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December 27, 2012 / Fantelius

Stars of the Mind

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Please accept a gift. The story

Stars of the Mind
Liz and I had just finished working on our report for our university class and started on a walk around the lake. She’s 49. I’m 22. The summer was old and tired. Autumn couldn’t be seen yet, but its freshness could be felt in the air. I began thinking about Gabriella, the youngest of Liz’s five children. She had recently gone off to the university.
“What’s Gabriella like?”
“Gabriella? What makes you suddenly ask about her?”
“Since you told me about her explanation of the blue sky and the yellow sun causing leaves and grass to be green, I’ll think of her often when I see the greenery of the landscape.
“She’s a philosopher.”
“A philosopher!?”
“Not really. There are no such things as philosophers nowadays. They are an extinct species, like dinosaurs, dodo birds and prophets. But she’s called herself a whore for knowledge, and that’s about as close to a philosopher as one can get. Philosophy means love of knowledge. My sister says that Gabriella was born with an old soul. I don’t know what that means, but I do know that Gabriella has an unusual intelligence. Of course all parents think that their children are particularly intelligent, and they’re right, but I have proof of Gabriella’s healthy mind.
“When she was barely six years old, I was telling my husband at the dinner table about what I had read that day. According to a professor Sealand, until a child is at least seven years old, it can’t look at a martini glass and picture what that glass would look like viewed from the ceiling. The child’s mind can’t make that leap in perspective. Gabriella was listening, of course, and we saw how she looked at her glass and then looked to the ceiling. She did this several times and said, ‘He’s right. They can’t.'”
I laughed and said, “I think I understand what your sister means by an old soul.”
“I don’t know if it illustrates an old soul, but it shows an independent mind. Many adults accept a great deal as true because it comes from an authoritative person. Gabriella thinks for herself and isn’t influenced by titles of expertise. For example, five minutes after she read about the Big Bang theory she said that it was a big bag of nonsense. I asked her where she had gathered her knowledge of advanced physics. ‘Mother,’ she said, as though I were her child, ‘when you hear that everything started from one tiny ball, you don’t have to be an expert to ask where that ball came from.'”
“Whether she’s right or wrong, I’ve got to admit that she’s got muscles on her mind to take on a theory as big as the Big Bang.”
“Let me tell you the story of a story,” Liz said. “Every Christmas, my father gathered everyone around him and told us a story. It was the same story every year. The kids loved it even though they’ve heard the story ever since they could remember. One year Dad was in hospital over Christmas recovering from an operation and Gabriella asked to tell the story instead of Grandpa. We agreed.

This is the story, Grandpa’s story that she told:
Once upon a time there was an old man who lived alone in a very large house. He was the last survivor of what had been a large and prosperous family. He knew that he didn’t have many more years to live and there were no relatives to take over the house. So he sold everything in the house, moved into a little cottage and announced to the people of the village that he would give the house away to anyone who could fill it.
The first man to make a claim for the house already owned one of the largest farms in the village. “I can fill the house with my potatoes,” he said.
The house, which was situated on the top of a hill at the edge of the village, must have been a lot bigger inside than it appeared to be from the outside, because the entire potato harvest hardly reached the second floor. Many days work had been for nothing. Another farmer scorned the attempt with potatoes and said that he would fill the house with his wheat. But the entire wheat harvest barely came up to the windows of the second floor.
A young schoolteacher who was rather new in the village said that she could fill the house. When asked what she would fill it with, she said that she would show them the next day after the evening meal. Everyone was very curious and the entire village fell in behind her the next evening as she walked toward the house. She held nothing in her hands and the people wondered if perhaps she was crazy or trying to make fools of them. Some people noticed that the pockets of her skirt bulged, but they didn’t think more about it.
The teacher asked everyone to wait outside on the lawn and went into the house. From the pockets of her skirt she took small stumps of candles and lit one in every room. In less than half an hour she had filled the house with light.
The house became hers.

“That was Grandpa’s story and we all applauded Gabriella’s way of telling it. She held up her hands to quiet our applause and said, to our surprise, that the story wasn’t finished. She continued:”

The teacher announced that everyone was invited to a party on the coming Saturday to celebrate her winning the house. She would then fill it again with different things. Everyone helped with the arrangements and the party was a great success. The teacher was true to her word. She filled the house with music and laughter.

Once again she invited everyone to a party that would take place on the Sunday after the end of the school term. And once again she would fill the house with one last but essential thing. On the Sunday of the party, a young man arrived early to the village. He was conveniently married to the schoolteacher just before the party. The schoolteacher told everyone that they intended to fill the house with love. ‘But we have a great deal of it,’ she told everyone, ‘so I hope no one minds if some of it spills over and flows into the village.’

“That was Gabriella’s supplement to Grandpa’s story,” said Liz.
“Perhaps you should tell people that Gabriella is a story teller instead of saying that she’s a philosopher?”
“She tells stories occasionally, but philosophises all the time.”
“Who told the story the following Christmas?”
“It was agreed that grandfather would tell the story as he had always done. We told him that Gabriella had substituted for him, and he was glad that one of his grandchildren was prepared to take over the tradition. We didn’t mention a word of the extra ending. When Grandpa came to the end of the story he said that there was more to the story, but that he had forgotten it. Could anyone help him?
Everyone looked at Gabriella who volunteered to try. Grandpa was so pleased with the new part of the story that his eyes watered and he thanked Gabriella for the best Christmas present he had received in years.”

“Do they still share telling the story?”
“No, Dad’s cancer came back and he died later in the following year. Gabriella spent a lot of time with him. The two storytellers had become very close, two members of an exclusive club. Gabriella said that he was the best book she had ever read.”
“She must have taken his death very hard.”
“I was afraid she would, but it was the complete opposite. She was calmer than any of us. Almost happy. Well, not happy. Peaceful. She had talked to him a lot about death before he died. They had prepared each other well. She said that he wasn’t outside anymore; he was inside, meaning that he was within all of us who knew him.
“Does she tell the Christmas story every year?” I asked.
“Yes, and she starts by saying that it is a story her grandfather taught her. She doesn’t mention that part of the story is hers.”
“Maybe her grandchildren will mention it when they tell the story.”
“Maybe. It doesn’t seem to matter to her. When she says that grandpa is inside of her, she means it literally, not in an abstract way. One spring morning after he died, Gabriella got Al, Terry (her brothers) and me to go along with her on a ‘Grandpa breakfast picnic.’ She wouldn’t tell us what that was, but how could we refuse with that title. She woke us before sunrise and we drove 20 minutes to a mountainside. She had prepared coffee and sandwiches and we sat on a slope facing east.”

‘We are not going to see the sun come up,’ Gabriella told us. ‘We are going to ride the world as it turns toward the sun. Grandpa often talked about riding the world. From the moment the sun comes into view until it is completely visible, we can’t say anything. But ask whatever you’d like of the sun, the world, the trees, the wind or Grandpa. And don’t forget to feel the world turn. Grandpa will like that.’

“We did as she instructed. I can’t speak for the others,” said Liz, “but I’m rather certain that it was a powerful experience for each of us. As for myself, my emotions erupted like a volcano. Or like a big bang. It wasn’t as if I was happy or sad, I was everything at once. Tears flooded down my cheeks, but I couldn’t tell if they flowed from sorrow or joy. At one point I felt the world moving so quickly that I nearly cried out like a child on a roller coaster and I heard my father laugh.
“When the entire sun was visible above the horizon, Gabriella told us that the ride was over. And it was.”
“Have you ‘ridden the world’ to meet the sun again since that time?” I asked.
“Twice! But it wasn’t the same. I’ll probably do it again, because it’s nice. Unfortunately, it’ll never be like that first time.”
“You never know,” I said, “maybe one day you’ll experience it in a better way?”
“When you get to be my age,” she replied, “you learn not to make demands on your feelings. If you don’t have high expectations, you’re free to experience things as they are and not how you hoped they would be. How often are people disappointed and saddened because they were expecting to have a good time and all they found were other people expecting to have a good time.”

Back at the house after the walk she said, “I was surprised to learn that many of the things my father had told Gabriella, he had told me when I was young, but I had forgotten them. Like the stars of the mind. He had told us that all stars were merely pieces of light. Our brains consist of billions of cells that have thousands of connections to each other. The cells communicate with each other by tiny sparks at the points of connection. A spark is also a piece of light. There are more stars in our minds than there are in the entire universe.”

We fell into silence. The world was very still. From where I sat I could see the paper star that was taped to the window of what had been Gabriella’s room. I had noticed the star when I first sat down and now I saw that it had changed colour. The angle of the sun was different now. We’re moving, I thought to myself. The world isn’t still, it’s moving. It’s changing all the time. And there are animals and insects and bacteria and billions and billions of pieces of life everywhere searching and hunting and feeling and … Suddenly I felt as though I was part of everything. If there is such a thing as pure happiness, I was filled with it. I was sitting quietly, doing nothing, and experiencing one of the happiest moments of my life.

“He also told Gabriella to ask.” Liz’s words broke my bubble of bliss. She didn’t notice that I had been immortal for almost a minute.
“But he told her in a different way than I remember him telling me. To me he had said that I should never be ashamed to ask about what I didn’t know. The most knowledgeable people that ever lived knew very very little compared to what they didn’t know. To Gabriella he merely said to ask.
“Ask the way to wherever your mind wants to go,” he had told her. “Ask people, ask books, ask nature. Ask the other passengers who are riding the world with you.”

©Joel Miller

 

(Tomorrow: A Kingdom Ruled by Love)

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