Eternal Stories

BadwaterSunriseLast weekend I drove to Death Valley to do some landscape photography. It feels great to get out of LA and reconnect with nature once in awhile, and taking photos is one of my favorite ways to do that. So before sunrise I made my way over to Badwater, which is 280 feet or so below sea level and is known for its distinctive-looking salt flats, which form a kind of endless pattern.

Like El Capitan in Yosemite, Badwater is one of those iconic locations that photographers love to visit and capture with their cameras. Out in the middle of those flats, bundled in coat, hat, and gloves to fend off the cold, I struggled to figure out what my take on this place would be. What would make my photo different than the thousands that have come before? I always strive to be original with whatever art I’m doing and always hoping to say something that no one has said before.

And then I realized that wasn’t the point.

I don’t come out to places like this because I’m likely going to create an image that’s never been seen before. I come out to connect with the timeless and eternal.

These landscape locations, many of which are in national parks, have remained largely unchanged. They exist as they have for the past thousands of years (minus the parking lots, toilets, and other modern amenities). In 2011, I took some photos in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, where there are trees over 3000 years old.

So even though I’m was out in Death Valley in 2013 with a modern digital camera, I was connecting to something ancient and primal.

And this got me thinking about stories. Why do we still read the classics, or why do we still go to movies to see the latest incarnation of a fairy tale or superhero myth? I think by watching and reading stories that have their basis in the past, it connects us to a part of us that is more primeval. It provides some sort of continuity to our modern lives. We may be surrounded and connected by technology, but stories predate all that. They ground us and help us understand who we really are.

In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong writes, “A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time…  mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.”

Did I “glimpse the core of reality” out there on the salt flats? Maybe a little. I know I felt at peace and connected to something bigger than me. I watched in wonder as the sun rose as it has every day for the past millions of years. Back home, I usually wake up after the sun has already completed its morning ritual.

Maybe it’s a little unrealistic in these days of reality TV and 24-hour news channels, but I think our best stories should provide us with some sense of timeless and help us get in touch with what really matters.

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15 thoughts on “Eternal Stories

  1. Thank you Sifu Mike, I think about mythology all the time, it is one of my favorite subjects. Just like badwater was filled with water ages ago, myths and stories also change and adapt with time. From an ancient act of heroism we may gain stories relating that moment in time, which evolve into legends and then myths and then voila we have a comic book with a flying man who saves the world! I sometimes even think that religions may have evolved as such, and it’s why I remind myself that is is just as important that we pay attention to the morals of a story along with the story itself, often you cannot have one without the other.

  2. Most of my favorite stories capture those kind of “timeless” elements, no matter what setting they are in — real, fictional, fantasy, future, past, present, etc. One of the things I don’t like about “reality TV” and the modern hyperactive western culture is how focused we are only on “what’s now, what’s about to happen?” instead of being more reflective on things as a whole. Our entire culture is based in consumerism, even in our storytelling, and that’s frustrating. People would rather just move on to the next thing if what they’re watching/reading/playing doesn’t stimulate them quick and easy-like, rather than appreciating how some stories actually expect if not require the audience to THINK about what they are experiencing and reflect on it.

  3. I always love reading or watching classic stories. I’ve read from Norse and Greek myths and the most interesting thing about them is that people don’t really change much over time. The way someone tells a story from one time period to another isn’t that different. Jesus has a lot in common with Hercules who pretty much became Superman. As a result, I grew up reading the Bible and watching Justice League Unlimited. My favorite anime Dragon Ball/Z/GT started off as a story inspired by Journey To the West. A story from the 1500s adapted into a manga then an anime from the 1980s. Stories, like paper, can do a lot of good when re-cycled properly

  4. I really love your take on this. A few years at a literary conference called “Sirens,” we’ve talked about story re-tellings and why we re-tell stories. (It’s also why I get so annoyed when people complain “Why can’t they just tell /original/ stories?”)

  5. I really like what you’ve touched on here, the idea of myths and legends has always intrigued me. A teacher of mine once said that myths were the way that people were able to explain the seemingly unexplainable.

    I always liked that idea, that someone could take such a foreign idea and weave it into something approachable.

    ” I think by watching and reading stories that have their basis in the past, it connects us to a part of us that is more primeval.”

    I agree, I also think that on a sub-conscious level it shows us that we’re not alone in our struggles. That even hundreds of years ago they had similar issues and that eventually everyone gets through it and in the end we’re all human.

  6. It’s not unrealistic, I think it’s wise. I still love to read myths and legends, and my favorite video games are usually based on an old legend given new life. I like to sit awake and wonder how some legends started or think about the deeper meaning of stories.

  7. Why do we still read old myths and classic stories? I think it’s because, as massive as the surface-level changes between the lives of the ancients and our own lives may be, our underlying human nature hasn’t changed one bit. The Ancient Greeks and Romans might not have had computers and reality television, but they experienced the same emotions (if not in the same way) and faced similar interpersonal struggles as the ones we face every day — it shouldn’t be surprising that their stories still resonate with us, especially since we’re able to relate to far stranger things (from all manner of aliens to talking sea sponges) all the time.

  8. Sure you can take pictures where others have already been; a million people can look at the same blade of grass and not see the same thing. Each person recognizes the familiar then connect a little bit of themselves to this and it becomes a little different to everyone; warmth, life, a pleasant scent, a remider of summer chores, etc. Your photo may be of a well-known area but the fact that YOU have taken this makes this unique to you. Others will go to this same place, and for each this will be a familiar scene but they will take someting a little different from it each time.

  9. Because of this blog I just bought the entire annotated Grimms Fairytales. I’m so excited, I read the preface last night till 4am, it was so fascinating.

  10. Wow Mike, you really struck a chord here with me. I must admit- I’ve been keeping up with your blog for a while now, and I have been really (positively) impacted from how you think and see life, especially from a storyteller’s point of view. I can see how you and Brian were able to conceive such an excellent, and different show like Avatar – a show for children, but with such substance and depth to it, that it could very well teach adults some very valuable lessons. I consider myself a budding author, working on my first book now that College is almost through, (though I’ve been preparing said book for well over a year) and I can really identify with what you said up there.

    Because my aim through storytelling is to connect my readers with something bigger, with something eternal, that could benefit their lives for the better – something beyond just another read that you pick up, then put down. I want to get my audience back in touch with what really matters, through a medium and story that they can identify with and a message that they have either yet to learn, or may have forgotten along the way. To make them think long after they’ve set the book down, whether or not what they just read is fiction or fantasy, or something they could actually apply to their lives to grow as human beings. I want to reinstate values and morals, nobility of heart, to a generation that’s really lacking for it at home, lacking for it in the media that surrounds them.

    I believe that through storytelling we have the means of not only entertain, but to impact a whole culture – a whole generation of thought and perception. Storytelling is a crucial factor to take into consideration when studying how a generation gets to think and behave – not just because we are taught and raised hearing, reading or seeing stories, but also because the modern day media is saturated with them. And the media has and will always have a very big impact on our culture. Our children are constantly exposed to different stories, different values and messages: be them on the news, on movies, on games, books or cartoons, or even at school – and sadly most of them are not exactly positive ones. We as storytellers can help change that for the better, I believe.

    And I also think that the reason we human beings are so attracted to myths and the supernatural is because we are in essence beings of spirit before we are beings of flesh. We long to indulge in topics pertaining to who we are, where we come from, and of course, where we’re going because in the end, that is the center-point of a human being’s curiosity. I believe that human beings, at their very base, wish to know their origins, their purpose, and what comes after it has all come to pass. We all wish to know our individual purposes and meaning in this life. Stories are a way for each individual to help piece those answers together I believe. And that might be why we are so receptive and keen to look back to past stories. Because we intend to find a clue as to whom we are, and what we are meant to do here. I believe that as creatively-gifted and spiritually-capable beings, we are hard-wired to look back into the past for answers, to look into past stories for direction and meaning.

    That is just, of course, my personal, individual way of looking at it.

    Very nice blog by the way, I will definitely keep a lookout for more posts.

  11. Dear Mike,

    as human beings, we have been seeking originality for so long …I sense that whenever we establish a real connection with the source – the origin of life – we get to Be original. Art, as a creative process, may be seen as a manifestation of this connection. Even if requiring mental and physical attributes for becoming a material reality, we sense it, it pulses in a heart that, sometimes, seems to be immaterial.

    I thank you so much for sharing with the outside world, in your blog, such delicate and special moments of your own connections with the Source. I also thank you for your gift of being able to capture the finest essence of our time and to traduce it in a timeless work of art and pure love. After all, as said in the Guru episode of Aang (I don’t remember the exact words), the division in-outside is the greatest illusion – we are all One.

    Peace and love,

    Monica

    (from Brazil)

  12. I like the notion that we tell stories to “explain the unexplainable” or to somehow make sense of things; now we “know” something or someone, we are drawn closer to it, little lines and arrows, and paths appear in our minds. One of my favorite legends is that of a creature that has become a symbol of endangered species and wildlife conservation: the Giant Panda. Folklore tells of a time when they were once all-white bears, and upon the death a a beloved princess, the bears followed an actual ancient chinese custom of mourning: Kneeling and dusting their arms in ashes, rubbing their eyes from crying, holding their ears from the sounds of wailing and crying, From this they now bear the markings of this event-black arms and legs, black eye patches and black ears.

  13. I enjoy your reconnection with the primeval, perhaps part of the reason myths and classics are so well received is that we humans are largely unchanged. We have the same motivations, fears, hopes, desires, and feelings our ancestors had. Technology has advanced, but we users are still driven and stalled by many of the same experiences as those who preceded us and our modern advancements. Stories convey characters in past eras struggling with conditions we still identify with because the times and technology change, but the underlying emotions remain the same.

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