“A tailor’s apprentice was once traveling and he went into a great forest. Not knowing his way, he lost himself and, when night fell, was forced to seek a bed in this painful solitude.”
This young tailor loses his way in the beginning of a Grimm Brothers’ story called “The Glass Coffin,” but the heroes of many tales pass through this same forest. It’s the place where Hansel and Gretel found the gingerbread house, it’s the Forest of Arden, and it’s where Dante found himself at the beginning of Inferno. “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, I found myself within a forest dark, for I had lost the path that does not stray.”
Stories, like dreams, take us back again and again to familiar places that we have never actually visited. I think they are familiar because they make up the landscape of our souls. When we encounter them in dreams, we know where we are and, although we may feel lost, we also recognize landmarks at each turning of the road. When we encounter these places in stories, we can visualize them in great detail as soon as they are introduced.
Of course, we also lose ourselves in this same dark forest in our real, waking lives. It happens to most of us more than once. You could even say it’s part of the human developmental journey. I see my twenty-month old grandson occasionally toddle into it as he begins claiming independence from his mama, and I, who have journeyed more than half of my life’s way, see it looming in the shape of old age and its inevitable conclusion. In my case, these thoughts are passing; and for the most part, they remain in the intellectual realm. My grandson is protected by all of the adults who hover around him like guardian fairies, ready to whisk him to safety at the slightest hint of danger.
However, some people live in this wilderness, and are forced day after day to seek their bed in its painful solitude. I think this describes the state of most adolescents. They are truly lost because there is no map they can follow that will lead them safely from childhood to maturity. They have to find their own way and make their own path, and the journey is fraught with hazard: drugs, violence, ill-intentioned friends and strangers. Some teens are lucky enough to meet a guide whom they trust to point out the pitfalls in the road. Some, like the arrogant older siblings of folktales, scoff at the wisdom of these advisors and end up paying dearly for their distain. And there are surely others who are never even offered advice.
For the past three years, Storytelling Arts has provided a storytelling program for residents at a juvenile detention facility. During this time, the four of us who teach these workshops have met well over a hundred children who, for one reason or another, have been sent by a judge to live under lock and key for some period of time. The facility is well run by staff who have the residents’ best interest at heart. Although the kids are locked up, most of them are not serving hard time. Some are remanded to the detention center while they wait for a bed in a rehabilitation facility or residential training program. Others return home after only a few days. But there are some who stay on for weeks or months and then leave to begin a longer, more painful, incarceration.
These long-term residents form the core of our storytelling program. They hear many stories and they are the only students who engage in discussions and activities through the entire arc of our residency plans. The also provide continuity for more transient residents by explaining the program and connecting the stories we tell to other tales and to their lives. We tellers see the long-term kids four times a month for several months and we develop comfortable relationships with most of them. We hardly ever know why they were locked up and, in many cases, we find it hard to believe that the intelligent, curious, and thoughtful teens in our workshops could have done anything bad enough to merit a long incarceration. But we know they did. They are the wanderers who lost their path and got themselves so tangled in the darkness that they couldn’t find a way out on their own. It must be very hard to maintain perspective under those circumstances. As nearly as I can recall from my own adolescence, concepts like right and wrong seem vague to a person who is truly lost.
However, when we meet these teenagers, they are no longer seeking shelter in the painful solitude of the forest. Someone has found them and gotten them into a place where their physical safety is not at risk and where their emotional bewilderment can begin to be addressed. To continue the journey metaphor, we meet them in the hut of the woodcutter or the cave of the wise old woman, but unlike the heroes of folktales, these children have arrived too late for their helpers’ wisdom to work its magic. The deed has been done and it has consequences that can’t be avoided, not with all of the wisdom that hindsight can provide.
The kids get straight in their new residence, their thinking becomes clearer, and then, because there are few outside distractions, they are forced to reflect on their past actions and to try to anticipate their future. And that future is often unbearably bleak. Those who are waived up to adult status because of the severity of their crime, or who, on their 18th birthdays, are sent to adult correctional facilities to serve out the term of their sentence are moving into a place that is probably much darker than any they have visited. What makes this situation even sadder, at least for us, the tellers, is that it is so clear that the huge majority of these children could have been saved if they had met someone along the road to advise them and to whom they had listened. Because the truth is that some of those step-sisters and older brothers in the folktales may done fine if they had met an advisor they were tempted to hear. The wizened old woman doesn’t appeal to everyone, no matter how much she knows, and just because she happens to be standing around the corner when the hero loses his way doesn’t mean she is holding the gift he needs to succeed.
One of the boys whom we have known the longest and loved the most just left us to begin a long incarceration in an adult facility. When we talk about this young man who has so gracefully and gratefully received our gifts with no hope that they can change the course of his next few years, we say to each other, “You never know. Something he has now may help him get through the next journey intact.” And maybe that’s so.