Storytime: Spiritual Geography as Story

Map with Dragons (courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

Map with Dragons (courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

First we draw the map.

 

 

Then we ask, who lives there?

Then we ask, who goes there?

Sometimes the map is a story.

 

 

 

 

Here is a Story, to be told when the night grows long:

 

Once there was a woman who every day walked a well-worn path between her house and the town center, taking her basket of work and wares to sell or trade. Her path led through a woods, but was so well-used that where she walked was quite well lit and without hazard.

 

One afternoon, however, she tripped on an unseen stone and fell off the path, hard, to the ground. For a moment she lay stunned on the forest floor. As she lifted herself to a sitting position, head ringing, she saw all her goods scattered around, broken and shattered, her basket torn asunder and smashed in. “Oh no,” she cried. Her work was for naught, broken and destroyed. But it was clear there was no time for crying. The woods were growing fast dark with night and, having fallen, she could no longer see the path.

 

“If I’m to get home, I’d better be doing it,” she said to herself. Up she rose, to make her way back as best she could but thorns caught at her clothing, tearing at it and shredding it. The sharp branches snagged at her face and hands. Disoriented by the fall, the dark, the stinging thorns, she could make no easy or quick progress, but held her hands up to protect herself from the briars and moved forward through the dark as best she could. It took some time.

 

Moon over water (shutterstock)

shutterstock.com

By the time she emerged, she was left with only a simple shift. The rest of her clothes had fallen away, snagged on the bushes and briars. She looked around, bruised, bleeding lightly and tired. The moon had risen in the sky, a full moon, giving her light to see by. She found herself on the shore of a lake so large she could not see across. The sand was smooth and white in the moonlight. She realized how quiet the night was, now that she was out of the thorns. The only sound was the water, gently lapping at the shore in small ripples and waves. Looking to left and right, she saw the beach was quite a small clearing. The woods came right down to the water to her left and right, and there was no path to be seen. She sighed, “If I’m to swim, I’d better be doing it.” Shrugging, she stripped off the shift she wore and entered the water, naked.

 

It was a calm night, and the water flowed around her easily. She was surprised to find that the swimming, although it tired her, was not difficult. As she moved farther from the shore, she became aware of a strange light rising up from beneath her in the water, eerie blue and green. It scared her a little, and she determined to swim past it as quickly as possible. But swim as she might, she could not move beyond the light flickering up from under.

 

“Oh very well,” she thought to herself. “If I’m to dive, I’d better be doing it.” So, tucking her legs up, down she went.


The light emanated from a cave on the lake’s bottom, and from that same cave came a sweet, unearthly singing. As she neared it, she was surprised to find she could breathe in this new element. Landing on the sandy floor outside the cave, well lit by the light that spilled out around the entrance, she walked in.


She saw first a large black pot, sitting on a fire, though how there could be fire at the bottom of the lake she did not know. The flames burned green, then blue. Someone was stirring the pot, she saw, and lifting her eyes, she saw a woman returning her gaze and smiling. It was this person that was singing as she stirred the giant black cauldron. It was impossible to tell if she was young or old. The light—blue, green, fire-filled and watery by turns—was all around, emanating from the fire, or possibly from the rock walls of the cave, it was impossible to discern. It might even have been coming from the pot, or from the singer herself. It flickered and bounced through the cave, off the surfaces and through the water in a kind of dance.

 

The cave was warm, and strangely comfortable, and, very tired from her long walk through the woods and her swim, the woman fell asleep before she could help herself. When she woke, she was marvelously refreshed and found herself wearing a new simple garment. The singer, still at the pot, smiled to see her awake. “You must learn my songs,” she told the woman. “And you must take a turn, stirring my pot.” And so, the woman took over at the fireside and the singer taught her, line by line, the songs to sing.

 

Without sunlight, it was impossible for the woman to tell how much time had passed. It might have been hours, or days, a year or a hundred years. But after she had learned the singer’s songs, she knew she must be going. She was oddly reluctant to leave, and the singer seemed to know this. “You may stay with me, if you like, sister” she offered. “There is plenty of room here for two and you are a good help to me.” The woman was very tempted. It was so peaceful there, and so simple. The light that reflected through the cave was so joyful and so refreshing. She took a long breath, considering. Then she thought of her family, waiting for her in the house up above. She remembered the path she was trying to find. Regretfully, she shook her head. “Thank you, no. There is a part of me that would love to stay, but I know I must go back to the surface. And if I must go—”


“You had better be doing it,” the Singer finished for her, smiling.


The Singer acknowledged her decision with a nod, then said, “At least I can give you a gift, before you go.” And leaning close, she whispered a word to the woman and handed her a large pearl. The woman put the pearl in her pocket and kicked off up through the water once again. When she surfaced, she found she was closer than she thought to the opposite shore. Swimming hard and fast now, she gave a final push and, exhausted by the effort, crawled up onto the rocks.

 

After catching her breath and drying out a bit, she looked around. It was early morning. The sun was just clearing the tree tops and mist was rising off the lake. She stood up, facing the rocks she must climb over to make her way. Looking down, she was astonished to see she cast no shadow. “What is this,” she cried. “Have I died? Am I transformed to something fearful?” She fell down frightened and wept, not knowing what to do or what she was.

 

A small bird fluttered around her head. “Do not weep,” chirped the bird. “I have seen your shadow. It runs ahead of you, hiding in those tall rocks.” “Then I must catch it,” said the woman, and up she jumped, clambering over the rocks. To the bird, she said, “Fly ahead, and tell my shadow to wait for me.” The bird flew off as the woman climbed and scrambled.


Soon it flew back, fluttering just above her again. “Your shadow runs ahead of you. It says it fears you too much to wait for you.” “Little friend, beg it to wait. Tell it there is nothing to fear from me.” The woman said, breathless as she climbed.


The next time the bird came back, it perched on a branch while the woman caught her breath. Very quietly, the bird chirped in her ear, “Your shadow waits just behind this rock right here.” And indeed, the woman could see it peeking out around at her. Slowly, so as not to fright the slip of a thing further, so slowly she rose to face it, and said, “You have nothing to fear from, me, Shadow. Come out, and tell me why you run.”


Equally slowly, the dark shape emerged from its hiding place, pouring out larger than she had thought it. “I run from you because I am afraid of you. I remember you too well and how you kept me caged.”


The woman laughed. “But I am not myself as you remember me. You need not fear. The Singer gave me a new name.” And she spoke the whispered word, her own new name, out clear.


The Shadow relaxed. “That is the name I was waiting to hear,” and lifting on the breeze, the dark shape flew straight into the woman’s open mouth and wiggled down through her fingers.
Ink Day 12-3-13


The woman danced a small step, happy to have her shadow back. “Small bird, I would thank you,” said the woman, “but I do not know how.”


The little bird rose from the branch to her shoulder. “If you would thank me, there is a task I need done. My nest is over a stream, but the stream has dried up,” said the bird. “If you would help clear the stream and start it flowing again, I would be grateful.”


“I owe you much. Show me the way,” said the woman.

 

When they arrived at the stream bed she saw it indeed was dry, choked at the source with dead wood and murky bracken. “What shall I do now,” she wept. “For this job is too big for me alone. I have no blade to clear the wood and weed, to help you, friend.”


The bird whistled a quiet song and said, “Along this path there is a Smith. Follow your way to his forge, and give him that pearl you carry and he may help you.”


The woman was loathe to lose the pearl, but she had promised to help, she knew. So, drying her eyes, she made her way through the woods. Soon, she heard the sound of a hammer hitting iron, the roar of the forge, and the hiss as hot metal met water. Approaching, she saw a low building, open to the road. In front was a clearing, and at the clearing’s center roared a large hot fire. Anvils large and small stood around. A Lady waited at the clearing’s edge with her horse, which was being shod by the smith. He was a broad man, his face ruddy from the heat, and his face, arms, hands all showed scars from his work. But his eyes were kind. The woman watched quietly as he fixed the last shoe onto the horse. Then he turned to her and said, “Hello, good woman. What brings you here this bright morning?”

 

The woman curtsied to the smith and Lady, both, and explained “I promised my friend the bird I would help clear the stream bed and start the water flowing again, but I have no blade to cut away the choking weeds and grass. I thought perhaps, if I paid you with this pearl, you might have some aid for me.”

 

The Lady nodded at her as she mounted her horse. “Friend Smith, we are done here. I thank you,” and then to the woman she said, “That stream bed is on my land as it happens. You will do me a kindness by clearing it too. You have my thanks.” So saying, she rode off into the trees.

 

The Smith chuckled to himself, then turned and glanced at the pearl the woman was holding. He took in his breath, then his eyes bored curious and deep into the woman’s. “This is no payment for me but the thing itself,” he said. “And I ask no payment for this work.” “If there is work to be done you had better be doing it,” she whispered, reluctantly giving her pearl to him. And taking it, he placed it on the largest anvil and with one blow he crushed it.

 

The woman cried out in fear at the sound, closing her eyes. When she opened them, she was astonished to see the smith held out to her a sword of steel with pearl shine and inlay. “You carried this the whole time, and never knew it,” he told her. “It’s a rare gift, and a rare one who carries such a thing. Now go you back to your bird. And know, you are welcome here any time.” And saying that, he turned his back and went to the bellows to urge the fire hotter.

 

The woman, marveling, went back to the stream bed. And indeed, from then the work was easy. Within a day she had wrestled the overgrowth and the dead wood away from the spring’s source, and freed the water to flow again. The little bird trilled happily to see it. “You have repaid my favor amply, thank you kind woman. Your way lies past the spring’s source, up the hill. Come back to see me any time.” And happily chirruping to herself, the little bird began constructing a new nest out of bits of saved string and twigs and other little sundry items.

 

The woman went on her way, tying her sword around her waist, happy to have it. And indeed, it was just as the bird said, her path did lie up on the hill over the spring, as clear as ever. With great relief, she began walking in a direction she knew would take her home. The afternoon was warm and clear, butterflies and bees hummed and fluttered in the grass and flowers, and she enjoyed herself in the fresh breeze, knowing she was headed home at last.


To her surprise, as night came on, she saw that the path led into a dark opening in a hillside.  “What is this,” she thought. But clearly, there was nothing for it but to enter, for the path was broad and well-cleared. “Well, if I must enter the hill, I’d better be doing it,” she said to herself. Just to be safe, the woman pulled out her sword, and, a little fearfully, entered into the hill.

 

She was surprised to find herself in a long passageway that seemed to go through the hill entirely. Torches lined either side, so the whole thing was lit up with the warmth of the flames, and shadows danced. Lining either side of the hall were all manner of thing—chests of treasure, dusty with time, dim pictures and forgotten oddments so old and strange it was impossible to know their value. And all along the walls were all manner of masks. In the light of the torches, the features of the masks moved, growing larger and smaller, brighter and darker. “What place is this,” the woman breathed to herself. Curiosity and awe filled her.

 

This is the hall of the ancestors, said a chorus of voices in her head. There was no sound to be heard with the ears except the quiet padding of her footsteps, the occasional clink as her sword knocked against something accidentally. You will find this hall open to you, should you want to return. Until then, you may take one torch to light your way, for when you emerge it will be night once more.

 

“Well, this will certainly be an easier passage than those thorny woods I started out in,” thought the woman to herself. “And… I might come back to see my friend the bird again.” So she curtsied to the spirits of the place and said, “I thank you, good folk. One torch will I take.  And when I come back I will bring you a gift as well.” And, putting her sword back in her belt, she lifted the torch closest to her and made her way forward.

 

Soon enough, she emerged out into the world once more and found herself in her own back yard and garden. Her family welcomed her into the house with open arms, curious and delighted to hear her story. “But mother, we are confused,” said her daughter, after she finished. “You say you have a sword, and a torch, but where are they?” And sure enough, astonished, the woman saw that the hand that had carried the torch held it no longer, and instead there gleamed a ring on her finger, fiery in the night. And as for her sword, it had melted into a pearl handled pen in her pocket. Laughing, she pulled it out to show her children, and promptly wrote down this story.

 

And now, a good night to you all. My story is done.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

 

Walking away from Omelas

Have you read Ursula Le Guin’s classic short story, The ones who walk away from Omelas?

If you haven’t, go and read it now. This can wait.

Omelas is a privileged city, almost a utopia, apart from the one thing that enables its citizens to lead full, happy, and carefree lives – and that one thing is what makes many people walk away from Omelas.

Would you walk away from Omelas? Or would you consider that the bargain is justified?

Light Walk in October by Hartwig HKD

The ones who walk away… (photo by Hartwig HKD)

The thing is, in a way, we all live in Omelas. If you live in the West and use products made by underpaid workers, or even slaves, in the Far East, shipped across the ocean at a high cost to marine wildlife, then you live in Omelas.

But our society is not Omelas for everyone. Some people cannot even walk down the street without fearing for their lives. Some people get arrested or even killed for the colour of their skin, the way they walk, the way they dress. If you are Black, or transgender, or gay, you are especially in danger.

Walking down the street without fear of harassment, arrest, or assault is not a privilege, it is a right. Those of us who pass for cisgender and/or straight and/or white take this right for granted, and are often unaware that it is a right that is denied to many of our fellow-citizens.

Education is not a privilege, it is a right (at least until the age of 16).

If you are right-handed, you take it for granted that the world fits you like a glove. You are unaware of the structural disadvantage faced by left-handers, and call us “awkward” and “cack-handed”.  (I use left-handedness as an example because whilst the structural disadvantages are fairly minor, it seems they are invisible to everyone except left-handers.)

A privilege is defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”. A right is defined as “a moral or legal entitlement to have or do something”. By definition, rights are, or should be, available to everyone, whereas privileges are, or should be, only granted under exceptional circumstances. 

Walking down the street without fear of harassment, arrest, assault, or being murdered by police, is something to which every citizen has a moral and legal entitlement.  Being afraid every time your son or brother or father leaves the house, that he will get killed just for being Black – that should be a right, not a privilege.

There are many privileges that are granted only to white, straight, (cis) male, and cisgender people, that ought to be rights for everyone.

There are many privileges granted to people in the West that ought to be rights for everyone in the world – access to healthcare, not being in danger of famine, epidemics, enslavement, maiming or death by bombing, displacement by war and persecution, and other horrors. The relative peace and security and wealth of the West is built on the deprivation of the rest of the world – our cheap goods result from the economic disparity between East and West, and the fact that people in Bangladesh, China and other places, are prepared to work for very low wages.

Our Omelas is very big and very pervasive – and we seem to be trapped in it.

Perhaps it is not enough to walk away from Omelas – we need to dismantle it from within.

The boy who was afraid of his own shadow

An original fable by Yvonne Aburrow

Tim was a boy who was afraid of his own shadow. It followed him around all the time, and it never said anything. It grew bigger and smaller seemingly at random. Sometimes Tim shouted “GO AWAY!” but it still clung tenaciously to his feet.

Only when everything was dark all around him did the shadow finally disappear, but then the whole room was full of shadows: the shadow of the tree outside the window, coming through the curtains – sometimes because of the strange orange glow of the street lamp, sometimes because of the pale blue moonlight. Then there was the shadow that lived under the bed, which seemed to move of its own accord, and the shadow behind the wardrobe that loomed up the wall.

One day, Tim was out for a walk. It was a cloudy day, so his shadow was only a watery fuzzy thing, and Tim felt that perhaps it was not so dangerous today. He asked it why it always followed him, but it still remained obstinately silent.

Tim wandered aimlessly through the forest, filling his pockets with pebbles and interesting-looking twigs. A blackbird sat on a branch and sang its liquid song. Tim came to a path he did not know. There was an old woman standing very still in the middle of a glade. She was gazing up at the canopy of leaves and the tracery of twigs above her. She held out her hand, and a small bird came to land on it. Tim watched as the bird fed from her hand. After a while, it flew away.

“How did you do that?” he asked.

“I was very very quiet, both inside and out,” said the woman. She turned to look at Tim, her long white hair swinging like a curtain to reveal her bright blue eyes.

“Quiet on the inside?” asked Tim.

“Yes. Perhaps no-one has shown you how to do that,” she suggested.

“No, they haven’t.”

“Just breathe,” said the woman.

“Is that it?” asked Tim.

“No, but it is the beginning.”

“The beginning of what?” asked Tim.

“Of not being afraid,” said the woman.

“How did you know I was afraid?” asked Tim.

“Most people are,” said the woman.

“Of what?” asked Tim.

“Their own darkness,” said the woman.

“Is that like being afraid of your shadow?” asked Tim.

“Very much like that, yes,” said the woman. “Is that what you are afraid of?”

Tim decided to trust the woman. She seemed friendly, and there was something bird-like about her. Tim had always liked birds, especially robins with their bright eyes.

“Yes, I am.”

The woman did not laugh at him, as other grown-ups had. She just looked at him intently with her head on one side.

After a silence, she said, “You need to make friends with it.”

“How do I do that when it won’t talk to me?” he asked.

“How do you make friends with other children?” asked the woman.

“By playing with them,” said Tim.

“Exactly,” said the woman.

Just then, the sun came out from behind the clouds, and there were both Tim’s shadow and the old woman’s, stretched out across the grass of the glade. The old woman crouched down and made the shape of a hare with her shadow. Tim laughed.

“It’s a hare,” he said.

“Yes. Your turn,” said the old woman.

Tim made the shape of a cat with his shadow. He had to assume such a contorted pose to do this that he collapsed in giggles.

“I think that was a cat,” laughed the woman.

“For a minute, anyway,” said Tim.

Next they played tag with their shadows. Each of them took it in turns to be “It”, and the other one had to chase them and try to step on their shadow.

“Still afraid of your shadow?” asked the woman eventually.

“No, it’s like a friend now,” said Tim.

“Exactly,” said the woman. “We all have darkness inside us, anyway – it is dark inside your body.” [1]

“So it is,” said Tim. “I never thought of that.”

Tim said goodbye to the woman, and walked home, whistling. He decided to call his shadow Tom.

That night when he went to bed, he wasn’t afraid of the shadows in the moonlight any more, because he knew that Tom was there to look after him.

 


 

 

[1] I am indebted to Crow for the observation that it is dark inside your body.

A note on names – Tim means ‘fear’ and Tom means ‘twin’ (and the story is not based on anyone I know called Tim or Tom). Other than that, I will let you work out the meanings of this fable for yourself.