Monday, February 22, 2010

The World is Made of Stories

If you don’t know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don’t know the stories you may be lost in life. —Siberian Elder

For the most part, we have lost the kind of entertainment that's still found in those rare places where old and young gather and stories are told. And in these broken times in a country that feels broken, sitting down together and connecting by telling new stories and remembering old ones could help heal us.

Storytelling is now being used by corporations to redefine or shape their vision. It's found its way globally into groups seeking to create new systems of governance; into reconciliation and peacekeeping. Stories have had a renaissance with the Internet. But like the elderly man who explained to psychiatrist & activist Robert Coles (author of The Old Ones of New Mexico) why he refused to talk on the phone with his son - ‘we can’t touch.’ The palpable excitement in a children's story circle confirms that face to face, skin to skin does make a difference. But the story telling movement into more intimate situations, from families, neighborhoods and towns still has room to grow. Using story in these places will help us find new ways of thinking about ourselves. It will teach us how to listen and share what's in our hearts and minds. This ancient tradition holds the potential for a transformative process that will ultimately empower society and individuals living through the increasing uncertainty of today's world.

Whenever I hear a story begin, I'm compelled to take a deep breath inward as if preparing my heart to receive what is about to be offered. It's the anticipation of being inspired; of feeling alive. A story is a call to dream. Really hearing a story means absorbing it through the pores of your skin. Perhaps, that's why goose bumps appear. The best of stories go right down to the marrow of our bones.

My friend, photographer Pamela Barkentin recalls cozying up with her sister under a quilt in their grandmother’s bed. An award-winning playwright, she left them a legacy of being cherished through her imaginative tales of adventure in the sky and underwater.

It’s not just children who respond wholeheartedly to a good story. Years ago I took my daughter to see the story of the hero’s quest in Star Wars. It was a matinee and the house was full of screaming, wiggling children. The kind of audience I love joining. A single seat remained – the one on my left.

As the lights went down, a tattooed, bearded & pony tailed biker in leathers and massive chains bumped my shoulder as he sat down. At first glance, he wasn’t the kind of man I wanted to meet in the shadows. I said a quick prayer of gratefulness that I was seated between him and Chloe. Little did I know that my thanks would blossom two fold. The music started and George Lucas had me from Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away. As the story progressed, Moto man upped the excitement by slapping my leg every time he experienced a peak moment of satisfaction or insight. Did you see that? Did you hear that, he queried. I asked him to cease and desist. He apologized and promised not to do it again. His good intention was soon lost to wonder and joy. His enthusiasm was so irresistible, I decided to let it go. Coming out of the theater, my leg was a bit tender, but I realized that this stranger had conceptualized the proverbial Zen ‘whack on the side of the head’ the master gives to the apprentice to remind him to pay attention.

One of the strongest story telling cultures is the Aboriginal in Australia, who have no written history and conceive of the world and live their lives as story. In the words of Aborigine story teller, Bill Neidjie This story e can listen careful, an how you want to feel on your feeling. This story e coming through your body, e go right down foot and head, fingernail and blood…through the heart, and e can feel it because e’ll come right through.

Stories that renew feelings of love and hope pop up in unexpected ways and places, renewing the commitment and promises we make to our loved ones. While walking in a mud street of a small village in Bahia, Brazil, I happened upon a story of a mother's love. Visible through the open door to a concrete block house a nut brown woman sat in her rocking chair crocheting. Not a small doily, or blanket the white web that came from those care worn hands. It crossed the floor and crept up the walls, draping around windows and the door frame. Astonished, I complimented her on the intricate pattern that stretched like a lacy snow white canvas with animals, people, hills and valleys. She smiled, and told me her daughter had left a few years ago on the arm of a traveling circus man. She hadn't heard from her since, but she'd been told to start crocheting because eventually one of those threads would bring her daughter home safe and sound.

Stories ground us and invigorate the events of our days if we framing them in story terms and structure. Today, there were dragons where I walked could be a good beginning for a story. Stories make us laugh at our fears. They remind us of the deliciousness of synchronous events that appear miraculously in our lives. As a merchant marine in WWII, my father felt like a sitting duck on a ship in the middle of the Pacific with only a small deck gun for protection. Word came of a Japanese fighter squadron headed their way when out of the blue a massive fog bank magically rolled in.

Stories sometimes arrive with a precious memento, like the ring with a heart Dad fashioned out of steel for my mother during the months he was gone. When I wear that ring I recall my father- whose name became 'love' when I tell the story of how, despite excruciating pain, he continued caring for his wife who had Alzheimer’s. Stories of atonement are particularly powerful. One hears them in small rooms, in homes or in churches where members of Alcoholics Anonymous gather to practice the twelve step program which includes asking for self forgiveness and forgiveness from others. Absorbing the words and tale, then taking it to others becomes a building block to a new life.

The artist and poet, Ed Valfre describes his close friend, Joe Frank. Years before we met, I heard him tell his strange tales on public radio. They were stories you would listen to in the dark or on a long drive through the middle of nowhere. At first they made you feel isolated and alone in some godless universe, but as they went on, the humanity and humor would transport you to a place that seemed uplifting and strangely familiar. They were like no stories I had heard before and opened me up to a beautiful and mysterious world. Today, Joe and I often have lunch together and exchange ideas and stories. I always leave exhilarated, ready to live out more stories that make up my life.

And perhaps, that’s one of the best reasons of all to embrace and share stories - if your heart is open and listening you never know where your story may lead you and what you might be inspired to do.


  1. Just like book clubs, we should form and join storytelling groups...pass the feather, or salt shaker, or whatever...
    Yes, you're absolutely grandmother's storytelling is one of the most important memories of my childhood, and still holds so much power after all these years. She was from the South, by the way...South Carolina!
    Thank you for this lovely blog entry, Sam. xox

  2. I've long been a lover of stories, and when my son was young, I read to him every night before bed. In fact, when he was six, I read him the Hobbit and the entire Lord of the Rings. He was enthralled -- he even made me sing all the songs that Tolkien wrote in the books. My son is now 31, and he has reread those four books at least five times. He is a film director, and he had to opportunity to write a script based on characters he created out of Middle Earth. He wrote two books of lore as back-story, from Middle Earth to the "present" of where his people then resided. His love of story was born with our sacred time together, exploring the worlds of so many wondrous writers.

    On another note, a.) I'm a friend of Debra Berger, and b.) I've always been a huge fan of Carla Bley. I know her mated, Steve Swallow, very well -- a good friend of mine from my Boston days in the early '70's.

    Check out my magazine below. Next issue will feature Debra's son's film "Fix," and I still intend to feature D's wonderful pottery one of these days.

    Love your blog!