I’ve said out loud a number of times in the recent past that I’m not a good story teller yet. I think I mean I’m not a good story *writer* yet. Folks may become enthralled when I share stuff verbally but translating my tone and hand gestures and the expressions that my face makes on it’s own into the written word hasn’t felt possible. To me, it’s hard to express my right eyebrow moving up just so with words. However, there’s a story that wants to be told. It may be a bit about me but it’s not mine. Our stories are not as proprietary as we want them to be, as we try to lay claim to them as ‘ours’ to tell or hold tight. They’ll come through any avenue they can when they are ready for them, whether we think we’re ready or not. I see myself in the latter category. But sometimes words are like water. They will have their own way and roll through any obstructions we try to create.
Words did that for me when I was a kid. I had my nose in a book any time I could. Those word collections were my escape hatch. Fiction and non-fiction took me away from the pain that awaited me. Whether it was Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys or the Life books at the library that taught me about this world or CS Lewis and Madeline L'Engle taking me into other worlds, books were my escape. I read everything I could get my hands on. My third and fifth grade teacher, Miss Gibson, was easily forgiven (mostly) for embarrassing me in front of class because she would let me go to the library whenever I wanted.
As an adult, I have said over and over again, "I can't make this shit up!" And it's true. I cannot create a story; I can tell true ones but I truly cannot make things up. When I tell people of the spiritual experiences I’ve had or the encounters with people particularly in the criminal justice system, the invariable responses are platter-sized eyes followed by a, “No shit!?" No shit. I can’t make this up. I have never had an active or useful imagination and the real world provides ample examples of life mimicking art. As a kid, my own imagination only went as far as the places others could take me, especially, those who could string words together into a story.
Like music or stories or cooking, I didn't understand I could create them. I could clearly read the stories in the music, and clearly, someone else had actually created what I was reading but it never dawned on me that it was something I could do, too. I'm sure it had something to do with the fact that imagination and lying, "making up stories", were synonymous to me and accompanied by violence.
So my own creative streak never did develop. In high school, when things were bad at home and school, the farthest my imagination would take me was living in an RV at the Falls Church High School parking lot. Can you imagine that imagining? My brain could only get me to the school parking lot. There, in my tiny world on wheels, I didn't have parents or a brother, could move about as I pleased, except for the small fact I couldn't drive at all, never mind a recreational vehicle as many feet long as it’s name has letters.
Even now, in my 50s, if someone says, perhaps in a guided meditation, "visualize this”, I can't. My brain will not go there. However, if someone tells a joke or their own story I can "see" it unfold as they tell it. My brain goes there all the time. The former I have to think about and the latter, there is no thought involved, it just unfolds visually, like a movie screen right in front of me. It's as if my brain cannot or won't create on demand. It's like painting. I cannot create a picture with paint. However, there are times when I know that I must paint. I plunder through Hobby Lobby, grabbing canvases and colors that jump out at me, take them home, and once I get started, 10 minutes later there is something magnificent on a canvas that I obviously had some part in because I'm the one cleaning up the mess on the floor, but I have not actually consciously created it. The application and the flow of the colors just move through me. I have the same experiences with writing poetry. I’m not a poet however, sometimes, the words must flow whether I create the space for them or not, there they are. Some call that The Divine at work. I'm not sure about that. If I do this right, you, the reader, will get the visuals, cocked right eyebrow and everything. You’ll be as glued to the story as I have been to those written by others.
I don't know when it was I realized that if I lied, I got beaten or the beating I was in the middle of became worse. My mother, like many others, has that way—like having eyes in the back of their heads—knew when I was lying. When I tried to get out of ‘regular’ trouble or beatings, she would take a breath, holler at me to stop lying, as if offering me a chance to ‘fess up, before starting up again. And I would wonder what kind of magic it was that let her know I was pulling old gray gum off the sidewalk for myself (among other things) when she wasn’t looking.
At some point I just stopped lying. I became smart enough to know that if lying made things worse, I ought not to do that. However, though my attempt at lying stop, my mother’s continued screaming “You're lying!" or “Stop lying!” did not. It was very confusing to me. If she had the magic to know when I *was* lying why she did not have an understanding that I was *not*? Faced with consequences I wasn’t sure I could handle, it certainly wasn’t something that I was going to ask about.
Now, that’s not to say I don’t lie now. I do. I withhold information I don’t think people can handle and when people ask how I am, I often lie. Because if I look like they need to ask, they can’t handle my truth in the moment. So I lie. They know I’m lying. I know when they are, too, for the same reason. We dance that together sometimes.
However, a few years ago, when I was describing a trip across the country I’d called Traveling Light, I wrote that in one of the Apache traditions, storytelling is to ‘tell the holiness’. The myths that speak to the holy are “performed only by medicine men and women for the purposes of enlightenment and instruction.” What I’ll be sharing here is neither myth nor legend but in it lies a holiness that each age has sought since we began as human. It is as real as my breath and moves me in every way. We have come to the time where many realize that the healing power of storytelling isn’t only for medicine-people; the truths of all things holy come from each of us, as much as we draw breath our own stories give us life.
The words want to come now for the same reason they did then; this story began a long, long time ago and it’s not mine to hold onto. I’m merely the vessel for it’s expression this time. This story began before we separated ourselves from each other; before we created differences and chasms between clans & languages; before we tried to name the invisible pieces of the universe, and control those things that are visible.