I’m lucky. My office faces a couple of trees squashed in between the apartment blocks, but trees nevertheless. I can hear my neighbor watering them with unfailing enthusiasm on Sundays when he’s off work. My friend, Christos, is lucky as well. If he leans out, he can see over the apartments a little bit of Lycabettus Hill. He dreams of growing a small forest on his rooftop and has entered a waiting list on a municipal program. We live in the centre of Athens. Still, those two, three trees create the illusion of a small luxury. Under those trees, my daughter used to leave notes to the fairies, looking for ways to communicate with them. I watched her at first with joy though later it made me sad to see her searching desperately for in which language to talk to them. She would write on ribbons and tie them on to branches, painted small scraps of fabric or colorful bits of paper, then she thought of drawing on the leaves. She possessed a great deal of patience, she had the vision, the passion and, in her youthful mind, all that was missing was the right form. But she needed a fairytale that had its beginning in the small courtyard of our house. She would have discussions with me and I would anxiously search for the right answers. Should I tell her that there are no fairies, ground her in the adult world. I didn’t want to. We were the ones knocking ourselves out telling her fairytales and, on the other hand, she was growing up in a world were dream materials were so scarce! When she went to primary school and learned the alphabet, I found her one late afternoon repeating under the two trees: “a, b, c…” “What are you doing?” I asked. “Shhh, I’m calling the fairies”. She asked me to join her. Her small alphabet sounds mixed with the everyday sounds of our neighborhood. The cars passing, Severina looking for Pipi, her cat, the cat’s bell jangling as he leapt from one balcony to the next and, of course, the steady sound of a TV set out of all the apartments, but especially the one across, on the first floor. A deaf old lady lives there with her carer who keeps changing every so often, A Bulgarian, a Russian, a Pole, always from the Eastern Bloc, because Mrs. Nana used to play the piano in her youth and held the Russian school in high esteem. My mind follows the sounds in the apartment across the way while my daughter goes on: a ...b …c.At some point she cuts short annoyed. The fairies won’t come unless you sing, too, a…b…c.Her comment is as disarming as her expression. Feeling awkward and moved all at once, I start murmuring a…b…c and, gradually, the sounds from the surrounding balconies fade away and it’s just the a, …b, …c. and my daughter’s need for a new myth of her own, in this modern world. But it is so hard to make out the voice of myth in a world that has completely forgotten its forebears and their pathways through nature.
I was reminded of this story of my daughter while reading a Hebrew tale. Baal Shem Tov and his faithful scribe are going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The boat hits a storm and the sailors surround the Jews considering them responsible for the bad luck. Death seems certain. The worst thing is that Baal Shem Tov has forgotten all the sacred prayers and can’t ask for God’s help. His apprentice pleads with him to try but he can’t remember a thing. Eventually, the great teacher and storyteller, asks his faithful scribe if he can remember anything. Slowly, with difficulty, he recalls the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. So, he starts murmuring in a timid voice, Aleph, Beth. Baal Shem Tov repeats the letters and these most elementary parts of language have such power that they are saved from perdition.
Every time period brings changes with it, ours, though, is a time of complete transformations. Many simple things are being overturned. Electronic media, new technologies for the dissemination of information. Yet, the more information accelerates, the more people’s vital communication is hampered with family members, friends, neighbors, nature. In this new reality, the need for something immutable grows. And oftentimes, the realms of “Once upon a time” are proving more stable that the contemporary geographical maps. In recent years an ancient art is being revived. Storytellers, revisionist bards, fairytale festivals, home gatherings, seminars on narration and oral tradition. This past summer, on Kea island, in Vytina, in Kallipefki, the hillsides and woods filled with people thirsting to hear fairytales. Could it be that in amidst the galloping of a mechanical everyday, a new feeling is growing that the human voice and memory are irreplaceable? Is it maybe that we need the renewal of the bond between those who narrate and those who listen? Is this a response to modern day barbarism? How else to explain the ever growing interest in such a simple form?
Is it perhaps the need for introspection, if we agree with the view that our ancestors’ stories are always alive within us, though their voice can’t be heard in the midst of modern living? Or, is it our need for simplicity, for the things that used to be self-evident in times past? Our need to live our life with perfect simplicity, just like in a fairytale? Might it above all be the need to dream up a new myth? Besides, weren’t myths in different times of history, the way to explain the inexplicable and, simultaneously, an ongoing reflection on life’s unanswerable questions? Could our times be at that very point? The point, that is, where we need a modern myth that will teach us to listen to one another, listen to the voice of nature before we utterly destroy it?
Who is the hero in the traditional fairytales all over the world? The one who travels through the dark forests, who slays dragons, who dares to take on obstacles but, mainly, the one who listens… The one who listens to the elves and leprechauns, who listens to the spirit of the forest, the tired woman at the edge of the road who might be a witch or a benevolent spirit. If his ears are closed and, particularly, if he is in a hurry, he will walk past the solution to the problem and will be powerless when the time comes to pit himself against the challenge. In fairytales, then, we learn that the need to listen is as heroic as fighting a dragon with a dozen heads. How then should I dissuade my son who is trying to communicate with animals or my daughter who used to try to listen to that which is different in the dusk? Could it be that we have simply forgotten how to listen? Might that be what we need over and above anything else? Might we, also, have hastened to name certain things all the better to forget them straight afterwards? “Imagination is essential for a happy child…” Yes, certainly, but, then, how come we don’t miss any opportunity to dismember its dreams? Always with the best intentions, to be sure, we stuff that child with knowledge and information – computer literacy, and language classes and some sports and a bit of music. We run along the street to be there on time before the class starts. The young boy pauses: I heard something in the trees. A lizard was desperately asking for help.Next to a wizened tree, in the middle of an encumbered city, all I can see are a few pieces of discarded plastic. The kid insists: listen.And, suddenly, I feel how poor I am. How difficult it is even for the best parents to be able to hear a small lizard’s cry for help, the young boy’s desperate need to transform reality in order to be able to experience it. And, then, I want to go down on all fours and find the little lizard except time is pressing and the class is about to start irrespectively of lizards and the tears of wayward students.
I had read the interview of a contemporary storyteller, Ednos, who was saying that one of the challenges of his art form was to give meaning back to words. To forge materials, including ancient ones, in a way that resonates with society and its dysfunctions. “The fairytale is like a pebble that must prevent the door from closing.”
Through the half-open doo, I am again thinking of a small girl seeking her fairytale, repeating the only letters she knows: a, …b, …c. A great teacher and storyteller whispering his own letters: aleph, beth, to avert a disaster. A contemporary storyteller who wants to give meaning back to words. They say that myths are shared dreams. Australian Aborigines called the creation Dreamtime and their myths dreaming. Are we maybe at that very point? Is all this contemporary interest in fairytales the need to share a dream and dream again a new myth? At all events, while our forests were burning I, who admire the two little trees crammed in the small space between buildings, my neighbor who on his one free day, Sunday, waters them with enthusiasm, my friend Christos who is planning a forest on his rooftop and that young girl sending signals to the fairies through the lower branches of a lemon tree, we were all having the same dream. An earth that is under threat and is desperately asking for help like the little lizard on the way to the classrrom.