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Dreading the Holiday Family Gathering? Aboriginal Stories to Help Now and Year-Round

I found a new perspective that I think will help me ditch the guilt, preserve my sanity and still allow room for a holly-jolly holiday with my family.
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For the record, I love my family, but the idea of gathering at the holidays with a few relatives whom I rarely see any other time of the year has deflated my Christmas cheer like an unplugged inflatable lawn ornament. Can you relate? I thought so. But then I found a new perspective that I think will help me ditch the guilt, preserve my sanity and still allow room for a holly-jolly holiday with my family. It hit me like a well-aimed snowball to the skull while talking with author and spiritual messenger Laine Cunningham about her latest book, "Seven Sisters: Spiritual Messages From Aboriginal Australia." We talked about how storytelling is one thing all cultures share, about the connection our glitzy American holidays have to ancient tribal ceremonies and about the importance of relationships -- romantic, family, friends, community and global -- to living a fulfilled life. Here's more of our conversation.

What do Aboriginal stories from Australia have to do with our contemporary American holiday of Christmas?

In Aboriginal culture, almost all ceremonies have some sort of storytelling aspect to them so that everyone can understand and be reminded of why they're participating in those ceremonies. They're like our holidays. Most holidays have a spiritual story as a component, such as Christmas or Hanukkah, or they're set to remember an important event in history, like the Fourth of July.

So, you might say that the stories in "Seven Sisters" are similar to hearing the story of the birth of Christ told every Christmas, or familiar stories about Santa?

Yes, in that we're passing down important lessons, so in the case of Christmas, it might be about sharing with the less fortunate or about redemption. The 11 stories in the book do the same in that it's keeping these traditions alive, and one question facing Aboriginal people is how to uphold an ancient spiritual system while living a modern lifestyle.

You talk a lot in the book about sharing and about responsibility. Are the holidays difficult for some of us because it's a reminder that we do have these wider responsibilities, and maybe we don't really want to be reminded?

It is -- and this is natural. It's part of being human! One of the core issues that humanity has struggled with is how to get along with our neighbors, and we've always had trouble getting together with family! So these modern family get-togethers like Christmas or even a vacation are stressful because it's during these times that we recognize that we do have obligations to the larger communities of family, work, neighbors and society. But in our modern lives, it's so easy to become separated from those obligations on a day-to-day basis until a holiday comes along. And the media, especially right now, tells us we should be of good cheer and feasting and happiness, but here's where the conflict comes in; we think the holidays are just about ease and fun, but in reality what we are doing at a spiritual level is refocusing our time and energy on our basic relationships, and that can be difficult.

To hear you say that is such a relief!

Well, it changes your expectations. During the holidays, we're switching our responsibilities for a short period to reconnect. If you're aware of that switch and why it's happening, then it's much easier to get through the holidays without as much stress and guilt.

Many of the stories in "Seven Sisters" deal with relationships, and my favorite story is "The Orphan." It emphasizes the importance of having a variety of relationships in your life and not focusing so much on, say, a spouse and neglecting your friends.

Yes, and some of the strongest reactions so far from readers has been to "The Orphan." Just because you're married doesn't mean you shut out your single friends, and just because you don't have children doesn't mean you shut out your friends who do. What happens is we shut out alternative perspectives that could be quite valuable. We mistakenly think that no one understands us unless they're in the exactly the same situation as we are. It happens with different religions, different political parties. So we actually separate ourselves into little tribes but without the diversity of what a traditional tribe really means. We subdivide until we trap ourselves in these isolated, homogenous tribes.

And all that from a story about a lonely koala bear!

That's what's special about these Aboriginal Dreamtime stories -- there are so many layers of depth. It's important for American readers to know that there are many different versions of these stories as they are traditionally told. The simplest version is taught to young children, but then more details are added as the children mature, and then in adulthood, you get the full version, and some are quite epic in proportion.

How did you decide which versions to include in "Seven Sisters?"

I looked at American society today, what we're struggling with -- issues around relationships, empowerment and finding spiritual connection -- and I selected those Aboriginal stories that best addressed those issues. I think I started with 25 stories and cut it down to 11. But I knew that most American readers weren't going to have the familiarity with Aboriginal culture to just read these and immediately grasp the meaning. They might just sound like folk tales or children's fables, but that's misleading. They're as real to Aboriginal people as the stories in the Bible are to Christians. And I believe these stories provide very practical approaches for dealing with everyday life. So I did expand each story with details to help the reader get into it, and each story is enhanced by an accompanying essay that I wrote which provides a practical modern application or lesson.

I'm sure everyone is wondering how you first learned these stories.

Some years ago, I spent six months camping in the Australian Outback, and so you just come across these stories as you meet people or as you visit certain places with a story attached to them. The story "The Glow," about the Moon being a bachelor and chasing the ladies -- I heard that one while talking to an Aboriginal woman in a bar. She was a local social worker and she kept trying to give me condoms!

Do you have a favorite story from the book?

The one with the most spiritual meaning to me is "The Promise" because the message is one of absolute joy. In it, different animals argue about what the afterlife is like. That concept -- everyone has thought about it or thinks they know what happens when we die, but the message there is to put aside all that. In that story, no one can prove they're right. We can each have our own ideas about the afterlife or any other issue, but the important thing is to be able to sit down with someone who has a completely opposite opinion and get along.

That's another common thread among the stories, the importance of getting along or working together.

Yes, and when you do, everyone's power stays in balance. I tried to make clear in the essays that you must maintain a power base for everyone because otherwise the entire structure falls and everyone pays. That creates powerlessness and fear -- and anger. And so we see this, I think, in our current political discourse where there are people who are afraid of losing something they see as theirs, whether it's a tax break or a job, and those are simply resources we all need to live. It's really a natural fear. But you can eliminate that fear by stepping back and recognizing that working together is almost always preferable and more prosperous for everyone, and by prosperous I mean prosperity as in health, harmony, peace, love and joy, as well as the ability to provide for yourself and your family.

And "Seven Sisters" reminds us that these are actually spiritual concerns at their root?

Right. If you're afraid of something, it really has nothing to do with politics or economics. It has to do with who you are, where you are in your life, how generous you are, your concerns over how well you can control or manipulate others. These concerns permeate all the decisions we make, but they are essentially spiritual issues.

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