Image description: A hand is holding a Tarot card with a colorful rug in the background. The card is Pamela Colman Smith’s Two of Cups from the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot. In the card, two people are standing face-to-face, each wearing a crown and holding a cup. The cups are identical. One person is reaching out with their hand to touch the other. Between them is a caduceus with a lion’s head between the wings. While they are holding identical cups, we can assume that what’s inside each, is distinct. They will need to do more than simply hold out their vessels to truly understand one another.
Equinox is here and I’m working on a second annual spring telling of the grail legend, which I’ll be offering in Berkeley on Earth Day in a space that is incredibly special to me for a small group of twenty.
The grail is a long and layered story, and since my last time telling it aloud I’ve dug a lot deeper into some of the scenes so I’m eager to get more specific and textured. Perceval and company are a bit more settled in me this year than they were last. I imagine, romantically, that this means they’ll trust me to disclose some of the more intimate details of their lives to twenty strangers.
I’m reckoning lately with the power and also inadequacy of words. There are so many words whose meanings we take for granted. I mean, words like “grief” and “anxiety” have as many meanings as there are people, probably more. For me alone there are a few distinct things that I mean when I say that “I’m anxious.”
Lately, when I sit with people for therapy, I’ve been doing a simple practice of trying to slow down enough to crawl inside words like “depressed” or “stressed” so that I can figure out what’s really being disclosed. Nine times out of ten, it’s not what I thought.
It seems tricky to do at first because it involves a kind of vigilance, but once you get going the rewards are reinforcing. You start to realize that every other word has a whole world inside, and I’m bored easily so to me, that’s exciting. It really feels like getting somewhere. At the very least, it feels like a move toward understanding between two people who are talking.
Sometimes I think about how we’re kind of primed to perform understanding. I think it has something to do with the need to be competent. Oh yeah, I hear you. That must have been so hard. I’m so sorry. But I wonder, if I didn’t pause to find out what you meant when you used words like “lost” or “confused” or “hopeless,” what am I really saying when I say that I’m sorry you feel that way?
I’m considering all this in personal and therapeutic relationships, but also in storytelling of all kinds. My favorite storytellers are those who get granular to a degree that some might call extreme, who rely on exceedingly particular, “experience-near” descriptions that are so idiosyncratic and specific you’d think they might be un-relatable, and yet somehow tend to be just the opposite.
It’s paradoxical that the more common a word the more varied its meanings, which can make it more difficult to find common ground, and not less.
So I’m trying to apply some of this thinking to my storytelling. This is consuming because it involves slowing way down and taking little for granted. I want to find much more intricate language than the words that I have to describe what happened when Perceval saw knights for the first time and thought they were angels. Or what it felt like when he was at the grail castle and too in his head to ask questions.
If to be a good storyteller is to introduce characters in a way that makes it impossible not to care what they’re up to, then I think one way to do that is to get so wildly specific that they become real—which is to say they become dynamic and contradictory subjects rather than flat objects, symbols or stand-ins.
I’ve been learning the grail story for two and half years and in the first tellings I had to rely on basic things; that person was here, and this person did that. The whole thing was a house without much inside yet.
And now that I have that, I’m trying to put some rugs down, art on the walls, hand thrown bowls in the cupboards. I’m sticking wild turkey feathers in jars and strewing them about, the way those of us who tend to see everything as some divine sign do, so we don’t forget what it is to be feral, alone at dusk on some buggy backroad, seeking shelter.
So there’s a part in the grail story where King Arthur and all his crew are out looking for Perceval. The last time Arthur’d seen him, Perceval was clunky and brand new, eager with no finesse. You know the vibe, without a way of his own yet Perceval’s only goal then was to be someone else, precisely: The red knight.
And for reasons that only God knows, Arthur had agreed to make this young man—who at that point didn’t even know his own name—a knight. A king’s blessing was all that it took, and Perceval was off running.
Despite Arthur’s worries, with a little bit of mentorship Perceval turned out to be quite skilled in knight things, a real natural. And because he’d been taught never to kill a man who was down and begging for mercy, he sent most of his conquests alive back to Arthur, where they’d serve a laughing prophet who’d been brutalized in Perceval's presence and whose shame he was determined to avenge.