Tuesday, January 17, 2017

You Just Never Know

You just never know. You never really do. That is what I have come to learn as a storyteller – and by that I mean that there is just no way of ever telling what stories hit the mark and resonate deeply with people, and which tales people forget as soon as they have heard it. For example…. In my life as a yoga teacher, my “dharma talks” – that first part of class where a little bit of yoga philosophy is mentioned for students to consider along with the physical practice, I often use parts of itti hastas – yogic stories, that are chock full of lessons and meaning. One student of mine, every time he sees me recalls how I told the story of a man who was taken to see both heaven and hell only to find they were much the same. Both places had opulence, and a fine feast adorned both tables, but in hell, the utensils were too long, so no could feed themselves, and thus were doomed to starve while beholding amazing foods, but in heaven, the man observes, the people don’t try to feed themselves, they use those long utensils to feed each other. It is a good story, and it makes an excellent point about selflessness versus selfishness – but so do others I have told – but to this one student, it has become almost a mantra. He says it to me each time he sees me, and he has even told me he has told it to any woman he has started dating. A few months ago, I was telling stories in an international school in Shanghai. In my very first class were two eighth grade boys, who were clearly the class jokers. The word cocky doesn’t even begin to cut it with these two, but their beloved teacher had sanctioned this “storyteller lady” so they only smirked at me as I began, and held their tongues. As I often do for this age group, I told one of my very favorite stories – it is a Mexican folktale called “Godmother Death”, and it is a goody – has some creepiness to it and, a plot twist that lands up delivering an ending no one EVER expects. But while the actual story is a winner, what really sets it up, I think, is the personal tale about my grandmother “Nanny”. Telling the tale, I embody my childhood recollection of Nanny – a languid mover and speaker from the Caribbean – a place she called “The Islands” – I purse my lips, and hum the way I remember she did. This imitation always brings laughs, and it softens any resistance to storytelling, so I am able to begin the folktale with the audience quite clearly on my team. While I knew this combo of stories had done their job the day I faced those two young men, I had no idea, just how much it had impacted them until I saw them later in the week humming, and pursing their lips re-telling my story to themselves, and their classmates over and over. Passing me in the hallway of their school, we would silently purse lips and nod to each other as a secret signal, and as I turned off my phone to get on this plane, there was one last whatsapp message from the school I had been working at – two young male voices humming in the way of my grandmother, then saying they would always remember that story. Who knows why – and who even needs to – it is just another wonderful example of the magical nature of tales and the telling of them, and I am humbled to be it’s vessel.