- Books, Literature, and Writing
Life Happens: Story Series 2
How Do You Choose a Story?
I received so much feedback from my first story lens "We are the stories We Tell" that I have decided to create a series of story lenses, with the ultimate goal in not just telling some of the great stories I've heard and experienced myself through the years, but also how to help anyone capture and tell their own family and community stories- whether it is a church community, school community, or work community. The more we understand the stories of each other, the more we can live better together. Plus, it is fun. I was also asked by a few people, "which stories were yours, and which belonged to someone else?" That is the part I love, and the part you, as a potential storyteller should strive for-- when you tell a story so in-depth, that people can't tell whether it is your story or someone else's. Later in the lens, you'll get a chance to vote to see if you can figure out which story is mine.
Today's piece of learning will revolve around one of the basic steps in storytelling. We hear stories all the time. They surround us- at the grocery store, at school and work, where ever we go, so go stories. It's how we relate ourselves to the world. But how many stories do we listen to, really listen to, and hear it as story, not just sound bytes and information. As a story teller, it is our job to listen beyond the sound bytes and home in on the "it" story.
I often get asked, "Jules, how do you choose the stories you end up using in the plays you write?"
My usual answer is that the stories choose me. But I'm not alone in this ability to pinpoint a good story. We all have the ability to feel the "thunk" when a story hits us, and leaves us breathless, or moved, or rolling in laughter. When we feel that thunk, it is the story, knocking on the door to our souls, saying, "let me in, I have something to say". If a story is that powerful, and moves me that much, I know it's a story that needs to be told on a bigger level, and those are the ones that end up making the cut. And always, always, that the story has many levels to explore. Our jobs as storytellers, or story listeners, or family members, if it is a family story that you have just heard, is to listen deeply when a story moves us like that. What's on the surface is much like the proverbial iceberg. There is so much more to be discovered if we dig a little bit. Ask more questions if we can, and ask ourselves, "Why did this story move ME so much. What is it about this story that speaks to something I need to know".
Another place to look for "it" stories, or a story that is wanting to be passed down, is to listen for repetition. Is there a story that always gets told when the family gathers for special occasions? Stories that get told repeatedly have what is called "survival value". There is something in them that is asking to be heard and examined. Why do we keep remembering that story.
Find the "thunk" story. Ask yourself those questions. You'll be on your way to becoming a master storyteller. Or more importantly- the storykeeper for your family. Your future generations will be grateful.
Cancer is what old people get. It's what sick people get. It's not what I get.
I was having my hair styled at Trio Salon, my usual six week appointment with Thor. Before I left that day, he shared with me the story of how he created the kNOW watch, which was becoming very trendy in Chicago at the time. I was moved to hear how much Thor had given up, in order to create and market this watch, in honor of his father, who had just died. I was further moved when Thor presented me with a green watch. I didn't normally accept gifts from anyone except family, and even then, I insist on homemade gifts when possible. But I've known Thor for years, so long that it feels like family. And after hearing about his creation of this watch, I felt it truly was home-made. I slipped it on my wrist and began wearing it.
The green watch didn't match a lot of my outfits, but I wore it anyway. It reminded me of my college days, and my favorite class, Medieval Literature with Dr. Millar. We studied Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Dr. Millar lectured on how the Green Knight could not be overcome. Green was spring, the symbol of rebirth and healing, and cannot be stopped. He was speaking to a class of green students, and I remember how young and invincible I felt back then.
I hadn't thought about that class in years. Within two weeks time, I'd be reminded of the power and hope of the Green Knight, each time I looked at my new watch. I began looking at my watch often, marking time between appointments. But my next appointment would not be with Thor, it would be with an oncologist.
Cancer is what old people get. It's what sick people get. It's not what I get. I guess there are young cancers, too. Mine seemed to be. It was fast and aggressive, and it advanced in a few weeks where most cancers take months. A worthy opponent for my twenty-nine year old body. I worked with my doctor, trying to figure out how to stop it. Cutting at it, again and again and again, surgery after surgery. But it kept coming back.
The operations were as invasive as the cancer. It made me so ill and so tired I didn't have the stomach for food or the strength to eat any. I began focusing on the face of my watch, as I had almost daily appointments.
I began counting the time between the next doctor visit, to coordinate the next plan of attack. I was planning in that time, instead of living in that time. I was planning for the moments to come: when I would feel better, or when I would go to an appointmentand be told that I was cured. And then one morning I woke up late and looked at the watch to check the time. I knew I had slept late, I knew I had an appointment, and fearing I'd be late on hearing the latest test results, I searched my watch to see what hour it was. I checked the minute and the hour hands- was it 8:30 or 9:30? For the first time I realized-- there are no numbers on the watch.
I looked again.
I hadn't remembered there not being numbers. I always knew the time before by giving the watch a simple glance. But this was no simple glance. I looked at the watch that morning, and for the first time, I read the message. I had seen it plenty of times, but not paid attention to it. Before this moment, I'd been reading what I thought it was telling me- numbers. But there are no numbers. There never were. The only thing that has ever been was kNOW. In the center of the face of the watch. That little word. Small "k", big "NOW". Know. Now. Know Now.
After that, the message of the watch became a command, not just a reminder. I wore that reminder everywhere I went, even to my appointments. Focusing on the message helped me through. Know Now. Know this moment and be present to it. I realized, right now may be my last moment. I didn't want to waste it worrying and wondering about another time, in a future that may not exist. I wanted to spend it in peace, with the people I love. In these moments, I am the Green Knight, invincible. Even as cancer battles away with me, new life is emerging from me every second. I am alive. Now.
You hear of Southern hospitality, we didn't think of it so much as hospitality. It was just decency.
The Garden of Gratitude
When I was coming up, many people had a small room at the front of their house, which was used for visitors. It had a bed, small table with something to eat, wash basin & towel. Travel was hard through these parts. Most folks went by foot, and slept under the cover of trees. But if they made it to a small town like this, they could use the visitor's room. It was mighty appreciated, since there wasn't any Motel Six back then.
We didn't know what locks were. We didn't have one on our door. You hear of Southern hospitality, we didn't think of it so much as hospitality. It was just decency. You help someone out, and maybe one day somebody might help you. It's just how you take care of each other. We had a visitor's room. We put a quilt on a rack in that window, and that was our sign that you were welcome. If the quilt was removed, it meant someone else was already there.
Most travelers knew these places. They usually arrived after dark and left before dawn. It was customary to leave a token like a fruit, a penned note, or a trinket, to show gratitude. One visitor, who stayed at our house every two or three months, always left a cutting of a plant, wrapped in a moist rag. We had a dirt patch beside our house that we called "the lane". Mama planted the cuttings there. The lane filled up with the most colorful flowers and shrubs. As years went by, that lane became the garden. And Mama called her garden "Gratitude".
There's a farm here, too. Only they don't farm cows here. They farm children.
Where I grew up in Texas, there was a farm with cows and every day, those cows got milked. Twice a day, just milking those cows for all they had. I wondered how long those cows would give milk. And what happened to 'em when they didn't produce anymore. I left Texas before I found out.
Chicago was a different world. Train whistles and traffic replaced the sounds of the farm I was used to. I looked around the neighborhood, and realized, there's a farm here, too. There is. Only they don't farm cows here. They farm children.
I'm trying to reach the kids, but we've got a problem. Our kids in Austin and Lawndale are being siphoned off in the foster program, as long as they have bounty attached to them. After they turn twenty one, the money disappears and they're turned out. But there ain't no green pasture they get turned out on. It's the pavement, the underpasses where these kids are ending up.
You say you got a problem with kids selling drugs, well, what else are you raising them for? You turn them out without education and hope, what do you expect? You think the job fairy gonna come down and give them a suit of clothes and a fancy office with a high school education or less? You think the house elf is gonna come and give them a two flat? It's true in the world, you can make it on peanut butter and jelly, but someone on the farm has to teach the kids they can make it, and give them hope that there's more than peanut butter and jelly.
I believe in the power of prayer. I think our every thought is a prayer. I pray for these children. How are you praying? You see a kid and think, he's gonna be a drug dealer, she's gonna be pregnant at fourteen, well, friend, what kind of prayer is that? I look at these kids and say, you can be a truck driver. You can be a teacher, a lawyer, a writer. You can work for the city and get a nice pension. Who's praying for these kids to be dealers?
Farm 'em out, milk 'em 'til they turn twenty one and dry up and then turn them out. Do that, and all you prayin' for is them with their little black bags, and their black jackets and nice shoes and BMW's, only they won't live long enough to get the pension. Twenty one years old and already marked, and if they decide to leave, they're dead. Doesn't even take bullets these days. One of my boys from Friendship was found by the el tracks last week. Hands tied behind his back, with a bag tied around his neck. Police officer who found him was another one of my boys from Friendship. There's nothing sadder, nothing more ironic that that. But that's the power of prayer. One of 'em lived home with his momma. The power of that prayer of hope from his momma passed on to him. But these farm kids. Who's praying for them? How are we praying for them? Who are we raising on these farms? And what are we raising them for?
I didn't know how to make Christmas happen, and I didn't know what to do with all of your Daddy's old clothes. Now, I can put his things to use, and put myself to use, too. If Santa can't fill this stocking, then I'm gonna help."
Tow Sack Stocking
It was a little before Christmas time, and I started making out my list of all the things I'd seen in the Sears Roebuck catalogue that I wanted Santa to bring. My mama told me, "Honey, that's an awful lot. Maybe too much for Santa to bring." So I ask, "Well, how much do you think he can bring?"
And mama said, "I'd say, anything Santa can fit in your stocking is what you're going to get."
Well, I thought about that. I went out to the barn and gathered up some tow sacks. Mama had just taught me some stitches when she and Grandma were working on their winter quilt. So, I grabbed my needle, and I sewed together about the biggest stocking you ever saw and I carried it in to mama, and shouted, "Here's my stocking, Mama. You said Santa would fill my stocking. This is my stocking."
My Grandmother, who'd been sitting in the corner in her chair, laughed and cried out, "You did say, anything Santa could fit in her stocking."
Mama couldn't go back on her word. Besides, it made my Grandma laugh. This is something she hadn't done since my Grandpa had died that summer, and tells me, "OK, Haley. You go wash up, and say your prayers. Make sure you get to sleep."
I agree, but I stop just before going down the hall. "It's gonna be filled, isn't it? Just like you said?"
Mama stammered, "Well, Haley..." before grandma cut her off, warning me, "Now, Haley, if you don't go to bed right now, then Santa won't bring anything at all." She's right, so I run off to bed.
Mama says, "Please, Mom. Don't encourage her. There's no way Santa can fill this stocking."
Then grandma gets up.
"I've been sitting here, feeling useless. For the first time in 45 years, I didn't have anything to plan for your daddy's Christmas. I didn't know how to make Christmas happen. And I didn't know what to do with all of your Daddy's old clothes. I've been keeping them around like a ghost. He's gone, he's not coming back. But still, I didn't want to get rid of them. Now, I can put his things to use, and put myself to use, too. If Santa can't fill this stocking, then I'm gonna help."
And Grandma and my mama went to work. They worked all night making stuffed animals that they cut and sewed from Granddaddy's old clothes. They stuffed the animals with scraps and cotton. Grandma made a stuffed dog, a rabbit, a raccoon with Grandpa's striped sweater, and she made a blue elephant from his overalls. By the end of the night, that stocking was filled.
I came running down the hall that morning, and couldn't believe my eyes.
"Wow! I knew Santa would fill it! Santa Claus is real."
"Of course Santa Claus is real." Mama says.
Grandma adds, "Santa Claus is love."
I hug all of my stuffed animals. Then stop. And I bring one to grandma.
"Grandma, I think this is supposed to be for you."
"But I thought elephants were your favorite."
"They are. But I think you're supposed to have this one. Hug it. When you hug it, it smells like grandpa. What's wrong Grandma? Don't you like your elephant?"
"Oh, Haley. Yes. I love my elephant."
Which Story Is Mine
Each story I write somehow becomes a part of me. But one of these stories is from my own life or my family. Which one do you think it is?
Which Story is from my own life?
Look Into These Tools For Gathering Your Own Stories
Do you have favorite stories? Have you written them or recorded them somewhere, so others can use? Do you enjoy reading the stories on these lenses? Do you have stories you'd like to share? Please comment. I'd love to hear from you.