Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Human survival depends on how we manage our relationship with four, fundamental variables. The variables aren’t really in dispute, but the amount of time we have in which to change our relationship to them is. Simply put, the four variables are as follows:

  1. We live in a fragile, closed system, a little blue marble called Earth.
  2. Earth has finite resources: biodiversity, air, water, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.
  3. We have unchecked population growth.
  4. We rely on growth-based economies.

Yes, yes… I know. Solar radiation enters the system. There’s some hope there. However, we aren’t making new materials. We aren’t adding iron ore to our planet. We aren’t increasing the amount of natural gas and oil in the ground. We aren’t somehow magically manufacturing more water to add to the poisoned water and water ecosystems in a way that will fundamentally change the direction of the deterioration arrow.

The four variables stand, but we argue endlessly about what we should do to lengthen the time we have before those four variables result in an extinction level crash.

Note that I say extinction level crash and not the end of the world. As my astute Physicist brother once told me, “Human beings aren’t going to end the world. We will only end ourselves. The planet was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we are gone.”

And now you’re wondering how the four variables relate to writing.

Well, it’s like this. Telling stories is an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the beginnings of language use. We erect monkeys have always told stories. We tell them to ourselves to justify stealing bananas from one another. We tell them to our friends and family to create bonding in social systems. We tell them to one another to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated and to ensure that our tribe thrives. One of the most common themes in the stories we have told throughout time is the theme of our village being better than their village. Every hero has a nemesis.

Want to see that theme playing out in a modern social context in America? Go to any Friday or Saturday night high school football game in the country. Observe the cheering, the colors, and the parking lot fights.

Harmless, right? Maybe. The value of team sports debate isn’t what this little blog is about. The point is that the “us vs. them” story is there to see. You can even observe the symbolic battle over land resources playing out on the field.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love a good game. That’s really not the point. The purpose and value of story is the point.

Story telling is the easiest thing we do. It is also the most complex thing we do as human beings. Putting together a solid narrative, especially on paper, has more in common with interacting wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean than it does with the linear, deceptive advice given to creative writing students. We put the little black squiggles in a row, and that creates an illusion of linear activity; however, the squiggles are just the medium of transfer for the story. The story in one mind is transferred through the little black squiggles into the mind of another person. Minds, unfortunately, are not so linear. They are messy places. They are endless impulses layered and ever changing, arranging, and rearranging into patterns that somehow magically become mind—thought, personality, memory, dreams, hopes, beliefs, learning, and maybe even soul.

Okay, I’m not all that sure about the last one. I have some opinions on what soul is, but I won’t go there in this blog entry. Maybe another time.

Story is, however, the human mind generating a dream-like experience based on sensory input. No two people read the same story quite the same way. No two people write a story quite the same way. Let’s just set aside the fact that no two people have the same life experiences. That, by itself, is enough to prove the last point. However, the endless shifts in levels of neurotransmitters, the organization of dendritic networks, the infinitesimal distances between axons and dendrites, the hormonal and electrical potentials, and the endless layering of all of these things and many more means that it is impossible for each of us to experience what any other person is experiencing when we hear or read a story.

Yes, we all tell stories. We all know that stories are essential to our survival. We all know that we are alive today because someone, somewhere way back in the dim past figured out how to tell a story that included the idea that a sharp stick held at the dull end can keep you alive a little longer than no stick at all.

We told stories to keep our families alive. We told stories to keep our tribes alive. We told stories to make sure everyone in our tribe knew how to behave to ensure that we would thrive. We told stories to explain things that made us uncomfortable because worrying too much about the bright lights in the sky meant we weren’t planting and reaping and breeding. We told stories to make sure that members of our tribe didn’t kill other members of our tribe, but it was totally okay to kill members of any other tribe trying to kill our mammoths.

These stories are part of who we are. They must change if we want to survive.

Every person on Earth lives in a closed system with finite resources, unchecked population growth, and growth-based economies. Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one or more of those four variables is a tacit agreement to genocide.

Sadly, we still tell ourselves stories that reinforce tribal behaviors like breeding means healthy tribes, acquisition of resources means more for us, control of territory means we are strong, and us vs. them.

Yet, as there has always been, there is some hope because of story tellers, shamans of the written word, wizards of the wave form and the mind.

If a corporation, government, or individual is telling a story that supports the use of growth-based economy in an ever-shrinking world, they are telling a story that asks millions of people to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit. If any organization tells a tale of policy that will increase population growth without providing compensating increases in resources for the new human beings, they are telling a tale of death for others. If we see a story on the news or on our feeds and it talks of the terrible crimes of protestors attempting to stop pollution, then we are seeing mercenary story-tellers attempt to shorten the time of humanity on this little rock.

For those of us who tell stories for entertainment and edification, fiction writers, we have an obligation to create stories that become viral in a way that suggests new modes of survival.

Heroism has at times been described as the successful search for the grail, and the grail has always been associated with healing and abundance. The stories of today, no less than the stick-holding stories of ten thousand years ago, are about creating visions for survival of the tribe. The only real difference is that the tribe is larger and more complex than it has ever been. We are one tribe that spans the entire Earth.

Story telling and story receiving are more complex than the interaction of wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. However, human beings have always been built to do this amazing thing—to share tales that will help us all survive. Those of us who tell the tales must step up and tell the stories that lead the imaginations of the members of our tribe to an understanding that holding the blunt end of the new pointy stick means having the ability to embrace people who don’t, and physiologically should never be expected to, think the way we do. We must tell the tales that show that every drop of water on this planet is sacred, that every hole we dig hurts us, that every child we force into the world must be fed, and that taking in order to have more means hurting people who will, by direct causal effect, have less.

Look carefully at every story produced and presented. Find the four variables in each tale. Does that story help slow population growth? Does that story reduce our dependence on the market growth that drives economies? Does that story slow the rate of use of nonrenewable resources? Does that story open the world to distant horizons so that our system, and the minds within it, are no longer closed?

-End-

Magic

There are things in this world that cannot be seen, only felt. One of them is the magical spirit of Christmas.  From its spirituality, no matter your religious leanings , each faith driven belief asks you to trust in a type of magic, does it not?   Then there is its tradition of gifts left by a mysterious red clad, bearded man in a flying sleigh. The entire season is filled with…magic.

I remember vividly holding my breath and waiting each year as my momma turned on the Christmas tree lights for the first time.  The silver tinseled tree with its rainbow of twinkling globes changed the ordinary living room of my childhood into a fairytale wonderland.  I sat for hours staring at it, as mysteriously throughout the month shiny presents appeared on the colorful skirt surrounding its base.  When the actual day approached the divine smells coming from our kitchen were otherworldly.  You see I grew up poor,  in the money sense of being poor.  No fault placed.  The fact is, some have more than others and single mothers, like mine, seemed to have even less.  But at that most mystical time of the year, our home was transformed into an enchanted dwelling, a place I’d only glimpsed and read about in the few books I owned.  A home filled with sparkling lights, mythical creatures (think angels and elves living side by side) and miraculously, more food than we had had all the previous year.  To a child, it is… simply, magic.   And who couldn’t use a little more of that in their lives?

When I began having children of my own, I strove to impart that feeling of wonder and just as my momma before me, I too decorated and transformed, baked an abundance of candies and cookies, hid presents and kept the mystical season alive and thriving.  Now, getting all of our children (eight plus spouses and significant others) and grandchildren (six) in one place under one roof, is itself a magic act reminiscent of Houdini himself. 

Alas, it’s getting ever harder to accomplish this in the Black Friday (now Black Thursday-so very wrong) world in which we exist, a world where, with just a keystroke on your computer, all knowledge is at your disposal.  In such a place, even at this time of year, it would appear there is no longer a need for the mystery of this season.  But wait,  I beg your indulgence.  Please close your eyes and think about your own Christmas’ past?  Smell the delicious aromas, be it fresh pine or a peppermint candy cane.  Taste the sweetness of a freshly baked sugar cookie.  Feel your breath catch as you see the twinkling lights of the tree turned on for the first time.  Hear your favorite carol or just the ringing of a few golden bells.  Feel the joy of opening that one perfect gift (we all have had at least one).  Is that memory, in and of itself, not magic and can we exist in a world without it?

What, you may be asking yourself does all of this have to do with a writer’s blog?  Glad you asked.  I think we need more magic in our writing.  Our world is craving it.  Just look around; what’s on the bestseller lists if not stories about magical and imaginative places?  How many times have I heard, “My child finally started enjoying reading with the Harry Potter books,” or “My teenager actually discovered something other than TV or the latest gaming device by reading the most current book set in a world other than the one in which they live”?  Our logical, plugged in world is loosing its sense of wonder and readers from my 30 plus year old children, to my elementary school aged granddaughters are searching for it in the words we writers take from our imagination and place on the page.  If we don’t continue to provide it, where will future generations be?   The mysteries of my childhood and its memories are why I began placing words on paper.

Is there anything more magical than seeing your vision come alive on the page and is there any other season so filled with this glorious substance of wonder?  At this time of year, please stop and store up all the magic and mystery you can find.   It may come in handy the next time you sit down and…begin to write.

Silent Visitor

Silent Visitor

An original painting by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Beautiful Corpses

by Matthew Lowes

There’s no doubt death discomforts the living. A long history of adaptation for survival has assured we are repelled by the sight and smell of a rotting corpse, especially the corpse of human being. We are disturbed by possible threats to our well-being and reminded of our ultimate mortality. We are heartbroken at the loss of friends and family, and at the horrible absence a corpse represents.

Through the ages, we have developed countless ways of dealing with the dead. We have burned them on funeral pyres and interred them in lofty tombs. We have buried them in the ground and shelved them in catacombs. We have drowned them in the sea and left them on mountaintops for scavengers to pick clean their bones. Perhaps none is more fascinating than mummification, when the flesh of the living is preserved in death through the ages. The word “mummy” come from the Arabic word for bitumen, thought to be used in some Egyptian mummies, but different types of mummies exist from around the world.

To create a mummy the process of decay must be halted, usually though desiccation, but sometimes through chemicals, cold temperatures, or submersion in an anaerobic fluid. While many cultures deliberately mummify the dead, many mummies are a product of accidental conditions. In either case, once the body has stabilized, if the environment is favorable, a mummy may remain intact for thousands of years.

When decay ceases, and the grief of the living has passed into history, a strange beauty remains in the dead. You can sense this beauty gazing upon an ancient mummy. It’s difficult to put into words. This silent face … this still flesh … stirs thoughts of life as much as death, of hopes and dreams, of love and loss and longing. The beauty of this singular person, who walked the earth so long ago, is still here, like a shadow cast forward through time.

Ancient Egyptian culture flourished for 3000 years. An estimated 70 million people were mummified and entombed in the burning sands. For all that time, tombs have been broken into, desecrated, and robbed for the valuables they contained. In the 18th and 19th century, there thrived an international market for mummies as souvenirs and curiosities, and to be ground up and used in paints and medicine. They were even used as fuel for the fire on cold desert nights when wood was scarce.

Thankfully, these practices have ended, and mummies today, from Egypt and around the world, are being treated with care and respect. They are meticulously preserved and studied for the wealth of scientific and historical information they contain. And they are admired by those with an imagination for history, horror, and yes, beauty.

Mummy

Photography (c) 2002 Zubro and released under GFDL

Notes:

I highly recommend checking out Kenneth Garrett’s stunning photographs of the mummies of Tutankhamun’s family from a 2010 National Geographic article.

Also, this amazing Ming Dynasty wet mummy found recently in China. This appears to be an accidental mummy.

If you’re in the Portland area there are a few weeks left to see the Mummies of the World exhibit at OMSI. Well worth the visit!

Where Things Fall Apart

by Pamela Jean Herber

Come along with me. Not to the safe place you’ve found. Not to the Laws of Physics. Not to the benevolent God who ensures every event in your life supports his divine plan. Not to the spiritual program that promises to work if you work it. Not to the place that is your own personal theory of everything.

Step away with me to the shadowy places the safe houses block from the light. Places where the x-axis and y-axis are independent from each other at the same time everything is connected. Or the place where neither is true. Allow me to introduce you to a world of contradictions. A place where the truths we depended on yesterday have fallen by the wayside, replaced by new truths, or simply chaos.

Join me in the realm of story.

There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m only taking you places that are imaginary. Places that do not exist. Places you can enter into and exit from at your personal discretion.

First, imagine you are a storyteller. What if one day you discover all the stories you’ve ever told and all the stories you will tell in the future are manifested in the physical world? How will that knowledge change how you feel about yourself as a person? Who have you harmed? Who have you helped? Would you search those people out? Would your storytelling come to an abrupt halt? Would you be afraid to utter another word because of the potential damage you might incur? Or would you go the other way? Would you attempt to undo the damage you’d inflicted? Would you refrain from the ripping of limbs in fight scenes? Would you never write another murder? Or even a peaceful death?

Here’s another scenario: What if a young boy is one of the few humans of the next evolution of man? What if he has evolved beyond the understanding of his family and the entrenched culture of his community? What if he is seen as an aberration as opposed to a hope for the human species? Will he and those like him be aggressively reprogrammed to fit in? Will humans vanish from the universe as a result? Will his innate drive to survive overcome his conditioning? Will he be forced to rebel against the people he loves in order to save them?

On second thought, you should be afraid. These places I’m asking you to go challenge the very solidity of those safe structures we hold onto so dearly. In the first example above, I challenge the idea that what has worked in the past will work in the future. In the second, I challenge that generational departures from accepted behavior are aberrations.

Be very afraid. You may become less trusting of the foundations you are standing on. On the other hand, your faith in them may be reinforced. You may become more confident in when to rely on them and when to search out more information. My hope is that by exploring the places where things fall apart with you we both will expand our safe places and shrink the shadows and remember that context is everything.