the myth of Tantalus, revisited

According to Greek myth, Tantalus is eternally tantalized…

Whenever he tries to grab one of the fruit dangling above him, it leaps from his hand.

He stands neck-deep in a pool of water.  But if he tries to take a drink, the water level instantly drops.

Yes, the myth speaks of a human dilemma.  But I believe the story is incomplete.  As I see it…

…Tantalus is not without options—he can rebel.  What if he rejects those apples?  What if he refuses to try for even a sip of water?

Maybe he distracts himself from this torment.  He closes his eyes and dreams of feasting on blessed ambrosia.  Dreams of gulping down golden goblets of nectar.

Of course, even if he managed to lose himself in these daydreams, he would still suffer.  Though ignored, his desires would gnaw away at his psyche.

No way out really.  No choice but to stand in those waters and endure the torture.

He might go mad—he might break down.  But he’d have all eternality to put himself back together again, wouldn’t he?

I say:

As Tantalus learned to deal with the situation, he would slowly grow in strength…

So eventually, he’d be able to cope quite well.  Ironically, his eternal torment wouldn’t last forever.

As the gods and goddesses watched his transformation, they might come to admire Tantalus.  They might actually take mercy on him.

But even if they felt no pity, I think the gods would still release him from this trap.  After all, the punishment would no longer be a torture.  They’d have to invent a new trial and torment.

But Tantalus would eventually learn to cope with their second test, just as he had the first.  The gods would then throw another challenge at him…

And so, in this way, Tantalus would progress from test to test, growing stronger and stronger, climbing higher and higher.  Eventually, he might climb all the way back up to the top of Mount Olympus.

Some may say I can’t change this ancient myth—it’s literally set in stone!  To that, I say: I can and I have—and it’s an honest change.  Honest, because the change is based on not on personal whim, but on personal experience.

But I’ve changed the myth not merely for the sake of honesty, but also to offer hope and help.  Whereas the original myth only states the problem…

…this new version, I believe, can help us deal with the dilemma…

…a dilemma familiar to most…if not, all.

© 2019, Michael R. Patton
40 New Fables: ebook

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fable of the bumpkin who walked down the road

One afternoon, as the young bumpkin worked his small bean field…

…he spied, in the distance, an old man slumped with fatigue beside the road.

Being kind by nature and upbringing, he filled a pitcher from the well bucket and gave the traveler a cup.

Sometimes when you help a stranger, you are rewarded beyond your imagining.  And so it was with the bumpkin…

After the old man had drained the cup, he told the lad, “If you walk down this road ’til you reach the edge of the horizon, you will find many many things.  And one of those things may just be the thing your heart most desires.”

Before the young man could think to speak, the old fellow jumped up and ambled on down the long straight road.  He soon disappeared into a swirling cloud of dust stirred by the wind.

The lad believed that anyone so withered with age must know something.  That stranger looked just like the wise man in the story book!

However, he liked his little farm and felt guilty about leaving the fields behind.  So he told himself, “As soon as I reach the edge of the horizon, I’ll come right back.”

As the sun rose the next morning, he set off down the road…

His eagerness sustained him for the first few days.  But then he started to doubt—the horizon seemed no closer than when he’d begun.

Finally, he asked an old woman on a mule how much farther to the edge of the horizon.

The old crone shouted with the mocking laughter of a crow.  “You fool!  You could walk forever and never reach the edge of the horizon.”

Before the lad could think to speak, she nudged the mule in the ribs with her big toes and was soon lost in a swirling cloud of dust stirred by the wind.

He didn’t know what to do.  Had that white-haired coot lied to him?  “Well, I have indeed found many many things, just as he predicted,” the young man reasoned.  “Maybe the old woman, in her mischief, wishes to mislead me.  Well, for the time being, I’d better keep going—I don’t want to lose my heart’s desire.”

The truth is: though he wanted to return to the farm, he also wanted to see what he hadn’t yet seen.  So one desire won out over the other.  Why?—why this curiosity?  Maybe the wise ones know the answer.  But not me.  In any case…

…our traveler continued to walk into lands unknown.  And continued to find many things along the way.  Though none of the things seemed to be the thing he desired most, he still enjoyed finding them.  So he continued on.

He walked for weeks, for months, for years…

…and slowly, over time, forgot about finding his true desire.  Of course, as he learned of the world, he discovered the old woman was right: you can never reach the edge of the horizon, because we live on a ball, not a pancake.  Though not yet wise, our friend was no longer a bumpkin.

Some will likely say he wandered lost.  But I believe he’d actually discovered his heart’s desire: to learn of this world and its many many things.  And if you’ve found your heart’s desire, how can you be lost?

In any case…

…because the world is round, his path eventually returned him to his farm.

Everything he saw there—the house, the fields, the fence, the windmill, the well—seemed familiar and yet different.  Different due to years of neglect, but also different because he was a different person.

He felt unsettled by his perception of the place.  However, he was a traveler now and travelers enjoy the unusual experience.

As he roamed through the pale-yellow wild grass of the fields, he wondered if this land could ever be his home again.

“But what is ‘home’ anyway?” he asked himself.

“This farm was once my home.  And though it feels a little strange to me now, I still feel that I know it.  But I don’t think it knows me—not anymore, anyway.  So I don’t feel at home here.  Maybe ‘home’ is both a place you know well and a place that knows you well.

“By that definition, maybe the world at large—the world beyond this farm—can be my home.  After all, I think that world knows me—I often feel it watching me as I walk: its invisible eyes seem to see into me.

“However, I still don’t think I know that world—not well enough anyway, not well enough to call it ‘home’.

“But perhaps I could, in time, if I continue my travels.”

Once again, he’d found an excuse to leave the farm.

In the following years, as our traveler made the world his home, he circled the globe again and again…

…and so, kept coming back to the farm.

And each time he returned, he remembered what he’d realized upon his first return…

When we return to the place where we began, we know it, not for the first time, but for the second time.

And the second time will be always different from the first, just as the third time will be different from the second, and the fourth different from the third.

Each time we return, we will see the place with different eyes, and so we know it a different way.

And each way will have its own truth.

© 2019, Michael R. Patton
sky rope poetry

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fable of the man who rooted for the escaped prisoner

Why did he root for the convict?

After all, the man had earned that long jail term.  His mind was a cloud filled with lightning.

And yet, as the watcher sat in his dark living room, with his open innocent face all aglow from the TV light…

…he rooted for the escapee—

—rooted for him as he jumped a fence, as he bobbed down a rushing river, slogged through a swamp, stole clothes off a clothesline…

…and made the hound dogs sneeze by dashing handfuls of pepper on the ground.

The watcher felt his heart leap with glee when the prisoner hotwired a car…

Then forgave him when he sideswiped that little old lady.  After all, wasn’t she jaywalking?

Yes, he knew how the chase would end.  Even so, he felt so disappointed when the trooper gunned the man down in a wheat field.  Did the cop really have to shoot him in the back?

As the credits rolled, the watcher clicked the TV off and sat in silent darkness with his roil of emotions…

Why did he feel so sad?  Why did he feel the frustration of defeat?…

Why did I want that psychopath to avoid capture?

As often happens when the answer is obvious, I had to ponder a long while before I realized:

That prisoner is me!  Like him, I have a deep desire for freedom.  When he opens his arms to the wide blue sky, his rush of release is my rush of release.

Likewise, at the end, as he lies on his back, staring up at that empty sky, his sinking loss is my sinking loss.  I know the feeling of his failure.  Many times, I’ve busted out of jail on Saturday night…

…only to find myself back inside on Sunday morning.

But unlike that convict, I’ve committed no real crime.  And yet, I still feel guilty.

Why?  Well, I’m not only the prisoner, but also the judge, the guard, the cop.  According to my dreams, all those aspects are within me.  They monitor my behavior; they make judgments—they condone and condemn.  They’re often very harsh, very strict.  But I just can’t flip a switch and release myself from their influence—those aspects are a deep part of me and so, quite powerful.

And besides, I need the judge, guard, and cop.  We all do.  If we can’t control our impulses, we may end up as actual prisoners, not just metaphorical ones.


…in trying to stifle my negative impulses, I may become too severe, too critical.  In trying to kill the worst in myself, I may also kill the best.

How can I live free in my strength, yet still function in society?  How can I function in society, without imprisoning myself?

It’s a tricky balance.  A dilemma for many in “the land of the free”.  A dilemma for the whole human race.

Fortunately, I like struggling with dilemmas.  But though I’ve struggled long with this one…

…I don’t have much more to offer, except:

Our release must be carefully, patiently negotiated.  No sudden movements!

I’ll let you know if I find anything else I think might help.

© 2019, Michael R. Patton
sky rope poetry

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the fable of the boy who danced on New Year’s Eve

The boy was good that Christmas—and not just because he wanted a present from Santa…

No, being good actually felt good to him…

…but only for so long.  After Christmas day, he began to sensed another feeling building within…

This feeling wordlessly said:

You’ve been one way long enough—time to be another way.  Time to stop sitting there in your little chair with your hands folded neatly on your lap, smiling and nodding like some dumb doll.  Get up, get out—roar like a storm!

However, the boy only dimly sensed that summons—that force—blocked as it was by that other voice telling him to sit still and be good.

As the two forces struggled, the boy tried to clamp down on the strange commotion he felt inside.  But the pressure only mounted—his body began to tremor, then shake.  His vision blurred.  His mind, unable to comprehend, unable to react, went blank.

And all the while, his mother slept in her soundproof teacup cabinet.

Finally, the inner struggle reached a crescendo.  The boy’s empty-shell eyes opened wide—suddenly flaring with life reawakened—but totally focused at the scene within.

And what did the child see?

A flat plain with a long road disappearing into infinity.  At the vanishing point, he perceived nothing less than the opaque void of death and opening light of new life.

In that timeless moment, he ceased to exist as himself.

But in the next instant, he slammed back together again.  With the force of that impact, he leapt straight up with a volcanic shout, then shot out of that stately townhouse and into the night street.

But went no farther because he suddenly understood:

No matter where we go, we’re always at the center of the Universe—we are as long as we realize we are.

He also knew: even when we’re standing in one place, we’re moving.  Always moving.

And so, as an expression of that knowing, he began to dance in that one place—at the center of the Universe.

But not like a playful child—no, he jerked his knees up and down as if hot coals prompted his feet.  He flailed his arms—a bird struck by lightning.

Some claim gold sparks spun from his spinning eyes in a fireworks spiral.  According to accounts, his wicked gleeful grin seemed either less than human or super-human.

A few on the crowded street fled in fear.  Others yelled at the boy to stop—but didn’t dare restrain him, aware of his new strange power.

But just as many or more watched in wonder and in short time, followed his lead, as if his dance had summoned a dance they’d long held within.  Not a mimicking dance, but an expression of their own vital feeling.

Some became twirling flames that howled like heart-struck wolves.  Some bounced up and down as if on manic springs.  Some raced together in circles that expanded then contracted then expanded.

Some threw their arms to the sky and keened like seabirds bursting with fire.

The energy of dance radiated in waves throughout the somnolent city—waking people to a desire that challenged their wish for quiet comfort.

Yes, many managed to resist the siren call.  But just as many or more responded—surrendered.

And so the river of dancing orange-gold flames spread from the main avenue down side streets until the entire grid-work of the city was ablaze with a joyous cacophony of human life.

That bonfire ripped at the night for hours.

The soft pink light of morning revealed streets strewn with calm clumps of happy ashes.  Some slumped on curbs.  Other clumps trudged off to homes and a day’s peaceful sleep.

The boy was one of those clumps…

The night’s adventure seemed like a dream to him now.  He’d already forgotten about the road to infinity and the center of the Universe.  Forgotten for the time being anyway.

Considering this story again, I ask myself…

Is this how traditions begin?  That is: something provokes a feeling in us and we respond.  Through that response—that expression—we resurrect a part of ourselves often buried…

We then realize the need to resurrect that buried aspect from time to time.  But preferably under controlled conditions, so people still feel somewhat comfortable.

In that way, a yearly tradition is born.  Maybe that’s how it happens.

In any case, that’s what happened after the boy’s dance.  The response he provoked on that night began a tradition for us all.  A tradition of wild joyous celebration on New Year’s Eve.

Like that boy, we want the feeling of being good at Christmas time.  But after all our sincere goodness, something within us says let me out of here!  Maybe we don’t listen.  Or maybe we hear but believe we shouldn’t heed the call…

At least we can now heed if we so choose without being condemned if we do.  Thank the child!  Perhaps we can say he’s a type of savior.


What happened to him? you ask.  History doesn’t tell us.  But as I see it, he’s still with us—he lives within us all.  And on this New Year’s Eve, he’s going to do as he did on that New Year’s Eve long ago: he’s going to dance.  He’s going to dance at the center of the Universe.

© 2018, Michael R. Patton
40 New Fables: ebook

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the un-thief: a Christmas story

After the thief was victimized by another thief…

…he finally realized the pain he’d brought to so many in this world.

He then declared…

“From this moment on, I will be The Un-Thief!”

As The Un-Thief, he returned to all those houses he’d burglarized.  Entering late at night, quiet as a cat, he gave back that which he had stolen—or an item of equal value.

Yes, despite his change of heart, he was still a bit devious.  He wanted the thrill that comes from secrecy and danger.

“To tamp down that desire would be to reject a vital part of who I am,” he wrote in his journal.  “But henceforth, I will use it to comfort instead of wound.  Once a year, I will travel the world, giving gifts.”

Yes, boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen, before St. Nick became a saint, he was The Un-Thief!

Long ago, we changed his name and forgot the first part of his story.  Why?

Allow me to venture this guess…

When people heard the full story, they couldn’t accept the idea that someone so bright could also have a dark side.  We didn’t wish to look behind that twinkle in Santa’s eye.

But whatever the reason may be, I hope the full story can now become part of our Christmas season.  As I see it…

…Santa represents something within us all.  So when we cut him in half…

…we also cut part of ourselves in half.

Even if you reject that idea, I think we can agree on this value:

The tale of The Un-Thief shows how we can flip a negative behavior to its positive side…

…without losing the excitement of life.

© 2018, Michael R. Patton
40 New Fables: ebook

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fable of the un-identical identical twins

The twins lived very different lives…

One was an innkeeper at a small mountain hamlet…

She’d taken over the family business at the age of nineteen, married the boy who used to pull her pigtails, and raised two strong sons with him.

Every morning, she opened the shutters to the sun.  Every evening, she closed the shutters on the moon and stars.  In the hours between, her routine remained the same…

…week after week, month after month, year after year.

She felt content with this stable life…

…though, late at night, she sometimes thought of her twin sister with a twinge of envy…

…an identical twin, but with an un-identical life.

At nineteen, this one had left home to begin a life of adventure.  She’d dined with royalty and fed refugees.  She’d comforted the sick and danced in fountains…

She’d made love with artists and war heroes and society ladies.  She’d debated scholars and despots.

She’d climbed mountains and descended to the depths of the sea.  She’d trekked vast deserts.  In short, this twin moved through the world like a whirlwind…

But even whirlwinds become exhausted occasionally.  When she needed to stop for a breath, she’d visit her stable sister.

After a few days together, the two would invariably sit down after the others had gone to bed and share a bottle of wine born from the inn’s vineyard.

Somewhere near the end of that bottle, the adventurous twin would say, “You know, to be honest, I sometimes envy your life.  Yeah, I’ve seen some stuff…done some stuff.  But does it all really add up to anything?  I just breeze through the world, while you…you grow your roots ever deeper.  You’ve created something substantial here.”

Her twin would then answer: “But you’ve created too…created so much—more!  You just don’t see it.  Yes, I shine my light in this small corner of world, but you’ve shone your light nearly everywhere.  Sometimes I wish I’d gone that route.”

At this point, they’d always make the same agreement:

For one year, they would trade places.  The whirlwind would run the inn and the oak tree would uproot and roam the world.

Practical aspects of this plan were never discussed…

…but serious discussion was never needed.

Sometime before dawn, the whirlwind twin would wake in bed, overcome with a sense of dread.

At about the same time, stable twin would also wake, feeling a similar sense of dread.

And so, she’d feel relieved when she opened the shutters…

…and saw her sister sneaking away down the road.

As a result of this annual ritual, both sisters remained relatively content with the life choices they’d made.

© 2018, Michael R. Patton
40 New Fables: ebook

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fable of the blue-eyed twins

Though mirror images of each other, the twins had opposite ways…

For Phil, life was a party in a burning house.  He often said, “I’m a thief of life- -I want to grab as much as I can before death catches me.”

Will, on the other hand, had created a secure, orderly nest for himself and his family.  In defense of his respectability, he often said: “Yeah, maybe I’m boring.  But it’s boring people who hold this world together.”

By the age of sixty, Phil looked like a run-over cat in a muddy road.

As for Will…

Well, dull vanilla had replaced the ruddy beam of his cheeks.  Nonetheless, he seemed quite solid on his flat feet—he could last another twenty, thirty years.

But though the identical twins were opposites…

…the deep distress to be found in Phil’s pale blue eyes could also be found in the pale blue eyes of his brother.  Their eyes were haunted wells.

Phil might be having a good laugh—telling how he’d plowed his motorcycle into a rose hedge…

…but in the depths of his eyes, I could still see those ghosts.

The same ghosts I saw in Will’s eyes—even when he talked about something as bland as the church picnic.

To me, both sets of eyes said: no matter what I did, I could never escape that feeling of trouble deep within.

I see this part of the story as a tale of two failed coping strategies.  But fortunately, this is a new fable, so there’s more to tell…

Recently, the twins got together for the first time in thirty years.  Both agreed: to remained apart because of old grievances seemed small.  And at age sixty, neither man wanted to feel small.

Talk remained casual during their meeting, to avoid casualties.  Nonetheless…

…Phil could see the haunt in Will’s eyes…

…and Will could see the haunt in Phil’s eyes.

Later, after Phil had left, Will took a long look in the mirror, just out of curiosity…

…and was shocked to find that same haunt in his own eyes.

Will also checked the mirror…

…and finally saw the fearful question mark in his baby blues.

Both men then realized what they needed to do—a job long avoided: the job of exploring their dark wells….

…the job of getting to know ghosts from the past…ghosts so alive the present.

Since then, I’m happy to report, they’ve slowly been putting those ghosts to rest.

© 2018, Michael R. Patton
sky rope poetry blog

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