Once Upon a Time

As a mother, I am finding that often I will feel an internal push towards a new way of being, just before my daughter begins to need it from me. Sometimes this results in a steep learning curve solely focused on my biggest shortcomings….such as when I decided to tackle my inner tension, just as she began the transition to toddlerhood. I had to cultivate self acceptance and patience FAST during those months in tantrum town. Motherhood can feel like bootcamp for the soul. Mostly I am thankful for the bright illumination that brings all my shadows into sharp relief. At least, as long as my inner critic doesn’t get involved. In those times, the whole experience can be utter misery. It has been a surprising relief then, for the most recent push to show up in the most ancient of forms. Storytelling.

When I began to read Gary Snyder a month or so ago, I was stopped in my tracks by his fresh description of the oral storytelling tradition. The home hearth in the evening was a point of eternal return and reminding, as each day was woven through words into the loom, joining the weave of the days before. A child would grow up supported by a cradle of stories, each one connecting him to tribe, place and land. As Snyder says, the story of that tree, of that rock, of that mountain. I know the stories, both ancient and new, of the territory where I grew up, but even after living in the Bay Area for 15 years, I feel disconnected from some of the landmarks. At least, I don’t know their stories in my bones, but rather hold them in my mind, filed away and not always present. It jolted me to attention when I realized that the oral storytelling tradition is now occupied in my modern life by internet video viewing. For most folks it is in the form of prime time television. And for my daughter, the stories she hears dance across the pages of a book and have very little to do with the immediate nature around her.

Our sunroom bookshelf gets a lot of play. Right now the theme is “animals”.

Fern is read up to 15 books a day, but I had yet to tell her a story that I made up on the spot. The kind that found me, and was allowed to flow through, a transmission from terra firma. I realized that the time to begin oral storytelling is now, since it is one of the building blocks for home-preschooling. I felt my own overwhelm arise at the very thought of having to tell a good story. I can write well enough, but that’s without the pressure of timing and of someone listening. Immediately, some other stories popped forward…some very old and not useful stories. Ones that sound like, “I’m not creative enough.”. “I’m not a good storyteller.”. “I don’t know how to make them unique enough, or subtextual enough, or just…enough.”. “There’s a trick to story telling, to getting the message across, and I don’t know what it is. I haven’t been trained. Maybe I need to read a book about it, or take a class.”. “I don’t have the time to take a class. That’s it, forget it, Fern will not grow up with real stories…”. This type of inner response has been enough to stop many of my ideas cold in their tracks. The gift of motherhood is that ย self-doubt is not a luxury I get to have anymore. Too much is at stake.

So I began. I just started doing it. Rather than being a frustrating or frightening process, I had the experience of re-membering, as if the very act of “Once upon a time” woke up my slumbering cells. I immediately discovered that storytelling is like any creative process. Completely natural and easy, as long as you get out of your own way. It requires spaciousness and slowing down and trust. There is a wide river accessible the moment I open myself to it, and if I can get Huck Finnish enough, the current will take me, and the story, where we need to go. The very instant I start to “try” or think I need to make the story more than what it is, the whole thing capsizes.

Trust and let go.

The best part is, Fern is very forgiving, as I suspect all children are. She doesn’t need Shakespeare. She has her own brilliant imagination to fill the gaps I leave, and as long as I drop bread crumbs, she follows along. I watch her become transfixed, as she is transported into the world that unfolds before her. I always expect her to squirm or wander away or to go get one of her “real” stories, but she doesn’t. She listens. Wide-eyed and hungry. And then, to my surprise and delight, I get to witness her own storyteller awakening.

Yesterday we were at Koshland Park, and I noticed the clouds. The blanket of overcast had broken into lines, with the blue peeking through. I pointed them out to Fern, and she lay on the play structure, gazing upwards. Suddenly she gestured to the sky and said,

“The sea.”

Me: The sky looks like the sea?

Fern: Yeah. Go plop plop splash. Want go there now.

Me: You want to go swimming in the sky?

Fern: Yeah. Go there hawk. Whoosh whoosh.

Me: Birds swim in the sky and you could be a bird.

Fern: Flap flap in sky. I eat the sun! I want to eat the sun!

Me: You want to eat the sun? What would the sun taste like?

Fern: Tastes like cone, and cookies, and cone and….tea! I eat the sun! Yummy!

So I get it now. We were born to swim in the sky and eat the sun and to travel to Narnia and a thousand leagues under the sea and to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of another and relate to all that IS. I don’t need to become a storyteller. I already am a storyteller.

And so are you.



25 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time

  1. loved this post mary!

    story telling is awesome. i always love how in little house in the big woods they gathered each night while pa cleaned his guns and traps and listened to him tell stories. we have tried something similar without much success ๐Ÿ˜ฆ but this post has encouraged me to keep trying.

  2. Beautiful…it’s in our blood, our voices and our hearts already. I love that you just finally dove in, and it was like swimming, or flying. Fern’s little storytelling mind is flying right along with you. Such a wondrous thing to witness!

    1. do you tell stories heather? i’m projecting all kinds of magic onto you, and imagining the wild stories you would tell. something from “women who run…”. xoxox

  3. I love storytelling but am intimidated by it too. In family day camp last summer we had storytelling with the little kids and the teacher allowed the kids to insert here and there where the story would take us. But the part that the kids loved most was when the story ended at a pivotal point and were told, “You’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see what happens!” It was a riot to watch the different affect this had on the kids. With the big kids (Kate’s age) they were read stories from books where they had to listen and there were no pictures, except of course, in their inner seeing. Storytelling is oh so important! Or should I say storylistening.
    I truly believe in the power of books as well.

    1. kristen, maybe during our next lengthy family get together, we could do some storytelling? stories of grandma and papa, or our adventures in maine! i think kate particularly would like to hear about our hijinks.

  4. Mary! Why are your posts so timely for me? I had just recently read an older post over at The Parenting Passageway out of curiosity about Waldorf style oral telling of fairy tales. And today was the first time I told a long story to my kindergarten students. I worried they would get bored, wiggle, fall out of their seats etc. But they didn’t. They were rapt! I gave them paper to draw what they envisioned the story as. I was so impressed and inspired. Storytelling is awesome. And while I love picture books and reading, this was so active and engaging in a different way. We definitely tapped into our deep ancestral selves today. Sounds like you and Fern have too!

  5. Wow Mary, once again you’ve written about an inner struggle in such a beautiful way and this one totally hits home for me. Clover loves to be told stories and I usually send her to her papa because they seem to come more naturally to him. You’re so right though, I just need to let go and trust too, thank you for the reminder and also the reminder of how important it is.

    Also, I love your sunroom bookshelf. I want one of those. I love how you put books out based on a theme too. I see many familiar ones ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. missa, we should do a book swap! that sunroom bookshelf we picked up off the street, after the school next door was tossing it out.

      we have yet to meet in person, but i have this fantasy that maybe someday we will be more real life friends and have some fireside adventures with little ones and stories and tea and popcorn. btw, i’m down for march 3-4 for white elephant! xoox

  6. achingly beautiful, and resonant of my own experience… i am not at all to the point of being able to let go and tell stories, but i do have that goal in mind… i think you are right in that it’s not about trying or pushing it, or it does capsize- great food for thought for me! ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Really beautiful post. Love the idea of getting out of the way of the story, just letting it unfold. ……as you were telling us the story of strory telling, everything just flowed: )
    Just gorgeous. x

    1. you have the type of sweet stillness that i imagine makes for a great storyteller. your art sure does tell stories, and your heart seems full of wonder. btw, i read your little sneaky bit about sending fern a little package…we want to send you one too! let’s swap addresses soon. xoxoxo

  8. Glad you overcame your inner-critic’s nasty jibes ….mine has gotten in the way of so many achievements…both real and imagined. I need more courage to squash it more often…..i’m always profoundly amazed at what i can achieve when i do ignore it. I need to get out of my own way!!! So Mary, after reading this yesterday i remembered myself that my son used to like it when i told him stories (eventually replaced with books)…we sat down, us three (me and the two babes) and told each other stories on the couch. And, I concur on the awkwardness at the beginning, but by the third tale it didn’t matter so much anymore….about the anomalies i mean. They loved it. They were enthralled and wanted more. Cloud stories, are the best, they are so accessible, my son told a couple on the way up to Taupo, he made pirate ships out of the clouds above the volcano; in this age of technological stimulation/simulation I’m so proud that he still uses his wonderful imagination.

    1. i am so inspired by your adventures in storytelling! it DOES feel SO awkward at first, but i’m glad you persevered. i just had the thought that using our imaginations in this way, when we’re out of practice, is like trying an exercise video for the first time…we feel ridiculous, but then we remember how to move and wonder how we ever forgot. xo

  9. I’m a new reader, not a mother, but this post resonates so beautifully for me. I started to cry as I read your account of Fern’s story. Thanks for the aching reminder to get out of our own way. Fern reminds me how very very important that is for us, for our future, for the world. Thank you.

    1. hi kendra! welcome to my little corner and i’m so glad you said hi! i like hearing that you have a heart touched by bittersweetness…you’re in good company here.

  10. david got me that sticker a while ago. it makes me happy. what an intensely steep jagged beautiful path it is.

    i love the reminder to get out of my own way. what an obstacle!!! david and his dad are both master storytellers, of the improv kind. i have such good memories of his dad doing that with the kids. i don’t so much, but i just might do it more, cuz of this reminder.

      1. yes! any down to earth endeavor requires the type of work that hopefully leads to more grace and wakefulness. even if sucks royally in the process! ๐Ÿ˜€

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