“We carry each of us an urn of native soil…sweet enough to find the smell of home.” — Malcolm Cowley, “The Urn”
Believe it or not, the song that provides the storyline for this video was inspired by a 1969 Harmony ukulele, my own uke as a kid. I wrote about it in a post three years ago called “Welcome Home, Cowboy Bob.” In some ways, this post should actually be titled “Cowboy Bob: The Sequel,” because like the original story, this one, too, explores the theme of leaving and returning, of what we choose to hold on to and what we choose to leave behind, and how our perception of which should be which can change over time.
Quotes in the video, in order of appearance, by: Malcolm Cowley, Joan Didion, e.e. cummings, Herte Müller
“Healthy people base their lives on healing, authentic stories. Empowerment comes through the process of telling those stories.” — Theologian Matthew Fox
The keepers and tellers of our stories are precious people. We all do it to some degree, I think, even if we don’t realize it. And as Matthew Fox points out, the pay off for telling stories– healing, authentic stories– is not just a brief interlude of good entertainment, but rather an experience of empowerment, if we allow it to be. I’d like to tell you a story about a storyteller who understand this idea inside and out. In fact, he lives and breathes the idea daily. His name is Charles Hale and he shares his work at Stories Connect Love Heals.
A voracious reader of anything New York and its history, Charlie is just as often pouring over an edition of The New York Times from the 1800’s as he is today’s news. He scours any record he can find in search of details about his ancestors, Irish immigrants who settled in New York City and worked hard to build a life there, yet left behind precious little in the way of letters, photographs and evidence of their lives. Without these kinds of personal artifacts to help him know and understand his grandparents, great grandparents and great greats, Charlie uses bits and pieces of historical records, often finding only tiny shards at a time, and weaves them together with a discerning eye and a compassionate heart in a way that brings past generations to life again.
Charlie has a name for his work. He calls it “breathing of an ancestor’s space and time.” I get goosebumps every time I hear him say it. No small feat, Charlie actually manages to put us in the shoes of his ancestors. Literally. He has been known to retrace the steps that his great grandparents must have taken in traveling from home to work. He researches what the weather was like on the day of a particular event he’s unearthed. He finds out what buildings existed at the time so that he’ll know what his ancestors would have passed by as they walked. He learns what headlines they would have read in the morning paper. By the time Charlie is finished with his story, I most certainly do feel as though I am breathing with his ancestors in their space and time. I can practically smell the coffee that was at their breakfast table.
In a recent conversation, I asked Charlie about his passion for storytelling and where it comes from. To answer my question, he told me of an exercise he’d once done to find the one word that describes him best. After a lengthy process of elimination, comparing words and honing down to the ones that felt the most true to who he is, he came at last to a single word: connection. And stories, he said, connect us. “When you tell a good story, if you tell it well, the other person can get into your space and share a moment with you. When we share a moment together, we literally breathe of each other’s space and time. And when we breathe of each other’s space and time, we create community.”
Excerpts from our conversation form the storyline of this video. At one point I thought I might provide a voice-over narrative to tell Charlie’s story. But in the editing, I found that Charlie’s voice and words tell his story best. So I offer you a moment to share from our chat– and a chance to breathe of Charlie’s space and time.
*Huge thanks to author Jean Raffa for bringing the Matthew Fox quote to my attention. I highly recommend her blog, Matrignosis: A Blog About Inner Wisdom, as a thoughtful, thought-provoking place to visit.
**On a musical note, the piano composition in this video was graciously created by Barbara McAfee, http://barbaramcafee.com
Have you ever noticed how your mood is lifted when you spontaneously catch the eye of a stranger and share a smile in passing? So often, we stay in our own private worlds, our defined spaces of friends and family, of familiar routines. But once in a while– sometimes on purpose, sometimes by serendipity– we connect to someone we don’t know and it lifts us up. To me, those moments are the small reminders of a big idea– that we are all connected and that behind the face of every smiling stranger, there’s a story.
A couple of years ago, in a Tai Chi class I was taking, my curiosity was piqued by a woman I hardly knew who had a hobby I never imagined I would find fascinating. She was a quiet presence in the far corner of the room, taking the same spot each week, as we all seemed to do. Tall and slim, with her long gray hair pulled back in a pony-tail, she moved gracefully, purposefully, silently.
One day, I happened to overhear her describing her needlepoint projects and was captivated. I edged to the outskirts of the group that had gathered around her as she showed her work and described it. Listening to her speak, it was almost as though her philosophy of life unfolded in every stitch of her work.
A few weeks later I gathered the courage to approach her and ask a favor. I wanted to tell her story, to record her voice, to photograph her work, to let her wisdom unfold through her description of her hobby. At that point, I was only just beginning to explore the realm of mixed media storytelling. I had barely any samples of my work to show her to give myself some credibility in asking. I asked anyway. And she said yes. I was stunned that she would trust me with something so personal as her own story when I could only give her a vague notion of what I wanted to create.
I had envisioned a story based on audio and images featuring her face, her gentle countenance, her words, and the colors and textures of her needlepoint projects. In my original plan, her voice and face would be at the forefront and I would be invisible– an unseen editor creating a vehicle for her story to tell itself. Yet the day I interviewed her, I learned that she did not like being in the spotlight and would prefer that her face and name not be featured in the story I would create.
So I did the only thing I could think to do– I became her narrator. While those who know me best will tell you that I am not shy about hamming it up and being the center of attention in small gatherings of close friends, when it came to this realm of sharing stories of heart and substance, I felt shy and was more comfortable being an invisible hand behind the story. But the thought of letting a good story go untold was too much for me and nudged me forward.
I first mixed this story in 2009 and shared it with family and friends. The anonymous subject of my story became known as “The Threads Woman” amongst my friends. Several said they wished they could meet her, have coffee with her, learn more about her, be her friend. They, too, had been captivated by what I saw and heard.
Remixing the original materials with the newer software and techniques I now use, I was pleased that the heart of this story is as compelling to me now as it was when I first heard it. And just as “The Threads Woman” said yes to the story idea originally, she has graciously allowed me to share her story more widely, reminding us that we are all connected and that we all have a story to share.