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.

Say Yes to Your Weirdness

We tend to suppress certain aspects of ourselves in order to fit in. (Although when we display whatever weirdness is ‘in” I think that’s also a sort of conformity too.)

When I was growing up I did everything I could to hide what was odd and different in myself, letting out the funnier aspects in measured doses with my friends but keeping most tucked tightly in some inner compartment of my being. (To some extent I still do. You probably do too.)

I hope my kids have felt freer to express their own weirdness whether an early fascination with vacuum cleaners, a passion for forensic pathology, or unstoppable investigations of science-related oddities but I know for sure they are far more complex beings than their mother imagines.

Looking up the word “weird,” I see that its original meanings have to do with living out our uniqueness.

  • wyrd (fate or personal destiny)
  • wurđízwurd, wurt, urðr, worden (to become)
  •  wert (to turn, rotate)
  • wirþ, weorþan (to come to pass, to become)
  • weorþ (origin, worth)

Mythologist Michael Meade, founder of Mosaic Voices, says has plenty to say about that in an interview,

When I work with youth, I try to assist them in discovering their own unique essence. The sad fact is that everything in this culture is working against that essence. Mass culture is opposed to the uniqueness of individuals. Young people, whose job it is to become themselves, are walking into a culture whose goal is to turn them into everybody else. What I try to do is help young people realize who they already are inside. American culture says that you must make something of yourself, but the mythological understanding is that everybody already is someone. They have a seeded self at birth. As soon as young people are aware of the uniqueness inside them, they can begin to manifest the stories they’re carrying.

Meade’s comments echo a remarkable book, The Soul’s Codeby the late James Hillman. Hillman described each of us as coming into the world with a uniqueness that asks to be lived out, a sort of individual destiny which he termed an “acorn.” It’s a remarkable lens to view who we are. A child’s destiny may show itself in all sorts of ways: in behaviors we call disobedience, in obsession with certain topics or activities, in a constant pull toward or away from something. Rather than steering a child to a particular outcome, Hillman asks parents to pay closer attention to who the child is and how the child shows his or her calling. He also asks each of us, at any age, to listen to our weirdness. It’s integral to who we are on this moment-to-moment path of becoming.

What makes YOU weird?

Here are a few more thoughts on the matter.

“Whatever makes you weird, is probably your greatest asset.” Joss Whedon

There’s a whole category of people who miss out by not allowing themselves to be weird enough. ~ Alain de Botton

If you think people in your life are normal, then you undoubtedly have not spent any time getting to know the abnormal side of them. ~Shannon L. Alde

It ‘s weird not to be weird. ~ John Lennon

Blessed are the weird people – poets, misfits, writers, mystics, painters & troubadours – for they teach us to see the world through different eyes. ~ Jacob Nordb

 “Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision…” ~Cecil Beaton
“There is no such thing as a weird human being. It’s just that some people require more understanding than others.” ~Tom Robbins
“It’s not so much what you have to learn if you accept weird theories, it’s what you have to unlearn.” ~ Issac Asimov

“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr

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The Power of Story: Augusta Speaks

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“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.” Isak Dinesen

The woman wrapped blankets around her children, a small boy and a smaller girl. The little ones clamored for their nightly story. It didn’t seem to matter to them that they huddled in what was left of their home. They didn’t seem disheartened after spending another day searching for food. Their mother began the story as she always did, “Not far from here and not long ago.”

The children stepped into the story.

Some of her stories ended the same night they began. Most went on night after night. Each story started with some kind of yearning that turned into a quest. Many times the characters in the story had to step aside to wait or go another way before continuing on. They were confronted by danger, hunger, and riddles. The characters learned to be patient and clever.

Sometimes decisions they made earlier came back to help them or hinder them. In one story they were grateful to find humble roots growing along their path. Weak from starvation the characters dug them up, rinsed them in a nearby stream, and boiled them over a tiny fire. Just as they were finally about to eat some fellow travelers came by asking if they had food to share.

“Careful,” the boy and girl’s mother interrupted the story. “Notice the travelers’ eyes and their hands. Are they thieves? You must show them your strength as well as your kindness. What would you do?”

The boy and girl said they would share. As the story went on these same thieves protected the characters from an enemy but later stole the only stone that warded off a trickster’s wicked prank. When the boy and girl exclaimed that it wasn’t fair their mother explained that the characters saved four lives by sharing the food, which was good, but they’d forgotten thieves could never be trusted. The children nodded as their mother went on with the story.

The characters in the story were always a mother with her boy child and girl child. They weren’t always people. Sometimes they were animals searching for their rightful place in the world. Or elf-like creatures seeking to restore lost magical powers. Or a queen traveling with the prince and princess, gathering clues to unlock a mystery. Often they were joined in their quest by other characters. Some of these characters had wisdom to offer. Others tricked and cheated them. Others ignored them entirely.

healing through stories, helping children with stories, trauma eased by stories,

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The children protested each night when their mother’s voice grew increasingly hoarse and she finally told them it was time for sleep. They felt as if they’d fallen from the story world. But she always promised there would be more to tell the next evening.

The family spent years waiting. For what, exactly, the children weren’t sure. A better home awaits us, their mother assured them, but it’s a long way away and not all will be easy once we arrive. During the daytime she taught them to speak a language no one else knew. It sounded like birds chirping and scratching on the roofline. Sometimes she taught them songs while they ground grain or chopped vegetables for stew. Mostly she taught them to be wary and watchful. The little ones barely noticed as they got taller except that it was a struggle to keep them in clothes that fit. They rarely had jackets or shoes. Sometimes they had no food either.

The nightly stories grew longer. Sometimes it took weeks to finish one tale. The story’s characters found many obstacles in their way and often, just when the troubles were unendurable and the characters ready to give up, the story would change in ways they couldn’t have imagined. The only thing that seemed to matter was that the characters didn’t lose heart.

Then everything changed. The mother showed the boy and girl a packet she had carefully hidden in the folds of her sweater. “Passports and documents,” she whispered. That very day the family left on their own journey away from the place they’d lived their whole lives. The children had never before encountered such hurry and so many crowded places. They stayed close to their mother as they waited in lines, were scrutinized by men behind tall counters, and had papers stamped. Before long they were strapped into seats on a huge craft. As it began to move the mother told a story. They didn’t know it would be her last.

There were three characters, a mother wolf traveling with a female pup and a male pup nearly as large as his mother. Although they lived in a land filled with sunsets that inspired beautiful wolf songs to rise from every hilltop, they were driven away by something worse than hunger. Their journey took them to a bridge so long they couldn’t see the other side. Behind them were wolves like themselves, thin and desperate. They weren’t sure what kind of creatures lived on the other side of the bridge but still, they were determined to get there. Suddenly in front of them loomed a fearsome beast with no eyes but many claws. He made the bridge shake so hard that they tumbled off, all except for the young male wolf who clung to the underside. He tried to pull himself up as he challenged the beast to fight. The beast loomed over him, roaring loudly with breath that crackled and smoked. Still the young wolf struggled to get back on the bridge. Then he felt something grab his feet from below. He kicked with all his strength but couldn’t loosen the hold. It wasn’t until he looked down that he saw his mother and sister wolves pulling his feet. They hadn’t fallen far. Just below the bridge was a forest of fruit and nut trees with branches reaching nearly to him. But he wouldn’t let go. He hauled himself up for battle. Just then the huge creature stomped down on his paw. His leg curled up at the monster’s touch as if scorched by fire and the wolf fell down, down, down to land on his mother wolf and sister wolf where they crouched in a tree. When he opened his eyes his mother was unable to speak and his sister unable to hear and his leg was twisted.

The story went on through the night. The boy and girl sat enraptured as their mother unfolded a tale rich as legend. The wolf characters trekked through strange forests finding nourishment that slowly began to heal them. Brightly colored birds taught them to fly. When the rocks under their feet started to crumble the wolf family lifted in the air, soaring toward mirrored mountains that appeared in the distance. The mother wolf could now speak in a whisper, the female pup could hear loud sounds, and the nearly grown male pup’s leg was nearly straight. Their fur prickled in fear but their journey had made them powerful in ways they were only now beginning to recognize. By the time they landed they knew that together they were invincible.

The story ended as the craft came to a halt. The girl held back, looking out the window at the unfamiliar surroundings. The mother stood, taking the boy and girl’s hands. “We have arrived,” she said. “No more of my stories. It is time for you to tell stories to me.”

Passengers streamed past them, people whose clothes and skin looked as foreign as mythical creatures. Most of them looked straight ahead but some of them smiled at the family. Their mother said to her children in a voice fierce with pride, “Always remember the word “immigrant.” It means you are one of the strong.”

immigrant strength, story of immigrant courage,

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