It is true that many of us hail from a demographic that struggles with the pain of fundamentalist energy in our background; but it is also true, that many of us were wonderfully shaped by some aspects of the cultures in which we found ourselves.
In my case, roots music and story and nature connection are a very big part of what shaped me.
Not only am I a mishmash of denominations and non-denominations, but I am a mishmash of the cultures that went with them. Some of the traditions I was exposed to were keen to encourage great libraries that boasted novels and stories, and quite early on, I could see that there was more going on with stories than at the first telling. As though each one was an iceberg, waiting for me to do the dangerous deep dive under, to explore the shapes, the darkness, the trials, the overcoming.
It wasn’t Christian contemplation that first exposed me to the idea of letting go of an old story, it was really the combination of Eckhart Tolle popularizing “the moment”, and a very good Jungian therapist I used to see (who also happens to be a Rabbi).
Letting go of the old story initially proved to be very hard for me to do, for a lot of reasons. Not the least of which, with my dualistic lens, was because it was difficult for me to work out how I could let go of the attachment I had to my story, without it ruining Story as art form.
I was the kid, with flashlight under quilt, jousting my way across the deck, trusty cutlass raised, joining in the mutiny for justice and change. Identifying with each orphan in every classic, as though it were me in their place, overcoming great odds. On one page I could be Éowyn, riding her way into battle with wee Merry riding in front, on another I looked out from the eyes of Smeagol in his dark cave of despair. Story taught me how to see through the eyes of others, and it taught me about my own interiority as someone who could feel the darkness and the light. I took story out into my wild environment along the national park where I grew up, and much of what might just have been “a tree” or “a pond” or “a wood”, took shape in ways that opened up much deeper dimensions of “thisness”.
When I first encountered the Christian mystics and deep dove into the wisdom teachings, the practices, and the revelations about duality, I began to see very, very clearly how attachment to my story was causing quite a lot of damage. The way in which I identified with it, wasn’t moving my own story forward, for growth and renewal, but was really more about repeating history in such a way that I was held captive. So the irony was that the more I identified with it, the less available I was to the new chapters.
As a songwriter, I hold story in a special place. It really is a unique, wonderful medium to work with. But again, I have found myself wondering… does non-duality even have a place in story? My first thoughts go straight to Cynthia Bourgeault’s fine book, The Wisdom Jesus, in which she captures the telling of the Passion in such a way, that it moves beyond duality. (In hind sight, as it should!)
The best stories should not be used anecdotally or allegorically; and in the best stories, characters have to be complex. A complex character is probably a good a place to begin with, if attempting to include non-duality in storytelling. Another place might be to use two opposing energies and sit right where they clash for a good while. Haven't we all wondered how a hero(in) is going to make their way out of a predicament but still be able to endear themselves to the reader?
This leads me to talk about a series called ReMastered (on Netflix right now). There have been two episodes released so far. The first is a particular angle on the story of Bob Marley and the violently polarized politics in Jamaica. The second is the story of Richard Nixon inviting Johnny Cash to do a concert at the Whitehouse in a violently polarized America. In each of these phenomenal one hour episodes, the itch I've been having about story’s place in the realm of non-duality, got seriously scratched. They really are a must watch.
I’ve long been suspecting that the medium of good story writing/telling is an oft overlooked friend of action/contemplation. Story is not fable or aphorism, nor is it poetry (but those modes also have their place). In the case of both Bob Marley and Johnny Cash, it was their ability to subvert with story in song, that enabled them to reach profoundly non-dual levels of pure truth telling, under immense political pressure to choose a side.
In the episode Tricky Dick and the Man in Black, there is footage of a group of singers coming in to perform for Richard Nixon and one of the singers holds up a banner that says “stop the killing”, and then says “Richard Nixon, stop killing human beings, animals and vegetation. You go to church on Sundays. If Jesus Christ were here tonight you would not dare to drop another bomb.” Now most of you reading this are going to appreciate the courage it took for her to do that. And at a number of levels I do too. But what I’m constantly longing to open up to as an artist, is what Walter Brueggemann calls prophetic imagination. Her statement was met with the expected “get her outta here”, and no one was conflicted or converted. She was right, but at such a blunt level, it was still dualistic in its nature. Or as Krista Tippet says, “The nature of the question, elicits the nature of the answer.”
On the night Johnny Cash performed, something else happened. There was a near-Divine presence in the air, tap-rooted in Johnny Cash’s own suffering - which had turned a corner. See, his own story had become universalized and the pain of the soldiers and his tender care for the youth crying out across the country, were incarnating his performance.
The same thing happened during a particular concert in Jamaica when Bob Marley held in his own hand, the hands of the white political leaders who were each other's enemy. It was his story of suffering, that had been universalized, that enabled him to tell the story of his people, and to long for peace.
Looking back, this is one of the reasons why I struggled with letting go of my old story... Because I think it is more than just letting go. It is letting go, so that, the seeds of suffering may fall and germinate and bring us to the place, where, when faced with the gridlock of dualism, we have depths to pull from and can find another way to speak the truth.
The song for today is There is a Peace, from the album Sanctuary: Exploring the Healing Path. Although it isn’t a story song, but actually a chant with spoken word, this piece belongs in the story arc of the album as a whole, and is found nearer to the end of the album.
Alana Levandoski is a song and chant writer, recording artist and music producer, in the Christian tradition, who lives with her family on a regenerative farm on the Canadian prairies.