always beloved tales of the Berenstain Bears. They’re family tales of daily living. They include a small adventure with a moral that teaches three cubs a lesson or two about ordinary but challenging scenarios: a visit to the dreaded dentist, a not-so-predictable fishing trip, going to school even when you feel unpopular, or how to manage when mother or dad is sick and how to weather death of a pet or friend. It satisfies every time, these stories, and the boy drifts off after the very last lines which are recited by heart.
Scenario 2: The children lean into the firelight, shoulder-to-shoulder with adult family members. One with a deeply lined face and hardened hands and feet sits tall within the circle. She intones a saga of fears and hardships, of courage and perseverance, survival and joyful victory. It is one that has been handed down for generations, and encompasses spiritual beliefs of the tribe. The ways of community are also inscribed in that tale, the prohibitions, rituals, customs. There arrives humor along with pathos and emotions fill the room as each listens and gains something anew. And takes comfort in the gathering of so much love and learning.
Scenario 3: On a falling down stoop an older boy sits above younger children. He half-playacts a story of the mad one who once lived in the neighborhood. He crept through shadows by day and later roamed the blind darkness, stealing food and even garbage, stealing day and night dreams, stealing light from the moon and streetlamps, leaving a mess of bad energy. There was a gang of kids who found then lost and found again the shadow man. But they got together and took turns keeping food safe and at least one street light on. The dreams, they had to be made up, shared with each other but kept safe from the shadow man, kept for the future.
The story is for children who must trust and depend on each other. Adults are chancy. Kids, it is clear, can adapt, are strong, are fleet of foot and mind, gather hope. They laugh and shiver and huddle together.
Stories: we enter the world as a collaboration of new and old story, a fresh new suit to live in, then at long last leave it, letting go of its billowing hem and frayed seams. In between birth and death flesh and soul are torn and banged up, repaired and made anew with stories. Ours and others’. Why are stories so vital in our lives, both youthful and grown up?
They can make or break us with reassurances or new ideas or warnings of worse to come. They can change our individual courses, reinforce what we know, challenge a community’s accepted ways. And they inform us of where we come from and who we are expected to be–or how to be someone unlike the usual, acceptable child, woman or man. We absorb these things before we can read, take a lead in the storytelling. We may even learn it from birth, when we are named for someone the parents value or given creative names unlike any other. They have meaning, our origins, our names, the textured stories woven with others we are told. There are legends with which we are gifted by a country’s long history, by cultures, by family, by friends and lovers.
Do you recall the first stories you were given as a small child? Was it a prayer you memorized alongside a small poem? Perhaps a family tale whether inspiring or unnerving to carry forward. Or a tattered book handed down from siblings. Later there is ongoing table talk, random neighborhood chatter about this person or that, our own individual moments–they all comprise a framework within which to grow, struggle. Every day, circuits of shared language operate within larger story talk. Language provides form and function to feelings, defines hopes and beliefs, strengthens attitudes, disavows what is not acceptable, tallies the truth.
Whatever truth is. Isn’t truth what we are told and at some point what we learn to tell ourselves? Even that blur between truth and lie becomes part of being informed about life’s puzzles and signals as we accessed that lie somehow. It impacts how well we may or may not operate with the personhood developed.
It can be argued that storytelling creates one’s real life viewpoint, values, expectations. It may determine the trajectory of our lives, our personas as well as our authentic, at times guarded selves. We are shaped from an early age by what we hear and see, by what we gather into us. Our families teach us first, those who cared for us or did not.
I grew up with a mother who was, by any standard, moderately verbose. She said it was because she was Irish, was strongly pulled into life with its characters and events. I hung on every word. I just thought she was born a natural storyteller, but perhaps that was one and the same. Animated, emotionally reflective, expressive with her hands as well as language, she could make a walk to the grocery and back an anecdote that entertained.
She tucked me into bed with amazing (to me, a little girl in the city) stories about growing up on a farm, playing tough games of basketball in school, being best friends and then falling in love with my father as a teenager, making her way to college despite stiff odds because she was not going to be a farmer’s wife. She loved talking about her large extended family. It was as if they walked in and out, sharing their own entertaining monologues.
What I learned was that her family was resilient, affectionate, stubborn and a bit rough around the edges at times and could create something from nothing. And that pigs were smart but could be mean. That cleaning a barn was a thankless job and that fresh eggs were the tastiest despite hands being pecked often. That strangers might come to the back door looking for a handout of food if times were hard and be given what could be spared. That Gypsy infants had pierced ears but other children did not get to have them. That losing his good farm in the Depression did my Grandfather Kelly, whom I never met, right in.
I also heard that persistence and belief in one’s self could change a life. Being a strong and athletic girl was a good and fun thing to be. And that curiosity was a near-sacred thing, imagination a great tool but I must leaven both with common sense. Her words reflected a basic bedrock of hope even amid despair. Her life was a vivid series of stories within stories and it seemed bigger than regular life to me–but she said all lives were like that, astonishing.
My father was quiet, some might say so introspective that he was silent much of the time. But his eyes spoke to me: thrilled, sad, angry, bemused, proud, amused, worried. A look from those large light blue eyes took the place of fifty fancy words. His fine grasp of language at home was used when he felt the words would add interest to a topic but felt my mother was better at elucidating matters. Yet I had heard him speak to large audiences when he conducted musical groups, for church affairs, in classrooms, at conferences, for public occasions–and his way with words was succinct while humorous and also wise. He was a born public speaker. He loved a good joke. He taught me pacing, ways to capture attention with that smooth delivery. People listened deeply to what he said, yet he spoke with a humble elegance that struck me each time.
But he also taught me about praying and faith. That riding a good bike well taught me balance and gave me strength, joy and a practical means to various ends. He taught me that learning world history provided a structure for the present and future, even mine. And any sort of travel meant opening a door to surprises that illuminated life in big or small ways. His many actions and fewer words instilled in me the idea that anything can be fixed as solutions abound; that civility is a valuable thing; and I am responsible for my actions. That music was God’s mouth. He told most of his stories, though, by conducting, teaching and arranging music, and by playing musical instruments. Best of all for me, he would play piano for fun, the notes nuanced and light and I would sing jazz standards beside him, his voice chiming in here and there.
Storytelling was a given in my life. It is for most people, no matter time or place. But sometimes one’s story seems not so easy a thing to tell, much less embrace.
When starting out as a mental health and addictions clinician I was given an opportunity to teach–more guidance with teaching tossed in–addicted, high risk, gang-affiliated or -affected youth. One of my duties was to help the actual teacher at the alternative school classroom in the residential treatment center. I tutored and engaged them in various activities as well as planned and facilitated field trips (including ballet and opera, which most even enjoyed). But what I longed to do was enable creative writing experiences. So I did.
Each day young men and women took their places at tables, bored and slouchy, irritated with one more class– writing, at that. My only objective two times a week was to encourage them to put a few words down on paper, then a few more until it might grow to a page full of phrases. Daydreams and feelings welcomed. I wasn’t correcting grammar, spelling, syntax–this was not my interest. The kids were asked to reach in and seize their complicated or simple stories and put them into a form that clarified things for them.
When traditional prompts of opening sentences or magazine photos provoked less than I had hoped, I sought aid beyond the usual box. I couldn’t fill up a whole 45 minutes with my own voice; they wouldn’t put up with that, either. One day I decided to bring in the facility’s “boom box”. I asked them to choose music to play as long as it didn’t center on drug use or violence–a hard thing for them. Then they were to write whatever came into their heads. What they wrote was still bombastic and violent, a loose stream of consciousness. Still, anything was a good start. It was the early nineties so I suggested they put those fragments into a rap of their own. It was poetry class that day in my mind, and in theirs it was a chance to voice their mind’s contents in ways the felt more comfortable.
After they were done–they all seemed to scribble down something–most were hesitant, masking it as usual as toughness and boredom. I picked a guy who had musical talent and he stood up and gave a short intense performance. The group hooted and tried to hurl insults but they responded rather than show their stoniest faces. They relaxed then better participated. Their offerings were vividly descriptive, at times bloody and bitter but each piece was a true creation of what they felt, saw, heard in their lives. Some may have exaggerated–they had to be as “bad” as the others– but the context was honest, feelings raw.
I had to be careful to not start a firestorm of emotion, to be calm and firm. Unafraid of what they wrote. “Just tell it like it is, tell your own story,” I encouraged each time, “no one is getting judged or graded.” As they worked away I stood nearby, answered a few questions, then sat at back of the room as they spoke aloud their words. Haltingly at first, then more expressively as time wore on. And if someone skipped saying parts aloud, that was alright for the moment. It was for their benefit, not mine, I assured them. They were at last engaging in story making and telling.
I tried other routes. I might choose a word or a pair that seemed opposites then put them on the chalkboard. Ask them what song they’d choose to sum up their day and then write additional verses. Or suggest they share what their mothers were like or what their fathers advised them. Or what it was to live on the street, need the next heroin fix, steal for alcohol and drugs or food–but all on their terms. Incomplete sentences was okay. Single words listed one after the other was fine. A rap song of their wars or their loves, the bullets dodged, a knife fight they survived. I asked them to put an object they cared about on the table, write about why they kept it close. A picture of family could free more words than anything despite their running away or being sent away.
It wasn’t fast or easy. But they knew I wouldn’t back down, either. They resisted, they argued, they refused to do much some days. I read them prose and poetry they occasionally liked, sometimes dismissed, also found stupid. I brought in books they might read. I played recordings of poetry slam poets that they enjoyed. And I told a few stories of my own life, not too much but just enough that they knew I wasn’t really Miss Junior League, after all. And I admitted I was a writer.
They didn’t give up on me and the class nor I, on them.
Sometimes a braver kid would lead the way and other times a quieter one would show boldness. But soon I was being regaled with portraits of these youth. Fragmented, harsh, filled with hurt that gnawed at them and too often a lack of hope for better days. They were stories of daily adaptability, of survival, of some good intentions if even they may have failed. One of the most important subjects they wrote of was their mothers. And younger siblings. They said they would die for them, period; death was not the worst they could imagine. But they tried to stay alive for them, anyway, despite a precarious existence.
Some were good writers, a few talented. But they all offered stories that moved me. Helped me think more deeply about who they were. Made me better understand various culture clashes. There were rival gang members sitting near one another, writing poetry or memoir. Most of them began to channel aggressions and pain more effectively–not as often shouting abuse or talking over everyone else or starting a senseless, black-out fight during which police would be called.
Their stories were imbued with greatness: their intimate voices, given some power and heard a better. They began to see writing as a tool to map the landscape of their lives and sussed out some of the whys of what they felt and thought, a dawning of insight and accomplishment. Over time, youths slid up to me after class and said, “I get it now (a feeling, problem, desire, loss) a lot better. I couldn’t figure out how to explain it. Or I was too freaked out to say it out loud.” In that way, aspects of who they were became parts they could examine and feel, then piece together. This was no small feat for kids whose operative mode was a rage brewed from self-hate. Some decided to keep writing after classes. They had found an outlet, a way to frame their past and present with words. Ideas and possibilities. No one told me the class was worthless. And later in their rooms or in the hallways when some of the kids got obstreperous or combative, I would tell them: “Go write it down.” And more and more often, they chose to do that.
What did they learn about themselves by writing and telling their own stories? If nothing else, they more clearly identified from whom and where they had come and who they might be if not in gangs, on the street, in the drug house, in juvenile detention. There were moments of hope pushing between those fervid lines. They could say things that mattered. Their words were worth being heard. What I gained was deeper compassion. Patience. Greater faith in the creative process. Gratitude to be able to work with them for nearly five years.
I also worked with Native American women in another residential setting. The results were strikingly similar but powerful in different ways. Many of those women were also wives, mothers and grandmothers; their burdens were heavy with years of experiences. The prohibition against speaking the truth of their private lives was intense. To speak of traumatic things that had happened was physically taxing. Writing was hard, too. But when encouraged to share histories and dreams and fears orally in their own tongue first, sing their songs, dance, they began to speak. And weep. We always stretched and breathed deeply first to loosen the bones, to open the heart. We even danced our own simple line dances, snaking down hallways of the institution. And they began to smile, to even laugh, and to not often cry as if they could not stop. They embraced each other despite having held enmity toward one another due to multi-generational grudges between tribes, or certain members, even relatives. By speaking their truth, they came nearer the next steps needed to rebuild and share their lives. When they went from whispering with eyes downcast to raising arms, stamping feet and shouting out joy, I knew they’d begun to help save themselves with more transformative stories. It was the good racket resultant of thawing out many “frozen” stories. They were reclaiming more of their lives from addictions.
The body holds its stories inside the skin, in heart and mind. Sometimes excavating them is hard; sometimes they come as riding a river to freedom. Other times, in bits and spurts. But they’re waiting to come to light.
What stories do you tell your children, your friends, yourself? Are they true? That is, are they what you really mean? Do they offer something that is valued, that can mark you as who you are or want to become? Is your life story more submerged, floating along or making waves? You can help it speak richly and freely. Sharing your unique and so human story helps you and others live better. It connects one to the other.
My son and I were talking the other day about my lifelong urgent desire to know things, to root out and hold close authenticity in this life. That this is the writer’s way. He immediately understood what I meant. Since he writes songs and loves to orally share stories, I suggested he write them down more often.
“Mom, that’s for you to do and that’s good. I am the story–I’m right here living mine,” he said, then put an arm about my shoulders as he barbecued under tall evergreens in his yard.
That’s what we all do, every day: inhabiting the story we make anew each day. Share yours, won’t you? See what happens.
It happened or it didn’t,
but the truth she had to offer us later
is that when he entered or left that house,
he forgot to take his soul.
He’d had it in his grasp earlier and then
crushed it into something
only fit to run the streets,
turned it inside out so it would do his bidding
as though he had no other resources
or ideas left.
It’s possible that sitting in the car
putting black gloves on that fit him like skin
and a tire iron at the ready
he wondered if there was something else he might do,
but it passed and they stepped out
he was knocking at the door
waited with hands at his sides
and she saw the man come out of a dark room
with cockiness a flimsy mask for fear.
And so that is when she wanted out
or told him to stop–
we’ll never know because she left out
the crucial part. It was not exactly quiet.
We were leaning against their old black car
smoking, watching some neighbors
carry groceries in.
One of us put on more lipstick,
a stolen neon coral,
and the other thought about lunch and fate
when he came down the front steps
with electric ease and a dynamite smile
took his gloves off and put them along with the iron
into the trunk, closed it with a bang.
The he made a small movement of his head,
which told her to get in.
So she did.
What he did we can’t say,
but we do know he crossed over
to another place.
We never saw his eyes the same after that;
they didn’t warm up
or even blink.
It’s been a year; almost Easter again.
We went to the Dollar Store for candy for our son.
Now we do other ordinary things.
But we light a candle for them every day.
If God knows where they are, He needs to fix that damage.
He needs to come right down and
shake out the mad mess like He did for us.
But who knows what can happen.
We have a few extra prayers if
you want one, too.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson