Storytelling, Music, & Natural Magic

I’ve been listening to the songs and stories of an extraordinary composer/singer/guitarist, Mark Knopfler. His songs are often stories of ordinary people — doing their work, loving, suffering, singing — maybe remembered and maybe not, but usually caught in the grip of something bigger than they are. I kept going back to listen. There is something uniquely satisfying and heart-touching about his music, his songs, especially the more recent ones. He has made the art of songwriting into the art of telling powerful stories. As a writer, I feel a need to understand why his songs are so powerful.

The key skill set I noticed:

Mastery: The music, both rhythm and melody distinctly fits the words. I can’t guess which comes first, but suspect Knopfler goes back and forth between them as he composes. Neither one is just tacked on to the other. In written storytelling, you may have good illustrations to enrich and inform the imagination of the readers; in songs the music enriches and informs the emotion of the listeners. Imagination and emotion are tightly inter-related. In either case the music or picture must be superb — and therein lies the requirement for mastery, for years and years of developing a skill to the highest point of art.

Acute observation: Seeing clearly, telling it like it is, including details that show character and feeling and make it both vivid and memorable.

Empathy: Truly understanding the people and their feelings from the inside, not just the outside. This is a kind of nonjudgmental acceptance, which leads to —

Compassion: “Sympathy” means “I hear and feel sorry for you.” “Empathy” means “I feel your feelings with you.” “Compassion” means “I hear, feel, and love you. I make no judgement about your goodness or badness — just knowing who you really are and loving you.” I remember something I learned from participating in healing — everyone at their very core wishes to give and receive love — it is what we are. We all have roots in the same ground and that ground is something we call love.

You don’t have to believe me about this — just learn to meditate and do healing, and sooner or later you will discover this truth for yourself. And sometimes when we make that connection, miracles happen.

We wrap other things around that core, thinking it needs to be protected while really it is the strong, eternal center of us. But we create all those other things — fear, anger, barriers, judgments, denial, and more — to protect something that never needed protection. That loving part of ourselves and others is what we experience as compassion when we consciously become aware of that connection. The songs, the stories become healing.

Inclusion: starting with the thread of one person, one feeling, and weaving that into something larger so it speaks for and to many. Ultimately the song may bring in the earth, the sky, the sea, the stars. The part fits into the whole quite neatly, inextricably.

The last two things on the list above are what makes Knopfler’s music truly exceptional. He didn’t start out that way. Yes, he had empathy, he has extraordinary musical talent, and he loves music enough to do the incredible years of practice with the devotion that leads to mastery. Talent is something you are born with, but mastery like this and compassion only comes through years of devotion. If you listen to what he’s saying, both in interviews and in the music, you can hear that his music is a means for communion (not just communication, but communion) with others — and with deeper parts of himself. And that touches other hearts as well. People respond, even when they may not know what they are responding to.

I understand now why so many of the comments on his YouTube recordings simply say, “I love you.” Of course, many of the comments focus on the music. Yes, he is a master guitarist and they say so, but he isn’t the only master guitarist around even though you’d think he was from his fans. Although I’ve heard him discribed as having a “golden voice” yet his voice seems quite ordinary to me — his delivery is low key and almost conversational, but the energy his voice carries is far from ordinary.

I suspect his fans are hearing/feeling that special something more — the genuine love and compassion he seems to have for people, especially for the outliers of our society who live on an edge. A few of the many examples: the lost ones (Telegraph Road and Sonny Liston), the unique ones (Jerimiah Dickson), transcendent human love (Our Shangri La and If This Is Goodbye) and the geniuses (like himself) who are so focussed on one thing, one form of self-expression that it consumes their lives (Monteleone and The Sky and Piper to the End).

(Disclosure: Writing this is surprisingly difficult. It comes out a phrase at a time, not all at once in a rush the way things do when I really understand them. So. Clearly I don’t fully get it. Sometimes a thought dissolves under my fingers as I try to type it. I find myself saving this every few words so the thoughts won’t escape.)

All right, with all of this I still haven’t said what I set out to say about writing stories — what the big take-away for myself as a writer is. Marzipan’s Adventures — she is just a young faery cat in another world, which is linked to both Earth and to Faery. But for the story to be whole, it has to show how she fits into her own beloved world. It needs to show the vastness and grandeur and possibilities of that tiny world and the connectedness of the web of relationships in it. In a way, her story represents that world with its universe fitting neatly into the multiverse. And it has to show it, mostly in the details and the little moments, not tell it.

Marzipan’s actions need to show those interactions with her neighbors, both humna and creutairean, and with Didean, the world herself. (Humna are part Earth human, part Faery. Creutairean are part Earth animal, part Faery being. In fact, humna are creutairean too, and the humna are the only ones who don’t know this and who think they are different, This little blindness comes from the Earth human part of them, which tends to see differences rather than common ground.) (Sorry, I got side-tracked there but I’ll leave it in just in case you needed to know.)

The story itself, the plot as it were, has to carry all of these details and insights almost invisibly. If an author is preachy-teachy, he or she evokes resistance — and boredom. But if, as explained in Magical Writing the storyteller just slides things in with no fuss, the reader is more likely to just take it in as they gallop along with the plot, which is the obstensible reason for the story. But the plot is just a vehicle for the real story.

So, to some extent good storytelling seems to me to be about seeing reality compassionately and sharing that vision so we all better understand how we are connected to and can support each other.

I wonder if Knopfler knows what he is doing? He wouldn’t have to… it might just be the way he naturally has grown into the world. He spent some time being a social worker and that would have enriched both his view and his understanding of people. Or he might have just figured it out for himself — he’s an intelligent man. Listening to him in the documenteries talking about his craft, he knows. He sees how in songwriting, composing in bits and pieces, fragments and fictions, he often is telling the story of the person, of the society, of the history (and perhaps the future) of the world. For all I know, he may be telling the story of the multiverse.

ALL storytellers in all of the multiverse may be doing the same.

I just had a thought-concept; I wonder if I can say it clearly? What if we who tell stories in the multiverse — and perhaps we all do — no, wait! What if living is the real story? What if we are showing the Multiverse who She is and what She shall become with every moment of our lives?

After all, we are all one piece with the trees and stones and creatures.

The Center

Center

Jessica Macbeth

Three women sit on a porch. The porch is attached to the east side of a house and the house is attached to the ground in a place called Iowa.

The youngest woman watches the rising sun, waiting for its rays to illuminate her spike-heeled, glossy black boots. The oldest crochets a shapeless thing she had been working on for many months. No one is quite sure what it is, but it keeps her hands busy and prevents her from absent-mindedly pinching the youngest when she fidgets. The middle one has dreamy thoughts of luxurious breakfasts with blueberry pancakes frosted with maple sugar, of caviar and thin oat toast, champagne, and rosewater, while her eyes turn golden with the sun.

This spot, they all know, is the center of the universe, regardless of what astronomers might think. It is the center because they are there, and they are there because it is the center. This is the power they have—to know the true center of all things. Once a person knows that they can do anything.

On the opposite side of the galaxy, at the still center of the universe, a man sits on a porch facing west. The dying rays of his sun play on his ancient, deeply-creased face—caressing, tickling, pinching—and he watches it descend impassively. As the sun sinks, his breathing slows, slows, slows… and stops, and he dies into the night. In the morrow’s dawn, he will begin to breathe again, and he will waken with the face and body of a stripling boy. Whole galaxies are born and die within him. Such is the power of the center.

You sit at the center of the universe.

I sit at the center of the universe.

© Copyright 2005 by Jessica Macbeth. All rights reserved.
Painting “Three Women” by Umberto Biccoini ca 1910

A Crown of Moonlight

Sally sat on the park bench carefully peeling the crusts off her sandwich and tossing them to the pigeons. She kept trying to get some of the bread to the crippled one, but he never seemed to quite catch it in time, even when it landed right in front of him. When Sally realized that nearly half of her sandwich was gone, she sighed and ate the rest. Fortunately, it hadn’t been anything she especially liked.

She finished the sandwich, emptied the crumbs from the paper bag, neatly folded the bag, and put it in her handbag to recycle. Then she settled down to eating her apple as a Zen meditation. It took too long, she had found, to eat all of her lunch that way, but she always tried with her fruit. She wasn’t exactly certain that she was doing it right, but she did her best to experience the here-and-now appleness.

Just as she finished the apple an old man sat down on the far end of the bench. They eyed each other from the corners of their eyes, trying, like most city people, not to be seen to be looking at each other. It wasn’t just any old man. It was the tramp that haunted the park, muttering incomprehensible but calm comments. She’d have known with her eyes shut. Even though he sat downwind, his reek fought and overpowered the gentle breeze.

Sally tried to think charitable, positive thoughts. She wished she knew what to do. It seemed rude to just get up and leave. She broke her apple core into bits and tossed them to the pigeons. The crippled one still didn’t get any.

“You oughtn’t to feed them that,” the rusty old voice croaked. “Grain is what they should have. Good fresh grain.”

He pulled out a handful of grain from a pocket that Sally would have sworn was too ragged to hold anything and tossed the grain in a wide arc to the pigeons. The crippled one got as much as the rest, and Sally made a mental note to stop at a pet shop and buy wild bird seed on the way back to the office. Or would it be better, she wondered, to stop at a health food shop and get organic grain?

“You!” the old man said peremptorily. Sally jumped, then tried to pretend she hadn’t. She looked at him, wide eyed and too startled to say anything. He was looking straight at her.

“You probably think I’m mad,” he said calmly. She began to babble an incoherent protest, but he cut across her voice. “I’m the emperor of the Earth, I am. I’ve a crown made of moonlight and an army of ten thousand eagles to do my bidding.” His forefinger touched a nothingness in the air above his head.

For a fleeting moment, Sally thought she could see a glimmer of light there, but she blinked and it disappeared. “It was an hallucination or a trick of the light”, she thought. “It couldn’t have been a vision.”

“Aha!” he said, eyeing her piercingly. “You saw it. Thought you would.”

He reached up again and carefully lifted the nothing from his head. He held it in his two hands for a moment, his expression a curious compound of grief and joy. He stood up and advanced toward Sally. She froze like a frightened rabbit. He leaned over and gently placed the nothing crown on her head, stood back, smiled wryly, and collapsed in slow, lingering fall to the earth. As she watched, his clothes began to sink inward, and the gentle breeze blew smoke or perhaps a fine dust away from him. In a few moments, nothing was left to show that he had existed except for a few coins on the pavement. The pigeons pecked at them hopefully.

Sally looked upward. There were eagles perched everywhere in the trees. They flapped their wings at her, and screamed in salute. She gingerly touched the crown, which felt solid enough. She stood up with great care and began walking back to the office. The eagles soared around her, but of course no one seemed to notice them. It would be days yet before she really began to allow herself to think about this – what it meant, how it would change things. For now, she truly experienced a state of just being in the here-and-now, at least in a tense kind of way.

“Well,” she thought with a detached, unnatural, and monumental calm, “mustn’t grumble. I’ve been wanting to achieve inner stillness for long enough and here it is.”

Copyright © 1995 by Jessica Macbeth. All rights reserved.
This fable originally appeared in Otherworld Arts, 1995

The Last Goat

 

Once upon a time, there were three goats who lived on a tall mountain that overlooked a grassy plain. Every morning, they watched the sun rise. Then, they meditated. Every evening, they walked around the mountain and watched the sun set. After that, they meditated.

They were very contented goats. They spent their days doing goatish things and thinking goatish thoughts. They spent their nights dreaming goatish dreams.

One day an airplane flew over their mountain. The three goats watched it as it circled once and flew away.

“I’ll bet I can do that,” the youngest goat said. He spread his forelegs and leaped from the crag. He went splat on the rocks below.

The other two goats peered over the edge at the scattered remains of their companion. Then they looked at each other and shrugged. What else could they do?

Months passed, and one bright day, about an hour after sunrise, another airplane flew over the mountain. Both goats watched it.

“I think I’ve figured out how it’s done,” the oldest goat muttered.

Before the other could say anything, he trotted back along the path, turned and galloped toward the crag. Running as fast as he could and with a look of utter determination on his face, he spread his forelegs and leaped over the edge.

He went splat on the rocks below.

The Last Goat shook his head sadly.

The days passed. The moon waxed and waned and the shadows cast by the sun grew taller and shorter with the seasons. Every day, the Last Goat watched the sun rise and the sun set. He meditated. He thought goatish thoughts and did goatish things and dreamed goatish dreams.

At last, another airplane flew over the mountain. The Last Goat looked at it. He looked at the crag and peered over at the rocks below. He peered thoughtfully at his feet. He sighed and rubbed his shoulder against a rock to ease an itch. He remembered that he’d found a patch of especially tasty grass in a hidden hollow the day before and went over to munch some of it for breakfast.

The years passed. The Last Goat was content. Younger goats lived lower down on the mountain now. He knew they were there, but he didn’t feel any need for their companionship; he was accustomed to solitude and peace. The inner quiet of meditation had permeated his days and nights and sang in his blood. The other goats referred to him as “the Wise Old Goat” but he didn’t know why they did that—he didn’t seem especially wise in his own eyes. He just knew that each sunrise brought joy; each sunset brought peace.

Finally, when the Last Goat had noticed his legs were beginning to tremble with age, another airplane flew over the mountain. This one was quite high and glinted silver and almost silent in the sky. He raised his head and watched it until it disappeared into the sun. Again, he looked thoughtfully at his feet.

“It’s the ground,” he thought. “It’s the ground that is important—the ground of being. You have to always keep your hooves on the ground of being.” Carefully, he walked over to the crag, feeling the ground of being touching his hooves every step of the way. Cautiously, he put one foot out over the abyss, testing for the ground of being. When he felt it solid beneath that hoof, he moved himself out onto this transparent ground.

He looked between his feet, at the rocks far below, nodding, “Yes, I thought so.” He began climbing up the invisible trail, seen only in his heart. Soon, he overtook the airplane, laboring through the thin air. “Poor souls, making such hard work of this,” he thought. And he continued climbing clear into the sun. History does not relate what he did once he got there.

Copyright © 2003 by Jessica Macbeth. All rights reserved.