Story, Community, Survival by Jessamyn Smyth



I’m in British Columbia, teaching a class in contemporary ethics through Classical texts. Immersed in what I’ve come to think of as my “Iliad in the Wilderness” period, I’m asked to give a visiting faculty lecture on my areas of specialization.
My job is to convey to an audience crammed into every available couch-nook, chair, and patch of floor – in twenty five minutes, after which tea and cookies will be served – that it is through story that survival is achieved.

When I was twenty-one, I tell them, crouched in my own chair like a bird ready for flight (I’m going to need my whole body for this), I went to Thessaloniki to do my undergraduate honors thesis research.
I planned to study the transition from Minoan to Mycenaean religion and culture: the attempted erasure of the stories of matriarchal religions through misrepresentation of the stories, through archeological finds warped by the lenses of whatever contemporary beliefs held sway. As though (I tell them) the stories hadn’t survived, as though every temple in Greece doesn’t layer itself like the finest cake from Greece to Egypt, to Mesopotamia, then back to Greece—Athena to Isis to Ishtar to Athena again but this time in the form of Aphaia, some lowly tree-spirit-girl, a dryad carrying the histories of the Mediterranean, north Africa, the middle east in her now-invisible bones composed of a thousand stories.

It was a good plan.

Instead of ancient myths, in Salonica I found tank underpasses, Nazi headquarters my own student rooms.
Sidewalks paved with marble bulldozed from the Jewish cemeteries: ghost-names coming up through the soles of my feet, through the bones of the place itself.

I changed my own story, I tell the audience, to tell the story of these people: their city, their hybrid culture sprung up in Salonica after 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Spanish Jews and they travelled east, achieving a fusion of Greek and Turkish and Spanish and Hebrew in the language and music and food and dress and stories, the Thermaikos Gulf port a gateway to the Balkans and Europe and Asia shut down each Friday evening because every Salonica stevedore was observant, and every sea captain knew it so they waited until Saturday night.
I felt I must tell the story, I told them, of this vibrant world lost in six weeks of 1943, when cattle cars were packed with human beings in the height of summer’s heat, so most were dead before they even got to Auschwitz.
To honor the ghosts. To answer them. To re-member what had been dismembered.

It was 1994, I tell them, when a little Greek Orthodox Christian boy – five years old – told me that he knew a story about the Jews of Salonica, and asked me if I wanted to hear it. Of course I do, I said, and he told me that if you dig into the foundations of the houses that had been theirs, you will still find gold. There, word for word: a living medieval story about the Jews, who, we were told then, and are told now in these oblique ways, poisoned wells with the blood of Christian children and built their foundations on the gold of the plague-dead.

I tell them about interviewing one Salonica survivor. I unveil to them my own stupidity: my failure to recognize what was meant by the chill in the air, her evasive grace and vague mention of working as a seamstress for the SS, the anger of the rest of the family – standing there behind their elderly mother in her chair – at my obtuse and well-meant questing for her story.
The polite rage in the room grew and grew, the words got more and more elegant.
There was an earthquake, then, I tell the audience, while the woman ducked my questions about what happened in the camp, and the teacup skated away from my hand while everyone pretended not to notice.
This is a true story, I tell them. The whole world shook, but no one blinked.
Not long after that, I say, she rose, and said she’d see me to the door. She escorted me coldly, with the posture of a ballerina, away from her grown children so assiduously protected from what had happened to her, into the dark hallway where the quake had shaken the breakers loose.
The door closed and we stood in utter black, I tell them, when she grabbed my wrist with her elder’s hand, her fierce grip painful and burned there still:
“It was bad with the SS,” she said in a harsh, fast whisper, her breath on my neck. “And we knew. We say we didn’t know, but we knew. When someone would ask where someone had gone, someone else would point to the chimneys and say: they are smoke. But the Russians,” she said, “when they liberated the camps – that’s what we didn’t know. They raped the girls. All of us. That was our ‘liberation.'”
And then she went back inside and shut the door, I tell them, and I could not find the way out.
I stumbled from wall to wall in dire absence of light, eventually emerging on the sidewalk by accident, and I bummed a cigarette from a taxi driver but my hands were shaking too much to light it, so he lit it for me, and I stood there stupid on the marble slab for a long time, in the slow ochre light of Greek myth.

At the end of this research, I tell them, at the end of thousands upon thousands of pages and a full-on existential crisis brought on by immersion of years in the Holocaust and my total failure to personally reconcile the meaning of evil in this world or to singlehandedly preserve and honor and fix – yes, fix – the loss of this great city and its people, I found only one book that I felt even began to answer the call that I couldn’t.
It was a cookbook. The recipes of the dead, the practice of each holiday, each Sabbath, each year’s cycle in each kitchen carried forward in time.
I gave the audience a tray of pastry, from an old Sephardic recipe originating in Salonica.
From their ghost-hands to mine, from mine to yours, I told them.

And while they ate, I said: places tell stories. Ancient archaeologies and modern architects tell stories. Children carry hints of stories in stories (the stories that kill, the stories that preserve), recipes and languages themselves tell stories. The stories we tell in public, the stories we tell in private: these tell – without even meaning to – how first and second generation survivors of a nearly-successful attempt at genocide both hide and reveal what did survive, and what did not. Touch tells stories. The ghost-grip on your wrist, the flinch when you reach for the beloved’s face, the steady risk of not flinching when they touch you, the sheer valor it sometimes takes to seek or welcome true touch or stories both.

Once upon our time, I tell them, and at the words they lean in:
In the dark on the battered women’s shelter’s porch, she moved closer to me on the bench-swing, until her shoulder was touching mine.
“By the end,” she said, so quietly and steadily it was difficult to hear her, it was difficult to listen, “he’d broken every bone in every limb I’ve got, sometimes more than once. The radiographer gave up on me. Thought I was stupid. I was, I guess. But the kids, all of it – ”
I did not break that shoulder-contact, by active, difficult choice, and through our bodies, we listened to each other. She heard that I knew what it costs to hear. She heard that I was willing anyway.
“The thing is,” she said, “I can still smell him. That smell at the back of his neck. And I still go to pieces, remembering it. I loved him. Maybe I still do.”

Raven, British Columbia
Once upon our time, I tell them, right here, in this very place, all the light in the world was carefully hidden.
You wanted to know what it would feel like to fly in brightness, so you turned yourself into a cedar leaf and fluttered down through the center of everything.
She was dipping her ladle into the water bowl just as you landed. She lifted you up, she drank you down; you slid inside where she was warm and dark and you conceived each other. Her body swelled and she gave birth within moments.
It was quite astonishing for everyone.
You sprung from her a raven-tressed beauty, with dark green eyes alight like moss-forest floors. Moody. You screamed and screamed, and were always ill, and could not accept comfort from those who loved you. You scratched and bit, and were never still.
Wishing for silence, we gave you a bag of shining stars to play with: you quieted, and played with them for days on end. But soon you bored with the stars, and tossed them away, scattering them throughout the sky.
You screamed again, unending screams, so we gave you a bag containing the moon. How you loved the moon, and rolled it between your fingers for days on end, until you grew bored and hurled it hard across the room and far into the sky.
You wanted the last of everything we had. We shook our heads, but you screamed and screamed, and at last, we gave you the bag containing the sun, with many warnings not to open it, because light cannot easily be contained.
You laughed aloud then, and transformed back into Raven. Thanking us cruelly, you stole the sun and placed it in the sky so you could fly in brightness henceforth. You were not subject to gravity; you flew and were gone.
And what of her, the one you tricked?
In one version of the story, she laughed, too, because Raven had been inside her: the brightness you inspired hung in her like stars in the sky, like the moon at night, like the sun making black feathers glitter diamond. You made light. You made love.
In the other version of the story, she died. When Raven stole the silent dark the brightness could not take your place. Desiccated, unable now to touch the handles of ladles without loss burning her fingers, she could not find sustenance. She starved to death, slowly.

Once upon our time, I tell them, when I was six, I asked my mother what this sex thing was supposed to be all about. I was a precocious kid, reading all kinds of novels that were well within my linguistic comprehension, but not so much yet emotionally legible.
She gave me Our Bodies, Ourselves, and told me to read it, then come back if I had any questions.
Like I said, I was a precocious reader.
Also, it was the Seventies.
I read “The Anatomy and Physiology of Sexuality and Reproduction” and “Sexuality” and “Living with Ourselves & Others: Our Sexual Relationships.”
I also read “In Amerika They Call Us Dykes,” and chapters on self-care in contexts of oppression, chapters on rape, self-defense, venereal disease, birth control, abortion, abortion access and the consequences of not having any, the American healthcare system, unequal access to healthcare, pregnancy, childbearing, postpartum depression, parenthood, menopause, coping, organizing, and developing alternatives for healthier, more just lives for all of us.
I went back to my mother and returned the book.
“Any questions,” she asked.
“Not really,” I answered. “That all makes sense. But I do have something to tell you.”
“What’s that?”
“I’m going to love people because of who they are, not what they are,” I said.
You see, already, with my own body, with my own story, I was going to fix all this.
“That sounds like a good idea,” she answered.
I clarified: “That means I might love a man or I might love a woman.”
“Yes, I got that,” she said.
“Okay,” I said.
And that, I tell the audience, was a coming out story.

Once upon our time, I tell them, there was a girl. Her name was Sedna, and she was like many other girls you know, Athena and Artemis, Atalanta and the Amazons: she did not wish to be married. She liked her life the way it was in the far north, with her dog and her family and the ever-present insulating snow. She rejected every suitor.
But this is a story of the deeps, so you can guess where it will go.
A man came, a handsome man with a boat heavy with bearskins and smoked meat. He promised Sedna’s father a boat so burdened every year on this day, if Sedna was given to him in marriage. He promised a life of ease and warmth and good food and company for her for the rest of her days.
Sedna’s father agreed, and Sedna, against her will, was taken out onto the waves by the handsome stranger.
Halfway across the ocean, he transformed into a huge raven, and carried Sedna to a barren, rocky shore.
There was no village. There were no skins. There was nothing but rock and ice, spray and wind. He left her in the lee of a stone where she crouched shivering for a year, with nothing to eat but regurgitated bear-meat he sometimes vomited up on the stones.
When the year passed, and Sedna’s husband did not return with the promised bounty, Sedna’s father rowed out across the ocean to search for what was his. He found her, crouched and shivering, and she begged, she screamed, she pleaded: she persuaded him to take her home.
But halfway across the ocean, the raven flew upon them, screaming and whipping the waves into a terrible frenzy about their boat. Sedna’s father panicked, and threw his daughter overboard to save himself.
Sedna swam back and clasped the side of the boat, but her father chopped at her hands with his oar to save himself as the raven beat the waves higher and higher. He chopped his daughter’s fingers from her hands, and she fell away, and sank beneath the waves.
As she fell, her life spilled out and darkened the water.
From her fingers, whales came to be, and seals. From her blood, fish.
As she fell, her flesh fell away and her bones emerged, shining white.
At the bottom of the ocean, she built a throne from the bones of men whose boats she capsized, and called her dog to her. They say her dog can run to shore and pull a man right back to his mistress on command. He sits beneath her throne of human bones to this day.
And now, here in the north, if we want to eat, we have to send our best and wisest to Sedna.
They must swim down to her, and comb her long and tangled hair.
If they do it right, with love, the whales and seals will be ours.
If they do not, she and her dog will eat them.

Once upon our time, I tell them, Inanna spoke:
“What I tell you
Let the singer weave into song.
What I tell you,
Let it flow from ear to mouth,
Let it pass from old to young.”*

There are many ways to understand and study story: the hero’s cycle, sacred story, epics, archetypes either Jungian or not, lovers and crones and plagues and betrayals, a full and fine understanding of what catharsis is and why we cannot survive our own flawed species without it, the lived understanding of the etymology of the Greek word onomatopoeia (onoma – name, poeia – to make; the name creates the thing, the thing is a poem, the story creates the culture, the poem sings the dead back to life).
You know the stories already, I tell them, both sacred and mundane:
The dying and resurrecting god in the form of Attis, Adonis, Osiris, Jesus whose story sings us to redemption of crops or souls or wholeness or valor; the creation goddess whose hips hold the universe in which we swim in our daily practice of astronomy or poetry or mathematics or lovemaking. The man made of clay into whose mouth we breathe a prayer of protection who then saves us from the Cossacks as the golems of Jewish folktales did, or our own hubris as Enkidu the wild man in the Epic of Gilgamesh did. The trickster who mirrors us back to ourselves in all our glorious mess. The moral tales in modern gossip, in social media games of telephone in which the original story warps its own weft into a woof of allegory as surely meant to teach us something as Aesop’s fable or Orwell’s Animal Farm. In personal tales of survival and loss; in the largest narratives of Carl Saganesque stardust.

So the question, I tell them, is one of courage, and listening, and interpreting. Bearing witness in that active sense that effects change. The experience of catharsis that allows us to not only make sense of all this, but to do something useful with it.
Isaac Luria, founder of kabbalah, said our task is to gather scattered sparks, to restore the broken body of the sacred into a coherence that makes the world whole.
Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, said: “This history may not be the most delightful to hear, since there is no mythology in it. But those who want to look into the truth of what was done in the past—which, given the human condition, will recur in the future, either in the same fashion or nearly so—those readers will find this History valuable enough, as this was composed to be a lasting possession.”**

Stories are our gathering. We gather around them, but we also gather through them.
They are our experiential wisdom to undo the patterns which tangle us again and again in failures of community, or of democracy, or of sustaining our own planet upon which all life depends; they are science writing to effectively communicate the stakes of climate change to a lay audience; they are the whispered confession of why we are afraid. They are everything in between.
So finish this sentence, I ask them.
Once upon our time –

And what do they do?
They write a poem.

It’s an epic. A hero’s tale.
Each person a line, each line from the last.

Together they make a building coherence.



*These lines are taken from Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, translating cuneiform tablets from 2,000 BCE. The book is published by HarperCollins (New York, 1983).

The re-telling of the raven creation myth is my own 2nd-person engagement with the traditional Tsimshian story (Pacific Northwest), as told to me many, many years ago by an Abenaki storyteller at a pow-wow on the Mohawk Trail in western Massachusetts. So there you go. That’s how these stories move.

The re-telling of the Sedna tale, a traditional Inuit creation story, is an amalgamation of many versions gathered from both storytellers and Inuit folklore collections you can find in print and online.

My recommendation for the Epic of Gilgamesh is Maureen Kovacs’ translation at The Academy for Ancient Texts, because it faithfully pulls from the first eleven tablets and lets the real caesuras be, which makes you fill them yourself.

Thucydides’ History is everywhere, not least in the daily news cycle. If you want a recommendation of a user-friendly abridgment, I like **Paul Woodruff’s On Justice, Power, and Human Nature (Hackett, 1993), from which I took the quote above.

If you need some Iliad in your wilderness, you can’t go wrong with – or do better than – Robert Fitzgerald’s translation.