I would like to talk a bit about stories, telling, untangling, writing, and, using them to free ourselves. In doing so, I hope to thank three important people in my life, my zen teacher, a woman whose book I edited, and my Dad, for the lessons they taught me about story telling.
had the guts to ask others to read them, to see if they turned the pages, and then to detach herself from those cherished bits of the story that were self-justifying and dead. She untangled her language when she stumbled and lost the reader. And, in putting her attention on the useless twists and turns, she also untangled herself from those parts of her own story that were stopping her. One cannot really be generous to oneself unless you can treat yourself with the same kindness and clarity that you try to extend to fellow travelers. Elizabeth
John Tarrant, my friend, teacher and mentor, is a man who swims in story language with grace and power. No surprise that he is a lineage holder in a zen school that is devoted to koan study, the teaching stories of the old masters of the East. No surprise that he is always on the trail of any story that can transform our lives.
Now just 85, Elizabeth Russell continues to drink the experience of her life to the last drop. Her commitment to live in the service to others is, for me, an inspiring expression of joy and love—no hiding, no retreat. I was her editor for Reading Under the Covers, actually more of writing coach—she is a fabulous writer,
It turns out that my Dad can tell a good yarn. At 93 he has begun to write stories about his life as a legacy to his children and their progeny. He has a website and a blog where he posts his stories, puts up photographs (they are really wonderful, people and places, particularly interesting to the family, but which really capture a time and pace). Comments and clarification from his brothers and others give it breath too. That is what comes when you stick to the truth of what really happened, your own experience.
Stories don’t work well if we can’t get to the end, if we get tangled up, if we get bored, give up, and put the book down. On the other hand, if it’s a good story, we become really engaged. A koan, one of those ancient zen teaching tales, has an end, a denouement, that hides itself. Yet once you are engaged in solving the puzzle they present, their power seems almost miraculous. In a good mystery, if you can really see yourself as both Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, you will read through the night. In word and song Homer turns you, the listener, into a hero like Agamemnon, sailing from Troy, thrown off course over and over, driven by Fate. Along the way you might discover in your own heart that deep longing to return to the place that you come from, home.
Psychology tries to steal the word “story” to describe those endless monologues we repeat to ourselves as we drift off to sleep, the ones where we are always proven right, defeat our enemies, find the man of our dreams, and live happily ever after. Miserable and broken, we have preserved what we consider our self respect. I wish that we had another word for that kind of story, perhaps the loopy story—we chase our tails. We think that if we just get better at the telling, we will get to the end. Yet we cannot get the knack of untangling ourselves.
A grand old zen teacher, Phil Whalen, as adept with words as he was in the art of meditation, never talked of story in that way. He was fiercely adverse to any words that smacked of psychobabble. He said that you sat down on your mat and suddenly your mind became like a tangled ball of yarn, or a tar baby. Only learning to sit quietly and following your breath opened space for you to loosen the knots and unstick your fingers. Too much struggle just got you into more of a pickle.
Perhaps it is a false distinction to label some stories good and others worthless just because they have an end, keep going till you get to the end, or satisfy some deep need when you finish them. Something as simple as, “Thank God that’s over with,” might be enough. There is both pleasure and power in getting to the end and taking a breath.
I worked with
for more than two years while she crafted Reading Under the Covers. She had asked me to read a book which she self-published just for her family about 10 years earlier, One Hellava Life. I loved it in many ways, one being that I so much admired her. We were both in course produced by Landmark Education that dealt with creating new conversations that can have a ripple effect through our whole society; that is, if we have the guts and talent to broadcast them, we can certainly alter a cultural prejudice. I felt that the power of her story telling alone would alter the conversations we all have about growing older—hearing the strength of her mature voice, not wining, not complaining, not giving up, not self-centered but eager to inhabit her whole life, her creation, her dreams, her vision. Elizabeth
I invite you to buy and read her book, Reading Under the Covers. You won’t regret it.
My Dad has told other peoples' stories for many years. He is the corresponding secretary for his college class, the
’36. But as he grew older, his reputation as an engaging reporter spread, and he was asked to assume responsibility for more classes as they inevitably lost members and writers. University of Maine
He has also been interested in family history. About 10 years ago, while he was still living in
, he and my brother John trecked Connecticut where our American progenitors landed in 1637. There in the town archives, he uncovered rich family lore that startled me, a hand written account of an Indian raid on the family farm. The natives killed a helpless baby, but soon a large group of settlers pursed and “dispatched the heathen." to Woburn Massachusetts
When I was about 6 or 7, one of my chores was to haul the garbage out behind the garage. In the winter, the dark woods where we found arrow heads threatened beyond the stone wall at the back of the property. I ran out and back. Once they discovered my fear, no one at the table would let me go without calling me a “Scaredy cat, don’t let the Indians kidnap you.”
When I opened the manila envelope that contained my Dad’s account of his discovery in the Woburn Town Hall and read it several times, I felt an enormous sense of freedom, as if my Dad’s recounting that long forgotten story of an infant’s murder 350 years ago reached into the present moment and freed me from my infantile fear. Dad’s writing will be a gift for all the generations that follow him.
You are welcome to visit my Dad’s website, “My Own Story.” The photograph is my Dad (right) and his brother, my Uncle Don (left), on their way to Gooserocks Beach this past September.
Telling a story can be an act of self-remembering. Writing and sharing a story untangles life. We all yearn to return home, to move freely through our own lives, delighting in the moments, the joy, the wonder. If we unlock a few doors behind which life has hidden itself, there's a real gift, perhaps even a miracle.