By Bruce A. Smith
As Superstorm Sandy upends our world and seems a capstone to a growing list of global disasters like the economic collapse of 2008, local author Michael Meade shares words of advice in his new book, Why the World Doesn’t End – Tales of Renewal in Times of Loss that offers more than just hope.
“The world that we know has already ended,” he told the Mountain News last week, “and inside the endings are the beginnings of our new world, our new lives.”
Like a shaman, Meade is presenting a series of lectures and storytelling sessions throughout the region to support the release of Why the World Doesn’t End. During early November, Meade will be speaking in the Pacific Northwest, and then his book tour heads to California.
On Friday, November 2, Meade spoke in Tacoma, sharing his views, and telling folktales and myths that illustrate that ancient people were just as familiar with apocalyptic events as we are. The lesson of these stories is that society survives, but in a wholly different way and one that is often better.
“The book traces the roots of apocalypse,” said Meade, and the tensions of our times seem to be part of a natural cycle of life.
“Tensions build between opposing forces, and extremes seem to dominate – in politics and other parts of life.”
Meade rattled off examples of these polarities: weather events such as Sandy, political movements like the Tea Party, and religious upheavals, such as the actions of the Taliban and the beliefs of fundamentalists.
“It’s an intensification of feelings, which gives way to momentary extremism,” says Meade. In addition, the institutions of society that normally offer stability are lacking.
“The great institutions now seem to be hollow,” he said, “like banks. When I was growing up a bank felt solid and safe – now look at Wall Street and the financial institutions – they are quite different.”
The same seems to be true in other parts of life, such as the institution of marriage, education, or even work.
“Look at how education budgets are being cut,” said Meade. “We’re reducing the number of teachers, and this is all adding to the cultural anxiety.”
Meade continues and says that fear produces rigidity and ideology dominates intellectual life, with creative thought being suppressed and reduced.
“We can see religions becoming narrow, and fundamentalism rising.”
Meade does not despair, however, and offers this:
“Build imagination. Reflect on the meaningful things in your life. Turn to the story inside you that wants to come out – no matter how troubled the outside world is.”
In fact, Meade declares that when we are in trouble we are closer to what are life is all about – we develop a greater authenticity in our life. Deeper qualities come out, and people become more fully what they are. In Tacoma he asked his audience:
“When you pass through the door (of death) at the end of your life, what is the one question you will be asked? I say it’s ‘Did you become yourself?’”
“Trouble creates heroic actions, new ways of doing things. People take meaningful chances with their lives.”
These kinds of changes often take time, and Meade says that the world will not get any better immediately, such as after the presidential election or the clean-up in New York.
“Radical climate change will be with us for awhile – radical cultural change, too.
Meade, whose sister lives in Rockaway Beach, New York and lost her house to Sandy, invokes the image of Noah and the floods of Biblical lore.
“We are in ‘Flood Times,” and it’s symbolic of a time of change,” he said. “We’ll see new artists and new leaders, and the change will come from the inside out and won’t conform to the outside norms. We will have to do more than just seek simple safety.”
In some ways, these kinds of cataclysmic changes occur throughout our life as we make radical changes. Meade offers his own life as an example, and he told the Mountain News that his first major shift in life occurred when he was 13 years old:
Meade grew up in a rough neighborhood in New York City called Hell’s Kitchen, and one day he was confronted by members of a rival gang. Facing a rough beating, or worse, he didn’t raise his fists but instead he started to tell a story. Enthralled, the thugs let him go – but only after hearing the whole story!
“I found something more powerful than weapons,” he said. “Everyone has something that wants to come out, but they are afraid to trust it.
Now, Meade works with youths and vets returning from war.
“I work with people who can’t return home, can’t find an old ‘normal’ to return to, so they have to find a new home within.”
Meade says that Sandy has triggered a bigger conversation about climate change in the county, and he draws upon Noah to gain inspiration.
“Noah built the ark before the storm – can you imagine what he must have heard from his neighbors? But he listened to the divine. He took a chance.”
Continuing, Meade says that history is made inside the human soul, and that resolution to our difficulties is achieved when we find the deeper, truer threads of our souls – then join with others doing the same to re-weave the world.
“Follow your instincts and talents,” Meade recommends. “What is the calling of your soul? The calling continues even when the person is distracted or lost…and remember that imagination is the deepest power of the soul.”
Later he adds: “Go to nature, like the parks and the woods, and seek renewal; or go to those places where you can help, such as nursing homes, and sing to those who are dying…When things come back, they come back in surprising ways, and quickly. Remember what happened at Mount St. Helens? The heat of the volcano cracked open new seeds that no one knew were in the ground, and a few years later we had a whole bunch of new species growing there.”
Not surprisingly, Meade says the impetus for the book came from the collective despair he saw in the young people with whom he works.
“The youth kept asking me, ‘Is the world going to end? Will there really be a world for us to live in?’”
The answer is “Yes.” Meade assures them that the roots of the new beginnings are found in the ashes of the past.
“Mythology says that the world can not end,” says Meade. “The world is not made up of atoms – it is made up of stories!”
Why the World Doesn’t End – Tales of Renewal in Times of Loss is rich with folktales that describe this process through the millennia.
In Tacoma, Meade told a South American folktale from his book in which a villager loses his homeland to a giant fire and finds solace in a piece of charcoal. The villager takes the piece of charcoal and begins tapping on it, then pounding as if on a drum. Enchanted, the fellow then begins singing, then dancing, and as he swirls around in the ashes another piece of charcoal sprouts a root. Still dancing, singing and drumming the villager continues and the root takes hold, sending forth green shoots – and soon a whole forest is reborn.
“We have to go to the places that look the darkest. There we can re-weave a new center. If enough of us find our threads we can re-weave a new world.”
© 2012 Bruce A. Smith
Editor’s Note: Michael Meade is a storyteller and author who lives on Vashon Island. His organization, the Mosaic Foundation, works with youth and veterans, and is based in West Seattle. He worked with Robert Bly for many years and was part of the “Gathering of Men,” the widely-acclaimed documentary examining the men’s’ consciousness movement of the 1990s. Michael is the author of four books examining our times, and has produced numerous CDs and tapes of folktales and mythological tales. “Myths tell us the truth that can’t be told any other way,” he says, and in doing so Michael is truly a modern-day shaman.
Why the World Doesn’t End
An evening presentation with author, mythologist and storyteller Michael Meade
Seattle, WA ~ Wednesday, November 14th –7pm – Order Tickets
All PilgrimsChurch – 500 Broadway East, Seattle, WA
Vashon, WA ~ Thursday, November 15th – 7pm – Order Tickets
Vashon United MethodistChurch – 17928 Vashon Hwy SW
Port Townsend, WA ~ Saturday, November 17th – 7pm – Order Tickets
Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship– 2333 San Juan Ave
At a time when the End can seem near because of global warming, nuclear nightmares or the predictions of ancient calendars, mythologist Michael Meade offers compelling tales of renewal and surprising ways to view the psychology and mythology that mark the passage between one era and the next.
In this liminal period beset with radical change in culture and disruptions in nature there are hints of renewal amidst the rattling and the rubble. People face a critical choice between falling under the spell of collective anxieties and dire predictions, or assisting with the revitalization of the world.
Join us for a dynamic evening of poetry, stories, and discussion celebrating Michael Meade’s timely new book.
For more information Tickets visit the Mosaic website at: www.mosaicvoices.org or contact the Mosaic office at: 206-935-3665.
Mosaic Multicultural Foundation
4218 1/2 SW Alaska, Suite H, Seattle, WA 98116
(206) 935-3665 (voice) / (206) 935-3612 (fax)
Join Mosaic on Facebook: www.facebook.com/MichaelMeadeMosaic