The other night I had an unusual experience, a first of its kind for me. I went to a shamanic drum circle winter solstice blessing ritual. (I had my first drum lesson the night before.) My partner, Scott, a drummer, and I went with open minds, to get our freak on, to join a happening. And a happening it was! It was communal performance, spiritual, and a lot of kooky fun. The urban shaman, Jaime Meyer, is an interesting man and a “facilitator of wahoo.” He has an MA in theology and he studied with a Siberian shaman of the Sámi tribe of reindeer people in northern Norway. Drumming is a major part of his spiritual work. And, from what he said, his personal representation of Divinity, the version he communes with, is the Reindeer Goddess, which is a Nordic version of the Divine Mother. (I am speaking from my memory of what he said, and we all know what an unreliable witness the human memory is, so if you’re curious about Jaime Meyer, I encourage you to grab your drum—he’s local.)
He began the evening talking a little about language and divinity. He said that Meister Eckhart, a fourteenth century Christian mystic who was, of course, excommunicated by the Catholic Church, wrote that all languages took a vow to get it wrong when one talks about God. Therefore, almost everything anyone can say about God is wrong. As Jaime Meyer put it, no matter how tall the evangelist’s hair, he’s still wrong. This is interesting because no matter the language, the culture, or the religion, talk about God is almost entirely wrong. This is, he said, a way to acknowledge the vastness of the mystery of divinity. Jaime Meyer also asked, how could we get it right when we are just these sacks of flesh with these little tongues that flap around shaping sound into words?
This is where I had my a-ha moment.
Let’s move from questions of God and Divinity to questions of any and all mysteries: the mystery of human existence, of beauty, of evil and cruelty, of aging, of love, of death, of the seasons, of science, of serendipity, of war, of where lost socks go. How can we, sacks of flesh with wagging tongues, understand anything?
Humans approach mystery through story telling. It is the right way to approach the unapproachable, the inimitable, the ineffable. It is not just myths and legends that do this, it is every story that begins with a “what if?” Some of my “what ifs”:
What if a woman kept her heart in a jar?
What if a small religious sect built a parade float?
What if a sunny day at the beach went wrong?
What if we trust a person we shouldn’t?
What if we try to do the right thing?
Every “what if” is a mystery to solve, and each story is an exploration of some facet, however small, of the human condition. Of course a woman cannot keep her own heart in a jar and live, but behind that preposterous notion lays the real mystery, call it subtext, of grief and loneliness. Story telling does not provide answers to the mysteries posed. But story telling does make meaning. Which is why stories are about bad things—bad things happening to interesting people. Toni Morrison* has said:
[Stories make] Meaning out in the world. It is not possible for me to be unaware of the incredible violence, the willful ignorance, the hunger for other people’s pain….So what makes me feel as though I belong here, out in this world…[is] what goes on in my mind when I am writing….Struggling through the work is extremely important.
I think all stories are struggling through the work of being human.
Let’s return to God for a moment. If you assume Genesis is a literal representation of history, then it is fair to wonder why on earth Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden. (If all fathers adhered to this model of parenting, everyone would be disowned before turning sixteen.) But if you consider when the Bible was written relative to human evolution, if you consider it as a story meant to explore the human condition, then you know that Adam and Eve had to be expelled from the garden because life is hard and bad things happen all the time to people who are both deserving and undeserving. Every writer who has sat down to address a “what if” knows that evil must find its way into the garden and that evil is generally not all bad. Evil is confounding and untimely and mischievous and most of all, evil leads to change in the main characters, change which is often painful and difficult, but is real evolution.
I will give you another example, something I have dealt with recently in my fiction. Why do pedophiles exist? No matter how I try to answer this question, with psychology or biology or anthropology or religion or…I cannot find satisfaction. This aberrant behavior is a mystery. Perhaps I will never have a direct answer to that question, but I can pose a “what if.” I can write to that “what if.” I can create art around the inexpressible. In this way, I deal not in answers, but in truths.
Now, suppose I want to explain the changing of the seasons. Does the Reindeer Goddess go into the underworld and bring the sun back after the long, dark, winter months?
What if she does?
It would certainly explain a few things.
* In Women Writers at Work, 349-50.
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