Toothpaste and Survival

Sheep Rock, OR. photo by Mary Dessein
Most people would throw it away.
I take the seemingly empty toothpaste tube, cut it open, and get every bit of toothpaste out of it, easily five more uses before I throw the absolutely 100% empty tube away. The stick of deodorant is seemingly empty, the container is flat across the top of the stick. No… I scoop out the remainder inside the stick, clearly a couple weeks more deodorant still in there.
And the lipstick tube? Why it has a good 1/8th of an inch of usable lipstick in the bottom. I thought these were normal practices, until it was brought to my attention that not everyone does these things.
We won’t go into Christmas bags and bows…

I was born a good twenty-five years after the Great Depression. Yet my parents were raised during those years.
It appears my, shall we say intense, frugality was carried forward from them.

Another belief that I have struggled with since I was a teen is ‘men are authority figures and are to be obeyed.’ The struggle was that the belief was firmly implanted, yet my intuition resisted all the time. Looking back as I recognize this falsehood, I am lucky to be alive as being obedient included backseats of cars, saying yes when all my insides shouted No, getting in a VW bus and driving to Yugoslavia with a stranger from the Venice train station, not asking questions when dicey situations were presented, allowing abusive behavior to go on yet saying nothing.

Here’s one for you: food is solace and comfort for whatever troubles you. Oh my. I have dealt with overweight since I was young. Something that tastes good will make the problem and uneasy feelings go away, right? Related to that, here is another recipe for life-long eating issues: “There are starving children in China – you must eat every morsel on your plate whether you are hungry or not.” These over-rode a child’s natural response. Kids are truth-tellers and instinct-followers: they make candid reports (“You smell funny. You have a big nose. I don’t like that.”) to avoiding people and situations they are uneasy about.

So who’s stories were those? Old stories happening through me? If they are not my stories, what are mine? I have a right to my own stories don’t I?

In thinking about my parents this morning – my mom, Josette, gone three and a half years and my dad, Kenney, gone thirty-three and a half, I wonder what they would tell me now that they’ve had a long distance view.
Then a mental shazaam followed: what would my sister tell me? She died fourteen and a half years ago at the age of forty-nine and four days of “undetermined causes” as there was no clear explanation for why her heart stopped. What would Rosie tell me? Was she living her own story, or someone else’s? I have often wondered since that difficult time, was she looking for her own path, what was her dream? She had drifted along, trying various occupations such as working on fishing boats in Alaska, photography, office work, and was in optician school when she died.

Virtuoso pianist in Montreal playing Bohemian Rhapsody

What I am learning about my own story and my own path is that I create it, albeit standing on the shoulders of those before me. I watch the magnificent thousands of geese arching above me and the hummingbirds flitting about my porch at the feeders even as it is snowing. True to one’s self, true to one’s heart really is survival. The ‘shoulds’ are falling away as I recognize them. Byron Katie’s work is reflected here on being with what is.

Being true to myself and true to my heart’s calling is my survival and the path to writing my own story.

Emeralds in Orange

Morning shadows Photo by M Dessein
When I get out of jail, often I feel excited and exhilarated. Other times, I feel like going to find some alcohol. Oddly enough, it is not to dull the feelings I have, rather to prolong them and/or to accentuate them, like I need to expand them somehow to figure them out.
Today was some of both.

A young one, I would guess to be about fourteen, in my second class, tried to be polite and attentive, yet is something of a flibbertygibbit; engaging frequently in side-talk and who’s attention is easily pulled away. However, after I told my first story, “Spider Brings Fire,” and was starting on my next one, this young one asked about a lizard story I told at least six or seven months ago. I had to think for a minute. “Oh yeah, let me finish this one and I’ll see if I can remember enough of it to tell.”

I did finish the tale I had in progress, and was starting the next story on my set list when the young one piped in, “Remember about the lizard and the emerald story?” This was clearly important .

“Okay, here goes,” I said, “‘La Lagartija Esmeralda, The Emerald Lizard.’ About four hundred years ago, in Guatemala, a young man named Juan was walking along the road. It was clear he had been crying. Brother Pedro is walking…”
“Yeah, that’s right, Brother Pedro,” the young one says.

“Brother Pedro stops Juan and asks what’s the matter. ‘It’s my wife, she’s very sick and without the right medicine, she’ll die.’”

“Wasn’t it his mother?” the young one asks.
“No, it was his wife. So Juan says, ‘I have no money. I don’t know what to do.’ Brother Pedro says ‘I wish I had money to give you, I don’t have any either.’ Just then, a small lizard runs across the road. Brother Pedro reaches down, picks it up, holds it for a moment, then reaches out and hands it to Juan. What Juan sees in his hand is that the lizard is now an emerald lizard, una lagartija esmeralda, shining brilliantly in the sunshine. He thanks Brother Pedro profusely and runs into town to a merchant, sells it for enough to buy his wife’s medicine, food for them and some cows.

“With the medicine, Juan’s wife recovers completely. Over the years, Juan’s few cows become several, which become a herd, which eventually over the next twenty years or so, Juan becomes a successful rancher. And wealthy. One day, he goes back to the merchant and asks about la lagartija esmeralda. ‘Oh yes, I still have it,’ the merchant says, ‘but it is not for sale as it has brought me much good luck.’

“’Well, it’s brought you much today,’ Juan says, ‘as I will pay you five times what you think it’s worth.’ ‘Sold!’ says the merchant.
“By now, Brother Pedro has been retired for some time. Juan sets out to find him, and within the next weeks, he does. Brother Pedro is living out in the country very humbly in a small cottage. When Juan shows up at his home, Brother Pedro recognizes him right away. ‘Welcome, Juan. Come in.’ So over cups of tea, the two men talk and catch up on their lives. Finally, Brother Pedro asks, ‘Juan, you came all this way.’ ‘Yes, Brother Pedro, I want to thank you.’

“Juan pulls la lagartija esmeralda out of his jacket pocket and sets it on the table. It sparkles brilliantly in the sunshine. Brother Pedro smiles, ‘Yes, I remember that day, Juan.’ He picks up la lagartija, holds it a moment, then sets it on the floor. The lizard then scampers out the door.”

“Yeah…,” the young one says softly.
Another young person sitting right beside the story-requester, older and a bit more on the mature side says, “I think that story is about hope.”

Someone else asks if that really happened. “I don’t know, I wasn’t there,” I said, “but miracles can happen. The French have a saying that ‘Miracles happen to those who believe in them.’ I like to think so.”

“I think they can,” another young one says. And the discussion goes on a bit. I am silent, as these young people are thinking and talking. Whatever shadows brought them here, they are thinking and talking.

In the class prior to this one, I started on a Japanese story, ‘Ooka and the Wasted Wisdom,’ preceded by a bit about King Solomon. One of the kiddoes in that class launched into a story about how King Solomon selected which of his three sons to succeed him as king. And this was only a few minutes after this same kiddo had told me that these stories were for 5th graders! Eventually, one of their conversations swirled around to justice. Justice.

Dragonfly photo by M Dessein

Then in the last class, one of the attendees made monosyllabic, barely audible responses and a small amount of eye contact. As an older, more mature kid nearing transfer age whom I had in my classes several times earlier this year, I noted the much reduced interaction (at age 18, if there is still time to be served, the youth is transferred out of the juvenile facility to the County Jail.) There were next to zero responses or comments from this class.

Each time I am there is different. Each time brings wonder. And hope. Sometimes I am unsettled or uncertain. Each time, the kids teach me things about respect, attention, awareness, listening.

I have loved ‘The Emerald Lizard’ from the first time I read it in Pleasant DeSpain’s book of the same name. That one of the kids not only remembered it but wanted to hear it again was a delightful surprise. Really, Mary? Haven’t you said a few zillion times that every question you’ll ever have is answered in a story somewhere. That stories cross time and distance to teach us and remind us we are human, and that we each belong somewhere?

Yup, we teach what we need to learn. There appears to be no magic number until we get it, yet there is magic

I Just Had To…

Drawing by S., CP Elementary student
“I stayed in from recess to make this for you.”

She reached out tentatively to hand me a water-color drawing she had made. She being a 6th grade student who had been in the first class I performed for that morning.

“I just had to do this. When you told the story about the two sisters with one’s name like mine and the harp made of bones, I had to draw this.”
What a picture: there was my harp, me, and three of the stories I’d told! She’d heard, she’d listened, she’d thought.
No wonder I do this.

When I was in Juvenile Detention last week, the jail facility for kids under age eighteen, I was in the library waiting for my first class of kids. One of the boys saw me from the hallway and snapped, “Oh f—.” Not the usual response when kids see me, I am happy to report, however, it was his that morning. The boys trooped in and sat down in the semi-circle of chairs facing me. He pulled his tee shirt up to below his eyes, crossed his arms, and looked down at his feet, legs stretched out in front of him. Thirty minutes of stories and music later, he was sitting up asking questions, and forty minutes later he was telling me how he would have changed one part of the folktale from Ecuador I had just told them. After the Haitian tale, “One My Darlin,” he made a comment about forgiveness, which started a discussion among the boys.

No wonder I do this.

Jill Johnson, an accomplished writer, teacher, storyteller, and actor, wrote about when she was telling to and with elders in Auckland, New Zealand in February of this year, that when she saw the elders tell family stories, the youth listening, and the priceless connection being made, she said, “THIS …. is why I do this work.”

I get it more clearly every time I perform lately – telling and making music for elementary school kids, incarcerated kids, or my neighbor. The connecting, the re-discovering the truth that people have common elements of being human be they from China, Patagonia, Egypt, Saskatchewan, or Iceland. You never know what will reach someone. My part, and privilege, is to deliver the story, keep out of the way the best I can, and let the story spin out its storyness.

Rambling on Story

In China. photo by Mary Dessein
I have a pale dusty-blue gauze curtain in my writing room window, which allows me to look out yet not be readily seen, lets daylight in, and makes a wee bit of a buffer for the cold air in winter.

In wondering what to launch my writing with today, I figured I’d look at one of the many blogs I have started, that await completion. Then I looked up at my curtain and there in the wrinkly texture of the fabric, I saw the word, ‘Story.’ On a forty-five degree slant down from left to right, in a jaggedy font, I saw ‘Story.’ Like a shape in the clouds, no one else may be able see it, but I did.

How cool is that? There were stories at the Board meeting this a.m., a friend has stories to tell me about the wild City Council meeting on Tuesday, always Story. My podcast co-host and I caught up our stories with each other yesterday at the radio station. The Jimmy Webb song I’m learning, Wichita Lineman, is a story and the life of the song itself is a plethora of stories. Most songs are stories.

Country music legend, Harlan Howard’s quote that “a great country song is three chords and the truth,” is oft-repeated. Harlan was interested in story early on, being an avid reader since childhood and having “an ear for a telling phrase.”

A friend told me that some in her book club thought one of the novels by T. Coraghessan Boyle, who has won more awards than I have fingers and toes, was implausible because that much bad cannot happen to one person. So for stories to be believable do they have to be similar to our own, or something we can relate to? Like the Syrian family who’s boat capsized as they fled for their lives across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Greece, leaving the young father to see his three year old son’s body washed up on shore in Turkey, later to find his wife and other son had also drowned? Many of us saw that on the news, and were not only stunned but grateful that story was not our own. The stars in the sky are easier to count than the scenarios that fit into the “how did they ever live through that?” category.

Story – contains our humanity, recalls it, records it, and reminds us of our own.
“I fall to pieces each time someone speaks your name.”

Story. It all comes back to story, often with questions. Is the story true? How could that be? What is the human component? If the actual story isn’t provably true, the story is the vehicle for the human truth contained within it. Such as Ananzi the spider smashing a gourd on the ground, which releases all the common sense stored in the gourd out into the world; an explanation for the truth, if you will, being that some people have common sense, while others appear to have little.

As a professional storyteller, after I would perform in elementary schools, often students came up to me with seeking eyes to ask, “Is that true?” Animal tricksters, gossiping trees, tall tales, legends. I would answer, “There is truth in every story I tell. Flying donkeys may not actually exist, however, there is a lesson or an element that is true that we need to know. That’s why we tell stories that are thousands of years old: they contain human truths that we need to hear.”

Is fiction really fiction? Arguably, yet it contains human truths that we need. That’s why there are best-sellers, be they romance, detective, historical, fantasy, thrillers, super-heroes, or westerns. We crave those truths, and are intrigued, interested, or captivated to observe characters going through all the machinations to get to them, while we safely turn the pages. Granted, some truths are really difficult to accept. A recurring theme for me, I’ll be coming back to this concept. Truth – belief – choice.

“I fall to pieces each time someone speaks your name.
I fall to pieces, time only adds to the flame.”
Ah, Harlan and his three chords.