“The story – from Rumplestiltskin to War and Peace – is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” – — Ursula K. Le Guin
I have always loved stories. I remember standing in front of the bathroom mirror that fronted the medicine cabinet holding all the medical supplies for our one bathroom family while my mom “set” my hair. She took a small hank of hair, dampened it with her wet fingers, wrapped it around her index finger and secured it with two bobby pins. The only way I would stand still for this torturous process was for her to tell me a story — and she did. I heard countless fairytales in the classic oral tradition, narrated and embellished from my mother’s memory.
Those old stories, scribed by the Brothers Grimm or retold by Hans Chris- tian Andersen hold universal archetypes, moral messages and ancient truths. My mother told those stories in all their gory detail. She, no doubt, heard them from her mother, a Bavarian emigre at age 20, who brought the hard-edged visigothic version across the sea.
My favorite was a French tale that seeped into Mom’s well-honed Germanic repertoire. Blue Beard was a French count who married often and hung his murdered wives by their tresses in a forbidden locked room of his luxurious chateau. I was both fascinated and repelled by the bloody picture I conjured in my mind. These tales always have a heroic ending. In the case of Blue Beard, brave brothers saved their newly married sister just in the nick of time, ending this villain’s violent life, violently. I do wonder what I took away as the meaning of that story – don’t trust flattery, never marry a man whose multiple previous wives all disappeared without explanation, secrets can kill you? (Parenthetically, I now see that it was an odd story for a mother to tell her daughters who she so wanted to see marry!)
It was the bloody mess that grabbed my attention, over and over. Are we sanitizing our stores too much as we pink them up for our children and grandchildren? Do we give them a princess without the cinders, grime and raw hands of a Cinderella? Or the cuddly beast without the haunting roar? Or too much prince charming and not enough frog?
While I spend less time with fairytales, I love to listen to real people’s stories. Listening to someone’s story is a great privilege. After all, what are we but a collection of stories, in the end? All else evaporates with the morning dew while the stories crystalize like enchanting formations in underground caves.
As I listen to these stories, ogres, witches and wily foxes are still part of the narrative. Angels, fairy godmothers and elves add surprising twists and turns. We just call them by different names.
I remember the difficulty my siblings and I had deciding how to care for our aging mother as her memory and capacity to live alone diminished and her insistence that she was not moving anywhere increased. One day a woman called to say she works with families challenged by if, when, and how to move an elderly parent. I started crying. I called a friend and said, an angel has been sent to us. An angel she was. We met with her a few times and her wisdom, kindness and knowledge jump-started our stuck engine. Within a short time Mom was safely moved and quite content in her new digs that looked so much like home. Our angel flew off to other challenges.
I like to tell stories to a willing listener. Think of the important events of your life – don’t you love telling and retelling the stories of falling in love, welcoming a new child, reaching the end of your first marathon? We relive the excitement, the wonder, the adventure in the telling.
Telling our story can be cathartic —and a vital part of the healing process from trauma and loss. Maya Angelou says there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. I sometimes hear people say, “I have never told anyone about this” and their story tumbles out, followed by a great sigh of relief. Untold stories are a burden that grow heavier over time.
We can give a gift to someone in grief by asking about their loss – a loved one, a job, a marriage. Most of us run out of willing listeners way too early in our grief process. How did she die? How did it end? What happened? Soon we hear a powerful story of reconciliation or the final visit or a peace that rested among all those present. Or we hear of horrible pain, bitterness, lost dreams. We tell the same story over and over, trying to make sense of the inexplicable, the tragic, the abrupt ending – hoping that in the telling it might turn out differently. Sometimes it does. The lost job led me back to school and work that is much more satisfying. My friend’s death gives me a whole new look at cancer or ALS or addiction. I could no longer ignore what had become clear. Over time our story changes. We see with new eyes.
After my marriage ended I spent several days in retreat and laid out my story. First I wrote it all down. Then I took pieces of plain white paper and taped them together to make one long sheet. Now I could set out my timeline —53 years. I wrote all the things I could remember… events, losses, changes, stagnant times, graced times, periods of growth, periods of pain, periods of fence-sitting. Soon I had a top-down view of my life so far. I saw the sharp turns and straight paths; the difficult decisions, the easy decisions and the no-decision decisions; the times of patience and the times of terror; the blessings and the trials. I color coded it. I experienced it again. I winced. I laughed. I cried. I gave thanks for the gifts. I mourned the losses. I came to understand a little more. Eventually I was ready to close that chapter and open another.
We are all walking story books. Find a friend to share a story or two. Your story might remind them of one of theirs. That one could lead to another that opens into a forgotten experience which may take you through a hidden passage into a story you thought you could never share. And on and on. Stories carry us away and bring us home. In our stories we recover who we really are and where we belong. Over time we come closer and closer to knowing what it all means.
Mary Lou Logsdon is a spiritual director and retreat leader in the Twin Cities. She is a member of Sacred Ground’s Education Formation Team and can be reached at email@example.com or 651- 583-1802.