The Palace of Bird Beaks

The Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon, bearing opulent gifts, and hoping to see if he was as wise as the stories claimed.

“What can I offer in return?” asked Solomon. “Only ask, and it shall be yours.”

The queen had also heard that Solomon spoke the language of the birds, but didn’t believe it. Here was her chance to kill two birds with one stone.  “Build me a palace made entirely of bird beaks,” she said, “if you can.”

“Oh, I can, ” boasted Solomon.  “You shall have it.”

To her amazement, Solomon summoned the birds, from every corner of the earth.

 

They heeded his call…

 

….from the tiniest hummingbird…

 

…to the majestic eagle.

 

“We’re going to make our nation the envy of the world,” he told his gathered flock, to the cheering of the birds.

 “But I need your beaks to build a palace.”  And the birds bowed their heads and wept.

 

“Stop fussing,” said the king.  “Everyone dies sooner or later.  Believe me, I know more about that than anyone else in the world.”   The king scanned his gathered flock as they waited to die.  “Where is the hoopoe bird?  Why isn’t she here?  How dare she defy me?”

 

Breathlessly, the hoopoe swooped in to land at his feet. “Forgive my late arrival, Sire. I’ve come from the ends of the earth, and I’ve seen so much along the way. I’ve even learned three things you don’t know.”

(photo in public domain)

 

“Really?”  King Solomon frowned.  “A lot of people say I’m the smartest king that ever lived.  I know more than anyone, about pretty much everything in the world.  What could you possibly know that I don’t?  Tell me quickly, before I take your beak.”

The other birds trembled, fearful that Hoopoe would upset the king, for they knew that he didn’t like his genius questioned.

 

“Sire,” asked Hoopoe, “do you know who it is that was never born, nor will never die?”

“Of course, I do!  The Lord of the Universe…

IMG_2901

 

…the Creator, who made the sky above us…

IMG_6107

 

…the earth we stand on…

IMG_8820

 

…every blade of grass…

IMG_4828

 

…every creature that walks…

IMG_5219

 

…or swims…

IMG_3049

 

…or crawls.

IMG_6306

 

King Solomon hesitated.   “Or flies.

img_2559

 

Solomon looked at the birds…

 

…each one magnificent…

 

…each in its own way…

 

…..each one created by the Lord of the Universe…

…who had also made Solomon, and blessed him with wealth, power, and responsibility.

“What’s the second thing?” asked Solomon irritably.

“Sire, do you know what kind of water rises not from the earth nor falls from the sky?”

“Of course, I do!  It’s a tear that falls from the eye, born of sorrow.”

Solomon looked at the birds, their heads bowed, tears flowing, as they waited for him to chop off their beaks.  Might he have acted rashly in agreeing to build a palace of bird beaks?  But the Queen of Sheba, the whole world was watching, and he thought, “A promise is a promise.”

“One last question, Sire,” said the hoopoe.  “Do you know what is so delicate that it can put food into the mouth of a baby, yet is strong enough to bore holes into the hardest wood?”

“Of course, I do.  It’s a bird beak,” said the king.

(Photo by Amanda Lightfoot)

 

“Yes,” he repeated, “a bird beak.  Of course.”

 

The great gathering of birds stretched out before him, their lives and children as precious to them as his own were to him…

 

In his arrogance, he’d promised to build a useless palace to fulfill a selfish whim, and to make his own subjects pay for it, without considering the cost in blood and tears.  And he knew what he must do.

 

“Hoopoe, you’ve demonstrated courage for daring to resist this injustice.  You have shown wisdom in helping me understand that my true power is in resisting my own cruel impulses.  I shall not demonstrate my power by destroying the defenseless.”

King Solomon turned to the Queen of Sheba.  “A wise and worthy leader must never be so proud that he can’t admit his mistakes, or do what he must to right a wrong.  There will be no palace of bird beaks, now or ever.”

The queen smiled and nodded.  “I came here to take the measure of a man, and I believe I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.”

 

Except where noted, all words and images ©2020 Naomi Baltuck

 

 

Telling Tales Under the Rainbow

“When Bat came to the animals’ party, Zebra said, ‘You’re not an animal. You have wings. Go to the birds’ party!’  Bat went, but there it was the same. Eagle told Bat, ‘You’re not a bird. You’ve got fur and ears and teeth.’  Bat slunk away.  Perched on a branch, as he cried, he lost the strength to hold himself upright.  He flipped over to hang upside down, his tears dripping down to the ground.”

When the story was over, everyone in the circle applauded Allison.

“It’s sad,” said the first listener. “If it were a kid’s book, the bats would get together and have their own party. But Bat doesn’t get a happy ending.”

“That’s reality. He didn’t choose to be this way and he’s rejected for it anyway.”

“For me, this question of categorizing Bat is really important. It reminds me of going to the bathroom and choosing ‘Men’ or ‘Women.'”

“Or being bi and having everyone want to label you as either gay or straight.”

So begin our meetings at Under the Rainbow

 photo IMG_9528_zpswc7udftn.jpeg

 

As the parent of gay children, Naomi Baltuck knew that few programs or public gathering places existed for LGBTQ in Edmonds, just north of Seattle.  In a climate of increasing intolerance, she wanted to use storytelling to heal, inspire, and strengthen the community.  But that connection had to be built on trust, and that trust had to be earned.

Under the auspices of the Edmonds Neighborhood Action Coalition, she partnered with a local queer-friendly game pub to launch a monthly Family Gayme Time, which drew a good crowd. Once that was established, she asked the Edmonds Library to host a monthly storytelling series called Under the Rainbow, for LGBTQ and Allies. When they agreed, she contacted the high school’s Rainbow Warrior advisor, and the Edmonds Diversity Commission.

Allison Cox, social worker and author/editor of The Healing Heart books on storytelling for healthy families and communities, lent her expertise. We needed it. Under the Rainbow was built from scratch. Should there be rules? Age limits? Time limits? Language restrictions? Could we find LGBTQ storytellers willing to work gratis, since we had no budget? We put the word out, and along came Chris Spengler, a storyteller known for her humorous and uplifting personal tales. Chris jumped on board, and we had our team.

Our vision wasn’t of polished performances, but to create a place for LGBTQ and Allies to share their own stories, to support each other and be supported. Rules proved unnecessary in a place where everyone is respected. Age limits too; we’ve had babies, elderly, and everything in between; everyone’s welcome. Our team comes prepared to tell, to get things started. Most of our lives aren’t centered around being a lesbian or bisexual or a supporter of those who are, so we also tell stories dealing with sexism or rejection for not fitting family expectations or having to suddenly pick up and start your life over…the human condition.

The first Under the Rainbow drew only four, we three storytellers and a straight friend. We reminded ourselves that storytelling can be healing, but to a person who has been disowned for coming out, it’s emotionally risky. Eventually Gayme Timers made the leap from playtime to storytime. We got school referrals, utilized social media, and the Seattle Storytellers Guild championed the program, lending non-profit status for grant-writing.

We meet at the library every Second Monday, 6:30-7:30PM. Refreshments are always served, because exchanges over cupcakes can be as momentous as those happening within the Story Circle. After each tale, participants are invited to share their reactions. Listeners opened up gradually. The first time someone volunteered to tell a personal story, we were hopeful. The next month, when a young person prepared a story ahead of time, we were elated. Now nearly everyone shares. The gay son of a Mormon bishop, a straight elderly woman who dated a gay man in Lebanon fifty years ago. We heard about being gay in Mongolia. Being homeless. At last month’s meeting, one coming out story led to another and another.

Tackety Boots (The Healing Heart ~ Families, edited by Allison Cox and David Albert) is a traditional Scottish tale about Sandy, who is kicked out of a party for having no story to tell, then takes an unexpected canoe trip across the river, changing gender in the process. He lives as a woman with another man and they have a child. Sandy finds the canoe one day and is shocked when it carries him back across the river and he becomes male again. Distraught, he bursts into the party and wins a bag of gold for telling the best story of the night. But Sandy could only whisper sadly, “Oh my child! Oh my man!”

Allison even told the children’s classic, “Going on a Bear Hunt,” by Michael Rosen, an acknowledgement of all the times in life you “can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it…got to go through it!” Everyone clapped in time, grinning like a kid.  Naomi chose Tatterhood, the Norwegian story of a girl born different. No matter how hard the queen tries to mold her into a princess, she defies taming and remains true to herself, but saves the day in her own way.  While traditional stories evoke conversation, Chris’s personal stories turn listeners into tellers.

The success of this program can’t be measured in numbers, but by the impact it makes on people’s lives. Even more good things lie ahead. We’ve just received a grant from the Pride Foundation to bring in more LGBTQ storytellers for concerts. Writing Rainbow is a natural offshoot of Under the Rainbow. We meet monthly at a queer-friendly Edmonds café to write, brainstorm, and meet other LGBTQ+A writers.  A Gayme Time spinoff is LGBTQ+A Dungeons and Dragons, where gaymers roleplay a crew of gay pirates, creating their own continuing adventure story.

Here, under the rainbow, we celebrate who we are. It looks like the bats are having a party of their own after all!



Naomi Baltuck, Chris Spengler and Allison Cox are storytellers living on the shores of beautiful Puget Sound, and they invite you to come listen and share a tale at Under the Rainbow.

©2018 Naomi Baltuck, Chris Spengler, and Allison Cox

A Match Made in Hell

 

Are you familiar with The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson?  It’s a tragic tale about a child trapped in a world of poverty and abuse, hunger and homelessness…

On New Year’s Eve, someone steals her ill-fitting shoes, so the little girl wanders barefoot through the snow, trying to sell matches to uncaring people hurrying home to warm houses and holiday feasts.  No one has a farthing or even a second glance for the unfortunate waif.  If she goes home having sold no matches, her father will beat her.  To keep the cold at bay, she huddles against a wall and strikes her matches, one at a time. In each tiny flame she sees visions: a warm stove, an elegant feast, a Christmas tree lit by candles…  

Then her dead grandmother, the only person who ever treated her with kindness, appears to the shivering child, and carries her soul off to Heaven. The next morning, the strangers who walked past her the night before discover the little match girl’s icy corpse, clutching the burnt-out matches in her frozen fingers.  Too late they feel a twinge of pity.  The end.

As a child, I hated that story.  I was appalled that grownups could look away from a child’s suffering, without lifting a finger to help.  Why would anyone invent such a depressing story, and who would want to hear it?

As an adult, I still hate that story, and even more now, because I realize that when Anderson wrote The Little Match Girl in 1845, except for the bit about the grandmother, he was fictionalizing a deplorable reality he himself was witnessing. He wrote during the Industrial Revolution, when the poor were miserable and overcrowded.  Pollution from the unregulated burning of coal poisoned the air, and factories were dumping metals, chemicals, raw sewage, and other toxins into the lakes and rivers that people depended upon for drinking water.

Wages were so low that the working class toiled 12 to 16 hours a day, yet still couldn’t earn a living wage.  On the brink of starvation, they sent their children to work in factories and mines.  Many were separated from their families, left to the ‘mercy’ of strangers, working ungodly hours for only a place to sleep and the food they ate.

In 1832 it was reported, “…workers are abandoned from the moment an accident occurs; their wages are stopped, no medical attendance is provided, and whatever the extent of the injury, no compensation is afforded.”  

The wealthy were given free reign to exploit the poor. When the Industrial Revolution sparked disputes over inhumane working conditions, the government introduced measures to prevent labor from organizing. The rich got richer, the poor remained poor, and children, who were forced to work all day or starve, couldn’t get an education to help them rise from poverty.

In the USA, industrialization occurred mostly in the North, with an influx of immigrants serving as factory fodder to keep up with attrition and demand. The South had its own foul history of systemic oppression, with its agrarian economy dependent upon human slavery.

Over time, Americans have fought and died for the cause of social justice.  They organized labor unions, which brought an end to child labor, shortened the work week, and ushered in workman’s compensation for on-the-job-injuries. They are still trying to negotiate a living wage.  Public education, Social Security, Medicare, Affordable Healthcare have all helped to even the playing field and a provide a social safety net.  Civil rights, women’s suffrage, Affirmative Action, environmental protection have, too.

We still had a long way to go to overcome class, gender, religious, and racial discrimination, such as the legacy of Jim Crow that still exists.  Yet we saw the middle class grow, the standard of living rise, and each generation doing better than the preceding one, until the 1970s.  What in Hell happened?  Ronald Reagan, and his trickle down economics, for starters.  It has been a downhill slide since then, snowballing since the Trump administration took power.

Today there is a little match girl on every street corner.  Our democratic republic has degenerated into an oligarchy, bought and run by big business, with puppet strings being yanked all the way from Russia.  International treaties have been broken, environmental protections scrapped to increase company profit, families torn apart by inhumane ICE policies, cruelly punishing the innocent children of undocumented immigrants. Affordable Healthcare, Social Security and Medicare are in the administration’s crosshairs.  The three richest men in America own more than half of this country’s wealth.  Our society has regressed two hundred years to become a near perfect match for the one that inspired Hans Christian Anderson to write The Little Match Girl.  A match made in Hell.

I will always hate that story.  But we need to keep telling it, until we can pound out a new ending.  We need to keep telling it, until we never need to tell it again.

©2018 Naomi Baltuck

Eclipsed

Nearly a year ago, when we first learned of the solar eclipse, most motels in the Northwest Totality Zone were either booked, or charging up to $750 for a room.  So we reserved a B&B in the Eastern Oregon town of Moro, a forty minute drive to Totality. As the day approached, epic traffic jams of eclipse chasers were reported.  We left a day earlier than we’d planned, taking two days to travel 270 miles, with emergency gear: food, water, sleeping bags, gas can, read-aloud book and our Kingston Trio CDs.

Traffic on I-5 was heavy, but we traveled east over the Cascades, cruising the speed limit, and sighting only the occasional RV heading to the Totality Zone from Yakima.

All the guests at our B&B were eclipse chasers.  There were two couples, first-time viewers up from California, and a German couple, first-time visitors to the US, who had crossed an ocean and a continent for a ninety second peek at a natural phenomenon they’d seen many times before.  I took that as a good sign.

Moro’s population is 316.  Its only cafe had gone belly up, and the tiny market closes early on Sundays, but the local history museum was open.  We picnicked and were playing board games in our room when Thom discovered on Facebook that college friends were also staying in Moro at the only other accommodation in town, just a five minute walk away. Lona and Scott were as enthusiastic about the eclipse as you’d expect a science teacher and a librarian to be, and they had spent the last two days scouting out the best view spots. They invited us over, pulled out their maps and notes, and suggested a viewing place just south of Shaniko, for its off-road parking and territorial views.

Taking no chances, we allowed four hours to travel the 38 miles into the Totality Zone. Rising at 5AM, we learned that the other guests were long gone. But the roads were clear and we were halfway there before the sun rose.  At least sixty people were camped at our viewpoint, with more arriving all the time. The buzz of excitement filled the air, though the eclipse was still two hours away.  One youngster kept a faithful watch, but I dozed, catching snatches of conversation between friendly strangers.

Finally the moon’s shadow began to pass over the face of the sun. Through protective glasses it looked like a sky cookie, with a bite taken out of it.

There was a drop in temperature and a subtle change of light.  We couldn’t tell over the noise of the crowd whether the birds stopped singing, but the people-watching was superb compensation.  For an hour, the moonshadow inched across the sun, its effect hardly noticeable, except through protective glasses. Without them, even with just a sliver of the sun peeking out from behind the moon, its light was blinding.

All at once, darkness eclipsed the world.  It was as if a one-eyed sleeping giant had suddenly awakened, and the sky was staring back at us.

The crowd erupted into wild cheers, and Thom and I shared their exhilaration.

I’d seen it depicted on canvas, demonstrated in planetariums and National Geographic specials. But seeing a total solar eclipse with my own eyes was like hearing ‘Ode to Joy” sung by a heavenly choir after seeing only the musical notation on paper.

(Ivan Generalić: Solar Eclipse, 1961, CMNA )

Our dear Sol had pulled off his glasses and shirt to reveal his Superman costume. Ninety seconds later–it felt like the blink of an eye–the sun emerged from the shadow.

We took a deep breath, hugged each other, and hit the road, hoping to beat the crush of outbound traffic. We were elated as we drove north, verbally processing the experience. We both questioned whether we’d used our few precious seconds wisely. Ironically, Thom regretted not taking a single photo, while I wondered if I’d made a mistake by placing a lens between myself and an awesome once-in-a-lifetime-celestial event.  Thom knew just what to say.  “Argentina in 2019.”  Yes, please!

A friend asked, half joking, if the eclipse had changed my life. Maybe. Especially if we go chasing the next one, which will appear in the Argentine sky in 2019.  Meanwhile, there is a whole lot of Awesomeness right here on the mother planet.

I read that awe is the emotion created by an extraordinary encounter that drastically affects one’s assumptions of the world.  Experiencing this emotion can make us feel small, yet connected to something larger outside of ourselves, especially when the experience is shared by others. This was borne out in Shaniko, where traffic bottlenecked at the crossroads with the only stop sign in town. Traffic on the big road had the right of way. I feared we’d be at a standstill for hours waiting for an opening.

Then some generous soul hit the brakes and gave cuts to a person who was stuck at the stop sign, before continuing on.  The next person with the right of way also stopped to allow a car through.  They were still graciously taking turns when we reached the intersection, and were also waved on.  There was a mile of backup, but not a single horn honked, no one hollered, everyone was patient and polite, and we all moved forward together.  It was an awesome display of human nature.



There are other kinds of Awesome that sneak up on you.

These days we live under a dark shadow that has eclipsed our country, and the planet too.  Instead of chasing shadows, it feels like we’re trapped in the dark, fumbling for the light switch. I found the light when I accompanied family and friends to the Women’s March in Seattle last January.

I was awestruck.

 And I was not alone.

img_7013

The solar eclipse did not move me to tears.  But at the sight of 135,000 people speaking up for equality and compassion, and speaking out against oppression, bigotry and hatred, I couldn’t hold back tears of relief.

Tears flowed again.

And again.

And again.

If it’s a solar eclipse that fills you with awe and purpose, you need only wait a year or two, and somewhere on this planet there will be a next time, another chance.  But in the United States, if you’re looking for an extraordinary encounter, or want to feel a part of something larger than yourself, if you want to be more than an observer, you’d better start now.  Because in a year or two, who knows what will be left to save.

We can’t sit on our hands hoping no one will get sick, or disenfranchised, arrested, abused, deported, or thrown into a concentration camp for no good reason. Our national parks, our environmental protections, our healthcare and social safety nets are being systematically carved up and sold to the highest bidder. Our politicians and our elections seem to be for sale as well. Our civil rights, our human rights, our right to protest in our own defense–these too are endangered by the deranged sociopath in the White House. We can only hope he won’t get into a pissing match with another tyrant and launch us into nuclear war.

We have no protective glasses for this unnatural phenomenon, but we can’t afford to look away.  It’s time to invoke our inner superheroes.  Our superpowers will be to speak for those who have no voice. To protect those who cannot protect themselves.  To organize, educate, donate, speak out, rally and march.

Again.

And again.

And again.

img_6675

And again.

IMG_5163

And again.

And again.

IMG_0820

And again!

This isn’t a solar eclipse; there are no do-overs.  I’m keeping the glasses, because I want to be prepared for the next big event.  2019 will be here before we know it.

And so will 2020.  

All images and text ©2017NaomiBaltuck.

The Beginning of the Rainbow

My son Eli and I met up in Taiwan last week.  He was eager to visit The Rainbow Village while we were in Taichung.  Several reviews suggested it was too far off the beaten path to be worth the trip, but most people were highly enthusiastic.

img_5307

I did a little research; sometimes the story of a place or object can imbue it with meaning.  This story goes way back, and knowing the story made a difference to me.  Huang Yung-Fu was born in 1924.  During the Chinese Civil War he fought for Chiang Kai-shek, and in 1949, he followed their defeated leader to Taiwan.
img_5278

Hundreds of villages sprang up throughout Taiwan, providing temporary military housing for the veterans like Huang Yung-Fu and their families.  Some of the military villages had a thousand units or more. The temporary concrete houses became permanent homes for many. 

img_5274

They were small and drab and time took its toll on the buildings.  Cities grew up around them, and the property became more valuable than the dwellings.  Developers started buying up the land. Residents were offered compensation and relocation if they would agree to vacate.

img_5276

 Most veterans submitted, but Huang Yung-Fu resisted; he would not leave his home.

img_5290

The old veterans’ community was gradually reduced to only 11 residences.

img_5304

They wanted to tear down Huang Yung-Fu’s home too.  So he picked up a paintbrush and began to paint…

img_5282

…and paint…

img_5292

…and paint.

img_5283

Bit by bit, wall by wall, his colorful murals expanded to beautify all the remaining residences.  

img_5294

Local university students discovered Huang’s work and campaigned to save the village. What was left of the place became known as The Rainbow Village.  Authorities eventually agreed that it should be preserved, and it has since become a designated cultural area.

img_5298

Mr. Huang, referred to by many simply as Grandpa, is now 94 years old. At a little table you can purchase post cards, magnets, and other products based on his work, the proceeds of which must surely provide a good living.

img_5302

Grandpa was napping when we got there, but we’re told he often touches up his work, keeping it fresh and bright.

img_5305

I am in awe. With the help from local students, through his art, a fragile old man rescued his home from destruction and urban decay.  He transformed his home into a vibrant tourist hotspot that also provides a good living.

img_5299

Huang Yung-Fu has worked a kind of magic, real and powerful.  He has turned this…

img_5289

…into this.

img_5306

As surely as Huang Yung-Fu was going to lose his home, we are going to lose ours.  Imagine what would happen if writers and storytellers, visual and performing artists everywhere were to unleash their passion, channel their creative talents, and fearlessly use their superpowers to advocate action for environmental protection, humanitarian aid, civil rights and social justice.  Artist Favianna Rodriguez says, “Change the culture, change the world.” She quotes Abraham Lincoln, who said, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.”   It has happened before.  Sinclair Lewis, Pete Seeger, Miriam Makeba, Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, Diego Rivera, just for starters.  It can happen again.  And it’s now or never time.

All images and words ©2016 Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Magic.

The Many Degrees of Spooky

There are so many degrees of spooky.  There is silly spooky fun, much of it tasteless.

Well, actually this one tasted pretty darn good!

So did these guys, but you know what I mean.

In the real world, mildly spooky is a vicious ATM that eats your cash card five minutes after landing in a foreign land, and then being forced to use your rusty high school Spanish to try to get it back over the phone from a bank where no one speaks English.  To no avail.  The machine can smell your fear, and the voice on the other end of the line really doesn’t care.  But you know you’ll survive.

Or how about when your staircase remodel is taking far too long, and every night you build a barricade of chairs and boxes around the gaping opening, and you realize you’re telling your children, “Don’t fall in the stair hole!” as often as you’re saying, “I love you!”

We visited a 16th c. chapel in Portugal made entirely of bones. Over the doorway a sign says,”We, the bones that are here, await yours.”  That’s kind of creepy.

But, hey, it’s the bones of monks long dead at the time of construction; they wouldn’t have minded anyway.  And it did happen a long time ago.

But how’s this for scary?  This memorial reminds us that not so long ago, in our parents’ lifetime, a Holocaust happened in which, not just six million Jews were systematically slain, but blacks, homosexuals, the disabled, the mentally ill, anyone without a protector, and anyone who spoke out for them.  Still we ask ourselves, “How could that have happened?”  Or even, “How could we have allowed that to happen?”

Our country was founded on the groundbreaking principle that all men are created equal.  Many have fought and bled and died to extend that right to include all humans.  But there are legislators and candidates trying, step by step, to demote and disenfranchise homosexuals, minorities, and women.  And talk about spooky!  In our wealthy country, they want to slash humane assistance and every kind of safety net, including social security and medicare, for widows and orphans, the disabled, the elderly, the ill, and others who have no voice, no resources, and no options.  Public school funding has been cut to the bone, undermining a poor child’s means of improving his life.  Even if they have declared that corporations are people, why does a multi-billion dollar corporation like General Electric make huge profits but pay zero taxes, while real people are scraping to pay 39 percent of their income?

I’m asking myself, “How did this happen?” and “How did we allow this to happen?”

Yeah, it’s spooky, and I’m scared.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Creepy.

For other interpretations of Ailsa’s Travel Theme: Spooky, just click here.

All words and images copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck