Sunday, March 1, 2015

How I discovered myself on the shelves of an elementary school library

For Christmas my husband gave me a beautiful gift: a copy of an old book that I had treasured in elementary school. At that age I devoured any reading material that was horse related - Marguerite Henry's books were at the top of my reading list - and this particular story, about a girl who learns to ride from a talking pony, was one that had haunted me for many years. I'd often, even as an adult, find myself thinking back to this particular book, and although I couldn't remember all the narrative details, I did distinctly remember the feelings it evoked. Even now, I can picture my little eight-year-old self picking it up from the metal display rack at our school library, carefully handling its battered cover.

So you can imagine my delight when I opened up this very special gift on Christmas morning. I read it in one sitting, before bed one night (it IS a children's book after all!). It brought back many wonderful memories and feelings, although of course it was a much simpler story than I had remembered.

In recent weeks, I've found myself reflecting quite a lot on that elementary school library where I first fell in love with this book. I attended the same school from Kindergarten to Grade Seven, and that library was really the central point of my school existence, although I didn't realize it then. Our school had been built in 1951, and even in the 1980s many of the books we had were old copies of old stories. Our school had also (so the story went, anyway) at one time, been a high school, which left us with two enviable things: a gymnasium with a really high, open roof, and a collection of books in our library that was varied and interesting enough to catch the attention of students, like myself, who were advanced readers.

In fact, in my recent reflections, I've come to realize just how much that library shaped who I am today, at 36 years old. It was the place I learned the Dewey Decimal system and how to search the shelves for books. It was where I collaborated with friends to write and perform an Easter play for the younger grades. It was where I worked on my speeches about endangered species and puppy mills. I can even remember what it was like to sit at one of its tables under the flourescent lighting, listening to the rain hit the windows on a dark and dreary afternoon.

Of course, most importantly, this library held some of my most important and impactful reading experiences. It was where I fell in love with Misty of Chincoteague and Cinnabar, the One O'Clock Fox. It was also where I tackled two of the longest and most adult books I'd read in my young life - Black Beauty and Little Women. But the book that undoubtedly had the biggest impact of my life was Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer.

You're probably wondering what on earth a book like Animal Liberation was doing in an elementary school library. I can only imagine that it was somehow left over from the high school days, passed over and forgotten. I can't imagine any elementary school library having this book on its shelves today. But it was a lifechanging moment for me when I found it, although of course I didn't know it at the time. I was a young animal lover, raised to treat animals with love and respect. And here I was, flipping through a book with horrific pictures of animals being tortured in the name of science. I can't even say with certainty that I read the entire book - but I can say that it changed the course of my life. It shattered my innocence and introduced me to a cause that has become, in many ways, the defining, central core of my life - my commitment to animal rights. It is so core to my being that I cannot imagine who I would be as a person without it.

And so, even though I can't remember their names and can only vaguely remember their faces, I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to those elementary school librarians who unknowingly helped shape the person I am today. And to the librarians who had come before, who helped build the collection to what it was when I was a student there so many years later. To all of them, wherever they are now, I can only offer the most heartfelt of appreciation. And with it, a wish that other children today be as fortunate as I was, with the opportunity to grow into themselves in a library stocked with a wealth of books and a caring librarian to be their guide.
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Monday, January 5, 2015

"True" tales and the art of storytelling

Lately I've been thinking a lot about stories, how they are told, and the people who tell them. And even more about the conscious and unconscious ways that storytellers shape those stories - even (or perhaps especially) the ones that are labelled as 'true'.

As consumers of stories, we seem to have a particular love of non-fiction tales that we indulge through many formats - true crime, documentaries, biographies and memoirs, and based-on-a-true-story films. And yet, it can be very easy to forget about the often invisible storyteller who is actually shaping the narrative of these stories. 

I started down this train of thought when a friend got me hooked on the podcast Serial. The podcast follows an old murder case that, while a true story being reported on by a veteran journalist, also fits a classic whodunit story. After just a couple of episodes, I found myself wondering almost more about how the story was being told than the story itself. Apparently I wasn't alone, as the same friend then got me hooked on Slate's Serial Spoilers podcast, which asks some of the same questions I was pondering (and a great many more I hadn't even thought of).

My main questions related to how Sarah Koenig was telling this story. How do her choices on what information to include, when to include it, and what emphasis to give it impact the listeners' opinions on the case? How was she shaping our reactions as she told the story? Clearly Koenig is a masterful storyteller and much thought and planning went into this question of HOW to tell the story. If you haven't checked out the podcast, I do highly recommend it - especially if you  keep one ear open with these questions in mind.

Not too long after I wrapped up Serial, I saw the movie Wild about Cheryl Strayed's solo journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. I will freely admit two things about this film: one, I have not read the book and two, I was prepared to really dislike this film. I was pleasantly surprised - I'd probably count it as the second-best film I saw last year (next to The Imitation Game).

On the way home from the theatre, my husband and I were discussing the similarities and differences between Wild and Into the Wild (which I've blogged about here), and it suddenly struck me that, like Serial, the point of view of these two 'true' stories was something too big to be missed. Wild is based on Strayed's memoir, her personal retelling of her experiences leading up to, during and after her epic hike. In contrast, Into the Wild is based on Jon Krakauer's biography of Christopher McCandless, a young man who gave up college and a comfortable life for life on the road and surrounded by nature. 

There are two very obvious differences in these two stories - the gender of the protagonists and the stunningly different endings. But what suddenly struck me was the point of view through which these two stories have been told, both in their books and on screen. While Strayed was able to tell her own story, herself choosing what events should have emphasis and meaning, McCandless' story was told by a journalist and is mainly based on how other people felt about the young man. In fact, in the book and film, there is always a subtle air of mystery about McCandless and as a viewer, it always remains clear that the story is not really being told from his point of view.  

Why does this point of view matter? Because stories are powerful things and we have a natural inclination to use them to learn and grow spiritually and emotionally. With the modern emphasis on rationalism, science and hard evidence, stories that we think of as 'true' can seem particularly compelling and powerful. Indeed, they can become almost comforting. We generally don't like to think about things that can't be explained - hence the common need to bring mythic stories down to the literal, historical level. But these 'true' stories are stories nonetheless, and if we aren't aware of this fact, our feelings and reactions can be easily manipulated.

In fact, the storyteller can be seen to as an invisible actor within the story itself, and this is something we should always consider when consuming a story that our rational minds might like to label objective or true.

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Superheroes: Time to return to the feminine

Before I met my husband, I wasn't really into comics. Sure, growing up I had books (with casette tapes!) outlining the origin stories of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman and I went to see the latest superhero film every summer. But I certainly didn't know my classic comics.

My husband and I came together at around the same time as the recent resurgence and interest in comic film adaptations - at the tail end of the Spider Man and X-Men series and just before Marvel unveiled their plan for world movie domination.

Now, my dear husband does not share my interest in myth, fantasy and science fiction. In fact, those are generally his least favourite movie themes! We always joked, early in our relationship, that his favourite films were gritty street dramas - which is why he seemed to love all those dark 1970s films. And yet, when the news came that Captain America and Avengers were finally coming to the big screen, I watched as my very grown-up husband transformed into a very excited little boy, with all the innocent anticipation of a child waiting for Christmas morning.

See, my husband grew up, as so many children do, addicted to comic books. In fact, he would probably argue that Thor (the Marvel hero) had taught him everything he knew about myth (before he met me!).

Comics are interesting because they very often juxtapose seemingly simple action stories with far more subtle and mythic themes. Strip Thor of his Norse trappings or Wonder Woman of her Amazonian origins and you still have all the makings of a mythic story. My husband, as a child and as a man, had no idea that he was reading myth through a pop culture lens when he was enjoying these comic stories.

The popularity of comic stories and films through the years clearly demonstrates a powerful storytelling formula. Comics grapple with the themes of good and evil, dark and light - often within the heroes themselves. The best stories balance exciting action with psychological insight and personal reflection, and tackle social themes that really are mythic in nature. The Dark Knight Rises does this brilliantly, exploring the idea of class and social stratification that so preoccupies our North American society today. From what I saw in the new trailer, the upcoming Captain America film might attempt this as well - using the 1940s hero with his 1940s values to raise questions about the military, war and America's place in the global community.

The one place where I find fault with these stories is that, at the end of the day, they still rely heavily on the physical act of fighting to solve problems. I think it is time for a paradigm shift, a change in the way we frame these stories to reflect a somewhat higher level of thinking. I can see the start of it - many of today's superheroes do struggle with ethical dilemmas and their violent nature and, I would argue, the best villains are the ones who really explore this dark side of humanity. But we need it to be pushed further. Our society needs to see that there are other ways to be heroic.

In her book Riding Into Your Mythic Life, Patricia Broersma discusses the mythic games she plays with her riding students. Together, they write, set up and act out mythic stories in the riding arena and with their horses as partners and guides. The entire theme of the activity is to work together with the horse (or sometimes with other students) to accomplish a final, mythic goal. Broersma particularly discourages using any stories that rely on physical force to reach this goal, instead teaching students the value of creative problem solving and cooperation. This exemplifies the new kind of hero we need to see reflected in pop culture.

It's often said that, as a culture, we need to return to the feminine - not the feminine as a gender, but instead the Jungian idea of "genderless characteristics related to emotions, intuition, creativity, receptiveness and nurturance" (Ensoulment Film). I think our heroes need a return to the feminine as well. 

This was clearly illustrated to me in the following Wonder Woman short film created by Rainfall Films. It's beautiful, visually stunning actually, and certainly made me excited at the prospect of finally seeing a truly great Wonder Woman film adaptation. But somehow I felt that it missed the mark. It seemed like the filmmakers tried to take a very traditional, formulaic and physical heroism and apply it to a character who could instead be an embodiment of the feminine that's missing from these stories. Once again, everything revolves around physical strength and force.

I know that film is a visual art form, one that relies on visual action to tell an exciting story. As do comic books. But I think there are still ways that we could bring the quieter, more intuitive nature of the feminine to life on screen. I always thought the Hercules and Xena television series did a fairly good job balancing physical action with an exploration of more emotional themes and struggles. 

What do you think - do superheroes need a return to the feminine?

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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Husband and wife, Orca and Wolf

While in Alaska, my husband and I decided we really liked the idea of each of us having a piece of First Nations jewelry representing an animal that we felt spiritually close to. It wasn't hard for either of us to decide which animals those were - for me, it was Wolf and for my husband, it was Orca. We looked and looked but couldn't seem to find anything we really liked. I was hoping for a silver bracelet and my husband had his heart set on a carved ring. On one of our last stops of the trip we happened upon what we both were looking for in the same store - even though no other store we looked at had either a Wolf bracelet or an Orca ring!

Just last week, my husband came to me with another idea - we've been considering renewing our wedding vows and getting new rings for the occasion, what if we got matching carved gold bands, each with our animal of choice? I was thrilled with this idea. It sums up all parts of me and the best things about my relationship with my husband: a commitment to nature and wildlife, respect for animals, and a connection to our own spirits and the mythic tradition of the traditional people of Vancouver Island, where we live.

We're lucky enough to have a First Nations art gallery just down the street from our house, so we popped in there to see what kinds of rings they had available. While chatting with the sales clerk, she asked if I knew of the connection between Wolf and Orca. I acknowledged that I knew orcas to be called sea-wolves, but didn't know of any particular story that linked them. She mentioned that there is actually a transitional creature called Wasgo that incorporates both Wolf and Orca, and that the spirits of the two animals are closely aligned in myth.

Hearing that, I was delighted - how perfect that my husband and I should choose two sides of possibly the same spirit animal for our anniversary rings! And of course, being a myth junkie, I had to research Wasgo to find out more about this creature.

As with most mythic tales, there seem to be a variety of stories about the Wasgo, a being that was said to be half wolf and half killer whale.  One story suggests that the Wasgo lived in a lake and could transform between the two forms, while other stories call Wasgo also a Sea-Bear and tell of a hero who killed Wasgo in order to gain his magical hunting powers. Although often represented as half orca and half wolf, he is also sometimes shown as a reptilian monster with a wolf-like head.

I also found another beautiful origin story that suggests it was two wolves who were turned into the first orcas - and that sometimes, if the moon is full, they will return to shore to sing with their brothers. In the morning, if you find wolf tracks heading into the ocean, the story says, you'll know this happened. I admit I like this story the best, especially when thinking of our beautiful coastal wolves who routinely hunt and play on the seashore.

It's not surprising that the two creatures are intertwined so closely, when you consider that the behaviour of both orcas and wolves are so similar, from their strong family bonds to the haunting sound of their songs. For my husband and I, it's fitting that we were both drawn to spirit animals that, although decidedly different individuals, seem to share a similar sense of soul.

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blackfish: Ego and projection at work

Blackfish is a new documentary that explores the story of Tilikum, the killer whale who allegedly killed a Sea World trainer in 2010. It may seem strange to discuss a film that questions whether killer whales should be kept in captivity on a myth-related blog. But as I watched the film I was struck by certain Jungian aspects that came out in various interviews.

The film features a number of former animal trainers who had worked with killer whales in the past. It was enlightening to hear them speak of how they came to do this kind of work and what attracted them to it. And why they stayed even when they found themselves with deep misgivings about the work they were doing.

All felt an incredible pull to work with killer whales in particular. As one says, anyone who is a trainer at Sea World has a desire to get to the top and work with the killer whales. That's what they all are there for. All had a genuine and deep love of animals and a strong desire to form a relationship with another creature - one that is not only wild, but also immensely powerful and dangerous.

As I watched these trainers speaking, I couldn't help but feel the ego at work. If the ego has a need to create situations where it can feel strong and important, how better to do this than to routinely flaunt a relationship with a potentially dangerous being by training it, kissing its face, and swimming with it underwater? Especially in front of a cheering crowd? How can a person not feel special when engaging in these things day after day? 

There is a common desire in our culture to reconnect with nature and one of the ways this is expressed is with our desire to connect with wild creatures. This is not a new thing - stories of these encounters abound (both fiction and nonfiction) and there are entire industries built upon this need (think swimming with dolphins). But in the end, where does this wish come from? I would suggest it comes from the ego's need for elevation. Deep down, we all want to have that fairy tale experience where we are chosen by a wild creature - a creature that has no need to enter our world but does so just for us.

The film also carried a key thread about projection and the projections the trainers placed on the whales they developed strong bonds with. Several admitted, with difficulty and emotion, that, in the end, everything they thought the whale was offering to that relationship may have actually been the trainer's own projections at work. It was quite stunning and sobering to see such a heartfelt admission on screen.

Let me make it clear that I do not believe that any of these trainers are "bad people". Instead, I think this story speaks to the power of the ego and of projection, and how both can shape the decisions we make in life. In fact, there can be terribly tragic consequences when we use them to rationalize our relationships with others and the effects of our decisions on the other beings (human and animal) who share our planet.

Watching this film was a big reminder to me of the care we must take to be self aware and questioning of our actions and feelings - even when we think we are acting out of love.

The final scenes of the film are of the trainers boarding a whale watching ship and experiencing wild killer whales living in their natural habitats. This time, the trainers were going to the whales with no expectations, no need for power and no projection. I couldn't help but think that it was a fitting and beautiful ending.

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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Asking an important question: Who am I?

Here we are at the end of August, with summer coming to a close and a new school year about to start. I don't know about you, but for me, September will always be my New Year's - a time for personal reflection, starting new projects and creating resolutions.

This feeling has been reinforced in recent years because, although I've been out of school for some time, the company I work for plans an annual 3-day get together for staff at the beginning of September. Since my co-workers telework from all across the country, it's a time for us to reconnect and get to know each other better. As part of that process, we are asked to give a little presentation about ourselves. Each year has a different topic, and this year's theme is "My alter ego". 

As I was mulling this over and thinking about what to present on, I found that I kept asking myself this one important question: Who am I? It's a question that we often don't explicitly ask ourselves. We take the answer for granted, but think about it honestly for a moment. How would you answer if asked this question?

Perhaps because of all the inspirational reading I've been doing lately, I immediately found myself with a desire to create something tangible that represented me. Some people might have drawn a picture, others made a collage, but I made this video.

It was an enlightening exercise for me, one that tapped into my own personal mythology and a little of my family's story. And I had underestimated the power of making strong, positive statements about myself and affirming the important aspects that make me, well, me. The stories we tell about ourselves are powerful things and they shape our reality.

We all hear our own calls to adventure and follow our own hero journeys, and often these change at different points in our lives. Checking in with ourselves frequently to make sure we are still on the right path and living an authentic life is incredibly important and not something to take for granted.

And so, I challenge you to answer this question: Who are you?

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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Finding Joe, Finding Ourselves

I've been wanting to see the documentary Finding Joe for a really long time. In fact, this movie has been on my radar for so long I've forgotten how I even first heard about it! Sadly, the film didn't make it to my small town home, so my hubby very dutifully picked up the DVD for me as a Christmas gift last year. I happily squealed after ripping the paper off, thrilled that I finally had a chance to see it. After the holiday rush had passed, our new DVDs were placed on the shelf under our TV, each awaiting their turn to be watched and filed in our larger collection (in addition to being a great gift giver, my husband is very organized), including my prized copy of Finding Joe.

And there it sat.

I'm not really sure why I put off watching it. Part of it was definitely to prolong the anticipation - I'd been waiting for this film for so long I just wanted to savour the whole experience. I was also afraid that it might be a disappointment. I had been so excited to watch Mythic Journeys a few years before and found it falling a little short of my expectations, although it is still a film well worth watching. Finally, there was also some unacknowledged sense that I needed to watch this film at the right time when I could fully absorb its message.

All this changed last night when my hubby took the bull by the horns and popped in the DVD as we were sitting down to our usual movie night. I was a little unsure at first - was I in the right frame of mind? Was I finally ready to give it a chance? Yes, came the whisper. Yes, it's time.

The film starts off with a beautiful story about a golden Buddha, who metaphorically represents each and every one of us. As the story is being told it is acted out by adorable young children, a technique that is used throughout the film to great effect. What first struck me in these opening scenes was the cinematography - something I wasn't expecting from a documentary. The images are lush and rich, full of warm and vibrant colours. The entire film is like this, even the interviews. Everything seems almost saturated with colour and it fits the mood of the film brilliantly.

Finding Joe starts off with a very short introduction to who Joseph Campbell was and why his work was important. From there it jumps right into the Hero's Journey, staying with this concept for the rest of the film. The director organizes the film nicely to fit within the Hero's Journey cycle and uses a relevant quote from Joseph Campbell to open each segment. It's a nicely balanced, well organized documentary with a logical flow.

The interview subjects make up a wide range of familiar and not-so-familiar faces, and each makes their own contribution to the viewer's understanding of the Hero's Journey. Some of the interviewees speak of their own harrowing journeys, others explore mythological, spiritual and philosophical concepts. The common visual thread that ties everything together is the children who are acting out the various stages of the Hero's Journey in a playful and artistic fashion.

I found that I was drawn to the images of the children almost more than the actual interviews. There was something compelling about seeing these kids, still with an air of innocence, playfully engaging with this deeply profound and mythic cycle. We all have that untarnished child inside us still just waiting for a chance to emerge and to shine. We all were that untarnished child once - before the world got to us.

The only drawback I would suggest is that, for me anyway, the film just didn't go far enough. The myth geek in me would love to see a more academic mythological film that really explores the ins and outs of Campbell's work. But that's a very minor complaint - especially considering Finding Joe is not meant for the academic world. It works because it connects our mythological stories (including many references to current movies and pop culture) to the lives we are living today in attempt to raise consciousness among the "metaphorically impaired".

Judging by the current state of the world, movies like Finding Joe are sorely needed. Whether you're looking for a solid introduction to Campbell's work or just wanting to be re-inspired about your life's purpose, Finding Joe won't disappoint. Just don't take as long as I did to see it!

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