The tau tau and storytelling

Everything sooner or later turns into a story. Maybe in God-time the Word becomes Flesh. But in my experience Flesh fades into Word and the Word becomes Story. Yeah. People loved hanging out with my Irish-American parents, because any disaster could be neutralized by turning it into a story and having a good laugh.

It isn’t just the Irish. I have carried this quote around me since college. It is the prologue to Elie Wiesel‘s Gates of the Forest. It always chokes me up to read it.

When the great Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light the fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.

Years later when a disciple of the Ba’al Shem-Tov, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer,” and again the miracle would be accomplished.

Still later, another rabbi, Rabbi Moshe-leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

The years passed. And it fell to Rabbi Israel of Ryzhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire, and I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.
God made man because he loves stories.

Cleaning up my files on our collectibles recently, I found a complex workflow diagram that documented the process required to do justice to any given interesting old thing that we happened to own. After all the RESEARCH COMPLETED, all the PHOTOS TAKEN, all the DATABASES UPDATED, all the decisions around SELL VS KEEP made, the final step was STORY TOLD.

Tau tau in New York

And so… I am in the midst of telling the story of a tau tau who resides here with us. Jim bought the ungainly wooden statue around 1995 and it had such an impact on us that we traveled to her home in Tana Toraja — the back of beyond — on the island of Sulawesi, in the vast archipelago of Indonesia.

I told the tale once, back in 2001 for a writing class. Now I’m updating my thoughts, aiming for an audience at Medium.

The tau tau is an ancestor effigy, carved at the time of death to be the visible soul of the dearly departed during the long and elaborate funeral process. When the cadaver is buried and the invisible soul has “gone south” to the Land of the Souls, the tau tau remains. The carving is placed in a grotto with others from the same village. The sight is really astonishing. (See images below.)

Tau taus overlooking the village of Suaya in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia (photo by author)
Tau taus overlooking the village of Lemo, Tana Toraja, Sualwesi, Indonesia (photo by author)

It begs the question: how did one of these sacred objects wind up naked in an upstate New York living room? I’m trying to work that through — to tell an honest story but to avoid making us sound like hapless destroyers of world culture. (Honestly, Jim innocently bought the dear tau tau at an import shop in downtown Rochester.)

Sometimes it’s hard figuring out what the story really is, isn’t it? Wine poured.

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