Books Light Up My World

I was thrilled to be invited by Port Macquarie Children’s and Youth Services Librarian, Virginia Cox, to co-host a celebration of Children’s Book Week 2015: Books Light Up Our World. It was a ‘family’ event with participants aged 4 to 90 sharing how books had illuminated their lives. The usual suspects were there including the girl with her head stuck in a book, the girl who was inspired to be a librarian, and then worked for the next sixty years as one, the young man who read a book that sent him off round the world. Precious books were shared: those cherished since childhood, others passed down from one generation to the next. Pippi Longstocking announced her arrival – we need more strong girls! No one was going to argue with that assertion. My contributions to the evening were a folktale and a retelling of one of my father’s stories. I have written his story here in relation to one of my favourite books.

Elyne Mitchell was the author of The Siver Brumby series which she began writing in 1958. She lived about sixty kilometres from us on Towong Hill, near the Murray River. I loved her stories about the Thowra the Silver Brumby, not only because I loved horses but because the stories were set in the country I lived in, the Snowy Mountains. They shone a light on my life.

We had brumbies on our farm because my father and his mates were stockmen, and they spent a lot of time in the high country droving cattle and chasing brumbies. Each year they would bring a mob of wild horses down from the mountains to be buckjumpers for the Tumbarumba rodeo. This story harks back to a time he was camped in one of the huts in the Snowy Mountains in the 1950’s droving cattle.

The Fire

It was his turn to cook up a feed and stoke the fire. Jimmy’d been grateful for the chance to stay inside all day, out of the cold. Even if he was lonely. It started sleeting a few few hours back, and any minute they’d all come trooping through the door cursing the weather and crowding round the fireplace.

It was his second year with Bluey, Jacky, Tom and Old Bill. They’d brought the mob up to the high country at the end of September and been camped in the hut near on a fortnight. He nearly didn’t come, but thought this time it would be different. It wasn’t. The same thing happened every night since they got here and he was fed up. But not tonight.

He put the camp oven on the hearth while he set about building up the fire. Half an hour later he sat in the chair and stared at the flames leaping from the logs. The door opened and the drovers entered.

‘Strewth Jimmy, you’ve got a rip roarer of a fire going,’ said Bluey.

The men took off their coats and hats and drew close to the fireplace. Jimmy put the plates on the table and ladled out the stew on each one.

‘If I wasn’t already married, I think I’d marry you, Jimmy,’ joked Jacky.

All the men laughed then concentrated on clearing their plates, while Jimmy boiled the billy to make the tea.

‘I tell you what,’ said Old Bill,’I got a full belly, and I aint never been so warm. Now I reckon I’ll have a bit of a read and I’ll be a happy man.’

‘I reckon I’ll join ya,’ said Tom, and went over to the camp bed in the corner.

He pulled back the rugs and turned to Jimmy.

‘You seen me book Jim?’ he asked.

‘I can’t find mine either,’ said Old Bill, as he dug around the sugar bag he carried his private things in.

The other two men went to look for their books and turned to the others.

‘Gone,’ they both said in unison.

All four men looked at Jimmy.

‘What have you done with our books Jimmy?’ asked Old Bill.

‘I burned them,’ said Jimmy.

The men stared at the fireplace as the realisation of what had fuelled the fire sunk in.

‘What the blazes did you do that for Jimmy?’ asked Old Bill, shaking his head.

‘I can’t read, so now none of youse can neither,’ Jimmy replied. Youse bastards are gonna have to talk to me instead.’

In 1953, the American author, Ray Bradbury, wrote Farenheit 451 a novel about book burning. Fahrenheit 451 was named to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. It’s a story about a future American society where books are banned and firefighters burn any that are found. At the time it was written the author was concerned about censorship and the suppression of books and the works of particular writers in the United States.

Public book burning has occurred throughout history at many times and in many countries. The reasons encompass vandalism, anti-intellectualism, censorship and bigotry. When undertaken by totalitarian regimes or militias, book burning, often on a large scale, can only be seen as an act of terror, often accompanied by other targeted and systematic violence against particular groups of people.

The motivation of an illiterate individual to burn a book, such as that in my father’s story, is in stark contrast to the ideology of punishment promulgated by political and military enforcers. While books may be seen as ‘the enemy’ in both accounts, the actions of the young man in The Fire are those of a lonely human being whose inability to read creates dependency and despair. The book burning is a desperate act driven by feelings of powerlessness.

I feel sadness for the 776 million people, two thirds of whom are women and girls who are unable to read, because I know the joy books have brought to my life and I want everyone to experience the wonders of the written word. I also feel angry because literacy is a Human Right that they are denied.

Books can illuminate truth, they can shed light on ideas, be a beacon in the darkness and a guiding light for all humanity. For these very reasons, books can also be viewed as powerful and dangerous. Those people who want to keep others in the dark are threatened by universal literacy, free public libraries and the widespread publication and promotion of literature.
Books have always been my friends, chiefly because they are a repository for stories that speak to me. But many stories cannot be held in the confines of a book cover. Since the invention of writing, folktales, told and retold have jumped on and off the page and many have never set foot in a book. Wild stories leaping from tongue to ear, nestling in the hearts and memories of the listeners, painting images on their mind’s canvas. For this reason I am a teller of tales before I employ the craft of writing them. So let me finish with a traditional tale to light up your life.

Filling the Barn
A father once set a competition for his three children. Each child was given a sum of money to buy whatever they could to fill the barn. Whoever filled the barn to the fullest would be the winner. On the appointed evening all the people from the village were invited to witness the results of the competition. As the sun sunk slowly below the horizon, the first child brought in tapestries and carpets and succeeded in covering the barn’s floor and walls. The second child brought in tables and chairs and couches and scattered them over the floor. But where was the third child?

The father invited the villagers into the barn and they settled themselves on cushions and chairs and couches and waited for the third child’s entrance. As darkness descended there were murmurs of discontent among the people. They wanted to see the artistry of the tapestries, the patterns on the carpet, the grain of the wood in the chairs and realised that if the third child didn’t come soon they would all trip over each other on their way out. It was so dark. Finally the door opened and the third child entered the barn carrying two burning torches, and singing a song. The light of the torches illuminated the tapestries and reflected the smiles on the faces of the villagers. They listened with rapture to the song praising the beauty of human invention and endeavour. When she had finished her song, the father clapped his hands together and turned to this children and smiled. First child, you have filled the barn with works of beauty for us to enjoy, second child, you have brought the means for us to comfortably enjoy our lives and third child, you have filled the barn with light, and light is knowledge, and you have filled the barn with song and song is joy. Together, knowledge and joy make wisdom. And when the children’s mother brought in great pots of spicy stew and bread for everyone to eat, not only was the barn full, but so were the hearts and bellies of everyone there.

Photograph by Roman W. Schatz



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The Burden

The recent near death experiences of my two friends has counseled me to live in the Present. After all where else is there to live? In dreams? In memories? And yet for many people, anywhere else but the Present is preferable. I understand escape. Water is a conduit for my daydreams and I allow myself to enjoy them when immersed in a bath, shower, or even when washing up. Pulling out the plug ensures my immediate return to the Present. After nearly being run over by a bus, I make sure I daydream in a safe space. My burden is the Past. In the guise of Memory it stalks me like Poverty in the Eastern European folktale, plaguing me until I am desperate to be rid of its presence. In the folktale Poverty is eventually outwitted and leaves his host to afflict another poor soul, while the previously cursed man can now live the rest of his life free of want.  But I find that my battle to repel the incursions of Memory into my Present, is like that of Heracles and the Hydra; when he severs one head two more take its place. But like the man beset by Poverty, Heracles too manages to defeat the Hydra. So what weapons does an ‘anxious worrier’ choose to prevent being under siege from Memory? Rationality, Compassion and a Story. But I have no illusions about this battle. On occasions Sisyphus comes to mind, but I prefer to think of the following Zen story to assist me in letting go of the Past and living in the Present.

 

Carrying a Burden

 

There were once two monks, who upon reaching a river met a young woman who wanted to cross. However she was fearful that the current was too strong and would wash her away. The older monk then asked her to climb upon his back and he helped her across the river. When they reached the other side, the woman climbed off the back of the monk, thanked him and continued her journey. For some time after that, no conversation passed between the two monks, until finally the younger monk stopped the older one and spoke angrily to him.
‘You know it is against our spiritual order to have physical contact with women, but you picked up that woman and carried her across the river!’
‘Yes I did,’ said the older monk, ‘but I set her down on the river bank, whereas you are still carrying her.’

 

Photo by Roman W. Schatz
River

The Storytellers Wish

I recently told stories to a group of Middle School students at a Bilingual School in Switzerland. At the end of the concert one of the students asked why I told the particular stories I did.
It was an insightful question because the stories we choose to tell, reflect our purpose as storytellers.  
I have a wide repertoire of tales which allows me many choices, but even then I cannot guarantee that every story I tell will satisfy every listener.
I refer to Aesop’s tale of The Man, the Boy and the Donkey and the accompanying moral; you can please some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time.
However, I maintain that I only tell ‘good stories’  drawing on folktales as the bulk of my repertoire. I was able to answer my listener specifically: I told the story of the importance of knowing two languages to celebrate bilingualism, The Nix of the Zügersee is a Swiss legend and therefore important for you to know of as this is the country you live in, The Lion on the Path demonstrates an African tradition of storytelling with an mbira; Poule and Roach is a cautionary love story, Two Goats on the Bridge is a tale that shows how to share a tale across cultures, in this case using three languages; I wanted to finish with an Australian song; Inanay  by Yorta Yorta performer, Lou Bennett, which is based on her mother’s lullaby sung to her as a child. Three of the stories could be called ‘love stories’, each with similarities but different outcomes. Though I didn’t consciously choose these three tales to draw comparisons, I have learnt that listeners can create their own meaning from the juxtapositioning of different stories.
As I usually have an hour or less to enlighten, entertain and educate my listeners, I often feel like Elijah when he was visited by the angel. Let me tell you what happened. 
Elijah was blind. Elijah was impoverished. Elijah was childless. One day an angel appeared before him and said that he could have one wish. 
The following night the angel returned to ask Elijah what he wished for? His wish, quite simply was this:
I wish to see all my children eating from golden plates.
I am not nearly so wise as Elijah, or concise, but my wish as a storyteller is to fulfil a number of listener expectations with my story selection and presentation. My storytelling experience allows me a certain knowledge of how different tales are received by different audiences, but I am always ready to be surprised. Each listener takes what they need at the time of the telling. If my stories have touched my listeners, then my wish has been fulfilled.
Water Enso Photograph by Roman W. Schatz
Water-enso1

The Strawberry Present

After spending a day in the company of my friend, who is still recovering from being knocked off her bicycle by a car, I was reminded of this story. Like so many traditional tales it offers an understanding of our lives and how best to live them.  For my friend the past had been traumatic, nearly tragic, and the future is still uncertain.  Each passing day offers both healing and pain. And yet we shared our short time together in contentment, enjoying the simple pleasure of each other’s company and eating the good food prepared by her hand.  For a person who had been literally knocked completely off balance, she had resurfaced with a new balanced perspective on what was really important in her life. She would enjoy the present. 

 

The Strawberry
There was once a man who was set upon by a tiger. He ran as fast as he could until he came to a cliff. Below was a sheer drop to jagged rocks and another tiger stood at the bottom of the precipice. The man edged his way over the edge and clung onto a vine. Above him the tiger growled and gnashed its teeth, below him the rocks beckoned. 

Two mice, one black and one white, began to gnaw at the vine. From the corner of his eye he saw a ripe, red strawberry, growing on the face of the cliff. It was just within his reach. Holding on to the vine with one hand, he reached out, plucked it and popped it into his mouth. It was the sweetest strawberry he had ever tasted. 

A Zen Buddhist parable attributed to the Buddha

 

For most of us the tigers in our lives are easy to identify. What is difficult is to let go of the vine we cling to, reach out and experience the delights of the strawberry present. 

 

Into the light Photograph by Roman W. Schatz

 

 

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The Appointment in Samarra

It has been four weeks since my friend was knocked off her bike by a car. Although she is able to walk around, her broken ribs still give her pain and she is short of breath and easily exhausted. She told me of her thoughts before the accident. After enjoying two wonderful days in the company of her young grandson, a vision of a white car running into her came to mind. She quickly dismissed this thought as a negative one; the sort that sometimes comes unbidden when you reflect on a happy experience. Less than five minutes later she was flying across the bonnet of a white car whose driver had not given way to her. Conscious that she had just envisioned this event, she asked herself why she hadn’t imagined winning the lottery instead.
We discussed the possibility of whether we were all capable of prophetic visions.  How do we discern between prophecy, morbidity and daydreams? Assuming it is possible to divine the future, how do we know when our ‘visions’  will take place and whether it is possible to allay them. While we were not certain of our psychic abilities we agreed on the power of a near death experience to sort out what was really important in our lives and clarify our purpose. And I am thankful that she was spared an appointment in Samarra. A source of this very old Middle Eastern story can be found in  Tales of the Dervishes by Idries Shah.

The Appointment in Samarra

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy food. A short time later the servant returned without provisions and badly shaken. When the merchant asked what caused the man to be in such a troubled state, he replied that he had seen Death in the marketplace and he was pointing straight at him. So he had fled as quickly as possible and begged his master to lend him his horse so he could ride away to the city of Samarra and thereby avoid meeting Death. The merchant agreed to the servant’s request and the frightened man galloped off in the direction of Samarra. Later that morning the merchant went to the marketplace and he too saw Death. He marched up to him and demanded to know what Death had done to frighten his servant. Death shook his head and said that he was pointing at him in surprise because here he was in Baghdad when he had an appointment to meet him that night in Samarra.

Photo by Roman W. Schatz