Thursday, January 28

On the Telling of Stories

"One of the less obvious powers of storytelling - not the storytelling to prove a point or a moral lesson - but the story that truly engages the mind and heart - is that it keeps the capacity for envisioning possibilities alive. We have to keep communicating with open heart and pauses; seeing from different perspectives. We need to give up on using our own opinions as truth. Othewise fear overwhelms and suddenly business seems the only solution. That is what happened in Germany and is becoming normal in the US and around the world. We need to eat but we need to remember how to cook, where the food comes from, how roots need water and how to share whatever we have." (cLSimms2016)

On my first outing as a student in the Storytelling program at ETSU, I told one of my favorite stories: The Gunniwolf. It's sort of like Little Red Riding Hood except there is music in the story and no one actually gets eaten, which is all the better to tell to preschoolers, my dears. I was accompanied by my eternal partner in crime, Matt, and my professor, Dr. Sobol. Afterward, we ate at a Golden Corral, which has no bearing on this story at all, but is kind of funny in light of my sister's starring role in one of their commercials several years later.
I digress.
Anyway, at the end of the story, the little girl has learned the secret of getting around the Gunniwolf and is safe in her own home and somehow, as a novice, I'd forgotten that I needed to know what I wanted to say to end the story, so I did something that came naturally. I moralized the poor thing. 


"And the little girl never went out into the woods without her mama again."


Even now, many years later, I cringe. 
This is a beautiful story about a little girl learning that danger and threat can be overcome without resorting to violence, but by her wits and keeping calm in the face of danger, but I turned it into a story about an errant child who learned her lesson and didn't become anything more than an errant child who got lucky. Heed her example, Children!!

Dr. Sobol was kind enough to point out that I had done this, because it's likely I wouldn't have realized it, maybe ever. I grew up learning all the stories in the Bible and the end of them always had some moralizing lesson that we were given. I'm not sure anyone ever thought about it, much the way I did not think about it. It was just a neat, tidy way to wrap up the story.

Some part of us craves the easily understood and formulaic ending that comes with moralizing a story. Some Bible stories are hard to know what to do with at all if we can't find some overarching moral to them. What do we do with the death of David and Bathsheba's child (and that is why we do not sin!)?  What do we do with the rape of Tamar (and that is why father's should be more involved in their children's upbringing!)? What do we do with the death of Judas (and that is why betrayal/love of money is wrong!)


I'm just not sure that we have to do anything with these stories. I realize that I've completely destroyed your bible school curriculum, but I don't apologize.

How is the mind and the heart engaged when we talk about the death of Bathsheba's child with David?  I personally feel an overwhelming sense of compassion for both of them. I can't imagine a worse thing than losing a child. Moralizing this story is unkind and dismissive of their grief. It dismisses the questions that we all ask when someone innocent dies even though we pray fervently for their healing. Where is God when the young suffer? Is God listening when I pray for their healing? Is there any point to prayer? 


How are the heart and mind engaged when we talk about the rape of Tamar? Did this girl deserve to be assaulted? Should she not have been alone with her brother? Should she not have been taking care of him, so intimately, when he was sick? How can her life be over because of the terrible actions of 

How are the heart and mind engaged when we talk about Judas' fate? Even now, is it our job to hold this man up as an evil figure? Was his despair inevitable and deserved?

But, as I said, there is no neat and tidy way to wrap these questions up. Moralizing these stories is unkind and dismissive of their grief. It dismisses the questions that we all ask when someone innocent dies even though we pray fervently for their healing, or when senseless violence happens to someone who was trying to do good, or when someone realizes how lost they are and can't see a way out of it.

It is far more difficult to practice compassion and mercy or to become empathetic than it is to point out all the ways in which someone has done wrong and brought bad things on themselves and others. When we moralize we are essentially looking for ways to make a checklist that justifies us.

Instead, we must begin to look for the root of the root and the bud of the bud, which is the love of God. God looked down on David and loved him, even though he did not grant him the life of his child, God looked down on Tamar and on Amnon and loved them, and he looked at Judas and loved him, as well.


Asking why is part of maturing. Observing what was learned and celebrating the good we find in any situation is worthwhile. Sometimes a story is about knowing and understanding and bearing witness, and we cannot forget that.  

Tuesday, December 22

Peace: the word of the year

I don't usually make new year's resolutions. They seem kind of stupid, to be honest. Most of the time I'm not particularly good at the follow-through when it comes to major changes and it's embarrassing to try to start something that you don't finish, or don't even get very far. I tried to do NaNoWriMo this past November and my kids managed to be sick just as I got going. The month was shot before it really started.

But part of the problem is that I want to make huge changes in my life that I'm not always totally motivated to make. I do great when I know that the change is important or that someone is really watching me to encourage me. If I'm doing it just for myself I don't usually get too far.

But this is different. In the past, I'm sure you've heard of people having a word for the year. It's a new way of having a New Year's resolution, but it's different. Having a word for the year means having a theme that I try to incorporate in my life and this particular theme is one that is a no-brainer for me.

A dear friend suggested that I read Walter Wink's Jesus and Nonviolence: a Third Way and I have been awakened to an entirely new set of ideas and possibilities in my life, as a result. That probably sounds ridiculous, but we live in a culture that glorifies violence, and yet many of us practice a religion that specifically discourages it. We've done a lot of justifying where Christianity and our culture meet and it doesn't sit well with me anymore.

When I talk about peace I'm talking about a way of life, not just an absence of war or disapproval of guns, though those are certainly part of it. I want to really love my neighbor as myself. I want to really lay down my life for my faith. I want to really trust in my God to provide everything I need. There is an inner peace that I want to pursue this year. One that I can see in the bIble and I can see in the lives of a few other Christians and I want to know it. I want to live it and I want to be able to teach it to my children.

Wednesday, November 4

Reset

Sometimes I don't know what to do with my kids. I think any parent with any amount of honesty would say the same thing. Sometimes they're hard to be around or upset or angry and the motions of a little are a force to be reckoned with, even when they're happy.

Caroline is especially difficult at times. When she's upset she gets wound up and does a lot of wailing and lashing out. It might be something as simple as telling her she can't have a piece of her Halloween candy or getting on to her for hitting her brother. Whatever the impetus she takes the feelings inside her and lets them expand until they explode in a shower of anger and self-righteous misery. When she is upset everyone knows it.

Caroline is her mother's child. Embarrassing, but true. You'd think I'd know how to calm the tempest in her, but really her tempest has a tendency to stir my own. In the best of circumstances I have to clamp down in order to control myself, but when I'm tired or not feeling well, or I haven't had enough time alone, I have a very difficult time holding on to myself and riding out her storm.

Lately I'm making it a practice, when I don't know what to do, to default back to the most basic thing that I know she needs: Love. Maybe she needs discipline or calm or some sort of reality check, but in that moment I'm not always sure, so I try my best to just love her.

It's a principle that I try to extend to myself as well. In those moments when I'm out of sorts or wanting things I can't or shouldn't have I try to reset and show myself the greatest amount of love possible.

Friday, October 9

Tear Water Tea

This summer I started getting audio books on my Kindle from the library for the kids. It makes it easier to spend time in the car and we have a family literary vocabulary. So far we've been through half of the Fudge series and most of the Ramona Quimby books as well as Miss Piggle Wiggle and some Amelia Bedelia books. I decided to get some for Sadie to listen to on her own since she and I are often in the car for a while waiting for the bigguns to get out of school. I got Mike Mulligan and Curious George and a book called Owl At Home. It's an easy chapter book that we started reading at story time at the library on Monday, but we didn't get very far. 

The third chapter is called Tear Water Tea and it's about how.Owl decides.to make tear water tea. He sits in a chair with his tea kettle and begins to think of sad things like pencils too short to be used and mashed potatoes left on a plate because no one wanted to eat them and music that can't be sung anymore because the word have been forgotten. Soon he's crying great fat tears and fills his kettle. He makes tea, which he says is a bit salty but it is always good. 

Owl making tear water tea.

There is something very simplistic but also true about this chapter. Sometimes you have to bear witness to all the sad things and take them in something about that is both strenuous and also nourishing and soothing. 

I may have to think about that chapter for a long time. I know there's more to that story than just sadness and tea. 

Thursday, August 13

School

When Jonah started school I hardly flinched.  Jonah is a social creature with lots of energy and he love to learn, so it seemed like a natural part of his life to send him off to school. I never cried because he was so happy to go. Like most kids he had some regrets a few weeks in, but after a few tearful days he got over them and threw himself into learning.

This morning was different. We purchased a new backpack and she had a new outfit and I did her hair. She had a lunch with a freezer pack and all the supplies were turned in yesterday. She chose her seat and she wrote her name "much fancier than anyone else's."  But it's different.

Caroline hasn't been excited about school. She worries about whether she will make friends and I worry about whether she will like it. Whether she will listen to her teacher or whether I'll find a pile of finished homework stuffed into the floor vent in the summer. There were tears last week about it, and I imagine there will be more tears to come.

It's a humbling thing to have a child so much like yourself. Each new milestone brings back memories, but sometimes they aren't pleasant. I remember when and how I struggled and I watch her do the same thing. I see how she wants to please me and also how she wants to be herself. She doesn't understand that those are not two different things.

I talked to her earlier in the summer and I told her that we are very alike. I told her that we have a tendency to he a bit selfish and nervous about being around other people. Her eyes lit up and she was so excited. She wanted to be like me. Yet another way that having this child is so humbling.

I don't think there was anything that my mother could do to have made school easier for me. I simply didn't want to sit and do the things they wanted me to do. I'd rather read a book or explore the play ground or climb up in my tree and pretend I was someone- anyone- else. I'm waiting for the inevitable realization that her life is going to be taken up by mundane things. That there is not magic around ever corner. I'm mourning it already.

Last night I was filling out the paperwork for her teacher and there was a question on one of the forms. What do you most want me to know about your child?

I sat and stared at that question for a very long time. There wasn't enough space to explain Caroline. To explain all those worries I had. I wanted to say that I didn't want my sweet girl to lose her belief in magic, as I had when I was in school. I didn't want her to doubt how wonderful and special and beautiful she was. I wanted to say that she is one of my dearest treasures, so pleasepleasepleasepleasePLEASE don't let her be disappointed and broken and sad. She's vulnerable in a way that other kids aren't.

And I realize that every parent wants to say that, but in many ways, when I say it for Caroline, I say it for myself. I haven't cried yet. But I probably will.

Tuesday, July 21

...and they lived happily ever after.

In stories there are neat little endings. That is why we say that everyone lived happily ever after. However, even in stories, the endings are not exactly neat. Traditionally, at the end evil is punished and since it is eradicated there are no further conflicts in the kingdom. 

Real life does not do this. Evil is not eradicated. Nothing is neat. Conflicts do not disappear. Time keeps moving and life is constantly changing. Very few things are truly resolved in any final way. You pass from one phase in life to the next, always confronting new issues and new challenges and the old ones either grow less important, fade away, or have to be confronted again and again in ever shifting forms. 

So, we might live happily ever after, or we might not. Or we might live in a state of general tolerance. In any case, we live. 

I am learning to be content with the unresolved nature of life... or at least I hope I am. It's hard to wrap my brain around the idea of being in the beginning of things, the middle of things and also the end of things, all at the same time. It's especially difficult when the endings seem so small that they go almost unnoticed, in an anticlimactic turn around a corner. You expect to see a continuation of the story once you step around, but instead you find a whole host of other things coming up that distract you from the fact that there was no resolution. There was no definitive moment when you were able to let go, you just kept moving and found yourself in the middle of the next beginning. 

I can look back on the last couple of years of my life and see so many stories that faded like a mist as new plots popped up. Letting go and accepting that part of my life is over and I can't get it back is harder than I imagined in some ways. There are relationships that I can't go back to, seasons of mothering that I can retrieve, and moments of joy or innocence that I will only ever be able to revisit in my own memory. 

Often we are asked if we would change our pasts if we could go back and redo it. Those stories make up part of who we are, and changing them, even if we could, would change who we are. For me, that would be a difficult thing to consent to. I may not be especially unique or even all that special, but the journey I made to get to be who I am is important.  Who I am in the end, is important.  

Monday, June 8

The Secret Club

I've gotten most of the best advice I've gotten about parenting from nursing rooms.

During the first month of Jonah's life I read the entire Dr. Sears Baby Book that was given to me by my Mother-in-Law. I checked videos out of the library on breastfeeding and watched them all repeatedly. I read blogs about parenting and listened to the Doula who taught our Bradley Method class. I had information running out of my ears before I even gave birth for the first time.

What I didn't have was practical information or any experience at all, a fact that I was painfully aware of after Jonah was born. We called the nurse number almost as soon as we got home from the hospital and I rarely slept if he was awake, which was most of the time for the first week.

And then we took him to church. As I'd learned from Dr. Sears' wife, I popped him into my pocket sling and carried him around my neck, belly to belly until he awoke and wanted to eat and I dutifully carried myself to the nursing mother's room. It was really more of a closet with two rockers and a small table. It was so small that it was almost impossible to open the door if anyone was already inside, so it was definitely impossible to ignore the other woman in the rocker across from me. I've forgotten her name, but she was nursing her 10 month-old baby. I wasn't particularly efficient at nursing and Jonah was a lazy nurser, so I was there for quite a while and we chatted. I discovered that this was her fourth child and she's had to see a lactation consultant because he wasn't a very good nurser at first, unlike her other children. She also found that swaddling him up a bit helped keep him asleep at night, even though he was so old. She told me all sorts of things to try when Jonah got cranky in the evenings and introduced me to the term Witching Hour.

Later we moved to Oklahoma and the nursing mother's room would hold four rockers and a changing table and I learned about lovies and what to do about infant congestion or how to recognize thrush or Scarlett Fever and how NONE of us were getting sleep.

I suppose that I could have asked my mother or any one of the other older women who'd had kids about the things that I didn't really know how to handle but it seems that once your child passes out of a phase it becomes (blessedly) difficult to recall all of the specifics of the difficulties in caring for them in that stage.

Besides that, it was nice just to discover how normal my experiences were among the other women I knew. It was nice to know that we all had information to share with each other and we were willing to help. Once you've sat in a small room with other women, babies nursing and the low sounds of hymns piped through the intercom system, sharing wisdom and secrets and bemoaning the small issues of motherhood, you suddenly find that you have a shorthand language that you can speak with any number of women that you meet in all sorts of places.

Many times I'm walking through Target and I see a nervous looking woman with a toddler, having a meltdown, I give her a sympathetic smile and whisper, "Hang in there!" even if I don't have my own kids with me (maybe especially if I don't have my kids with me) because I know we speak the same language.

Wednesday, June 3

Open

I've known a few people in my life who can truly listen.  Just a few, though. These are people who are incredibly open about who they are and what they struggle with and are also able to make other people feel that when they are talking to you, you are truly the only person they are thinking about. It's a gift and if you've ever met one of these people you will know what I'm talking about.

Photo by Audrey Dodgen
I've always wanted to be one of those people. I tend to be very perceptive to the moods of others so I can usually tell when someone is having a hard time, whether they say anything about it or not. I want to connect to them and let them know that whatever they are dealing with, I would be willing to support them. They don't have to be alone. I just can't seem to communicate that very well.

I know that I get in my own way.  It's the part about being completely open about who you care and what you're struggling with. Is anyone ever really comfortable with the truth about themselves? Probably not, but there are people who are still able to be open about it, and I envy them.

Fifteen years ago I was planning a wedding that never happened. It took me at least six years to be emotionally settled with the way everything crumbled, and it's taken another nine for me to be able to write about it in an objective and peaceful way. We all have things like that in our lives and even though they color everything that comes after them, we don't always have the ability to talk about them and share them with the people around us. Those things don't just shape who we are. In some ways they are who we are. And they are not at all who we are, because the idea that part of me is my rejection is an uncomfortable thought. I'd rather be thought of as a mother or as a wife or as a storyteller than as a woman who was rejected or manipulated or broken.

But no one loves someone who can't understand their wounds. No one feel supported and cared for when you offer them glassy perfection in response to sharp brokenness. Open up. Expose the raw and the broken side of yourself and offer it up to the next person and see if they don't also open themselves up to say, "Look!  I got broken, too!"

Wednesday, May 27

Expecting the Unexpected

When I last held an office job we had a professional organizer come to give us some much-needed help. Really, the place made me itchy when i started.  I'm not extremely organized but I like to have a good system in place and for many aspects of my job, there wasn't one.  

She wasn't supposed to come visit with me because I was hired after she'd signed the contract, but in the end she decided it would be best. So I sat down with her one morning and she asked me about my day and how I structured it.  I began explaining what I did and how I did it and she had some suggestions, but told me that I already had a decent system in place for lots of things.  She called me forward-thinking. 

I'd never had a word for it before.  I'm not highly organized but I like to be able to anticipate what's going to happen and how I'm going to deal with it in advance. I don't like to be caught off guard. 

I've gotten much more flexible since I got married. You thought I was going to say, since I had kids, but before kids there was Josh. You see, my husband doesn't plan ahead. It's generally why he's late a lot. He never has and he's getting a little better, but for the most part, he still doesn't. 

We would take day trips, when we were first married. We'd start driving and Josh would have a vague idea of something he wanted to see, but no real idea of what he wanted to do or when he wanted to be back. At first it drove me crazy. We once ended up camping next to a bear preserve (something we didn't discover until morning) because we just started driving and decided to camp some random place on the Appalachian Trail. We got some good pictures and we didn't see a bear, but if I'd been in charge of things we would have stayed in a nice campground with running water and no risk of mauling.

I have to admit that he's been really good for me. In fact, while I find him eternally frustrating, I think God sent him to me on purpose. Josh was just preparing me for children.

When you have kids, you cannot plan ahead. You can be as forward-thinking as you like, but I guarantee that one day they will manage to come up with something that you never could have planned for. It might be something as creative as biting their lip bad enough to need stitches, or breaking their collarbone (two things we've both done in the last year) or something as mundane as pooping out of their clothes in a restaurant and having to bathe them in the tiny sink because There. Is. POOP. Everywhere. 

Francis Chan said, "
I am convinced God uses our children to cleanse us from self-centeredness." Preach it, Brother Chan, for that is the truth! I am currently sitting in the floor to type this. I've built a barricade of pillows to keep my almost 7-month-old child from unplugging the power cord because my battery is almost dead. In a few weeks, this barricade will be worthless because she will simply climb over or around. It is also 6:30 in the morning. Not a time I generally like to see, but my baby has decided that it's time to be awake and her fussing was going to wake Josh and the kids. I'll make coffee when I get all of this out and we'll get the day started. It won't be that long until the biggun's get up anyway. What's funny is that the thing I sort of resented in Josh is the thing I forgive easily in my children. I get frustrated, but I move on. "Oh well," I say, as though it's not making me as itchy as the disorganized chaos of that office job. 

And I notice that I've said, "oh well..." to Josh as well. It gets easier to be forgiving as we get older and we start to realize that we're all flawed and we're all a little self-centered, and it's not actually about any one person at all. 

I've been trying to teach this to my kids, lately. "It's not just about what you want." I say. And the words echo back to me from decades ago when my mother tried to teach it to me. 


Look, Mom! I'm 35, but I get it now!

Monday, June 30

Ten Years Ago

I was going through old files, culling out the trash and trying to make sure that I still had a few things, and I found an essay that I had to write for graduate school.  This was written ten years ago, so the perspective I have on this side of things is interesting.  I love that I still feel this way, and I love that I recorded this so I could remember that I still feel this way.


As an undergraduate I spent my senior year preparing to go to graduate school to become a marriage and family therapist.  In that year I took at least twelve hours of classes geared specifically toward therapy and the theory behind it.  While we did study other theories, it was primarily focused on cognitive therapy.  I was briefly in counseling about three years ago and there are a lot of things that I believe should have been addressed but were not.  These were things like finding a new direction in my life, dealing with severe disappointment and feelings of failure that were caused by someone else’s actions.  Perhaps this is more a statement about the quality of the therapist I was seeing, but I felt like the only things that were being addressed were my present circumstances, not my past and certainly not the direction of my future.  Cognitive therapy did nothing to empower me over the problem that had paralyzed my life.  When I was taking fundamental counseling classes I felt those same limitations again. 
So why am I studying storytelling here at ETSU rather than finishing my degree in Family and Marriage Therapy?  My professor, Dr. Morris said to us on the first day of class that every person had a story to tell and that their story was really what was of primary interest in counseling.  (I am thinking about e-mailing him to ask if he knows anything about Narrative therapy because I feel like it would be right up his alley.)  That statement is the primary reason why I wanted to become a counselor.  I believe that everyone does have a story and that in that story is the key to understanding them and helping them. 
However, that still doesn’t answer the question.  To answer the question you have to back up about six months of my life to the first play I was ever in.  I had never done Theatre until I transferred to a different school and I was living with my younger sister, a theatre major.  She convinced me to audition for a production of The Yellow Wallpaper and I somehow got a lead role.  I had been in counseling because of a very messy relationship that ended in a painful breakup, instead of a marriage, as had been expected.  When I was acting in Wallpaper I knew that the woman I was portraying could have been me very easily in the sense that I came very close to having a nervous breakdown.  By telling her story I was able to recognize the value of my experience and how very capable I was- much more than I had previously believed.  I started to look at my own story as more than “The Summer Michael Left Me.”  Instead I started to look for the context of my life, the way I had to do with the character I played.  In that context I saw why I didn’t have a nervous breakdown, and I started to see the life I wanted to live.        
So why storytelling?  Well, that goes back to the summer I was twelve and I saw a storyteller, but it isn’t that integral to this paper.  The point is that I started to realize that I didn’t want the responsibility of being a counselor as much as I wanted to help people by telling them stories.  People respond to stories much the way I responded to the story I was telling in that play.  By understanding other people better, we begin to understand ourselves.  Stories unite and demonstrate in ways that other modes of expression don’t seem to be able to touch. 

When you tell a story to a crowd of people they take that story with them, and some of them may connect with one small part of the story and learn some small thing about themselves- or maybe even a lot about themselves.   You never know the impact of a story.  Telling a story can bear with it great responsibility, but also great opportunity for growth and outreach.  That is why I tell.  Because one story did for me what cognitive therapy was unable and unprepared to do for me.