NEWCOMERS! Welcome to Maple Musings,
my monthly letter. Some of us have been visiting here together for several years now. Maple Musings is a family of Kindred Spirits, so to speak, and a place and time to ponder where and how we humans fit into the scheme of things. More than ever, our cultures are taking us farther and farther from our natural roots. More than ever, the answer to so many of our deepest problems and sorrows lies in finding our way back to them. Let’s get started….
One of several reasons I left the Rockies last August was to find a place where animal and nature stories could find me in my backyard. In the mountains, I lived in a beautiful little log cabin on over an acre of open ground, however the ground was right in the middle of an old subdivision. As the division had filled with little houses and cabins, the animals had moved on. Mostly, my visitors were birds. Other creatures moved through cautiously at night, leaving few telltale signs of their passing other than a rare foot print, or maybe a poop pile.
I was hungering for more stories—not grand ones, mind you. Just perhaps some squirrel and ‘possum stories, and maybe a frog story, or one I could tell about a turtle. Carter and I chose well with this Indiana house: squirrels, deer, foxes, raccoons, frogs, snakes, exotic bugs, dazzling birds all find their way right past—or onto—our back deck.
Tuesday night, I watched excitedly as a small opossum scaled the hard maple tree right outside our living room window, clambered onto a platform birdfeeder, and gobbled up mouthfuls of cold chicken fat I’d left there for the woodpeckers. After his meal, Carter and I saw him tidy up his face and tail with his small, naked hands as our TV blared away and the dogs gazed, mesmerized from their beds by the window.
Now, I don’t know about you, but THAT, to me, is a STORY! I am easily dazzled by nature. It doesn’t take a bald eagle or a unicorn to get me all happy and warm inside. Simple visitors will do. Carter named the ‘possum “Nine-thirty,” because that’s about the time he has been returning each night.
Since moving, I am indeed gathering stories to share. Some about frogs, others about geodes, lots about our new puppy, MazelTov, and soon—soon!—some pretty grand stories about skunks. Talking over coffee in bed the other morning, Carter and I started delving into the nature and power of stories. Somehow, that was where we landed in the midst of a morning wake-up a dialogue about how religion and science ask the same questions (those being, “Who are we?” and “What are we doing here?”) but arrive at very different conclusions because of what I will call their “anchoring stories.”
The phrase “anchoring stories” didn’t show up in our conversation until we’d gotten about a half-hour into our ruminations, at least. And the word “anchoring” surfaced only because of another conversation—and another Maple Musing—in which I had pondered what was needed for one to endure, and mature, in the face of great changes. Anchors were needed, I had observed. My dog, Hannah, had shown me that (that’s another story, about two Musings back…). She showed me that we big hairy apes need anchors we can affix our minds and hearts to when the storm winds and riptides of change knock us breathless.
Anchoring stories, then, are stories that serve as our foundational underpinnings when our world starts to really rock. They are the stories of what we say to ourselves about ourselves. They are the stories about the world, about what we believe is absolute truth as we know it. Without those stories that are nestled into the crevices of our very bedrock, we sense we would dissolve away in a terrifying instant.
Of course, we would not, but the feeling of impending annihilation is more than most people are brave enough to sit with. And so we craft certain stories that are “heavier” than the stories we can tell about being wife, husband, child, auto-worker, yoga-teacher, cancer-survivor because we know in our minds that these stories are subject to change in any catastrophic moment. Those heavier stories—the ones we believe could never be changed—those are our anchoring stories.
Anchoring stories have an important function. They seem to allow us to keep our molecules together. At least the molecules of our brains. It is hard to live an entire life holding on to absolutely nothing. You have to be holy or crazy to live that way. Anchoring yourself to an idea or a personality has real benefits. And it has real costs. What I think I am saying here is that to survive in our human, physical bodies, we need a well-developed ego to hold us together psychologically in this confounding world, and we create our ego—in part—by the stories we tell ourselves and the anchoring stories we absolutely root ourselves in. Stories help to keep our existential fear bearable.
However, our anchoring stories also moor us. We are no longer free to slip into other ports. If our anchor is REALLY set tight, we can’t even drift to the left or right very much without hearing a very terrible creaking and groaning from inside us. If the sea beneath us suddenly surges up fast, we could sink beneath the swells and drown.
Going back to the priest and the scientist and taking our nice metaphor with us, let’s see how this might work. Suppose the scientist is presented with incontrovertible evidence that atoms do not exist. What if the priest is presented with the same about God and mystery? To the extent that they are anchored in their stories (“God exists.”
Atoms exist.”) and to the extent they have built a life on those stories, that is the degree to which they will suffer, implode, go mad…or grow.
I’m going to postulate here that keeping some flexibility in your anchor rope may be a healthy thing to do, most of the time.
So, you say, what does this have to do with ‘possums on your maple tree, and when can we go back to THOSE kinds of stories? Well, that ‘possum has me pondering about the stories I tell myself about myself and the world. Here is what I believe about that ‘possum: I believe that when I sent a request out to the universe to bring ‘possums and ‘coons to my deck four months ago, that ‘possum heard it. I think he’s been waiting, sort of getting his courage up to brave the lights, the TV, and our adoring eyes. I believe that opossums have a rugged, prehistoric dignity, and that they have secrets to share. I believe they are mysterious.
My “heavier” stories, my anchoring stories that would have some bearing on my ‘possum encounter would be these: I believe there is a mind in the universe, and—contrary to what I see around me sometimes—the universe is loving at its heart. I believe that we are sacred beings in a sacred place, surrounded by millions of other sacred beings, including ‘possums and snails. I believe in the notion of the sacred, although it is a word I can still not adequately define. I believe that evolution was not random. I believe that there is more to me and to everything than I can ever know. And I believe mystery is a living force.
I have some other anchoring stories that I am exploring these days. One of them is that I am a bad person. I don’t know the origin of this story, but it is rooted to my bedrock, and it is a story that affects everything I say and do in some way. I know other people have other anchor stories that hurt them. At their core, they may believe they are unworthy, unlovable, stupid, evil.
Years ago, a wonderful white-bearded, Don Quixote-looking fellow at a book signing of mine said, “By their stories, ye shall know them.” I thought then, yes…yes. Of course. I can think of no better way to know yourself and grow yourself than by looking at your stories—the light ones, the medium ones, and the heavy ones (which can be darn hard to excavate).
Because in the end, Carter and I came to agree on this about stories: Stories are what make us human, and when you uncover a story of your own, ask yourself, “Am I a better, more whole human being for this story I tell myself and the world?” And if your answer is “no,” tell yourself a new story you can believe in.
And tell it here.
Aho, Mitaku Oyasin,