Muriel Ruykeser was a poet, a master storyteller and a political activist. Her words above capture, for me, a deep insight in just nine words. That’s real talent.
It also raises a question. Where do stories come from?
We are in a time when storytelling has become an industry, and manufactured stories a commodity, churned out to templates by marketing factories. They are easy to spot for two main reasons – firstly you can see the template underneath the story, often it seems created to a simplistic understanding of Campbell’s magnum opus “Hero’s Journey”, by those who have never gone to to the bother of reading it. Secondly is that the story has a clear intent. It points us not at a possible truth, but a product or service. The story has an agenda.
I think a story is an idea trying to find it’s way in the world.
I’ve always liked the idea I first read in Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic“; that we don’t have ideas, they are already out there looking for a host. They will visit us, and if we don’t do something with them, they’ll leave us and find somebody else. It’s a compelling image.
It strikes me though that there is another way of looking at it. What if we are an idea? The thought struck me over the last few weeks as we have a two year old in the house, who in that time has gone from single words to sentences as they try to make themselves understood. It is a humbling process as he wakes first thing in the morning, using his new found ability to explain the world to Mog the Cat, and Gethin the Dragon who are his overnight soft toy guardians. He then encounters the adult world, where the audience is often rather less receptive and rather more directive. Loris Malaguzzi, an Italian Freedom fighter in World War Two turned early years educator (and founder of the famous Reggio Emelia pedagogy) expressed it in a poem:
The Hundred Languages of Children No way. The hundred is there The child is made of one hundred. The child has a hundred languages a hundred hands, a hundred thoughts, a hundred ways of thinking, of playing, of speaking. A hundred, always a hundred ways of listening of marveling, of loving, a hundred joys for singing and understanding, a hundred worlds to discover, a hundred worlds to invent, a hundred worlds to dream. The child has a hundred languages (and a hundred hundred hundred more) but they steal ninety-nine.The school and the culture separate the head from the body. They tell the child to think without hands, to do without head, to listen and not to speak, to understand without joy, to love and to marvel only at Easter and Christmas. They tell the child to discover the world already there and of the hundred they steal ninety-nine.They tell the child that work and play,reality and fantasy, science and imagination, sky and earth, reason and dream, are things that do not belong together. And thus they tell the child that the hundred is not there. The child says “No way – The hundred is there. Translated by Leila Gandini.
At the centre of his thinking was an “image of the child” as a fully formed human, learning their way into the world alongside adults doing the same further down the road, rather than an empty vessel to be instructed and trained. It is another compelling idea from an activist, and which makes something of a mockery of much of our approach to early years education. SATs anyone?
But back to the point. What if we considered people as ideas in search of vehicles of expression, and other ideas to partner with, rather than having to be sold somebody else’s story? When we submit to becoming a minor part in somebody (or worse, something) else’s story we are suppressing the idea that we are, and the world, I suggest, deserves that idea.
We might do well to sideline all that performance laden language of “potential” in service of another’s idea and replace it with something rather more personal and affirmative. A determination to keep company as far as possible only with those whose ideas resonate with ours in order to bring them to reality.
As we enter this slightly unreal and uncertain post Covid landscape, what is the idea you want to share and make real?