Story as Healer

By Stasha Ginsburg

I’ll break open the story and 

tell you what is there.  Then, like

the others that have fallen out onto the sand,

I will finish with it,

and the wind will take it away. 

Nisa, a !Kung San Woman, 1969

It began with a story.  It always does, doesn’t it?   Sometimes a Story walks into a Room. Sometimes you have to hunt for the Wolf with a bloated belly full of stories and cut open to get to the marrow of Story. 

Story is interesting to me.  It has the capacity to spin one around and around and around.  It can heal or it can destroy. It can freeze or it can thaw. It unexpectedly stops and one falls off the story wheel.  It breaks us open.  Something rises with new life inside the crack.  It shapes us.  It transitions.  It interacts with and is informed by place.  It transforms.  We think we are in control of it.  We think it controls us.  And then we discover it is something else entirely.  Creation lives inside the crack.  So does the messy stuff.  Creation has its own intelligence.  Something new forms while something old is taken away.  It was a caterpillar story.  It was a mess.  It became a new container.  Now it is a butterfly.  That is the weirdest thing about integration and transformation.  A mysterious process occurs when the story is broken open.  

Story makes sense when I look at the nature of a story doll, such as a matryoshka.  In provincial Russia before the revolution, the name Matryona or Matriyosha was a popular female name. It came from the Latin root mater, or mother.  The name Matryona was connected to an image of a healthy, well-rounded mother.  Someone made a wooden doll based on the meaning of this name, and called the doll a matryoshka, a diminutive name for Matriyosha.  To make a matryoshka, adler, limewood, birch or aspen is cut and the logs are dried naturally for two years. Artists use their intuition to cut the wood into the appropriate shape.  Other dolls are made to fit inside.  Images are painted on the front of each doll.  In the past, these images symbolized fairytales, folktales and simple scenes.  The first matryoshka ever made had images of a mother, father, brother, sisters, cows and a rooster.  The image at the center was a baby. 

I spent about a decade diving deeply into the beauty and beast of Story. Academically, somatically, spiritually, psychologically…you name it. I wanted to know the insides of its spiderweb threads. While spelunking into story, I discovered My Wild Matryoshka as the living breathing container of personal, ancestral, conditioned, fated, destiny line and mythopoetic story. 

One of the first treasures in my matryoshka story was the discovery of my generational wombline.  It revealed the confusion about my identity and origin.  It reminded my girltruth about how the Catholic Church made her believe in an origin story that came from Adam’s rib.  The wombline pulled me back in time through threads connecting my mother’s belly to my grandmother’s belly and on and on and on.  It helped me to discover that my origin does come from a tree of life because my granny’s people came from a village in the black forest, surrounded by oak trees.  It taught me the natural creation story of an acorn becoming an oak.  It reminded me of my own birth process, sped up to accommodate a doctor’s desire for vacation, and that patience is required of me now.  It taught me that transition and passages are important parts of my journey, and they can often have elements of tragedy.  They told me not to be afraid of the tragedy, but to see it as a gift, to see the wounds with different eyes and look deeper for hidden messages.

The wombline taught me that the word ‘soul’ is Germanic in origin and is connected to the sea.  It gave my story additional meaning because it reminded me of my first years in California, and the many days spent at the sea with my mom and sister.  The sea reminded my mom of Lake Superior, and led my mother back home to her origins, leading me on the passage with her, from one water source at the edge of America to another.   Like my great, great grandmother who navigated the sea from her land of origin to America, I was severed from my dad.  The wombline told me how a story threaded backward in time upon a soul line provides clues to certain stories we might be bound to.

A common suggestion (for the etymology of soul) is a connection with the word sea, and from this evidence alone, it has been speculated that the early Germanic peoples believed that the spirits of the deceased rested at the bottom of the sea or similar. A more recent suggestion connects it with a root for “binding”, Germanic *sailian (OE sēlian, OHG seilen), related to the notion of being “bound” in death, and the practice of ritually binding or restraining the corpse of the deceased in the grave to prevent his or her return as a ghost.

In cracking open this story, I wrote an adolescent coming of age story Girltruth from the Belly…

…Mom’s belly button is still connected to mine.  There is a thin line from my belly button to hers.  It is finer than a spider’s web.  My mom’s belly is connected to my nonna’s belly, Geraldine Amelia Baumhardt Pricco.  My nonna’s belly is connected to her mom, Adelia Bartelt Baumhardt.  Adelia has a line going to Auguste Maria Louise Fredericka Seigfried.  And from Auguste, the line goes to Fredericka Louise Gloepky. This is what I know.  If I have a baby, it is connected through the love line womblineand it will have my Gypsy Russian Romanian Hungarian Jewish Lutheran German Italian Catholic blood. But what is in my bloodline really?

Our wombs are sleeping together.  Their wombs breathe together.  They blow foam to the shore together. They sing a mnemonic song.  Seula. Seula.  Seula.  Not with their mouths or the minds.  Their song is deeper than time.  Their song is embedded in stone before words were what we now know.  Their song carries symbol in pure form.  It just takes time to follow and unravel.”

The film Ten Canoes, by Rolf de Heer and the people of Ramingining, illustrates the interconnectivity of story through the generations, told from an Aboriginal perspective. In a documentary film on the making of Ten Canoes, de Heer explains the difference in orientation between Western and indigenous peoples.

“The cosmology of the Yasmu people is an entirely different cosmology than ours. The universe is a different place, the way of thinking is therefore different, and the language, apart from being structurally different, describes different things. Ours is a language of classification and categorization, theirs is a language of connection and unity. Everything is all one. There is no notion of fiction in their cosmology, and telling a story out of order, as we were having to do in making our film, makes no sense.”

What does this mean about Story and the power of our ancient roots of our indigenous story languages, to Rewild Story into her original ecosystem of wholeness? We are a society that cuts apart our stories. Like the tailor in fairytales, we snip and snap our stories out of the flesh and discard them.

The matryoshka of my story rewilded me and grew me backwards to the line of my father’s nomadic Roma and Jewish roots in Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania and Romania, and oriented myself differently in time and place. The stories of my mother’s ancestors broadened my adolescent and adult perspectives about myself.  I have become more fluid in my ability to travel within imagination and body memory, remaining rooted to place and time. While ‘cracking open my stories’ I lived in Wisconsin on a farm in a small cabin without running water, only a hearth for heat (haul wood, carry water) and this helped me to honor my grandmother’s storylines and to see her story differently.  I learned the story of survival, and how that story can change a person’s relationship to nature and imagination –for better or worse. My grandmother grew up in central Wisconsin during the depression, and relocated to my grandfather’s bakery hearth in upper Michigan.  Tending a hearth consistently during the freezing winter months brought me closer to my grandmother and grandfather stories.  As I have relocated to the desert, the image of the Cochiti storyteller doll of clay is a bridge to desert place, inviting the stories to orient differently. In the forest, they hide within one another.  In a desert, they grow off of the grandfather doll, more visible for all to see.

The film Ten Canoes begins and ends with a story, and an image of water.  The Aboriginal storyteller, Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu, says

Bout time to tell you a story, eh? Then I’ll tell you one of ours …Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…Nah not like that, I’m only joking …I am going to tell you a story…It is longtime ago. It is our time, before you other mob came from cross the ocean…longtime before then. The rains been good and ten of the men go on the swamp, to hunt the eggs of gumang, the magpie goose. One of the men, the young fella, has a wrong love, so the old man tell him a story …a story of the ancient ones, them wild and crazy ancestors who come after the spirit time, after the flood that covered the whole land …This land began in the beginning.

I come from a water hole. I was looking like a little fish in my water hole. When I die, I’ll go back to my water hole. I’ll be waiting here like a little fish, waiting to be born again…  

At the end of the film, Gulpilil says, 

Now you’ve seen my story, not like your story, but a good story all the same.

Inside his story is the ancient story of his ancestors.  He goes on to tell the story of how a brother wanted his older brother’s wife.  The older brother says to the younger brother, “I hear you are interested in my youngest wife.  Let me tell you a story.”  He tells the young brother that it is important to listen to the stories of the ancestors, because it might help you to understand your situation and yourself better.  The ancestor stories might help you to change your current stories.

The older brother tells the story of a distant ancestor, another young brother who wanted his older brother’s wife.  The story cracks open and unfurls into many stories –about penises and male bravado, sorcery, jealousy, coming of age, brotherhood, becoming a hunter, love and ancient elder wisdom.  The storyteller keeps us close to the waterways that created his people.  The story moves to land, returns to the water, moves to land and again returns to the water holes.  

The storyteller is right.  His story is very different from my story.  The way he tells the story is different than how I tell mine.  What I love about his rite of passage story is the way in which it allows me to visually experience the interconnectivity of story through generations. 

I learned to relate to my coming of age story as an isolated incident. It became frozen in time even after I grew.  My conditioning, perspective, thoughts, emotional wellbeing and relationship to place affect the way I write or experience a story.  I think it is like this for human beings.  I appreciate the stories that come from different perspectives because I like seeing how people see and experience things.  I also enjoy the stories that are told from people who are or are becoming more native to place because the stories feel alive and connected to the land in a different way.  

While cracking open my story doll one winter, I spent time with Tamarack Song, director of Teaching Drum, a primitive living skills center in northern Wisconsin. Tamarack and I have similar bloodlines.  He is part German and Italian, and his people came from the same part of Wisconsin and Germany that my grandmother’s mother’s ancestors came from.  He relocated to land not far from his grandmother’s native place in Wisconsin because he wanted to reconcile his early childhood pain of disconnection and reorient to place differently. I literally felt my body go backwards in time while visiting his primitive living skills village.  While sharing a meal of bear and raccoon paw stew over a campfire in a tiny thatched pine and oak hut, I felt my roots grow differently to the land familiar to my childhood/adolescent body and I discovered her imagination suspended in a long time ago, not quite here, not quite there story tree. 

It takes time for one’s conditioned nature to shift from a more disconnected orientation to place to one that feels true.  When my childhood teachers, nuns and priest conditioned me to see and experience life according to their perspective, and when my adolescent story froze through trauma, I cut myself off from my relationship to place.  

The feminist author Susan Griffith expresses the danger and destruction of Western hierarchical conditioning in her book, Woman and Nature.  There is no denying that the words, laws, creeds and scientific reasoning of many famous minds gave birth to the patriarchal conversations and consciousness and affected the way in which generations and generations of people across the world, for thousands of years understand, experience and relate to nature, their bodies, their thoughts, and their identities.  

Stories are Life.

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser once said. Whether it be the entire cosmos or a speck within it, stories hold their blueprint for existence, stories give them purpose, and stories are the web that binds them together. The life of our universe is one immense adventure story. Our Mother Planet’s life is the story of evolution, the birth of our stars is the story of the Big Bang. These stories are essential to life, and that makes storytelling essential to the human experience. —Tamarack Song

In Ten Canoes, the ancestor story has an impact on the younger brother’s perspective.  It is subtle.  The young man doesn’t come back from the hunt with geese.  He doesn’t look like aa warrior or a stronger man.  There aren’t noticeable markings on his body.   The filmmaker does a wonderful job conveying a moment in which the audience can see that the young man’s perspective has changed.  It is the moment when the young brother returns from the trip, looks at the youngest wife of his older brother, pauses and walks to his camp.  In that moment, I saw the possibility of the young man repeating the story of the past, and I saw the possibility of him growing into a man with greater discernment and responsibility.  The story of the past might confront him again and again but he isn’t bound to it unconsciously anymore.

In his book, The Songlines British novelist and travel writer, Bruce Chatwin describes the songlines as:

…the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as ‘Dreaming-tracks’ or ‘Songlines’; to the Aboriginals as the ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Law’.

Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic being who wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime singing out the name of everything that crossed their path- birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes- and so singing the world into existence.

A key concept of aboriginal culture is that the aboriginals and the land are one. By singing the land, the land itself exists; you see the tree, the rock, the path, the land. What are we if not defined by our environment?  The songlines developed out of a need to be defined by environment and to understand the relationship between self, ancestors and the totemic spirits of place as well as to aid in navigation across place. Songlines are an ancient cultural concept, meme and motif grown and honored through storytelling, dance, song and art. These songs often evoke how the features of the land were created and named during the dreamtime of creation.

When I navigated back home, dance and embodiment became my songline.  Moving with the aid of dance helped me to root, ground, and orient myself to place and time.  Lake Superior —the massive body of water near my homeland, and my body’s memory sang my ancestor’s food names to me and helped me to remember their stories. I discovered more about my identity by exploring the place of my youth in connection to the songs of my grandfather’s people. The songs I grew up singing with my Italian friends and relatives aren’t the earliest stories or songs of the place where I grew, but they inspired me to travel to the village where the songs originated at age nineteen so that I might know my grandfather’s roots in Italy.  Through song, the invisible thread of my ancestors inspired me to migrate to other lands to explore the way in which others live. 

Story comes from the dimensionless, timeless place where all past, present and future experience dwells. This matryoshka doll contains, at its deepest core essence, the nonverbal womb of all life. Here, there is no word-based language in the storyline: it is a state of pure communion where all is known and sensed and felt without having to be consciously heard or processed.  The songs of the birds help to mark the territory of the birds. In sensing the ancestral landscape of my hidden storylines, I felt sensed my way through their stories prior to knowing their words. The story is an entity to itself.  Art is also an entity to itself.  It is important to process the wild matryoshka stories through diverse mediums -be they dance, painting, poetry, spoken word, playing the piano or walking the land. There is a special power different in speaking, singing and dancing stories. They become a kind of story magic or rite of passage.  The story changed me, and I it, when I hung its bones and feathers from a tree branch.  When we delve into our stories profoundly deeply, it is equally important to listen to strengthen the art/heart of listening, so that one doesn’t fall into the dark shadows of self-absorption that naturally happens when we go spelunking into the belly of story. 

Research shows that storytelling not only engages all the sense, it triggers activity on both the left and the right sides of the brain.  Because stories elicit whole brain/whole body responses, they are far more likely than other kinds of writing to evoke strong emotions.  People attend, remember and are transformed by stories, which are meaning-filled units of ideas, the verbal equivalent of mother’s milk. —Mary Pipher

Mary Pipher, like Tamarack Song explains that healthy cultures pass on stories from generation to generation. The Lakota tell stories about the sacred hoop and life.  Indigenous people speak for the soil, the trees, the animals and all of creation.  Healing stories give people hope, teach empathy and encourage action.  I heard stories of despair and courage from the forest to the desert –from a salty taxi driver in rural Vermont to a homeless woman in New Mexico wishing to commit suicide.  I heard personal stories from children, fishermen, schizophrenic loggers, ninety-three-year-old hunters, Vietnam vets, and an Italian-American man who grew upstairs from his parents swanky, rural northern Wisconsin night club where the show girls and transvestites showed their stuff.  I heard inspiring stories from born-again Christian teenagers who loved recruiting youth through music, from young men who wandered along the black river to understand themselves in the water’s reflection and from old women who grew up navigating on boats to lake Superior islands.  Ojibway men shared stories of alcohol addiction and recovery and Lakota men shared stories of hopelessness and renewal. 

When people share stories, they light up.  Even if the story makes them cry or feel angry, it is as if a light sparks internally and moves back and forth between the teller and recipients.  I intended to do a practicum to facilitate and grow a circle of stories for rural teens in northern Michigan and Wisconsin but the practicum idea encountered many obstacles from others and I had difficulty surviving financially in the economically depressed region.  I realized that the stories that were growing around me were a different sort of practicum because they taught me how instrumental and natural stories are to life and intimacy.  They made me think of Dr. Zhivago’s questions to an elderly Russian woman.  What happens to you after you die? What happens to your consciousness, your soul?  You in others, that is the essence of life.  These unprovoked stories made me think of the word ‘intimacy’.  Into-me-see.  Stories help me to see into people.  Stories help people to see into me.  They help us to know one another and I do think this can have a profound impact on the world in subtle or obvious ways.  Listening to other people’s stories inspired my writing. 

The stories shared with me were spontaneous.  It made them feel like secrets flying from a locked chest.  I noticed that the more present I felt in my body and the less I inserted my own story or advice, the more real the story grew, unencumbered and unedited. I felt the ways other people’s stories moved and worked in my body.  Some stories made me feel the need to go away by myself into nature for a long walk.  Other stories felt like cobwebs and made me feel the need to dance later so that I could find myself.  Many stories felt like winged messengers that wanted to go directly onto a piece of paper so that I could document and remember them for a later time.

While writing through story after story during my Goddard College campus intensives, I met a taxi driver who shared a personal story that landed deeply in me, and catalyzed me to the process of selling everything and returning to my adolescent home, to call my wild matryoshka stories back home to me. Personal stories of change, courage and hope have the potential to bring people closer in understanding one another’s similarities and differences.  Listening and sharing personal stories grow empathy and compassion too.  I feel they are the stories that Mary Pipher talks about, when she refers to writing and storytelling as a way of changing the way we see.  The Anywhere Taxi driver from rural Vermont inspired my short story, anywhere taxi.  

He tells me he wants to work with the kids they call bad apples because he knows deep down they aren’t.  He tells me what a bad apple he was, but how the probation officer saw through the bad apple.  How he grew new.  I’m surprised by his language.    

I tell him my secret.  For some reason, it just slips out and wishes to reveal itself to him.  I tell him about my roots.  “I was one of those bad apple kids.  Well, sort of.  I hid it.  I drank, smoked, had tons of sex, did drugs, and was pregnant by 15.  I tried to kill myself many times.  I hated myself.  I just kept all my sadness in, so nobody knew.  After all, there wasn’t anybody to tell. My mom never knew any of it, until I got pregnant.  But she never knew how miserable I was.  She thought I was moody, just too intense and sensitive.”

And then I tell him the second half of my secret.  “I want to go back. I’ve wanted to, but I’ve been a little scared.  Mostly, I just feel it is a depressing place.”

“No!”  He jumps in.  “You can’t be scared.  You have to go and face your fear.  That’s the only way to move through.  The only way to heal is to go through the pain.  And if you don’t get back to your roots, how do you know who you are?”

His voice changes and I feel his electricity running up my right leg.  “My mom,” he says, as if reading me, “says I am her miracle boy.  That’s all she ever says, “You are a miracle.  You lived through hell.  And look at you now. You are my miracle boy.”

The taxi driver revealed the green sprout growing inside of himself.  He told parts of his story that were difficult, like how he had been abused, ran away, went to jail and made many mistakes during his adolescence.  He told me about his miracle.  His green sprout must have been doing well because it sprouted something in me and moved me to upper Michigan to explore place and story in my house of adolescence. Story retrieval is a potent catalyst for integrating, embodying and transforming our relationship to personal and collective stories. 

Read more of Stasha’s work on her substack

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Stasha Ginsburg
Stasha Ginsburg
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