Stories: Now More Than Ever

“I believe with all my hoary heart that stories save lives, and the telling and hearing of them is a holy thing, powerful far beyond our ken, sacramental, crucial, nutritious; without the sea of stories in which we swim we would wither and die; we are here for each other, to touch and be touched, to lose our tempers and beg forgiveness, to listen and to tell, to hail and farewell, to laugh and to snarl, to use words as knives and caresses, to puncture lies and to heal what is broken.”    ~Brian Doyle   

In this surreal, frightening time we are pulling together in profound ways. Although so-called differences are trumpeted by those who profit by dividing us, a magnet of connection guides us toward one another. Even now when we can’t hug, can’t even gather together, we are moved by one another’s stories.

By now, you likely know of people affected by Covid-19. I’m starting to. A friend’s wedding is cancelled and they plan to marry in front of a justice of the peace, sparing their friends from contact. Another friend’s new restaurant may go out of business. Each day he cleans the smooth black counters he had installed, hoping customers might again stand there to order before his creditors call in their loans. Many friends are out of work, scrambling to figure out how to pay for food and housing. An ER nurse friend is sleeping in her sister’s basement to stay away from her own son, who is receiving chemotherapy treatment. She does Facetime chats with him every evening. He holds up drawings he’s done, graphs he’s made of his temperature, lists of things he hopes to do in the next few days. She keeps her voice cheery till they’re done, only afterwards letting herself cry. One of my writing students is at home struggling with a cough and high fever, unable to get a test for the virus. She endured a difficult childhood, and in the last few years has started to write her memoir in light of what she now knows about trauma, epigenetics, and narrative history. Every person affected by Covid-19 has a story much larger than these few lines can tell.

Nearly every day I share stories with a stranger thanks to Quarantine Chat. Recently I talked to an older gentleman in Canada who is staying at his fishing cabin. When we talked he’d just come in from what he said would be the last ice fishing of the season. He reported that, once again, he didn’t catch anything. I asked how often his ice fishing was successful. “It’s always successful, in that I get outside for a few hours of peace. But it’s 100 percent unsuccessful if you mean catching anything after decades of trying,” he said. His good cheer couldn’t help but cheer me. I’ve talked to people in Spain,  Russia, Israel, and many U.S. states — a graduate student, business owner, graphic artist, stay-at-home dad, insurance broker, teenaged musician, police officer. We talk about what we can see out our windows, how our plans have changed, what worries us most, what we’re having for supper. It’s like any conversation, except it’s easier to get past the superficial.

Yesterday’s call was with a retired veteran who said he was really struggling with anxiety, especially for his two daughters. I asked if he had a family story, maybe even from generations ago, that made him feel he and his kids would get through this. He told me about his grandmother, who was the first Black woman in their city to become a bus driver. He called her a “little powerhouse of a lady.” He said she was a woman of faith who also took  “no guff” from anybody. Once, he said, she was robbed as she was walking to the side entrance of her apartment building. She never carried a purse, but pulled a worn Bible out of her coat pocket and told the desperate young man holding a knife, “Take this, it has all my treasure inside.” He grabbed it and ran off, assuming she had money stuffed in its pages. She turned and hurried after him. When he threw it down after rifling it through, she picked it up moments later. The police declined her offer to dust it for finger prints. The veteran said he had lots of stories about his grandmother and realized he hadn’t told them to his daughters. “I see her in my girls,” he said. “They’ve got her fight and her big heart.”

Stories press the doorbells that open us to the meaning inside tragedy, courage, and compassion. The prickle of tears you feel at the story of another person’s sorrow is your empathy. The  rise of something larger than pride when hearing a story of kindness is your willingness to give of yourself. And laughter at someone’s funny story, well, that’s as human as it gets.

Share some stories going on around you. Every story helps.

April’s Energy Fingerprint

April tragedy, energy fingerprint, life energy,

image: andrewpoison.deviantart.com

April is a month for blooms unfurling and songbirds hatching. A month when gray skies turn blue. It’s a changeable month that promises new life.

Or not. A friend recently asked, “What is it about mid-April that brings so much tragedy?” She offered plenty of evidence. Even looking at tragedy specifically affecting the U.S., there’s a lot of it.

April 15

– Abraham Lincoln assassinated

– Titanic sank

– Great Mississippi Flood (1927, worst flood in US history)

-Boston Marathon bombing

April 16

– VA Tech shooting

April 17

-USS Iowa Explosion

-West Fertilizer Plant explosion

April 18

– 1906 earthquake in San Francisco

-US Embassy bombing in Lebanon

April 19

– Lethal end of the Branch Davidian standoff

– Oklahoma City bombing

April 20

– Columbine school shooting

– Deepwater Horizon explosion

Horrific events, every one. It’s entirely natural that our attention is drawn to such disasters, especially as they’re happening. Way back in prehistory, those who paid close attention when others were injured or killed were more likely to avoid the same fate. Their bodies and minds were primed with vividly awful but useful information, helping them to survive and pass along disaster-attentive genes. These days our attention is pulled toward all sorts of disasters, although the information isn’t useful in the same way. Too much attention to what’s wrong in the world, and we’re likely to end up with Mean World Syndrome.

Threat also compels us to engage our full potential, to “rise to the occasion” whatever it might be. No wonder that those who want us to marshal our resources for their own purposes try to convince us there’s a grave threat. This is done by football coaches trying to motivate teams right up to political pundits spewing angry conspiracy theories, because it works.

But rising to our full potential actually means we humans pull together in a crisis. Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at large-scale disasters including earthquakes, floods, and explosions in her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. She finds tragedy and grief, but something else too, something rarely noticed. During and after horrific crises there shines from the wreckage something extraordinary. People rise up as if liberated, regardless of their differences, to act out of deep regard for one another. They improvise, coordinate, create new social ties, and pour themselves into work that has no personal gain other than a sense of meaning. Such people express strangely transcendent feelings of joy, envisioning a greater and more altruistic community in the making. Even those suffering the greatest misfortune often turn around to aid others and later remember it as the defining moment of their lives. This is a testament to the human spirit, as if disaster cracks us open to our better selves. Solnit says, “The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”

By some counts, mid-April leans closer to tragedy than many other times of the year. But let’s remember, this month is isn’t defined by disaster. Instead, like every moment on Earth, it’s packed with constant, unsung acts of cooperation and beauty.

I dreamed once that what each of us contribute to this world, maybe to worlds beyond, is an energy fingerprint. All our striving and accomplishments are wisps, quickly lost to time, but this fingerprint of energy remains and affects all other energy. It’s the overall attitude that matters—grateful or bitter, loving or hateful, aware or dismissive.

Whether my dream has any truth or not, I do believe that even in the midst of tragedy we can choose an attitude of hope and compassion. Anger, fear, and vindictiveness isn’t the fingerprint I want to leave.

April tragedy, April curse, energy imprint,

Image:michammer.deviantart.com

This is a repost from our farm blog