The Storyteller, by Spanish artist Cris Ortega
The crowd wandered in, speaking in animated tones, looking with curiosity at the array of beverages laid out for them: juices, ayurvedic teas, smoothies, concoctions of herbs and berries — açai, ginger, currants, hemp. A young woman in a long multi-coloured gown was playing the piano.
The visitors had been told that this was a two-hour ‘reading’ of their businesses from which they would learn an enormous amount about their companies, the economy, the market, and even about themselves. The event was unadvertised — attendees signed up based solely on word of mouth from previous attendees, people they trusted — and attendance was capped at forty. There was no set fee for the event — attendees would pay what they thought it was worth, in accordance with the Gift Economy.
The room was large and round, filled with curves of wood and blocks of stone, with a huge skylight open to the trees, and later, the stars. Forty chairs were arranged in a single circle, and on the floor in the centre there were dozens of strange artifacts — antique photos, pressed flowers, old postcards, strange coins and ornaments. Three projectors displayed pictures from around the world simultaneously on the wall at 120-degree intervals, so that they were visible from anywhere in the circle.
As the guests settled, the woman who had been playing the piano came into the room playing a tongue drum. She finished playing, set the drum down, took a deep breath, and… told a story. It was about a rabbi, and as she told it she turned slowly around the circle and spoke personally to every person in the room. Then she paused, and said:
Thomas King tells us: The truth about stories is that that’s all we are. The Nigerian story-teller Ben Okri says that “in a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories that are planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted — knowingly or unknowingly — in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.”…
And then she told another story, and another, weaving them together into a tapestry of western culture and a dozen other cultures. Personal stories, worker stories, vignettes, success stories, animal stories, inherited stories, customer stories, love stories, weltschmerz stories, business “war” stories, anecdotes of astonishing beauty, joy, courage, anguish and grief. She spoke slowly and deliberately, pausing after each image, each description of character or event, each extraordinary conclusion. The audience was transfixed, each person internalizing each story with his or her own details, context, understandings, making that story their own, learning it as surely and completely as if it were the lines of a play in which they played an integral part, preparing to add to it and to retell it.
For an hour and a half she continued, using the artifacts on the floor to embellish the stories, passing them around to touch, hear, smell, changing her voice to become the characters in her stories, changing her dress, her facial expression, her inflection, her accent, the way she moved her body. The pictures on the screens around and behind her flashed photographs, lines of poetry, drawings of exotic people and places, while the music changed to match the tone of each story she told.
It was as if she wasn’t telling the stories at all — the stories were telling themselves through her. She just held the frame for them, opened space through which they escaped. She wound into her stories the I-you philosophy of authentic encounter of Martin Buber (and his sphere of the between). She told stories about stories (“you don’t have to be anything but the story that comes through you”), and explained that the essence of relationship (business, loving, or therapeutic) was the capacity to create space to allow others to tell their stories.
And when she had finished, she remained quiet for a long moment, and then said:
Thomas King says: “I weep for the world I’ve helped to create. A world in which I allow my intelligence and goodwill to be constantly subverted by my pursuit of comfort and pleasure. And because of knowing all of this, it is doubtful that given a second chance to make amends for my despicable behaviour, I would do anything different, for I find it easier to tell myself the story of my failure as a human being, than to have to live the story of making the sustained effort to help. The proof of what we truly believe lies in what we do and not what we say. We’ve created the stories that allow the ethics of what we do and don’t do to exist and flourish. They didn’t come out of nowhere, from another planet. Want a different ethic? Tell a different story…”
The truth about stories is that that’s all we are. Today, for many of us, most of our stories are lies. We know they are, but we keep telling them to ourselves and to each other. We keep living them and living in them. And because our stories are inauthentic, we too become inauthentic.
We can change that, each one of us. We each write our own story. If the story that you are acting out today is not the story that you want to live, you have the power to change it. No one else can or will do it for you. At the end of your life, you will either be happy with the story you have lived, or filled with remorse. The choice is yours.
And then she turned to each person in turn, and bowed her head, said “thank you, and good night”, and slowly walked out of the room.
(Thanks to Natalie for the inspiration.)
Category: Short Stories