The experience of reading To a Young Jazz Musician, by Wynton Marsalis…
…strengthens my conviction that our new mythology needs stories.
The book’s 144 pages are filled with philosophic insight and deep feeling for the cultural life of an art form, the cultural life of a nation.
But what do I recall from the book, six years later?
Two brief stories.
For a philosophy to be practical, its ideas have to stick. Our new mythology needs stories.
With that in mind, let us consider this story from Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic, by Bette Bao Lord…
Like many of the best stories of mythology and religion, it doesn’t give us answers…
…but instead prompts us to ask questions.
At the beginning of Legacies, Ms. Lord tells us:
“For want of something to do, a prisoner gleaned from the sweepings of the shop floor tiny bits of glittering wire, which he deposited in a bottle.
“On the day he was freed, there was nothing to take with him to mark the passage of those years except the bottle, and so he carried it away.
“Back home, he rose and he ate and he slept at the exact hours the warden had decreed.
“Too old to work anymore, he spent this days pacing, the exact space of his long confinement—four paces forward, four paces back, four paces forward, four paces back.
“For want of something to do, one day he smashed the bottle to count how many tiny bits of glittering wire he had collected.
“He wept. At his feet lay broken glass, and a clump of wires rusted solid in the shape of a bottle.”
What struck me first about this story was how the wires had joined together to recreate the shape of the bottle.
To me, it was a beautifully positive image.
So often we divide our lives into little bits—into hours, days, weeks, months, years…
We further cut them into definite periods: early childhood, adolescent, late teens, early twenties, and so on.
But in truth, it’s all one. All one life.
As for the rust…
Isn’t that just a natural part of living?
However, there is sadness in the story.
After the man finally gains his freedom, he’s still held by the early experience.
This aspect of the tale is metaphysical to me, as well as psychological.
It tells of the unseen. Of the spirit world—except in this case, the spirit is within. The spirit is still held. Thus, the body, though free to roam, recreates the space of the cell.
I know, in my own life, I’ve been held in the prison of past experience.
However, the story gives me hope. The man, though held, doesn’t lay down; he keeps moving.
Thus, I don’t think he smashes the bottle simply “for want of something to do”…
To me, breaking the bottle signals that he’s broken out—finally, through the meditation of his repetitive steps, he’s escaped his invisible prison.
So at first, I was puzzled by the man’s tears. The escape should be a joyous occasion.
Then I realized how such hard-won release can be accompanied by conflicting emotion…
On one hand, there’s the recognition and celebration of freedom…
…on the other, there’s grief for the tumult and pain that led to this release.
But this is just my take on the story. Though I think it has validity…
…I realize another person could take something very different from the tale—and as long as she respects the story, her points would be equally valid. Valid for her, just as my points are valid for me.
© 2012, Michael R. Patton
sky rope poetry