Word Medicine

Writing and Healing: exploring the art of healing and the healing of art

Listening to the Other January 12, 2017

We are our stories

We think we know people, but we don’t know anyone until we know their stories.

We all have our unconscious biases—maybe not against Muslims, Jews or Blacks, but maybe against Southerners, Republicans or white people.

wooden-models

My family is Irish. Generations of oppression shaped a certain reactivity, clannishness and defensiveness regarding the wealthy. We were certainly never privileged—we are hardworking, studious people. My parents were each the first in their families to go to college, something we never took for granted. As Catholic transplants to the South, we didn’t have an easy time of it. Walking to our integrated Catholic school (Catholic mission schools integrated long before public schools), we had to run the gauntlet of the neighborhood boy throwing stones at us, yelling “dance, nigger-lovers, dance.”

So imagine my surprise when, at a West Coast Writers’ Conference, the black woman assigned to room with me mounted a vocal protest over having to room with a white Southerner. When I tried to tell her my story, she glared at me, stony-faced, and then left the room in a huff.  In her eyes I was the Enemy. Period.  It was disorienting and shocking, and later, funny.

I’m as guilty as anyone, much as I hate to admit it. My family prized looks and fitness, and, although I rebelled against that, I can be almost unconsciously dismissive of slovenliness. I value clear thinking and am impatient with stupidity. And so it goes, a little ticker-tape of approval, disapproval, just barely registering.

But all that changes when we listen to each others’ stories.  In a hospital waiting room, I overhear a woman I might have dismissed talk with a friend about her grown son’s addiction, about whether she will have to throw him out of the house, and where he might end up. I recognize the anguish in her quavering voice, a recognition that closes the distance between us. In line at the crowded grocery store before a snowstorm, a grizzly man in cap and overalls, talks with his clearly aging mother. He reassures her he is bringing wood over before the storm, tells her she is welcome to stay with him. He must repeat himself 4 times at least, each time with patience and tenderness. These instances repeat as I go through my day, leaving me humbled. With each encounter, my stereotypes shatter a little, my wonder increases.  I begin to see people with stereoscopic vision—as three dimensional, not just one thing.

We are all full of contradictions. And in these dire times, in our political climate, it is so easy to reduce people to one or two obvious characteristics. We do it out of fear, mostly.  Instead of doing that, as a dear friend of mine teaches, we can approach each other with curiosity, compassion and courage.

I’m working on it.

 

 

 

The Sense of an Ending September 29, 2016

I was lucky to get a quick visit in with my sister Megan the other day on her brief visit to town. Like me, she is a recent empty-nester. She said she and her husband were enjoying their new-found freedom, as Todd and I are. Although, I said, I have a profound sense of something being over. It’s done now, active parenting, for better or worse. We are no longer in the open-ended, creative stage of parenting. We both got tears in our eyes. How did it go so fast, she said? And I agreed. It all seemed to be over in the blink of an eye—although that isn’t how it felt at the time.

I hope I was a good enough parent, I said. I told her about a poet who once told me we give our kids our failures as material for their lives as well as our successes. Then we proceeded to swap our worst parenting actions ever, which will not appear in this post!

I had a similar sense of completion today when I held the proof of my novel, The Timekeeper’s Son, in my hands. Here it is, the story and characters that have lived in my mind all those years, out in the world between two beautiful covers. Which means all the felicities of the story and all its failures, too are in the world. All I can hope is that it is a good enough story. I think it is. But it is done now and there is no going back, no endless meditating on who the characters are or what their fates might be.

Autumn is harvest time, and it seems especially, poignantly, so to me this year. I am reminded of the first stanza of Wendell Berry’s wonderful poem, “X, from a Timbered Choir:

 X

by Wendell Berry

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

Parenting and writing are both foreseen in joy—the love of two overflowing to create a third, or a glimpse of a form, a feeling, that calls out to be embodied. But the seeing through of these visions to their completions requires everything we have.

Both my sons are in the world now. The sense of an ending. And the sense of a new beginning.

covertts

The Timekeeper’s Son is forthcoming from Deeds Publishing, November 29, 2016. Books can be pre-ordered here: https://deedspublishing.goodsie.com/the-timekeepers-son-pre-order

 

 

 

 

 

State of Mind May 30, 2016

Filed under: The Art of Ficition,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 8:27 pm
Tags: , , ,

I learned a lot from my friend Cecily Gill, who died this spring at a good old age.

We used to paint together during her long convalescence.  I was the last in a long tradition of amateur painter–nieces, friends, granddaughters–who tromped off into the woods of Maine to paint with Cess. Only, we didn’t tromp—she could barely traverse the few yards from bed to dining room table. I’m only a middling artist, but I treasure the times we spent together painting. I learned not from her direction, because she gave very little, but from her presence. When painted, she was in conversation with the canvas, totally absorbed.  A kind of full stillness descended a vibration of peacefulness alive with movement. I too was able to drop into my work, too. When I got stuck, I would ask her for help, which she gave in a direct, no no-nonsense way, with a large helping of encouragement.(I come from a family of artists, so my standards are high and my confidence low.) When we would talk about the paintings afterwards, I was struck by how she acted as if she was as much a participant in the process as a creator. Sometimes she would shake her head with wonder and stare at her painting, saying, “Hmm, what is it?” It was as if her paintings surprised and sometimes delighted her as much as anyone else. Her openness to process and her willingness to go into the unknown, wrestle with it and come out with something—whatever it is.

From Cess, I learned to trust the drop down into myself and be safe there. The process of writing is not unlike that of visual art. Jim Harrison, the author of many books, including The Woman Lit by Fireflies, who also died this spring, has this to say about the process of writing: “….I feel absolutely vulnerable, and recognize it’s the best state of mind for a writer….your mind feels a rush of images and ideas. You have acquired humility by accident. Feeling bright-eyed, confident and arrogant doesn’t do this job, unless you are writing the memoir of a narcissist. You are far better off being lost in your work and writing over your head. You don’t know where you are as a point of view unless you go beyond yourself….”  (from The Ancient Mariner).

“….unless you go beyond yourself.”  The desire to create comes from a longing to not only go into yourself, but also beyond yourself.  The intense effort, the willingness to not know, to offer yourself openly, to be surprised, to make a fool of yourself, to fail or not fail, and to be OK with either, and consider the time well-spent—that is what I learned from Cess.

The last time I spoke with Cess, I told her how her paintings made me calm and happy. “Magic,” she said, her eyes shining, acknowledging their mysterious provenance.

gill

 

 

Leave the Critic at the Door April 30, 2015

Dear Readers,

I am sorry for the long delay between posts, but I am excited to tell you about my new website at www.saratbaker.com. It has been retooled to reflect new workshops my partner, Jan Turner, and I are offering in the Athens area. Please take a look at it!  I’m also happy to report recent publications in The Intima, www.theintima.org, a literary journal which has grown out of the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University,an essay in China Grove Journal, and a short story coming out in May in Confrontation, a literary journal.

Now to the post, which is about process. I read recently that Elizabeth Bishop sometimes took years to finish her poems, which gave me great hope. I often start a poem with gusto, but find that I lose the thread, especially if I think too much! Ray Bradbury once said, “Don’t think. It kills creativity.” I think there is truth to this, although I might phrase it,“Wait to think.”  Wait until you are deeply involved in the process before looking at a piece critically.

I try, whether in a story or poem, to get a quick sketch down in one sitting, or at least, in the case of a story, a good nugget. Right now I’m in the middle of story, which was interrupted by a bad cold, family obligations, and life in general. Now I am struggling to finish at least one draft. My rule is not to chuck anything until I get through one draft. But the temptation has been to chuck it, as in the “cooling off” period, I see all its flaws. Furthermore, I’ve been making a study of the writer Gina Berriault, and after reading her incredible story, “The Diary of K.W.,” which is as perfect a story as I’ve ever read. (If you don’t know her work, you should.)  But my rule is to finish one draft, and to do this I have to go back into the dream of the story, and leave my critical faculties behind. I think we read out of the same impetus as children explore abandoned houses. We are looking for something numinous, although we are not sure what. We write for the same reason, and to cut ourselves off from the dream too early, to try to make it conform to this or that criteria, can kill it.

I am proud of my critical faculties, which I’ve worked hard to attain. And it would be  easy at this point in the process to swoop in and destroy this embryonic story because it is so lacking. But there was something that urged me to start it, and I want to honor that. Its problems will, I hope, force me to grow as a writer, even if it fails in the end. That is part of the process. Isak Dinesen said, “I write a little every day, without too much hope or too much despair.”

So I’m working on non-attachment to my work, attempting to approach the work lightly, with curiosity instead of fear.  And waiting until I’m good and ready to invite the critic in.

 

Why Write? September 1, 2012

I have been involved recently with trying to save a beloved, historic community  pool in our town.  Activism is so much fun!  You immediately feel part of a community, and there is something new to engage with everyday.  As a kid, I always wanted to be Brenda Starr–that dates me–and now I’m getting my Brenda Starr kicks.  I use my writing skills for the purpose of something concrete and useful.

Sadly, I can’t spend all my time on activism.  I feel the tug of my own work waiting for me, stamping in the wings, getting a little impatient.  I’ve set aside these months to review where I’ve been and where I want to go.  It has been very nurturing, for instance, to look through old letters, finding pieces of myself I’ve forgotten.  I am “feasting on my life,” as Derek Walcott admonishes in his beautiful poem, “Love after Love.”   I sense I’m at a turning point–certainly my daughter’s marriage and my aunt’s death both have pushed the wheel of my life forward, and I’m trying to find my balance in this new place.

Speaking of Derek Walcott, when I was a very young woman, I went to a writers’ conference where he excoriated one of my poems, and I stopped writing poetry for 15 years.  “You don’t understand poetry,”  he raged at me, red-faced.  Since I held his work in high esteem,  I was as hollowed out as a tree struck with blight.  Now, as an older woman, I understand that every judgement of another’s work is in some way a projection of the judge’s own issues.  I would caution a young poet not to give away too much of her power, no matter how highly esteemed the judge is.

Having confidence is important to a writer, but a difficult trick.  Nadine Gordimer once used this simile about  writing a novel :  “it is like tight-rope walking over a chasm.  If you look down, you are lost.”  Stubbornly, a writer needs to go back to the well of his own imagination, even if that imagination is not in sync with the times.

I just read a marvelous review of the work of Gina Berriault by Daphne Kalotay in the September/October issue of Poets and Writers.  Ms. Berriault is one of my favorite short-story writers, and even though she had a good career, her work is still little known .  She had a marvelous restraint in her prose, and quiet empathy for her characters.  If you haven’t read her work, you should.  She had a sense of writing as both a vocation and a career, and the vocation came first.  She was never as well-known as many of us thought she should have been, but I think the fact is that she kept at it, she was true to herself, and whether or not she found favor in the marketplace wasn’t her not her primary concern.

I look to her as a model as I attempt to “get my work out” into the world.  I am not unhappy with the choices I have made and where I find myself in life.  I’m no superwoman, and my family came first.  I never stopped writing–even though for two years I was unable to write.  I stayed true to my contract with myself as I slowly recovered, even though I had no energy for a career.  I am even happy for those years of illness and recovery, for what I learned and the places they took me.  I am happy to have found another vocation, that of teaching writing as a healing modality.  Yet now, I find myself coming back to my own work, interrogating it.  What does it want to be, how does it want to be used? At a time when most people are safely gliding to retirement, these questions are still alive for me.

One writes for oneself, but also, in the hopes of readers.  My enduring model of the artist is of the chef in “Babette’s Feast.”  Authentic art is prepared with skill to give pleasure to both the chef and the diners–not all diners will appreciate the skill that goes into it, but the point is the feast itself, and the transformations that may come from it.

I find the vocabulary of the literary marketplace disheartening: pitchings, platforms and pandering.  However, I try to visualize my reader–someone to sit down with to enjoy a good feast.  Maybe fig tarts and lamb stews are not to everyone’s taste–all we can do is put them on the table.

 

Appearance and Reality February 28, 2012

Filed under: Stories — saratbaker @ 5:20 pm
Tags: , , , ,

A story is just what happens.  One thing after the other.

The day before Valentines Day, my friend Susie’s mom, Cessie, collapsed.  Susie’s voice on the phone, tremulous, “Do you have any time to come over?”  I went to find Cessie on the kitchen floor propped up against the fridge. The cold gray light of February fell over her. She gave me a wan smile, her brown eyes rueful.  Her color was pretty good.  I sat on the kitchen floor with her, eating oranges.  Then we managed to her her scooted on a towel to the living room, where she struggled mightily and finally was able to sit on the couch.  Susie was in turns, loving, playful, angry.  Who can blame her?  Cessie was brave and dignified, despite it all.  Despite being seen in all her vulnerability.

Then I went to physical therapy, where, as I waited, I saw a girl with heavy makeup scrolling through her iPhone, slumped in a chair, looking bored.  I gave her a sidelong glance–the usual clientel here is over 50.  I wondered at her make-up, so masklike-and tedious to apply, and heavy eyeliner seemed to be making a comeback. Why, I thought?  I’d never been able to master the stuff.  I realized I’d left home  without a swipe of powder or lipstick….oh well. I was called in for my treatment, and when it was over, I walked through a room where I saw the girl again, on her knees, fastening a young man’s prosthetic lower leg.  She finished, and lovingly smoothed his khakis and rose.  The two of them turned their beautiful smooth young faces to the exit.  He walked just fine, no one would have suspected his foot was missing.  They looked whole, young, insouciant.

Then I went to get Valentine cards.  I can’t stand for very long–something called orthostatic intolerance–and yet I did, growing fainter and fainter.  I finally scored a great card for my son, and an acceptable one for myhusband.  But while I was doing this, a young white woman wearing a red Kroger apron, read cards to a young black man with braided hair, chains, and carefully slouchy rapper clothes.  She questioned him gently on the kinds of sentiments he’d like.  He glanced around nervously, gestured with his hand, mumbled something I couldn’t hear.  She plucked a few more cards, “Okay, let’s try this,” she said, reading aloud the corny sentiments.    Then a large black man in a wheelchair rolled by, dressed all in red, including a red baseball cap and stopped to look for cards.  An older white woman, the pleasant kind of older woman no one notices, stood looking for cards.  She excused herself to walk around the black man, and began to talk with him about her husband, who was also in a wheelchair.  The two of them bantered, with loud peals of laughter coming from the man, the older woman  holding her middle and saying, “that’s so true, darling, you know.”   Finally she sayed, “Well, God bless you,” as he turned to leave, leaving him giggling.

And so it goes.  I thought about the assumptions we make about other people, and how they are almost always wrong.  I thought of Cessie’s dignity and Susie’s fortitude, and of how easily I had dismissed the fiercely casual young woman.  I though about the signals our presentation sends, whether heavy make-up or none, a gangsta outfit, or a bright red baseball cap, of how we put our armor on to step out into a hostile world, only to find, at least in the card aisle at Kroger  the day before Valentines–it isn’t that hostile at all.

 

The Dream of Art November 17, 2011

Whenever I find a quote that strikes me, I write it on a sticky note and put it on my computer.  Needless to say, sometimes my computer looks like it is decorated for Mardi Gras!  Here is one that I especially like, by the poet Louise Gluck: “The dream of art is not to assert what is already known, but to illuminate what has been hidden, and the paths  to the hidden world are not inscribed by will.”

There are so many ways this quote sustains me and grounds me.   I need to be reminded that “The dream of art”  is not my dream alone.  It is a Tao, a way, a practice, that I am entering into.  It is an everflowing river that I can swim in, but can never encompass.  To engage in art is both an intensly individual act, and yet not an entirely personal one.  This both delights and relieves me.  It relieves my ego and my art of having to be GREAT!  A dream has its own autonomy.  We are not responsible for which images our dreams throw onto the shores of consciousness.  We are only responsible for working with them when they appear.  Similarly, the work has its own autonomy.  We can’t predict where it will take us.  We can only show up, ready to participate. At its best, to practice an art is to be always on the tipping point between mastery and mystery.

“….not to assert what is known, but to illuminate what has been hidden.”  Dreams often show us what we have been unable to look at it in our waking lives; similarly, a poem or story may reveal what we didn’t know we knew. Or what we may need to attend to: an imbalance, an untended sorrow, a hidden yearning for wholeness.  And, I think, the commitment to pay attention, to permit oneself to go into the darkness, and to suffer the loss of illusions, can provide a boon not only for the individual, but for the community.  When I listened to Robert Pinksy read his elegiac poems last year, I was reminded not only of the very real loss of cultures and languages that he addressed, but also that in articulating those losses, he was retrieving something for those who heard the poems.   We were gifted with an awareness of what was of value, of what to attend to.

“….and the paths to the hidden world are not inscribed by will.”  Despite our belief in the supremecy of will, the truth is we can not create an agenda to find the hidden world.  Once we think we know the path, it changes.  As writers, we can work on our craft, we can show up, but there is no guarantee our work will “live.”  How often the truly inspired prompting comes in the middle of doing something else, when the determined effort to get it right fails!  To find the hidden paths requires a continual opening of ourselves, as in meditation, to what is.  We may have an intention when we begin a poem or story, but we have to be willing to follow where the work leads us, without knowing the outcome.  It is often those works we enter into with less confidence than take on a “life of their own.”

So, where does this leave us, as writers and facilitators?  We live in a culture that valorizes certainty and will.  Hitching our wagons to the star of art suddenly looks like a dubious enterprise.  Or does it?  Maybe it instead it is an exciting, inexhaustable enterprise, one that teaches us to find our growing edges and learn to be dance partners to uncertainty and change.

For a wonderful and humorous take on the “uncertainty principle” of writing, check out Chuck Tripi’s post “Notes from NJ-#5)  http://haydensferryreview.blogspot.com/

 

The Long Way Home January 5, 2011

Yesterday, I took our Karen refugee mother and her two youngest children to the county health department.  Our church is involved in resettling Karen refugees.  I had known nothing about the Karen, their long battle for independence in Myanmar, their brutal experiences at the hands of the Burmese, or their lives in Thai refugee camps until my son met this family of six through our youth group.  I’m not sure who adopted who, but Adam loved the warm, lively children and when the church asked for volunteers to help refugees transition to life in America, in Athens, we signed up.  The mother, whom I will call Rose, is thirty, only five years older than my daughter, Hannah.  Over the past several weeks, although her English is rudimentary, she has shared with me stories and photos of her life lived mostly in a Thai camp: she has buried one husband, one infant daughter, and both parents.  She has two older boys by her first husband, and two by her second husband.  She is very proud of her husband–he speaks English fairly well and went through eleventh grade.  She herself has no schooling, but she is quick-witted and exudes such warmth that Adam calls her “A bundle of love.”  She loves America, because she has a floor, warmth, safety.  In the camps, her children were always dirty because of the dirt floors.  They were cold because of the bamboo huts. They were hungry because of lack of food.  They had no hope for the future, no possibilities.

So, the health department.  I had to take her for her birth control, which meant that I left Adam in the waiting room with the four and two-year old children.  Using pantomime and simple English, I had to ask some very personal questions, like “When was the last time you and your husband had sex?” which I demonstrated with my hands coming together. She got it, answering with great dignity, looking straight ahead.  She is so gentle and soft-spoken, I just winced at this invasion of her privacy.  As we waited in the women’s waiting room, there was some conversation, but much silence.  At one point, she turned to me, and said, “Teacher, I no like fat.”  She gestured to her belly, her face sorrowful.  In the photos she had shared, she had been very thin and youthful.  Still pretty, she has put on a lot of weight with all the food and kinds of food available here.  I asked her if she exercised, or walked.  She shook her head, no, she said “Eat, sleep, children.  Sometime walk to Piggly Wiggly with Sunny.”  She giggled when she said Piggly Wiggly and I did too.  We talked about getting a stroller so she could walk the youngest one.  Her comment was a small glimpse into her world, her feelings, something that made her an individual, not merely a “refugee mother.”  I hated it for her, this so American struggle with weight, this estrangement from our bodies.

We waited and waited for her to be seen .  We both stared at the video monitor, featuring a documentary on the Rockdale County sex scandals.  The video showed people in church, at prayer.  Rose said, “praying!” in her soft, lilting voice.  I nodded, but what the video showed was how a certain kind of fundamentalist Protestant Christianity had failed this Southern community, and maybe contributed to the incredibly depraved sexual behaviour of the county’s teens.  It showed how there was an emptiness at the core, a kind of ennui, which pulled the children into extreme sex and drug experimentation.  The experts also commented on the parents’ complete disconnect with their children, their disbelief, their denial that such things could happen to their children.  The children interviewed talked about long hours alone at home, free to do what they liked.  The camera panned on the upper middle class suburb, the large brick McMansions with their huge yards, the SUVs and Hummers parked in the drives, everything pristine, perfect, shiny.  But no people.  Big bright suburban emptiness.

I thought back to the birthday party/prayer meeting I had attended at one of the Karen homes.  The whole community seated on the floor, listening respectfully to the preacher, even the youngest child attentive, well-behaved.  Their beautiful singing, the openness and generosity between them.  I didn’t understand the words, but I understood that this was something special.  Their strong and vital faith has seen them through years of deprivation, but will it survive our materialistic culture?  How will their community handle our emphasis on the individual?  Already the children are becoming more fluent, not only in English, but in the culture.  Adam told me the four-year old is so smart, he even knows the mother of all curse words, which he picked up from the older boys.  I think of how Rose is with her kids, naturally authoritative, never raising her voice, gentle but firm.  It is enviable, her naturalness.  I don’t want that to change for them.  How will she find her way in this new world as a mother, as a woman?

Rose is finally seen. We pick up the boys and go into the children’s vaccination room for another long wait.  The room is crowded with a Chinese family and several Hispanic families.  There is a huge National Geographic map on

the wall, and we show Rose and the children were Burma is.  Rose tells how it took four planes to get to Georgia–one to Japan, from there to California, then to Colorado, then to Georgia.  “Long way,” she says, smiling wearily at the map.  Her youngest has fallen asleep in her arms. The four-year old is speaking and gesturing rapidly in Karen, pointing to places on the map and making up stories.  Maybe he is making up the story of their plane ride, or of the adventures he will have in the world as a Power Ranger.  I look around the room at the weary parents, at the dark-eyed children shyly smiling,  at my tired, bored fair-haired boy.  I wonder–what maps, what stories will lead us–all of us– home?

 

A Simple Bowl September 17, 2009

I’ve been trying to use what little energy I have recently to send out query letters to agents. It is a strange process, so divorced from the impetus and act of creating a piece of fiction. When writing fiction or poetry, I feel centered, for the most part, and alive and excited. I don’t feel any of those things when querying agents. Instead, I feel weighed down by the effort of selling myself, by a feeling that the whole process is somehow inauthentic, by the overwhelming odds against any writer, but especially one who has taken a long hiatus due to illness.

Yesterday, sitting in my physical therapist’s waiting room, I was fuming to my husband about a book I’d just finished reading that I found mediocre, despite sensational reviews. A thin, frail man walked in who looked vaguely familiar. It took me a moment, but then I recognized M.S., a wonderful potter who has been battling leukemia for many years now. Just that morning, I had put my strawberries in his lovely white and black bowl. The bowl has an asian flavor, with a pediment and steep conical sides. It has always given me a lot of pleasure, both the shape and the glaze: it is a perfect small bowl. It is a bowl I can imagine a Buddhist monk using.

M.S. looked up when my husband called his name. He came over and we exchanged greetings–my ever present body brace always providing a subject for conversation. Close up, I could see the sores on his skin, his sparse hair, his face puffy, no doubt from steroids. No matter how many years I’ve worked with cancer patients, the ravishing of the disease and the treatments is always a fresh shock. We asked after his wife, a painter, and he caught us up with her. There was a pause, and then he said, “and I guess I’m just a medical patient now.”

Such a simple statement, but such a painful one. For anyone, the loss of work is painful. For an artist, especially as finally tuned as M.S., it must be a cruel loss. One thinks of Beethoven descending into deafness, stubbornly composing in that silence, of Picasso, the old man, confronting the canvas until his last day. “Who can tell the dancer from the dance?” Making art transforms the maker, just as it transforms the material. It can be a solace, one I wished he still had.

I felt my eyes fill and I didn’t want him to see. Thankfully, I was called for my therapy session. Lying on the table, I felt keenly my own brokenness as well his, and I was washed over with the brevity of life. What I want, I thought, is to make stories as beautiful and functional as his bowls, stories to hold whatever fruit or emptiness the reader’s life needs contained. That is what I’d like to put in my query letter.

 

Our Storied World June 17, 2009

scan0117

Here is a wonderful and true story: A friend of mine, a visual artist, until recently worked at a charitable organization that was slowly dying due to the recession. My friend, let us call her Z., worked mostly with the Hispanic p0pulation, trying to help them navigate various social agencies, food banks, legal aid agencies. I’d often dropped by to visit her, and find her with a child on her lap, speaking to the mother in fluent Spanish, or helping a troubled teenage boy calm down by doing collages with him. Even as the agency’s funds dried up, my friend, who has no margin for error in her own slim finances, would often open her own wallet and give what little she had. She didn’t do it every time, but if she felt the person’s plight was truly awful, she explained that she did it to live with herself.

One day a young man wandered in. He’d had to drop out of school, he had no money, hadn’t eaten in a while, and couldn’t find a job, although he’d been looking. My friend gave what information she could, but she noticed a certain dullness in his eyes and recognized it for what it was–the dying of hope. She opened her wallet and gave him a twenty and he thanked her and left.

Not long afterwards, Z. was laid off from the organization. She went into a funk, hibernated and licked her wounds, then turned to the thing she knew would help her find her way. She got her paintings down from the attic, began to look at them again, began doing some new work. In the spaciousness of the her new days, she found herself making art. She’d applied for jobs, but none came through. Still, it wasn’t as if she had nothing….she began to slowly envision her self as a working artist. It was as if the Universe had conspired to get her back to her true work.

Still, one has to eat. She was downtown one afternoon and poked her head into a little Italian restaurant. It was close to the end of lunch service, and she was the only one in the restaurant. A young man came over to take her order. They looked at each other and she recognized the young man she’d given a twenty to. He said, “I know you,” and she smiled and acknowledged it, not wanting to embarrass him by reminding him of how they had met. Far from it, the boy was eager to chat. The day she had given him the twenty, he had been at a low ebb. But he had gotten something to eat, then applied for this job at the restaurant and gotten it. She was delighted to know how the story had turned out; so many of the people she had helped simply disappeared.

She visits the young man often now, and the irony of their switched places isn’t lost on her. She’s become friends with the owner, who wants her to hang her paintings in the restaurant. “Was it random chance or something else that led me there?” she asks. At any rate, it was a fortunate and happy accident.

“The moment I heard my first story/I started looking for you…” Rumi writes. We are our stories. We not only understand our world through story, but we make our worlds through stories. We tell, we receive, we stand in amazement and awe at the gift of story. Our hearts wither for lack of good stories.

Dear reader, I wish you a storied world.

 

 
%d bloggers like this: