Wintertime for me has always been a time of introspection and recounting. I grew up in Alaska, in a culture dominated by the traditions, myths and stories of the tribes native to that titanic place. Stories were the textbook and sustenance of many long winters for me. Oral traditions from all over the world are rooted in histories so long that they cannot be mapped. While the tribe of my Mother’s people the Cherokee, have had a written language since the 1800’s, most tribes don’t preserve knowledge with written accounts. History, morality, ethics, policy are all taught at least to some degree through the spoken word, through stories. So when the days get short and the weather turns bad it is time to stay indoors; to gather around the fire; to tell stories.
We tell all kinds of stories in our family and the cultures I was raised in. Some are just “the one that got away” stories and some are the “I tease you with your own stories out of my deep love for you” and the “remember when” kind of stories. But most important were the “real true” stories. The stories that had been around forever, the myths, the fables and metaphors, the boogey man stories. The ones where you had to figure out what the story was “really” about. Why the storyteller picked that story to tell you and what you were expected to get from it. What were the lessons to be learned not just the outcome but from all the characters. And then you had to figure out why, when the kid sitting next to you seemed to have heard an entirely different story with a completely different moral, you were told at the end that you were both right. Such is the reason that when winter has set in around me I tend to contemplate the more serious matters in life through recalling the stories from my life.
Many cultures, like the Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, use the art and subtlety of words to illustrate lessons, impart values, and provide safety information to their people as a whole and not just children. The art of storytelling as a teaching tool is as powerful as it is ancient. I remember growing up in Alaska listening to the old stories from elders from the Haida, T’lingit, T’Simsian, and Chilkat tribes. Sometimes the stories were told in dark smoky Council houses accentuated with ceremony, masked dancers, hand drums and just a touch of fear. More often than not though it was sitting on the rocking deck of a boat listening to my elders and trying to learn patience, or sportsmanship, or respect while I waited for a fish to take my bait. I remember those stories and those lessons. Many continue to make up the foundation for the values that guide my daily life. I learned from the scary tales of the Kushtakas to stay away from the cold waters that surrounded our island and respect that it can trick you into your own drowning. I remember how the boy who fed the eagles was saved from starvation. All stories for another time, suffice it to say those stories were a powerful teaching tool.
This particular story today was triggered by a recent encounter I had with social media. I am no longer a young woman and frankly middle age is probably farther behind me than I would like to admit. So I am often left far behind in the modern world of all things technological, but I try. There are many ways that the Internet and social media outlets like Facebook are changing the landscape of communities and even personal relationships, not all of them good. We hear everyday about the abuses and scary turns that our online hours reveal to us. For better or worse the age of technology is here and with it there comes the exposure to an overwhelming level of information and data all vying with each other for credibility with the user. It is hard to ferret through it all to find those items of value and relevance that are not trying to sell you the best app ever! So I am more often than not frustrated with it all. And then once in a while something will happen that makes me realize that this whole internet thing really can be a valuable resource or at least it has its moments.
I have such a growing respect for the digital world and how it is interfacing with cultures, creating new norms, and partnering with oral traditions. What I love right now is how very traditional teachings that have been oral in base for generations are now being shared as inspirational writings over social media. My current reflection comes as a result of being on Facebook and finding on my news feed the following story (told in my words as all real true stories are).
A son comes to his father to seek his guidance on an important matter. He says, “Father I have had a very bad argument with my friend and now I must choose between two paths and I don’t know which the right way is. I keep going back and forth and back and forth and I don’t know what to do. I think I am the one who is right in this argument but my friend thinks he is. I think I need to stand my ground and not let him win this argument because he always wins but this I will not be able to be his friend if I do not back down. I am so angry with him for starting the fight. But please tell me what I should do and I will listen.”
The father looks at his son and says, “Son there are two wolves who live inside your heart and they are at war with each other. One wolf is full of anger and meanness of spirit and self-righteousness. The other wolf is full of compassion and wisdom and understanding of what is right. They will fight with each other everyday of your life.”
“But father,” the son asked, “which one wins?”
And his father replied, “the one that you feed my son.”
A simple story where the son must decide which is the bad wolf and which is the good wolf inside of his decision. This is a story that I have known for many years but for some reason seeing the comments and reactions to the posting on Face Book I saw it in a different light. I realized once again that no matter how old a story is or how many times you have heard it, or even how it is told, the reason that stories stick around for centuries is the simple fact that the truths that are held within them are as true today as they have ever been. We must everyday with every decision choose which wolf we will feed.
For a long time now my fear has been that the mean wolf was winning the battle. Not just my own private wolf but also the one inside of people in general, in communities, in this country, in the world. Mean spirited politics, mean spirited religions, and mean spirited people dominate the news everyday. For me it has been a challenge to remember which wolf it is that I want to feed. To continue to choose the benefit of the doubt, forgiveness, to not believe everything I think and to acknowledge that I am often wrong is difficult on my best days. Given my rather stubborn nature, in the face of such mean-spiritedness it is a test that I am poised to fail everyday and the dark wolf cries out in joy when I do. When we do.
And then I see a post from a friend that says, “the person ahead of me in line just paid for my coffee,” and ends with, “so I bought the guy in back of me coffee.” The posts that say, “I’m going to pay it forward. The first five people to respond will get a gift from me sometime in the next year.” There are the pictures and videos from the last snowstorm in the Pacific Northwest where groups of people were roaming the streets, not looting or stealing but pushing car after car up a hill so they wouldn’t get stuck. In my own little community neighbors showed up to plow the side streets with their private equipment because our city can’t afford the cost and yet the City staff still showed up on a Saturday to use the town’s little tractor to do what they could so that people could get out to stock up in between storms.
My granddaughter came home recently displaying the sheet asking for donations to a pool-a-thon that is a major fundraiser for the local pool. This is the same pool that has been the place where generations of us have learned to swim. It is an invaluable resource in a community that sits between river, bay, and ocean. She smiles broadly and points to our name on the list and tells me she completed 28 laps and I needed to pay up. She is in Kindergarten and will go to a party today with the other kids and parents from our community to celebrate the success of the event. There will be awards and food and of course there will be stories. One of the stories will be about how that pool has been funded and maintained by this community continuously for decades. There will be a story about how because swimming is required in our local elementary school by the end of second grade 100% of our kids know how to swim. And finally there will be the story about how few of our kids drown, all because people have been compassionate and giving again and again.
It is not just in our community. I see it happening all over our country. From the “pay it forward” movement to the increasing cry for equal and human rights it seems to be growing. When coupled with the broadening awareness of ecological and environmental issues the scales seem to be swinging. Compassion and respect for diversity are taking on new forms of policy and law. I am heartened and the good wolf sings her song to moon as we move forward step by step and feed her heart! So today I commit once again to the part of myself that will fight the good fight and feed the wolf of light. Not the end only another beginning.