Myths

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On Thursday I posted a short story about a Sweet Bay tree being confined within a college multi-purpose room. At its core, that story was meant as an allegory for how our lives can sharply change course in only a moment, while our expectations for that altered future then take a great deal longer to adjust. On the surface, I realize that that may seem like a very strange connection to draw, but for me the idea of this allegory arose quite naturally.

The idea for that story actually began more than a decade ago when I watched the television mini-series Roots for the first time. For those that don’t know, Roots was a six-chapter epic spanning multiple generations of African slaves in America, the real-life ancestors of the man who penned this story.

 

Roots and Trees)

The story begins with the first of our subjects being captured in his native homeland and then sailed across the ocean to America. There he is sold into slavery and his daughter, grand-son, and all of the further two generations spend their lives in servitude until the Civil War is concluded and they are set free. There the story closes.

While each generation has their own trials and arcs, I was always most captivated by the plight of that first forefather, Kunta Kinte. Of all of these people, he alone begins his life wild and free, with absolutely no expectation of ever being bent to another man’s whims. Understandably, he resists the harsh changes that are thrust upon him, and refuses to accept that they define his new reality. As such he performs one escape attempt after another, but sadly each ends in failure and he never does obtain his freedom.

I remember watching his ambitions to return to his native Africa with a mixture of both understanding and sad cynicism. Obviously I could appreciate his desire to return back to where he belonged, but at the same time I wondered how he didn’t realize it was hopeless. Suppose he had managed to break free and evade capture. How then was he expecting to find to cross an entire ocean and find his old tribe in the middle of a massive continent?! At the very best he might win a better life than his current slaver, but he would never be able to recapture the exact life he had had before.

To be clear, I did not think he was stupid for trying to escape, more so I was perplexed by the recognition of a human stubbornness. A stubbornness that defies reason, and one that is common within all people, myself included.  I vaguely understood that this stubbornness had something to do with not allowing ourselves to accept that which our hearts have deemed to be unacceptable.

Or at least, I almost knew that. At the time all I experienced was a strange sensation, a sort of empathetic emotional reaction, but I didn’t understand what it was about or why it was there. Something inside of me had been stirred, but I wasn’t able to put words to it until a few years later when I was seated in a large multipurpose room at college, looking at the massive trees that had lined the walls in massive planter boxes.

Suddenly I found myself wondering how on earth they had come to even be in this room, given that they wouldn’t even begin to fit through the doors. The simplest explanation, I decided, was that they had been brought in while still young and small, and had afterwards grown to their massive statures. Then I realized that if that was the case, then now they would only be able to leave this room when chopped into small pieces.

Though these were only trees that I was contemplating, I found this notion very sad. It was right then that some strange connection happened inside of me. Some voice said “hey, that’s kind of like Kunta Kinte, isn’t it? Able to come in, but not to go out. That’s kind of like all the slaves, and all other people who can never have what they want from life.”

 

The Abstract)

I was so wrapped in an individual’s experience that I hadn’t been able to see the bigger picture. I had not understood why I felt a connection to someone whose experience was completely different from my own. I had to realize that there was a broader theme at play here. Up until that moment of epiphany I had been viewing this as a single character’s problem, rather than as a universal suffering which happened to be reflected in that single individual.

Being able to take a specific instance and find in it the universal comes more easily to some than to others. I don’t think I used to be very good at it at all, but of all things it was an education in software development that taught me how to step back from the minutia to take in the whole.

Of course what we are talking about here is abstraction, the act of focusing on an entire body of material rather than on the individual components. The ability to deal with an interface, rather than an implementation.

Most often in stories we get connected to a character, or a moment. We talk about the hero or the showdown. We evaluate these elements as a single entity, deciding if we enjoyed them entirely within their own context.

But sometimes an author doesn’t want the reader to be obsessed with a character or an event, they want them to be thinking about an idea, or a type, or a theme. The author wants them to ask “What are the key attributes of this sort of man?” or “what would I do in a situation like that?” or “do the ends always justify the means?”

 

Myths)

And that my friends, is how we come to myths. It is where we change from the specific to the abstract.

Long ago authors figured out that the way to get people to focus on the idea of a story instead of the details, was to put walls up between the readers and the actual events described. I’ve made mention of this before, but when all the ordinary things in a story have been made strange and unfamiliar, then the intangible themes that usually hang in the background now come into center focus.

We don’t relate on a personal level to tortoises, nor to hares, and so in Aesop’s classic fable we have no distraction to keep us from recognizing the truth at the core of this myth: that flighty passion will burn out, while stoic consistency will eventually win the day. Even if we were entirely unaware of Plato and his work we would immediately assume that The Cave was a work of allegory. The premise of this story is that of men that spend their whole lives in an underground cave believing that their lives are made up of nothing more than a series of shadows being projected upon a wall. It is just too foreign and bizarre to take at face value, and so we naturally start looking for a deeper meaning in it.

In my next blog post I am going to present a collection of three short myths, each being an examination on the same theme. My intention will be to illustrate how an author can indicate to the reader that the story at hand is meant to be understood abstractly, and to show that there are multiple ways to approach the same lesson. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

The Sweet Bay Tree

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It was a bright Spring morning the day they brought the Sweet Bay tree into the open study area. It was a massive room, featuring thousands of square feet in open floor space, with another fifteen yards stretching vertically before being capped off by a wide glass ceiling that ran the whole length of it.

It was a multi-purpose room, one commonly scattered with tables and chairs for the University students to study at during the days, but all of which could be folded up and carted away with ease. It had played host to dances, career fairs, blood drives, charity auctions and more. Many-a-time it had been reserved for wedding receptions, and once had housed the funeral services when one of the Deans had passed way. A collapsible stage could be erected at one end for music and dance performances. It had seen debates, clubs, and religious ceremonies.

Of course the Sweet Bay tree did not yet know any of these things. It’s amazement as it was wheeled through the double doors was due simply to the sheer magnitude of the place. It was awed at the awesome grandeur on display, the architectural wonder of 400,000 cubic feet, all sustained without a single supporting pillar to break that space.

Somehow the artificiality of the room made it seem bigger. Naturally the tree was natively from the open outdoors, yet the openness there was too great to be appreciated. One does not marvel at a breadth unless one can see both ends of it, and so can comprehend it.

If the Sweet Bay tree felt honored to be put into a room so large, it swelled all the more with pride when it beheld the vessel the workers now lowered it into. A massive pot that lay a full twelve feet across and six feet deep! Perhaps the tree felt a little silly being so dwarfed by its home, but it knew this grand base had been selected with the intention that it would grow to fill it. It meant the workers intended this tree to become the central piece of the room’s ornamentation.

And so, after the workers had finished patting the soil around the tree’s roots, and threaded the water hose through a hole in the back of the pot, and added a layer of shredded bark as a skirt around its trunk, and then left for the rest of the days duties–then the tree unfurled itself and drank deeply from the soil and relished in a sense of fullness and fatness.

“Hello there,” a neighboring fern said. “Looks like they’ve given you the place of honor!”

“Why thank you,” the Sweet Bay tree returned graciously. “Yes, I am quite touched. It certainly is a thrill to come and visit you all. I only hope I’ll be able to measure up to everyone’s expectations.”

“I’m sure you will. What’s your name, by the way?”

“Sweet Bay tree number four on the Eastern side.”

“Eastern side of what?”

“Why the Eastern side of the Administration Building, of course, that’s where I’m stationed.”

“Oh…” the fern said awkwardly. “But aren’t you stationed here now?”

“Oh that’s very kind of you,” the Sweet Bay tree laughed. “I am, as I said, thrilled to come and visit. But I couldn’t possibly give up my station, I am an essential part of the tree-line there after all.”

“Well…” the fern started to say, but didn’t know how to politely end its sentence and so did not.

The conversation with the fern had made the Sweet Bay tree all the more anxious to measure up to the expectations that had been placed upon it. The last thing it wanted to hear was people tutting that it was a disappointment to the place.

Focusing its power inwards the tree began to will itself to new heights. To its delight it felt that the growth came quite easily. The tree was constantly sustained with a diet of nutrient-rich soil, regularly pruned to promote upward growth, and positioned under the glass ceiling so as to receive the most hours of bright sunlight possible.

In a matter of only a few years, which really is no time at all to a tree, the Sweet Bay had multiplied itself by many orders of magnitude, swelling to fill its pot and expanding to brush its uppermost leaves along the glass of  the ceiling. Those higher branches would be trimmed, but it always grew them back as a statement to the workers that it was doing its part in the role they had given it.

The Sweet Bay was not at all disappointed for attention, either. It swelled with pride each time a new student entered the room and remarked on how that impressive tree stood supreme in all that space.

“I didn’t know you could grow a full-sized tree indoors!” they often said in awe, and the Sweet Bay tree smiled down at them from its lofty perch.

Almost every occasion held in the room now utilized it as the centerpiece of its decorations. Lights wound up its trunk on Christmas and fake coconuts hung from its branches for luaus. There were black shrouds whenever someone important died, white lace whenever someone got married, and pink ribbons for cancer awareness.

The Sweet Bay tree was very pleased to serve and no one questioned that it did its part well. Still, with every passing year it found itself more and more anxious to know what was happening to its home on the eastern side of the Administration Building.

Any time a new plant was brought in it would ask them if they knew that area of the college campus exterior. Most of the time they did not, having instead been brought from greenhouses and nurseries far removed from the University. One day, though, a young poplar was brought in that had been stationed just south of the Sweet Bay tree’s home.

“The Administration Building? Yes, I know it. Had a fine view of it from the Library where they kept me.”

“Oh wonderful!” the Sweet Bay tree sighed in relief. “Tell me, how are things there? I suspect Sweet Bay trees number three and number five are missing me terribly?”

“Sweet Bay trees number three and number five? I don’t believe I know them.”

“Oh, but of course you do. Why they must be nearly as tall me now. Probably not quite as tall, but nearly.”

“Were they near to the vinca?”

“No, the vinca is on the southern side. These were on the eastern.”

“Ah, that explains it. They tore up that whole side and paved it over with a new parking lot. I didn’t see it happen, but some of the older trees told me about it.”

“They…what?!”

“Yeah, the demand for parking has really gone up of late. Doesn’t look anything like it used to.”

“But I–I don’t understand. Why would they do that? It’s quite a waste seeing as they’ll just have to change everything back to how it was… so that they’ll be ready when they return me there.”

“How’s that?”

“I mean why pave over a lovely green lawn when you’re just going to have to put the lawn back sooner or later?”

“Well…I mean…” the poplar stumbled awkwardly to find a tactful way to explain itself. “Sweet Bay trees three and five are gone. You understand? Not transplanted elsewhere from what I heard…gone. So I don’t think they were planning to change things back to how they were again.”

“Oh, of course,” the Sweet Bay tree tutted as if explaining something basic to a child, and not at all concerned about the chopping up of its brethren. “I’m not too shocked that they won’t be coming back. You didn’t see them after all, but quite frankly they were never anything so special as me. That’s why they brought me over here to liven up the room for a bit after all. Because I was the best! So of course they’re going to want me come back there. And when I do come back, I don’t intend to be planted in an inch less of lawn!”

“Ah…well…alright then!”

Despite the Sweet Bay tree’s show of confidence, it seemed to have been unnerved by something in that conversation with the young poplar. It began brooding and festering, wondering aloud why it was taking so long for the workers to return it to its station. It simply didn’t make sense!

The tree scolded those workers when they came to prune it and demanded answers from them, but of course they couldn’t understand any of that rustling. They just continued their regular work, making the Sweet Bay tree the perfect, beautiful centerpiece to this grand, impressive room.

Except that the room didn’t seem nearly so impressive to the tree as it once had. The Sweet Bay tree wasn’t nearly so small as when it had been brought in here, and it had long lost its sense of awe for the space. No doubt a large part of that had to do with being as tall as the entire room, for nothing seems so grand once you are able to fill an entire dimension of it. It would scratch its twigs along the glass canopy that defined the extent of its world, transparent enough to tease a world without limits beyond, but forever denying access to it. This room that had once been a throne was now nothing more than an ornate prison.

All the other plants learned not to broach the subject with the Sweet Bay tree. It was entirely unwilling to hear anything about being “replaced” or “forgotten.” And so they all stood silent as it rambled on about the warm summer breeze, the snowy blankets on the field, the buzzing of bees, the chirping of birds, the scurrying of chipmunks, the refreshing rain, the crunching of dead leaves, the flowery scents, the churning of the earth, and the taste of the wild wafting down from the nearby mountains.

One day a trimmed bush was brought into the room and placed right next to the Sweet Bay tree. As with all newcomers the tree swayed wistfully towards it and asked its tired, old question.

“Have you seen the Administration Building? Friend?”

“Hmm, well which one do you mean now? The old one or the new one?”

“Old one? What on earth do you mean?”

“Well they tore down that old one with the Library, didn’t they? Put up that new football stadium instead.”

“A… football stadium?”

“Yes, a sight to behold really! Thousands of tons of steel and stone splayed out over everything that used to be the Administration Building and the Library. With a massive parking garage hulking by its side, even. I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but it makes a place like this feel very small.”

“But…why would they do that? They’ll never be able to get things back to the way they were in time!” The Sweet Bay tree was swaying very laboriously now, as though it might faint from shock. “Where are they going to put me then? It just–it just doesn’t make any sense.”

The bush felt quite awkward and started to shrink back, but suddenly the Sweet Bay tree rounded on it with a sudden fury.

“You! Tell me! Have you heard any word of a new field for Sweet Bay trees? Any word of starting a grove for outdoor studying? Any mention of planting some trees to shore up the river’s edge?”

“I–no, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Has no one said when they’re going to take me out of this miserable place?!”

“You don’t…like it here?”

“It’s my prison!” The Sweet Bay tree fell to weeping. “But still I know they will get me out some day soon. They have to. They just can’t be leaving me here forever.”

For a moment the bush intended to avoid stating the obvious, just as every other plant had done. But then it felt it would be more cruel to leave the Sweet Bay tree hanging onto a vain hope.

“But…how will they get you out?”

“What’s that?” the tree snapped out of its self-pitying reverie.

“How would they even be able to get you out of this room?”

“The door, obviously! The same way I came in.”

“You don’t fit.”

“Well of course I–” a moment of horror swept across the tree. It had been staring down at the doors as it spoke. Down at them! They were so far beneath it, so distant, so small a matrix to pass through. Of course it had fit through them once when it had been a sapling. But now…now the only way out was in pieces.

“When did that happen?” the tree mumbled in shock. “Why did I just keep growing? Why didn’t I stop? What am I going to… what am I supposed to…. Wh–why?”

All the other plants in the room drew themselves as far away as their trunks and stems allowed, trying to grant the poor Sweet Bay tree a respectful moment of silence as its entire world collapsed.

***

I promised on Monday that I would try to write a story that began with its own ending. From the moment the Sweet Bay tree came into the room its story had reached its conclusion, and all that followed was merely waiting for it to realize that simple fact.

But of course, in this long ending there is also another story that is playing out. It isn’t the story of how the tree came to its final destination, it is the one of how it came to accept it. I wrote this story as an examination of a phenomenon I’ve noticed when people experience sudden, drastic changes to life.

These sharp turns occur in a single moment, and the course of our future is instantaneously changed. But then there is usually a considerable delay before our expectations shift to match up with that new destiny. In spite of all reason and sensibility, it can be very hard to let  go of how we thought things were going to be.

I realize it is a strange thing we do, trying to represent very human notions with very non-human subjects. But anthropomorphized characters and allegory have been parts of story-telling since longer than the Tortoise and the Hare. On Monday I’d like to take a closer look into why we do this sort of abstraction. Have a wonderful weekend, and I’ll see you then.