Wednesday 34

William Tell, a legendary Swiss patriot,  is also accredited with being one of the first inspirations for the Impalement Arts.  Performers around the world, fill the audience with adrenaline as they throw daggers or shoot arrows at restrained assistants.  “The William Tell” is a set of tricks derived from the folk tales told about the man.  One such performance, if successful, involves an arrow dividing an apple balanced on the head of an assistant using only one shot.  Excellent marksmanship in the countryside is commonplace, but the setting for this “trick” is what makes it such a favorite.  The suspense builds, the assistant quivers slightly and everyone, anticipating the worst, hold their breath as if the tiny disturbance it would create would just enough to seal the deadly fate of the beautiful woman in front of them.  While clearly not magic, the set is undoubtedly imbued with a miraculous and somewhat addictive ether, the same ether which has compelled us for centuries to construct such spaces as attract it again and again.

The wheel chair rebelled as he struggled to build enough momentum to crest the upcoming hill, letting out a loud groan followed by a series of  squeaks and then coming to a defiant stop.  Although paved, the street was quite steep and even with trees overhead effectively providing shade, his brow dripped and the moist stains on the blue cotton of his shirt were quickly spreading from the exertion.  It seemed obvious to me that he may appreciate a little push so I walked over and asked if this was so.  He smiled and I took hold of the two rubber grips at the back of his chair.  Finally catching his breath, the terrain had leveled out and the older gentleman asked me what I was doing fr the rest of the day.  I hesitated, not sure if he was flirting or if he wanted me to continue helping with momentum issue he clearly faced.

Sensing my apprehension, and somewhat reading my thoughts, he assured me that he was doing neither.  Continuing on he explained that in addition to attending the local events regularly, he never misses a year of the Stockholm Jazz Festival.  Because of this the event staff give him a pair of free tickets which he usually shares with a friend, but this friend could not attend this year and so he was alone for the day.  Probably seeing my eyes light up, he asked if I liked Jazz and then invited me along… on one condition. For this he held up his hands and I saw for the first time just what a challenge that hill had been, they were both badly misshapen and  not one of his fingers made a straight line.  He wanted to know if I wouldn’t mind helping him to eat his ritual ice cream at the beginning of the festival, and the ticket was mine.  Aware that this may be some kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing, I agreed to the arrangement and we made our way to the ticket booth. Once we approached the entrance it was clear that at least part of the story was true, everyone we saw seemed to greet him and ask for the news.  He was something of a local celebrity it appeared.  We sat in the sunshine at the top of the outdoor amphitheater listening to a few of the local musicians as I helped him eat a cone of ice cream.  For the next hour or so I enjoyed the music and meeting the dozens of people who came over to visit.

The bands changed and I told him I wanted to go and dance, barely pausing a conversation he was having with a young man he thanked me and wished me well.  The tickets were not within range my travelers budget, the majority of the music I had been listening to was what I had on my MiniDisc player.  The sound system was incredible and the weather was perfect.  Smiling and euphoric  I  walked down towards the stage as a delicate warm breeze blew in off the water. As the day burned off,  the sun set and spilled its colors into thick clouds…the music started to amp-up.  There were several groups of experimental Jazz banging around the stage and a couple of electronic ensembles a few local favorites and then the headliner, Common, began his set.  He seemed freshly infused with an authority and vibrancy that was not with him the day before.  It made me think about delineated space and the power it takes on once animated by a performer.  I couldn’t help but muse a little to myself as the fog machines pumped out a steady stream of “ether” onto the stage and I released my breath.

Less than a week remained before I was to meet a friend in Germany and less than ten days until I would be flying home.  I took a bus out of Stockholm to see some of the surrounding forest.  For a short while that afternoon I was alone in the woods, enjoying the silence and the rich air… even resting under a shady tree and napping, leafy canopies of green swaying above.   After my rest I discovered the forest ended where the sea began and seeking out a comfortable rock, I passed several hours deeply taking in the view.    So enjoyable was my afternoon in the woods that I decided to spend the next few days further north in the Swedish forest surrounding Sundsval.

The passing landscape as I left Stockholm revealed itself as the origin, if not author, of countless woodlands illustrating the pages of my childhood fairy tales.  Somewhat in astonishment,  I watched as the dense layers of narrow leafy trees passed by, the sunlight like focused beams highlighting secret patches of wildflowers and emerald mosses.  I arrived in Sundsval late that evening and stubbornly kept to the plan, even when I discovered that I would need to take an expensive taxi up the mountain.  Tired from the journey, I checked into the hilltop hostel and was asleep within the hour.  The next morning I was able to appreciate the location more completely.  The hostel was a series of timber buildings, nearly log cabins, set onto a perch above the city.  A long wooden stairway led back and forth down the incline and into the city and walking along it could occupy the entire day.  There were areas built for resting and appreciating the view across the cityscape and some strategically placed railings for leaning and forest-gazing.   I bought groceries at the local market and spent the next several days cooking in the remodeled  kitchen, walking in the forest and napping in the shade.  My trip was coming to an end and I had chosen the perfect seat from which to reflect upon the magic it had created.



Tuesday 33

Little Red Riding hood was a cannibal in some of the earlier versions of the tale, unknowingly eating the flesh and blood of her own grandmother prepared for her by the wolf disguised.  Many of these earlier versions put heavy metaphors to work addressing the dangerous of sex, nature, youth and a myriad of other threats to ‘civilized’ life.  Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, believed to be the earliest known printed version, was included in an anthology compiled by Charles Perrault in 1697. At the end of Perrault’s tragic tale Red remains in the belly of the wolf, never rescued.  Over the centuries the macabre elements and as an extension the metaphorical ‘bite’ of the messages they accompany have been softened, tamed.   The edges have been rounded, the grandmother is swallowed whole or in some cases only locked in the closet completely unharmed.  The symbolic language of the tale has quieted and Red is saved by a benevolent, and apparently very lucky, lumberjack.  If the years have favored Red and her matriarch, they have stead fast to the brutal judgement with which the wolf is relentlessly punished – cutting his body open and filling it with stones, victoriously causing his slow and likely painful death.

Continuing into our own time, the story has inspired much academic debate and scholarly interpretation. What interests me is the comparison between the earlier more graphic versions compare with the one I was read during my childhood.  Why soften the message?  Why round the sharp corners? Would it not be better to explain why they are sharp to begin with?   While I am not an advocate for exposing children to unnecessary horror, I do not subscribe to a folklore that aims to pretend a world filled only by rainbows and happy endings.  Certainly nothing about the world has become more benign, in many cases it would be safe to consider the substantial increase in real dangers our young people must navigate.   Would it not be more appropriate to prepare them, in fact is that not our duty as elders?   Is it not our very responsibility to provide them a safe place from which to witness via the metaphor the consequences of  certain paths?

Leaving Berlin I traveled by train, no longer covered by my Eurorail pass, the expensive trail to Sweden.  As a child my grandmother entertained us during long hours in the car with strange-sounding words. The image of her proud face  after reviewing the carefully folded papers with a word or two in Swedish I now understand to be her way of connecting us to a past even she didn’t really know.  Her Swedish father had boarded an ocean liner with his older brother, both barely teenagers, to begin – like so many others – a new, more prosperous life in the United States of America.  My grandmother wove words about Sweden surrounded by the powder blue velvet of the back seat of an Oldsmobile as it cruised along the highways lined by cornfields, Målmo the city where it all began.

Following a suggestion from the guide-book I had been carrying around, I booked a bed in a hostel that I quickly realized to be somewhat inconvenient if I were planning on spending a lot of time in Målmo, but I wasn’t.  Through the magic of a flexible plan and the bliss of ignorance I decided to stay, at least it had a great kitchen.  After scouting for supplies in the neighborhood I returned rather successfully to make an unusually tasty pasta and  tomato sauce from scratch.  Adding to my good fortune there was a book exchange set up in the hostel.  I had two books with me at the time and I decided to trade in my Essential Pema Chodron for a copy of Animal Farm, which I then read in its entirety while eating my dinner.  I sat for a few hours reading at the long wooden table overlooking a highway in a deeply thoughtful mood and very grateful for the privacy.  The next day I spent in the cemetery and adjoining park enjoying the shade and fresh air before jumping back on a train and heading north to Stockholm.

While the landscape of Ireland stirred my ancestral chemistry in a primordial kind of knowing, Stockholm was more comical while claiming my blood.  I had never seen so many blonde, blue-eyed people in one place before.  I was regularly approached by locals asking casual questions or confused tourists looking for information.  It was beyond the need to mention my biological connection to the place.  I came to see my unfamiliarity with both the language and customs as  a testament to my great-grandfather’s success, he had provided for more than himself.  He found work, survived and then thrived having a healthy family and home in a country completely unknown.  There I was, all of those years later standing on the soil of his homeland he had left forever.

I stayed in Stockholm for several days, surprised to know it was an archipelago I tried to map the layout by foot crossing bridges and navigating down waterways trying to convince the city show me all ofits secrets.  One afternoon I was walking with my giant headphones blasting some epic music and enjoying the soundtrack I had created for the days adventure when I ran directly into a large man.  Short as I am no damage was done and I stepped back mesmerized by what seemed an enormous piece of amber swinging after impact from the strangers neck.  Embarrassed I looked up to see the freckled face of a light-skinned, strangely familiar black man. “Hey.” barely slipping my headphones off my head I responded “Hey”.  My feathers ruffled and walking in the opposite direction I noticed a poster plastered up on a street post.  It advertised the Stockholm Jazz Festival and featured at its center was the same face I had just recognized.  Common, the American Hip-Hop artist I had listened to for years was the guest of honor and the festival would be starting the next day…