Discovering Your Inner Genius... Giving Your Gift... See the Genius In Others

In the Arthurian legend of Parsifal, whose name means piercing the veil, all of the knights went into the forest at their own place to find the grail, that which would feed them and help to heal others. It marks a profound change from group mentality to individual responsibility. The following writings, videos and images will tell the stories of how people discovered their cargo, how this has served them in their life work and how they have seen the inner genius in others. These are in no particular order. Regard them as trees marking the path you will forge into the forest of yourself; a first step toward finding the precious grail.


Want to contribute? Write a testimony and send it to cargopoemproject@gmail.com. We would love to include your voice!

Enough?!

By Andrew Garfield

Show up.

Show up at the blank page. Show up at the lab, at the office in the rehearsal space. Show up at the protest, at the voting booth, at the picket line, in the woods. To a friendship, IN THE WORLD….

This is the only way I know how to bring cargo. To simply show up. Courageously, authentically as my true self. (Whatever the hell that means. Of course it is a constant unfolding.)

I tend to show up full of terror and self doubt. When something matters, when it is important to my deepest self, the terror begins to talk. To tell me: “Turn back. Run away. (even as I offer up these words, that terror screams at me to retreat. But I will show up for the next word and the next. “Everything depends on this”)

I have tried many different ways to extinguish this voice in myself. This critic. This one that tells me I’m “not enough, that I have nothing to offer, that I needn’t try, leave it to the real artists, the real geniuses, the real actors. YOU stay on the sidelines and watch and learn.” I must live WITH this voice in me, whispering the bad advice it learned one day long ago, probably as a young child trying to survive.

But (unfortunately, ha. Or thank god.) there is another part of me that longs to participate. That loves community. That loves deep profound works of art and longs to be a part of attempting to create things that have depth and medicine in them. Medicine that could heal a small or large corner of a sick world crying out for soothing. Crying out for soul, for depth, for something authentic.

This voice is a “longing pain” as Rumi says. I know it cannot be satiated. This voice is deeper than the rest. Insistent. It lives just beneath the one in me that doubts and tries to protect me from showing up, getting hurt, being judged and criticized. Failing. Being rejected or deemed unworthy.

This deeper part of me just wants to give itself to the healing of the world. The healing of humanity. This part of me is my cargo and it truly longs to be given, spread like seed. To create community. To remind us of how sacred this human experience is, how sacred this earth is. To remind us that we all actually know and need each other. That you are the other me and me the other you. We are indeed all one. En la kesh.

The ship that my cargo has found, the delivery system it has so far used, has been through being a vessel on stage and on screen. A vessel for stories to flow through. A vessel for humanity to flow through,.

I never consciously understood how stories saved my life and shaped my life until I studied and performed Arthur Miller and Shakespeare plays at drama school in London when I was 18. Evena little bit before then, I saw my first play when I was 16. A great teacher, my first real one, Mr. Tong, introduced me to theatre. He and his wife “saw me”. A vital part of anyone’s journey toward what their cargo might be.

A brief story about this vital moment…

I was in high school. I had given up - on everything really. I could pass tests by cramming, I could graduate (and I did), but I really didn’t care to. There was neither life force nor passion in it, only obligation. To fit in. To gain approval from my father, to “keep up” with my brother, to be approved of by a sick school system. It was itchy and painful to be at school. I was rather depressed. I thought it was some deficiency in me. As if somehow I didn’t belong in the world. Like that movie “the Truman show”. I had some inkling of something beyond what I knew but I had no proof of it. I was banging my head against the false walls of the family and the school culture I found myself in. (I still find myself doing this now. Keep banging my head until I find a doorway, a trap door into a larger reality, and then a larger one and a larger one, kind of like a reverse onion peeling. Funny too as I peel layers back internally and travel deeper inside in search of my deepest truest self, I find my external world becomes larger simultaneously.)

So I was wandering around this desert of adolescence, longingly, hungry for belonging and meaning and a place to serve something greater than myself. Getting into all kinds of trouble. Bored to almost despair and death. I truly wondered if this was it? Is this life? It doesn’t feel like enough for me to hang around for. (this theme of “not enoughness” is a good one in me. It is both my GIFT and my WOUND. It keeps me hungry for a fuller and fuller life and more and more connection but it can also hurt me. It can easily become “I’m not enough.”) All this to say I was low, empty, desperate and in great need of the right trap door to open underneath me.

It came. Thank god (Or whatever divine force intervened on my behalf).

Maybe my inner genius cried out hard enough to be heard by this magical Mr. Tong. My inner genius provided me this opportunity of being so deeply “seen” by Mr. Tong.

In my desolation and depression I tried all types of creative expression. I was encouraged by my mother. I was not encouraged by my school nor by my father’s loving fear for me to find a “real” job and make money to survive in this hellish world of seeming scarcity.

I try to paint. Nah. I try to sculpt. Nah. I try music. Nah. I try theatre. Hmmmm. Feels rather good. Some little crack opens in me and the feeling of satisfaction and ease begins, passion and excitement. And I’m told I’m “not bad at it.”. This was imperative. To be encouraged toward the light by some mentor.  I found myself on stage at school. A school play called “Kids”, where I played an omniscient baby drooling on himself and quoting Plato and Neitche. It was insanely fun and funny and totally satisfying and the audience laughed and clapped and seemed moved. And it felt rather natural. Rather…joyous. And selfishly, I got so much out the sheer doing of it.

I felt like I finally had a place. Something to offer. Some cargo had been delivered.

And then low and behold Mr. Tong “Sees” me. And tells me I have a gift and that he would like me to study drama with him.

I was blessed by an elder mentor and the trap door opened underneath me. I slid into the world of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller. I read poetry for the first time. I learned about avant garde theatre companies like ‘Theatre de Complicite’.  Basically the walls came crashing down and I was let loose to run through the fields outside the prison that my life had been until then.

So that was it. The beginning of my cargo finally being brought into the world through plays. Through films. Through performance and this mode of self expression.

Since then the journey of finding and delivering this cargo has been a true adventure. There have been smooth glassy waters, clear skies, birds and warm breezes guiding my pathless path. There of course have been storms, shark attacks and isolated stranded months on desert islands. But always the cargo calls from deep within and I find the greater trouble I’m in, the greater resources within me and without me appear.

But what of this self doubt. This counter voice, this counter being in me that tells me I’m not enough, that says stay small, that says not to write this small passage. This voice still lurks within me with a power that can threaten to topple me. This may be a voice that we all have to varying degrees of strength, of loudness of brilliance. A brilliance in trying to keep us “safe”, to keep the cargo in the vessel, to keep us from looking foolish or wrong. And our modern culture seems to more often than not be in cahoots with this voice. Shaming us, keeping us small and controlled. We do not find ourselves in a culture of encouragement in which to grow our inherent gifts. We find ourselves in a culture of homogenization, of separation, of fear of the other, of fear of the different. We have become so quick to judge, to hate, to throw rocks. We simultaneously worship, envy and tear down those who are striving to live radically as their true selves. It is of course much safer to remain small, to fall in line, to say, “Yes they are right, I’m not worthy, I’m a burden I’m a hassle, I’m too loud, too much.” It’s much safer to try to “fit in” in this sick culture, to avoid getting chopped down to size, criticized, shamed, humiliated.

But of course it is in fact, far less safe to live that way. It’s incredibly dangerous to live a life of fear and falling in line and convention. The danger is thinking that the world will never benefit from having your true self fully realized and brought into it. The danger is thinking that people will not be touched and moved into bringing their own cargo into the world that so desperately needs it. The danger is a life unlived. A weeping genius buried deep with in you. The violin collecting dust in the attic. The god-sent singing voice trapped only in the shower. As Greg says “everything depends on this”.

I share this story and my own personal struggles with this voice in me that seems to have taken up permanent residence in my psyche, in the hope that I will continue to free myself of it so that more and more of my cargo can be delivered, cargo that may still be a mystery to me. I also share it in the hope that doing this could provide solace and encouragement for others seeking their own cargo and longing for it to be delivered.

The deeper longing in me is to stand naked in front of the world and cry, “This is me. This is who I am and this is what I have to give you.” My cargo will be delivered because the other choice is a dullness, a life of fear, a white fog. And I have to believe that I am wanted and needed here. That I belong here. That we all belong here. This Rumi poem says it best in its last lines.

God picks up the reed-flute world and blows.
Each note is a need coming through one of us,
a passion, a longing-pain.
Remember the lips
where the wind-breath originated,
and let your note be clear.
Don't try to end it .
BE Your Note.
I'll show you how it's enough.
Go up on the roof at night
in the city of the soul.
Let Everyone climb on their roofs
and sing their notes!
Sing loud!

So I write this, being vulnerable and naked on my rooftop, a vessel for stories to flow through, willing to be my note. And I pray we all find the way for our cargo to be delivered.

I will add that it was very hard to write as I offer this up. The demons, the scared ones in me, screamed at me to keep safe. Tried to drag me away from this blank page.

I’ll also add that I feel I am just beginning. That I’m excited to know all of the cargo I have to bring. And a big part of that I feel I must encourage others to live their gifts fully, to not allow the violin to collect dust.

One more thing (ha): Because we cannot depend on our current culture to encourage us in this way, I feel it is vital for us to find and cultivate community that DOES. I would not be able to offer this up without Alan Cohen’s hand at my back. Without Greg Kimura’s poetry. Without Luis Roderiguez’ loving fierceness in my life, without Noel to draw on for inspiration and SUPPORT. So seek out the tribe that is already seeking you and as David Whyte says:

“anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.”

All my love and hope.

Andrew Garfield

Andrew Garfield is a stage and screen actor. He is breaking new ground on redefining celebrity as a means of helping others. Andrew demonstrates how vulnerability can be a foundation for strength.

After Wanting to Punch the Gift Horse in the Mouth…

By Rosemerry Trommer

I knew, at age 10, that I wanted to write and share poems, not just as a pastime, but as a lifeline. I loved how poems could play with language and turn the world on its head. I loved the way poems sounded when I whispered them. I loved the way I felt when I was writing poems. I loved the way poems resonated in me with their vulnerability, their cleverness, their paradox, their humor.

There was just one problem. I have no innate talent for writing poems. Some people, I think, are inherently gifted with the ability to communicate poetically. I’ve met a few. I am not one of them.

Thirty-five years later, I have published many books of poems and have been named Poet Laureate of Colorado’s Western Slope. I lead writing retreats for art schools and perform dozens of times a year. I’ve won contests and published in journals all across the US.

Most people, I think, would assume that my gift is for poetry. And when I first heard Greg Kimura recite his poem, “Cargo,” I knew that it had something to teach me. I have always felt like something of an imposter. What if people found out that poetry doesn’t come easily to me? In fact, I have to admit that it’s still a little painful to admit to myself that poetry is not my gift.

Greg’s poem was an invitation to consider what my gifts really are. Turns out, I have a gift for throwing myself into something completely. I have the gifts of persistence, stubbornness and devotion, and there is nothing like persistence, stubbornness and devotion to improve whatever it is you are practicing.

I also have a gift for listening to and guiding others as they move forward in their own poetic endeavors. Connecting with other people comes naturally for me. This is what has allowed me to teach in universities and libraries and kindergartens and hospices and hospitals across the states and help other people find their voice and re-see their worlds more poetically.

I am, perhaps, a messenger to let others know that our gifts may not be what we want them to be. And they may not be what others perceive. And it might take a little soul-searching on our parts to find out what our gifts really are and how they serve us and how we might best share them with the world.

In many ways, my childhood dreams have come true. I have been able to devote my life to helping people find the poetry in their own lives—by sharing poems in person and in print, by teaching children and adults, and by living a poetic life myself. And the secret to my dreams was discovering and nurturing persistence, stubbornness, devotion, and an ability to connect with others—not the gifts I wanted, but the ones I most needed to help make a small difference in the world. 

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בראשית Bereshith: In the Beginning

By David Lee

I was, I believe, four when my beloved grandmother who, within the past hour, had told me I was, "her favorite little boy in the whole world," picked me up by the hair of my head and flung me into the corner of her living room in Matador, Texas and told me I must "stay there for an hour or all afternoon," expanding to the threshold of eternity, I suspect, until I learned my lesson for once and for all and promised her and Godamitey­ Himself that never again ever would the words "I'm bored" ever issue forth from my lips and that I should "tell myself a joke or a story or whatever it takes to learn what He put between my ears as the greatest gift He could ever make," and I remember taking a sub­altern deity's ransom's value of time, at least up to eight seconds, searching the corner for worms I could eat and then die to show her how sorry she would be, and then turning to the problem of a joke or story, neither of which I had a goose's idea of how to create or tell except the remembrance of how Dandy and my uncles did it and how everyone laughed except the one it was about and so I created my first original story set in the churchhouse and to make it a joke I added boogers, the funniest thing I knew, and I pulled one out over a foot long and turned around and stood up in my pew and showed it to Mrs. Hartman who hated my cockle spaniel named Honey and who I knew my grandmother didn't like because she was stiff-necked and uncircumcised of heart and said it at the breakfast table and she screamed and fainted and fell out of her pew onto the floor and her snuff mop fell out of her sleeve where I knew she hid it and went clang on the floor and the preacher said, "Oh precious baby Jesus," and grandmother went "hee hee hee snort hee" because that's how she laughed and I knew I'd said my first story out loud because when I turned around she was laughing and crying because as a protestant she knew laughter was a potential sin perhaps even as evil as dancing and told me I could come out of the corner now if I promised to never say that again and I promised and crossed my heart to make it true but I told her I wanted to make up another story so I'd come out later and I did and got to tell it at the supper table and I've kept that promise for sixty years, and that's pretty much how it happened once upon a time.

David Lee is a nationally renowned poet. He is an outstanding teacher.

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The Gift in the Crucible of a Soul-Destructive Life

By Luis J. Rodriguez

I found my gift, what I “owe” the world, in response to being gifted with life, breath, brain, heart, spirit, capacity, in my darkest hours. I’m sure this is not true for everyone, but this speaks to how even in the ugly, shadowy and diminished spaces can come beauty, art, song, words, and ideas.

For example, I was once on murderer’s row of the Hall of Justice jail in Los Angeles, on heroin, in a gang, 16 years old, confined to the narrow confines of barrio violence, drugs, insanity. Sheriff’s deputies threatened me and four other “cholo” gang youth with charges in three murders during the so-called East L.A. riot that began on August 29, 1970. We were illegally held in an adult facility for days on end, without official charges. I had a cell next to Charles Manson. The first night there, two murderers put a razor blade to my neck—I stood up to them, showing no fear, regardless of my actual feelings. They eventually put away the blade, then we played cards all night long.

Somehow, in that cell, I began to write vignettes, thoughts, images. Not poems exactly, I had not idea what a poem was, but the small seeds of what would later become big writing. This time was also the initiatory experience I needed to confront a new trajectory of life. I got released with no charges after Chicano activists produced photos and videos of law enforcement officers beating and shooting people, including the murder of Ruben Salazar, a renowned journalist and voice of the people, at the Silver Dollar Bar in East L.A.

Later with the help of a youth counselor, a couple of teachers and a home-school liaison person, I returned to high school after dropping out the year before. By 17, I had painted eight murals with other gang youth (and some by myself). I got active in the Chicano Movement, leading school walkouts, taking part in protest marches, participating in Chicano youth leadership training.

Although I went two steps forward, one step back, I eventually found my footing. Despite other arrests for attempted murder at 17 and assaulting police at 18 (in an incident in which I tried to stop the police beating of a handcuffed young woman as she lay on the ground), I soon got the will and courage to quit “La Vida Loca” (The Crazy Life), including heroin, guns, and barrio warfare.

My gift of language in the forms of books and other writings as well as my talks have transformed me but also in no small measure the world around me.

Community members wrote letters on my behalf during my last arrest, allowing me to avoid a state prison term, although I did get convicted of “drunk & disorderly” and “resisting arrest.” I felt an obligation to become a new person, with a new mind, and with aims I never had before.

By the time I held my first-born son when I was 20, I was done with the madness. And while I had other setbacks, afflictions (I drank for 20 more years and had rage issues), and had to work many years in heavy industry and construction, I eventually emerged as a journalist, poet, fiction writer, children’s book writer, memoirist, and essayist.

By age 40, I quit drinking, now sober for 22 years, and learned to become a better father, husband, community leader, thinker, organizer. My gift of language in the forms of books and other writings as well as my talks have transformed me but also in no small measure the world around me. This is also how I’ve worked among those others have written off—gang members, prisoners, homeless, migrants, mentally ill, war veterans, and more: To draw out the very powers, potentials and destinies every soul carries the day one is born—that is, to help people live out the story they were meant to live.

Luis Rodriguez is the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, a social activist and bringer of art to the margins of society.

Bringing Cargo to School

Rudd Crawford

I taught high school mathematics for 40 years and loved it.  In particular I loved being with youngsters—beginning adults!—who were deeply concerned about their own identity: who am I? Am I a good person? What am I going to "be"?

Those questions were always welcome as they bubbled up to the surface in my classroom: for yes, even the teaching of algebra can lend itself to the big personal questions and issues, though not in as obvious ways as the teaching of, say, literature.  But it can be done.  I did it.

Given this human context for my mathematics teaching, I was delighted when Greg wrote Cargo.  I put it up on my bulletin board, in large type, read it to all my classes, and gave time in class to ponder its meaning for individual teenagers.  Kids took my math courses knowing that they'd be in for personal acceptance and growth, as well as the chance to sharpen their minds as they grappled with algebra and geometry and beyond.  The Cargo poem became a major factor in creating that people-centered ethos.

I have given talks to various mathematics teacher groups over the last several years, and have always included Cargo as a handout.  The teachers and future teachers coming up to talk afterwards, and particularly the young ones, are deeply interested in the idea of a "humane math class atmosphere".  Cargo is the perfect entry point for a discussion with these beginners on creating that atmosphere.

Thanks, Greg.  You've helped me, and numerous others, become teachers who matter.

Rudd Crawford taught mathematics in the public schools, mostly Oberlin High School in Ohio, for 40 years.  He has a particular interest in non-routine mathematics problems, many of which are on this website.

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Finding and Using Our Gifts

by Tony LoRe

Tony LoRe is the founder of Youth Mentoring in Los Angeles. After a career as as a successful entrepreneur, Tony knew he had to follow his gift and give it to the world. Since founding YM he has literally saved the lives of numerous young people as well as enhancing the lives of many more youths and mentors. He has recently been invited to countries around the world to share his message which stems out of his love for our young people. To learn more about Tony and Youth Mentoring, click here.

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Cargo, Genius, and my Struggle with Mourning: A Counterpoint with Kimura

By K. Noel Amherd

You enter life a ship laden with meaning, purpose and gifts

sent to be delivered to a hungry world.

I’m recovering from a week spent with grief. A high school shattered by suicide. A teen whose removal from life was her own last life-act. The shock of it crippled and doubled us over. Voices of her schoolmates weren’t even sure if their voices were allowed to keen. They neither knew how to feel nor if they had a right to stumble their way into feeling.

 

And as much as the world needs your cargo,

you need to give it away.

“I just want my friend back” one keened through sobs.

Bewildered and hovering, “We’re just kids, we’re just kids” another uttered to no one in particular, more a plea to an unaccountable cruelty.

 

Everything depends on this.

For some of the youth, this was their first meeting with Death. For others, just one more amongst too many for their few years. They ask: What do we do? Why? Why does this happen? What does it mean? Why does this keep happening to me? What do I do?

 

But the world forgets its needs,

and you forget your mission,

Their questions demand a culture come to its senses. Demand that adults shake off the stupor of the banal. Demand that all the living generations reflect inwardly to reveal the dreams and visions of what it is to live.

 

and the ancestral maps used to guide you

have become faded scrawls on the parchment of dead Pharaohs.

We must willingly allow Death to shatter the banal or we risk becoming the living dead feeding off the mundane status quo as if that were enough. And yet we know. We know that, as Hannah Arendt said to us, evil resides in banality. We know the effect of the soporific routinization of our lives from alarm clock to school to work to home to sleep. Then repeat. We know banality accompanied by the soundtrack of narcissism, manufactured autism of isolation and loss of empathy, and maladies of the soul like depression and addiction. We know evil lies here. And we know it when our young kill themselves. What greater accusation than the production of their own death at a time when life is literally bursting within their hearts, intellects, and bodies.

 

The cargo weighs you heavy the longer it is held

and spoilage becomes a risk.

Come back or toward or home to the gifts you came to this world to give! Defy this killing purgatory of the living dead. We must be the living alive, for humanity is at stake. It’s not enough to be living as set of biological mechanisms.

 

The ship sputters from port to port and at each you ask:

"Is this the way?"

To make any of their efforts worthwhile, our youth yearn for the meanings of life intensely felt yet vaguely understood in their dreams of who they might be and the culture that could exist (but rarely does). These illuminating beacons of radical reinvention, these dreams awakening in youth, require adults awake enough to know the spiration (Latin, spirare  ‘breath’ but also from which we get the word ‘spirit’) of their own dreams. The inspired dream of one’s life is like a divine breath carried in the spirit of each person. Each youth carries with them into this world unique yearnings, abilities, and a particular style of being that will allow them to bring forth the deepest Self as the unfolding spirit of one’s life. Youth, the same as everyone, must become themselves. They must be heard. They must be seen. They must be blessed. They must shape the world. We must accompany.

 

But the way cannot be found without knowing the cargo,

and the cargo cannot be known without recognizing there is a way,

and it is simply this:

Genius, genuine, genie. All come from the Arabic al jinn ‘spirit’. Our English word ‘genius’ is even cognate with the West African word alujanun from the Yoruba language. The alujanun are people identified with uncanny abilities of the mind (itself culturally perceived as inherent in the body, embodied rather than banished to the brain). They know things beyond the easily explained. They foresee outcomes that others miss. They are always identified as people close to spirits, as people of spirit or with the spirit. Genius is the resident spirit of a person come alight like a flame that, through polishing, like Aladdin’s lamp, can illuminate the dark paths and corners of our life.

 

You have gifts.

There it is again, ‘spirit.’  We can’t escape the feeling that there is something eternal that resides within the mortality of each human life.  Science even assents that we humans are made of the same stardust from the origin of the cosmos that makes all matter, whether spiraling galaxies or evasive quarks. A kind of eternity residing in the temporal.

 

The world needs your gifts.

The spirit in youth flares into a kind of intense burning when their ‘cargo’ begins to weigh and demand its mission. We lose our daughters and sons to a scream to be seen for their gifts, their genius, their genuine vision for a world that could be safe, kind, generous, and inclusive and their role in forging something genuine therein.

Adults must ‘bless’ youth’s ephemeral sense of their gift for it to become solid and take shape in the world.  This is the life-affirming act of “seeing” them. The verdant seeing-of-our-youth provides the blessing.

 

You must deliver them.

Death is here because it is the only canvas upon which life can be painted. Death is the material of life’s purpose because eternity would render living pointless. Death is the world behind the world, the other world, the words beneath the words.  The dark wisdom seeping in from unseen depths, like the Spaniards’ duende, granting the living the nearly ineffable paradox of sorrow and joy come from years spent on Earth. Youthful riskiness instinctively wants to be close to death to know they are fully alive, to know this joy and sorrow. But the risk is Death. Nothing is without risk. And this is why when youth feel the abandonment and betrayal of the culture-at-large, of community, of the adults they yearn for, they become exiled into a half-life/half-death purgatory, the pain of which torments their efforts to enter life fully with vision, purpose, beauty, strength, and relationships that tie them into ‘ the family of things’.

 

The world may not know it is starving,

Death mirrors birth as a passage from one kind of life to another, a life in this world to a life in “the other world.” Death, like birth, transforms, but itself is not evil.  We are all “at-risk” in a culture that produces nihilism rather than Death. The production of corpses rather than ancestors. Mere biological function rather than vitality. This is why the undead zombies are always so hungry. Being reduced to the biological, compulsive, and mechanical, they feel an insatiable hunger for anything that whiffs of life, the genuine and authentic. The world is hungry. Its hunger must not be consuming but composting, not individualistic but companionistic (from the Latin, com ‘with’ + panis ‘bread’ so our companeros are those with whom we break bread), not voracious but vernal.

 

but the hungry know,

and they will find you

Set within a culture of commodification, objectification, and the denial of innate genius unique to each soul, youth lose and we lose youth. They cannot find it alone. And we – the former youth who probably weren’t given this either – must not abandon them through the betrayal of thinking that we have “arrived.” We must see them, be honest with them, bless them, and keep discovering our own gifts intimately linked to our sorrows where we also rediscover our dreams until the Fates determine when our thread runs out.

when you discover your cargo

and start to give it away.

Noel Amherd is a teacher of restorative justice, an aikido master and falconer.

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Passing the Gift Around

By Alison Luterman

I went to see my playwriting mentor the other day for help with a play I have been writing (and rewriting and rewriting...) I reached out to her because I was stuck and I knew the problem was the foundation, which was not clear to me, and I knew I couldn't get clear on it on my own. I knew I needed help. There had been two staged readings of this piece; audiences had liked it; the discussion afterwards had lasted so long the stage manager had to throw us all out of the theater. We adjoined to a nearby bar where people kept talking and arguing passionately about the characters which is what every playwright wants.

But. The conclusion of the play was lame, a character who was not "supposed" to be the main character had hijacked all the best lines, the character who was supposed to be the protagonist remained something of a cipher, and the married couple's relationship didn't seem believable.

My mentor asked me to tell her the story of the play. She listened with a kind of fierce concentration, like a tracker in the woods listening for the sounds of twigs breaking, far-off hoofbeats, rufflings of feathers. She listened with 3-D awareness, and then she told me, quickly and without pretense or fuss or condescension: make the character who hijacked the action be the main character; the play is about the sisters, you may not need the husband; all the stories which you've now got as people telling each other what happened--show them. On stage. Even if you think you can't. Get rid of the setting you are so attached to--let it go, and let the sets be fluid. A good set designer can create whatever environment you want. Write big dramatic, juicy, over-the-top scenes for your characters, scenes that actors would love to play. Forget trying to be a subtle playwright--that's not who you are.

All of her comments were spot-on, and as she spoke, I could feel the stuck places in my concept of the play dissolving and new possiblities arising.

This, in my opinion, is genius: deep, fierce listening, intuition, experience, awareness of more options than were previously evident, and permission, permission, permission to go all-out in one's imagination and feelings.

This gift she gave me, I can give and do give to others. I listen deeply to my own students, and out of my experience and poetic intuition I often offer suggestions which they find unlock new doors. We give this gift to each other. It is not static, it moves from person to person. Its nature is generosity. It wants to give itself, it wants to be given.

My genius also lay in knowing when I need help, and asking for it. My play will now begin with a character going to the trees, which is where I go when I need solace, or clarity, or just to reconnect with the world, and praying, which is what I do when I'm there. I feel exposed and vulnerable writing about such a private practice, much less putting it on stage, but there you go. Vulnerability is also an essential part of my own gift--if I have the courage to be vulnerable in my writing, it seems to inspire that in other people, and then we are all a little more human with each other.

Alison Luterman is a Bay Area poet and playwright. Her three books of poems are bursting with heart, wisdom and humor. She is well known for her presence in The Sun magazine.

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Finding Gifts, Developing Genius

Some thoughts on how and why I was drawn to storytelling and performance.

Will Hornyak.jpg

By Will Hornyak

I think that we all belong to a certain tribe of geniuses when we’re born. But we have to find that tribe and discover our place in it. I think that the seeds of our personal genius begin to sprout very early and reveal themselves to the world.  The style and expression of our genius often looks strange to other people, but it seems completely natural to ourselves.  I think of it as something that we can’t keep ourselves from doing no matter how weird it looks.    

I was about 10 years old back in 1964 when my parents gave me a little tape recorder for my birthday.  I spent hours in my room making up different characters and voices and playing them back on the recorder.  I would laugh out loud at my “brilliant” impersonations. As my sister explained: “Will, you are from the tribe of the ‘Easily Amused’.” But, I was surprised at the range of expressions I had in my 10-year-old brain. And, I loved whiling away the hours using my voice to develop characters.  It was like I was creating a little world from my own imagination.  In school I always gravitated toward those who loved making jokes, doing impersonations, telling stories and “cutting up.”    

I loved whiling away the hours using my voice to develop characters. It was like I was creating a little world from my own imagination.

Another early form of my creative expression was digging holes in the dirt with a shovel and pounding nails into wood.  I didn’t care so much about what I was making, I just loved the physical activity of digging in the earth and joining wood together with nails.  I once dug a trench about 20 feet long and two feet wide and two feet deep when I was 11 years old.  I told my dad that it was going to be a bomb shelter.  My dad was a patient man. He let me make things with scrap wood from his little shop in our backyard.  After a couple weeks he would untangle my creations and restack the wood.  He eventually set aside a little stack of discarded lumber that I was allowed to use for my “projects.” (I eventually earned my living as a carpenter, and although I was never an exceptional builder, I always loved the process of working with the materials of the earth.)

Years later when I was about 25 I remembered my love for building things and for making up characters and stories. But, by then I was a newspaper reporter and life was full of deadlines and long days in an office. A turning point came when I won a grant to live and work as a freelance journalist in Latin America. I had never been out of the country and spoke only a little Spanish but soon was living in the busy capital city of Lima, Peru. After about 6 months in Peru I felt like I had hit a wall --- I was lonely, depressed, confused and didn’t feel like I was making the sort of progress in my career that I wanted. More troubling than that was that the pleasure and challenge of reporting and writing, and the thrill of seeing my “by-line” in print no longer held the same interest for me.  I had big expectations that this grant to work in Latin America would provide a launching pad for me to become a foreign correspondent.  Instead it was dropping me into a paralyzed funk of depression and regret.  

I decided to take a break from reporting and writing and just travel on my own for a while, mostly in the Andes Mountains and in the Amazon basin.  I hitched on trucks, rode old buses and trains and did a lot of walking.  I took the Norton Anthology of Poetry with me. Every day I would read poems, speaking some out loud, and copying down my favorite poems long-hand in a little journal. I had never been a big poetry fan, but I found the words of these poets speaking to me during this confusing time in my life.  One night, while walking by myself in the moonlit Incan ruins just outside the city of Cuzco, Peru I began to piece together parts of poems that I had read and recited.  It was like I was channeling an improvisational play, using different voices for different poems, shifting from Yeats and Wordsworth to Emily Dickinson, Geoffrey Chaucer, Walt Whitman.  I must have spent 3 hours walking in circles around these ruins feeling the poetry and the power of spoken language and the magic of character pulsing through me.  The next morning I went to the central plaza in Cuzco and wrote my first one-act play based on a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer called “For Lack of Steadfastness.”  I began to remember how much I loved the act of creation, the sound of words, the power of voice and the experience of playing with ideas and characters. 

After his hour-long presentation I sat stunned by the power of this art form of storytelling that was so simple, immediate, profound, intimate and engaging. I knew after his performance that that was what I wanted to do.

I knew at that time that my life had taken a different turn.  I remained in Peru for another year and spent many months traveling and keeping a journal.  I had never written much for or about myself but now I found myself pouring forth thoughts and ideas into journals.  I dedicated myself to learning Spanish, the continuing with poetry and writing as well as writing the articles that were required of me.  When I returned to the United States I decided to give up journalism.  I foundered for a time and started earning my living as a carpenter.  When I was about 29 I heard my first storyteller – a brilliant writer/performer named Jay O’Callahan – while I was living in Seattle.  After his hour-long presentation I sat stunned by the power of this art form of storytelling that was so simple, immediate, profound, intimate and engaging.  I knew after his performance that that was what I wanted to do.

Sometime after that, probably in 1982, I began finding ways to learn simple stories and volunteer my time at schools and libraries, retirement communities, birthday parties, etc.  I spent nearly 12 years slowly incubating storytelling while working as a carpenter.  I read mythology, folk and fairy tales and studied the works of Jos. Campbell, Heinrich Zimmer, Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Robert Bly, Michael Meade and many others to develop some background and a deeper understanding of content I was working with.  I attended storytelling festivals to study the work of others and I said “yes” to every storytelling invitation that came my way. I found myself visiting homeless shelters, prisons, detention centers, schools, churches, pubs, schools, private parties.  I discovered that the need and desire for storytelling and stories was everywhere.  The aspect of journalism that I liked most – the fact that it opened doors to many communities – was also present in storytelling.

In 1994 I attended the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee.  Shortly after that I jumped into full-time storytelling while still taking on carpentry jobs on occasion.  My friends and family were a little concerned that I was doing something that didn’t seem too promising financially. During that time these words by William Blake inspired me: “If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.” I decided that I would persist in my foolishness for a while.  I sent out a little newsletter/performance calendar four times a year to friends and colleagues. One thing led to the next and I have been working as a storyteller since that time.  There are always slow times when I wonder if I can pay the bills, and other times when I am too busy to think.  But, since that time in Peru (and later in Seattle) I have never doubted that I had rediscovered the thread of my own genius and was doing what felt natural and true to the deepest part of myself. 

Also, I have to admit that I feel very lucky and I believe that luck is part of the equation. I know I was given many advantages and opportunities in my life – parents who loved and supported me emotionally and financially, a solid education, good health, the chance to travel and live in a different culture, etc., etc.,  I know of many others who I admire and respect as artists who have had to overcome many more hardships and challenges to claim the lives that they wanted. 

Will Hornyak delights audiences around the country telling wisdom stories with great wit and enthusiasm.

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