Firebirds and Feathers: Boys Becoming Men

October 26, 2009

A few years ago I was working with a young college athlete, who was in the midst of deciding whether or not to continue with Track & Field, with “Athletics,” as the Europeans would say. Coincidentally, I had just participated in a workshop given by the storyteller, Michael Meade, a week or so before I met with this young man.

He had a very successful athletic career in high school and nearing graduation he was being recruited by a number of college powerhouses – Cal, Oregon, Kansas, Villanova and so forth. The problem he came to me with was whether or not to “go for it” – take an athletic scholarship with all the stress of rising expectations that go along with it, or just go to school. (His family could easily afford any college he wanted.)

After talking for a bit, I entertained the idea of playing a tape of Meade reciting The Firebird. I didn’t give him very much of an introduction, just saying that I wanted him to listen to a story, and then we would talk more after that. So that is what we did.

The first thing that struck me about the power of story-telling was the way he seemed to go into a mild trance state as soon as he heard the opening words, “Once upon a time there was a young hunter riding through a forest.”

This triggered some sort of automatic response in him, a response that seemed to say: Some important information is being transmitted here. I don’t know what it means, but I know that it’s something deeper than facts and figures, or advice and directives. And he began to listen intently to the story, intuitively knowing that, in some very mysterious way, his life depended on his understanding of what was happening here.

So we listened together for a while. We heard the description of the young hunter (who appeared remarkably similar to this young man). And we listened as this hunter made his way through the forest. This seemed familiar terrain to this boy who had competed so well in athletics.

“Suddenly the forest grew quiet and still. Not a bird chirped. No sound of a small animal scurrying through the brush. The young hunter then heard a great whooshing sound coming from above. The sky darkened as a huge shadow covered the canopy of trees. And then he saw it, the great Firebird blazing in yellows and oranges and golds. It glided over the trees singeing the very tops of them as the massive wings skimmed over them in the gigantic arcs. And then one feather, one brilliant golden feather, gently descended to the ground landing as it happened right in front of the young hunter’s horse of power. The young hunter got off his horse and looked down at the feather. As if he could read the young hunter’s mind, the horse of power then spoke. He said, “Don’t pick up that feather, because if you do, you will come to know the true meaning of fear.”

At the mention of this mysterious “horse of power”, my young athlete actually leaned closer to the tape recorder. Just then on an apparent whim, I turned the recorder off. I asked the young man what he would have done in the young hunter’s place. He thought about this for a long time. There was silence in the room for well over a minute (it seemed much longer).

Finally he said, with a fierceness that wasn’t there before, “I’d pick up that feather.”

I responded, “I think you just did.”

From that point on we both knew that the question had shifted from whether he wished to continue competing, to which school would be the best place for him to go to with a feather in his hand.

That experience gave me a small inkling of the power of stories like this one, but an experience later that evening deepened my understanding of this notion.

Also, around the same time when I was working with my young client, I was in the habit of reading stories to my son, who was about six or seven. Instead of reading to him that evening, I asked him if he wanted to listen to a tape instead. He said yes, so I proceeded to play the same tape for him. Just as with my client, I noticed my son go into a light trance – with his eyes softening and his jaw slacking just a trace – when he heard, “Once upon a time.”

He listened just as intently to the beginning of the story. I stopped the tape at the exact same point as I had earlier. I asked him what he would do if he were the young hunter. He thought for a moment (a brief moment), and then said very earnestly, “I’d listen to that horse of power.”

We then enjoyed the rest of the story together. But we did so with less intensity, for we both knew that this was a story about boys becoming men. And he knew that his place at that moment was watching the drama unfold while comfortably on the sidelines, safe in his bed.

His time for blazing feathers and enormous firebirds and fierce kings with sharp axes had not arrived yet, but, no doubt, arrive someday it would.

Edd Conboy, MS, MFT is Council for Relationships’ Program Director of the Avenue of the Arts office, and Senior Staff Therapist at our University City office. He can be reached at 215-382-6680 ext. 4313.