Tasting Life Twice

Archive for the category “Storytelling”

He Loved to Tell Stories

When I was in graduate school at Regent College, I once asked my professor, Eugene Peterson, for suggested readings on the art and craft of preaching.  He suggested to me Fred Craddock.  “Start there”, he said.  And I did.  I began reading various books by Craddock and found him to be a wonderful guide in the art of storytelling the Bible, the celebration of narrative as a genre and also in the care and use of language.

A few days ago, John Blake of CNN did an excellent piece on Craddock in an article entitled, “A Preaching ‘Genius’ Faces His Toughest Convert’.  Craddock is candid in the article, talking about his struggles as a child with the shame of his family’s poverty and his struggles as an adult with his dad’s silence (“I struggled with his silence. I wanted him to say he was proud of me.”).

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The following part of the article was especially good, where Blake talks about Fred Craddock Sr.’s love of stories and the web they spun in inspiring his own son, who would become a legendary preacher.

“Fred Craddock Sr. had plenty to say about other subjects. He stood 5-foot-7, weighed 150 pounds and even in his 50s could do one-arm chin-ups. He liked to dance, race his horse at county fairs.

Most of all, he loved to tell stories.

His son and namesake, Fred Jr., was one of his most devoted fans. Father and son developed a storytelling ritual. At the end of the day, the elder Craddock would return to his home in the small town of Humboldt, Tennessee, roll a Bull Durham cigarette by the fireplace and say to no one in particular, “Boy, I never hope to see what I saw today.”

Craddock, his three brothers and his sister flocked around their father.

“What’d you see today?”

“Oh, you kids still up? No, you go to bed. You don’t want to have nightmares.”

His children protested. Back and forth they’d go before Craddock Sr. finally said, “Well, sit down, but don’t blame me if you have nightmares.”

Craddock Sr. thrilled his children with adventure stories about Chief Loud Thunder, Civil War battles and, on occasion, stories from the Bible. The elder Craddock taught his son some of his first lessons in theology.

Each student in Craddock’s first-grade class was required to answer morning roll call with a Bible verse. Craddock didn’t know any, until his father taught him one. One morning, he stood up “like a bantam rooster” and repeated his father’s scripture:

“Samson took the jawbone of an ass and killed 10,000 Filipinos.”

The teacher sent Craddock home with a stern note to his parents for his use of profanity. Ethel Craddock chided her husband, but he chuckled, saying, “I bet the class enjoyed it.”

The elder Craddock developed a following. Storytellers were admired in rural Tennessee during the first half of the 20th century. Television was nonexistent. Books were expensive. People spent their day around pot-bellied stoves, whittling wood and spitting tobacco while swapping stories.

When Craddock Sr. stopped on a corner to roll a cigarette, crowds gathered, because they knew a tall tale was coming. They rarely guessed how it would end. Craddock Sr. would uncork a story, lead his audience up to the edge, then suddenly announce that he had to go to work and walk away.

Says his son: “I’m convinced now that he didn’t know where his stories were going when he started.””

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The Parable of the Fisherman and the Businessman

One of my students wrote a reflection on the following quotation from the Dalai Lama. Asked what surprises him most about humanity he said: “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he doesn’t enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived”.

Her paper got me thinking about a parable I have come across a few times in recent years.  I’m not sure what the original source is but one version is the following:

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An American businessman took a vacation to a small coastal Mexican village on doctor’s orders. Unable to sleep after an urgent phone call from the office the first morning, he walked out to the pier to clear his head. A small boat with just one fisherman had docked, and inside the boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish.

“How long did it take you to catch them?” the American asked.

“Only a little while,” the Mexican replied in surprisingly good English.

“Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” the American then asked.

“I have enough to support my family and give a few to friends,” the Mexican said as he unloaded them into a basket.

“But… What do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican looked up and smiled. “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Julia, and stroll into the village each evening, where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, senor.”

The American laughed and stood tall. “Sir, I’m a Harvard M.B.A. and can help you. You should spend more time fishing, and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. In no time, you could buy several boats with the increased haul. Eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats.”

He continued, “Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the consumers, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village, of course, and move to Mexico City, then to Los Angeles, and eventually to New York City, where you could run your expanded enterprise with proper management.

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, senor, how long will all this take?”

To which the American replied, “15-20 years, 25 tops.”

“But what then, senor?”

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right, you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions.”

“Millions senor? Then what?”

“Then you would retire and move to a small coastal fishing village, where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, and stroll in to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

What Keeps You Inspired?

Galatians 6:9 9 So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.

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Last week, I heard a fairly ordinary woman tell a very extraordinary story. I was in Florida for a conference and one of the keynote speakers was Jessica Jackey. In addition to being a new mother, Jessica is a social entrepreneur. The way she defines it, a social entrepreneur is someone who creates value in the world. Jessica’s brilliant idea was to create a micro-financing organization named KIVA that lends money to people around the world in an effort to alleviate poverty. She connects people who want to help with people who need the help. For as little as a $25 loan, people with the means to make a difference give some capital to people who live on just dollars a day. The stats are staggering. Founded in 2005, KIVA has used the contributions of 687,000 people to lend $283 million in loans to people all around the world. Read that line again. Almost 300 million dollar has changed hands because of this woman’s brainchild. One hundred percent of the money gets to those who need it. And 99 percent of those small loans (most of them averaging $25) are repaid.

Jessica talked about hearing Muhammad Yunus speak at Stanford University three years before he won the Nobel Prize for his work on microcredit and microfinance.

She said, “When I heard him speak at Stanford, I thought to myself: I can do that. I can go and sit next to people and be a really good listener. His stories were not about the poor being destitute and desperate but his stories were hopeful.”

Jessica began to make her own trips to places in the world where people were in great need – of opportunity. While there, she heard some inspiring stories and began to focus “on these details of beautiful change. I saw people with full hands rather than empty hands and I thought to myself: what would it be to share these stories with other people?”

Jessica was asked in the Q & A session at the end of her talk, what keeps you inspired? She answered: “Stopping. Getting out of my own head and not worrying about success and failure and engaging with someone else and listening to someone else’s story. That genuinely inspires me. It’s realizing that everyone has their own set of challenges but they have their own victories, too. If you can listen to someone else’s story, you’ve been given a gift.”

The Secret of Gene Norris

In My Reading Life, Pat Conroy pays tribute to his high school English teacher who, in addition to being an important mentor, ended up becoming a very close friend. In their final phone conversation, as Gene Norris was dying with cancer, he said to Pat:

“Tell me a story,”he commanded, and I did.

Those were the last words he ever spoke to me, and they formed an exquisite, unimprovable epitaph for a man whose life was rich in the guidance of children not his own.  He taught them a language that was fragrant with beauty, treacherous with loss, comfortable with madness and despair, and a catchword for love itself.  His students mourned Gene all over the world, wherever they found themselves.  All were ecstatic to be part of the dance.

One student who was part of the dance of Gene Norris’ life was a young lady who showed up at the reception that followed Norris’ funeral. Conroy writes,

“As I walked along a side street, a beautiful young woman called out to me, ‘Mr. Conroy?’

I turned and this pretty woman kissed me and said, “You don’t know me, but we met when I was three years old.  You were the May king and my sister was the May queen.’”

“Ah!  Your sister is the lovely Gloria Burns,” I said.  “But why are you here?  Did you know Mr. Norris?  You’re too young to have been a student of his.”

“My first year at Robert Smalls,” she said, “I was such a mess.  In trouble.  Boys.  Drugs.  That kind of thing.  They sent me to Mr. Norris.”

“He was good, wasn’t he?”

“Mr. Norris told me to come to his office every day at lunch.  We could talk and get to know each other.  I went there for the next two years.  Two years. Yet he didn’t even know me.”

“You got the best of Gene,” I said.

“He saved my life.  He literally saved my life.”

“Come on in,” I said, putting my arm around her.  “I’ll introduce you to a couple of hundred people who’ll tell you the same thing.”

“Mr. Norris acted like I was the most important girl in the world,” she said.

“You were.  That was Gene’s secret.  All of us were.”

Literature as the Master of a Thousand Disguises

image Recently a friend gave me an excellent read by Pat Conroy, My Reading Life.  The book is a celebration of literature, language and the magic of storytelling.  Conroy talks about the significance of some important books in his life, including Gone With the Wind, Look Homeward, Angel and War and Peace.  He pays tribute to some influential people in his life, mentioning his mother,Frances, a mentor named Gene Norris and a bookstore owner named Cliff Graubart. 

Conroy tells of being a student at The Citadel and taking an English class with Colonel Harrison.  He writes of the day when Colonel Harrison read Walt Whitman’s poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”  This early excerpt describes the power of the spoken word and of fiction to transform a life.  It reminds me of something Yann Martel once said: “the great thing about books is that they give you more lives.”

Here’s the selection:

“With the softest of voices, he read to his class the poet’s moving elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln.  Halfway through his recitation, he confessed to us that he always wept whenever he read that particular poem.  He apologized to the class for his lack of professionalism.  He wiped his glass and, with tears streaming down his face, he dismissed the class and headed toward his office.  The grandson of a Confederate office had been moved to tears by a poem commemorating the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  For me that day will last forever.  I had no idea that poetry could bring a grown man to his knees until Colonel Harrison proved it.  It ratified a theory of mine that great writing could sneak up on you, master of a thousand disguises: prodigal kinsman, messenger boy, class clown, commander of artillery, altar boy, lace maker, exiled king, peacemaker, or moon goddess.  I had witnessed with my own eyes that a poem made a colonel cry.  Though it was not part of a lesson plan, it imparted a truth that left me spellbound.  Great words, arranged with cunning and artistry, could change the perceived world for some readers.  From the beginning I’ve searched out those writers unafraid to stir up the emotions, who entrust me with their darkest passions, their most indestructible yearnings, and their most soul-killing doubts.  I trust the great novelists to teach me how to live, how to feel, how to love and hate.  I trust them to show me the dangers I will encounter on the road as I stagger on my own trouble passage through a complicated life of books that try to teach me how to die.”

Stories from the Extraordinary Parish

The Scottish pastor/novelist George MacDonald wrote in the voice of one of his characters:

I have never sat down with my parishioners without finding that they actually possess a history, the most marvelous and important fact to a human being.  And I have come to the conclusion, not that this was an extraordinary parish of characters, but that every parish must be extraordinary from the same cause. (The Parish Papers)

Just this week in my extraordinary parish I have heard some extraordinary stories, of a bear kill in northern Ontario (from a tree stand with the bear shaking the tree); of a young man and his girlfriend who hiked four days on the Incan trail only to stop dead in their tracks at the sight of Machu Picchu which gloriously, suddenly appears out of the dense forest cover; a lady who has amassed two million frequent flier miles on her airline as gift to her retired self; of a small town news publisher who refuses to fire a sport writer who can’t write because of his loyalty to the man he hired; of a sixteen year old boy struggling to overcome a disease that has cost him forty pounds and his efforts to replace a used jeep that caught fire last spring and many other such stories. 

It was Wesley who used to say, “the world is my parish”, and even in its ordinariness, what an extraordinary place it is. 

Making Saints from an Old Bucket

image Yesterday at church I made reference to Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Work of Local Culture”.  He uses an evocative metaphor of an old bucket hanging on a fencepost and the miracle of making earth that takes place inside there over many years.  He connects what goes on inside that bucket with what goes on in the work of an individual life and community.  His image helps one appreciate the value of storytelling, the slow growth that is involved in becoming “a human being fully alive” and the role that our losses (“death, gravity and decay”) play in bringing about life. 

For many years, my walks have taken me down an old fencerow in a wooded hollow on what was once my grandfather’s farm.  A battered galvanized bucket is hanging on a fence post near the head of the hollow, and I never go by it without stopping to look inside.  For what is going on in” that bucket is the most momentous thing I know, the greatest miracle that I have ever heard of: it is making earth.  The old bucket has hung there through many autumns, and the leaves have fallen around it and some have fallen into it, or been carried into it by squirrels; mice and squirrels have eaten the meat of the nuts and left the shells; they and other animals have left their droppings; insects have flown into the bucket and died and decayed; birds have scratched in it and left their droppings or perhaps a feather or two.  This slow work of growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black humus.  I look into that bucket with fascination because I am a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts, and I recognize there an artistry and a farming far superior to mine, or to that of any human.  I have seen the same process at work immemorially over most of the land surface of the world.  All creatures die into it, and they live by it….

However small a landmark the old bucket is, it is not trivial.  It is one of the signs by which I know my country and myself.  And to me it is irresistibly suggestive in the way it collects leaves and other woodland sheddings as they fall through time.  It collect stories, too, as they fall through time.  It is irresistibly metaphorical.  It is doing in a passive way what a human community must do actively and thoughtfully.  A human community, too, must collect leaves and stories, and turn them into account.  It must build soil, and build that memory of itself – in lore and story and song – that will be its culture.  These two kinds of accumulation, of local soil and local culture, are intimately related.

Resurrecting Stories from the Ground

Resistance to tyranny and oppression can take many forms.  During the Holocaust, there were those who fled to other countries, took up arms, plotted an assassination attempt or retreated to the forests.  Another effort that is equally laudable and noteworthy took place in Warsaw, Poland beginning in 1940.  Emmanuel Ringleblum started a clandestine operation known as the Oyneg Shabes project.  The phrase means, “joyful Sabbath” and it involved a group of undercover researchers recording daily life inside the Warsaw Ghetto.  Ringleblum assembled a team of story-collectors, whose job it was to describe what what was happening to European Jewry under Nazi occupation.

Over a couple of years time, when everything was crumbling around them and image they were facing starvation, death, the loss of loved ones and possessions, these gallant individuals went about the ghetto collecting artifacts and stories.  Then they placed their collection of writings in milk bottles and tin cans to be buried in the earth in the hope that their stories would be raised to life after the terrible ordeal had passed.

Shortly after World War 2 had finished, resurrection happened.  Only a few of the project’s members had survived.  And one of them, Rachel Auerbach, knew where the archives were buried.  She led a team to the site and, in what was described as an “archaeological expedition”, they found the documents buried under the rubble of war.

Two of three collections would eventually be found and with them, 35,000 documents that remembered both a horrific crime and the people who suffered.

A recently published book, Who Will Write Our History by Samuel Kassow tells the story of the Oyneg Shabes project and offers another valuable contribution to Holocaust studies.  Both the Warsaw project of Ringleblum and this recent book by Kassow remind us of the power of a narrated life.

Imagination and Morality

“To me, imagination is the key to morality.  If you can’t imagine yourself as someone else, to walk in their skin, you’re more likely to hurt them or demean them or legislate against them.  The golden rule depends on the power of imagination.”

Michael Chabon

Finding our Voice

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Last evening Ron Powers was our guest at William Woods.  He spoke on the occasion of the centennial of Mark Twain’s death.  In his lecture, Powers noted how Twain not only captured the voice of the voiceless in writing in the vernacular, but he gave America a distinct literary voice. 

At age 4, little Sammy Clemens emerges from a sickbed in his family’s cabin on his Uncle John’s Quarles’s farm in Florida, MO and toddles on over to the slave quarters on the farm’s far edge. He thus enters a 300-year-old, tightly compacted subculture that within a quarter-century will be abolished. The residue of those visits will flavor his writing for the rest of his life.

Sammy can’t stay away. He plays with the children there. He listens to the speech and the singing and the storytelling of this tightly compacted subculture. He is mesmerized by the urgency of the voices and by the terrifying imagery they convey: lightning bolts, apparitions from the spirit-world, chariots swooping down from heaven, skies of blood, animals crying out.

He seems to sense that the slaves treat spoken language as a living and cherished creature, to be passed around and partaken of.

He hears music in the language. In writing Twain’s biography, I came to believe that he heard spoken language as music, and reproduced it as well as he did by calling back its tonal shifts and rhythms.

This ear for the song of the people continued throughout his life.  It was out West:

where he becomes Mark Twain. He hears the vernacular speech of the West, far from the jurisdiction of Emerson and Holmes. It is pared down to the bare bones, at once factually outrageous and emotionally true. He notices the behavior of western men; outsized and risk-taking and often drunken; and imitates it, and writes about it for the Enterprise.

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