The Blessing and Burden of Writing

 

image

It’s a strange business this writing thing.

I am always writing… writing in my mind as I roll out of bed, and change into my exercise clothes. I put my shorts on, and a sports bra and top and socks; then I spend more than a few minutes looking for my i-pod and finally put my shoes on as I make it out the door for my 7 mile morning bike ride.

I am always writing in my mind, writing stories about the people I encounter along my route.

Well, not really encounter, for seldom do we stop to chat, and yet we do acknowledge each other with a smile, a nod, or morning greeting. We are a community of sorts, connected by this morning ritual of walking, running or biking. And though, I will confess that I don’t even know their names, I have stories about them all—well-constructed mind scripts of who they are and what they do.

I expect to see the four ladies who have been walking together for many years. I would guess that they are in their mid seventies or early eighties—who, in familial conversation, can spread out across the entire path—a fitting metaphor, I think, for the breadth of their friendship. And though I am often a bit annoyed in trying to figure out how to get around them without yelling – “Bicycle on the left!”— their consistent presence is comforting.

image

Then there is the man who I am convinced spends the day walking the trails. No matter the season, he is dressed all in black, with well-defined calves that label him No-nonsense- Serious Walker. First he takes his dog for an early morning walk and then walks the dog back home. Then he goes for his own walk, and repeats this ritual at noon and before the sun goes down. Mark and I have often said to each other teasingly: “If only we spoke dog, I am sure we would hear the dog saying to us beseechingly: ‘Woof! Woof! Help me!!’”

I often see one of my neighbors who I have stopped and talked to for quite a while. She lives on the street down from us. One morning, we got so busy talking about this and that, that I forgot to ask her name after she had asked mine. Hmmph! Now I cringe each morning when she greets me with a sunny and triumphant: “Good morning Kathy!” and I can only muster a paltry: “Good morning!” in return–too ashamed to ask: “What’s your name again?”

I am always writing in my mind, these vignettes of serendipitous encounters, and yet to me, they are the real substance of what makes a life meaty, delicious and sweet. But like a painter, my canvas is instead a blank screen and my brushes and paint palette are words and punctuations. I long to capture these moments in a piece that gives them a permanent place to rest– to share with you whomever you are and wherever you are a glimpse into the happenings in my world, my day, and ultimately the time I would have spent on this beautiful earth. But more than giving them permanency, I am attempting to share with you a glimpse into my mind.

image

Fora as is often the case with artists, to come to know me is to know me through my work. And I hope you won’t think me too bold in saying this, and it does not come across as if I am too full of myself. But I have come to think that my experiences are not too different from yours—though the details may differ —that in an attempt to capture my lived experiences you can come to see yourself in these encounters, these remembrances, and dare I say, learn something from them. This is my contribution as a writer.

And though my contributions are expressed through the blessing and burden of writing, your contributions are expressed through your own gifts and abilities. Yet, in these expressions, we may somehow recognize the commonality of our struggle: the quest to know each other more fully, the quest to be known by others, the quest to walk intentionally into our life purpose and in doing so bless and inspire others with the gifts we have been given.

I am always writing in my mind…. However, on too many days, these writings stay only in my mind—victims to the tyranny of things to do that are urgent, and these words and thoughts can find no resting place. Yes, this is often the case.

Yet, it’s not the case today.  And on days like today, when I am able to capture just a bit of these mind pieces, I feel such a release and sense of accomplishment that ironically, I am at a loss to find the words to fully describe it.

The Power of Story

Stories are powerful things! Stories were an important part of my first curriculum. And, “No!” I am not speaking of the Dr. Seuss or Dick and Jane kind of storybook curriculum. I am speaking of something even better. Let me explain.

Matura
Road to Matura

My sister and I spent most of our early childhood in the quiet village of Matura in Trinidad on my grandparents cocoa estate. This was where my father would leave us for a day or days while he went off to work. “Ma” was a disciplinarian who took her job of caring for two motherless girls dutifully. And yet, as she busied herself with making cassava bread and grating the cocoa balls to make chocolate tea, or as she fed us lunch, or made poultices to treat the ever present boils that erupted on our skin from rough and tumble exploring in the estate, she still managed to remain distant from us. Oh, but at nights! At nights, her stoic love underwent a remarkable transformation!

When the moon cast its soft light on the Spanish styled verandah, and stars winked at us from above, we sat on long wooden benches as Ma told us Anansi stories and Trinidad folktales. These were fanciful tales where animals talked, Cricket and Spider were friends, Anansi tricked the other animals with his craftiness, and an ugly chick named Gyo Phelon went off in search of his fortune. How we enjoyed those tales! There was no need for television. Actually, even if she  had one, it would not work; Ma had no electricity. But, as cicadas trumpeted their shrill cries through the air, and owls hooted, we were transported to the world of the imagination where folktale characters roamed the night to work mischief. Then we would huddle against Ma’s form as she hugged us close—our bodies silhouetted against the dim glow of gas lamps in the windows.

Road to Matura 3
What is left of “Ma’s” House

These stories were comforting! They were therapeutic! This was the occasion in our day in which her love for us was personified and our hungry hearts were fed. And more than entertainment, and more than vain imaginings, they were preparing us for life outside of the sleepy village of Matura. We learned that good manners are still valuable, friendships are to be cultivated, and fortune waits for those courageous enough to venture out.

My early experiences sitting on that bench next to Ma as part of our nightly ritual have forever cemented in my mind the power of story. Perhaps, it was destiny that I would feel this yearning to write, to share creative stories and eventually weave my scholarship with narrative inquiry in the co-authored book Collaborative Autoethnography. And yet, I am convinced that the capacity to craft stories is an innate human gift. Each of us has been blessed with the gift of story and the power it possesses.

Matura House Step
On the Steps of “Ma’s” House

The Power of the Personal: First, we must recognize our life for the valuable drama that it is and the power we possess to craft the story line. In the book, The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck begins with the memorable line:”Life is difficult.” However, I prefer to say that “Life is challenging.” And we can view those challenges as difficulties OR opportunities to grow–as gifts to write life stories. We can create a surprise ending as Maya Angelou did. Born in St. Louis in 1928, she was raped at the age of 8 by her mother’s boyfriend and became mute for several years in the wake of this tragedy. Yet, she crafted these elements of her life into an inspiring story of strength and courage, and she will be forever remembered as one of the foremost icons of African American poetry, prose and thought. The truth is that our life story becomes richer not so much by what happens to us, but by how we choose to respond to these happenings. A truth that my sister-in-love writes of in her book Built to Last.

The Power of the Authentic: Secondly, to arrest the power of story, we must learn to tell our stories honestly and authentically. Beware of the unstory! The unstory is a sanitized and palatable version of our life that allows us to fit in with the dominant narrative of those around us—and yet is a mere facade of who we are and where we have been. It is analogous to the selfie that has been taken and retaken and photo-shopped ad infinitum. Oh, I can recognize the “unstory”! You see, in a younger life, I had learned to tell it well. Now, to be fair, an authentic story needs the right audience.. So perhaps, it is good to have two stories. The unstory is for those interested in the mass-market paperback version that often sells so well—but is weak in substance. The real power of story is best harnessed in the honest, open, telling and retelling of our life experiences to the receptive listener. Then we can let go of the pretense, and we can share with a fellow traveler the similarities in our human experiences– how we failed, how we triumphed, how we tried again, how we got over, and what we learned.

Alyssa's Story
Alyssa’s Story– First Place

The Power of the Legacy: Stories have no life outside of their telling. My grandmother did not speak much to us in our day to day existence as was the way in Trinidad culture. Yet, we came to know and experience a depth of love in the stories she told. And now that she is gone, her stories live on in me and in my children. These stories are now part of our family legacy and are more valuable to me than words can express. If she had not told them, my childhood would not have been as rich. If she had not told them, this blog would probably not have been birthed. If she had not told them, the love for storytelling and reading would perhaps not have been nurtured in my own daughters. Stories are given life as we tell them, and then they are free to take on a life of their own.

The Power of the Transformation: Our stories have the power to transform. In valuing my experiences as gifts, they have become agents of transformation in my own life . But what is even more remarkable than this is that my life story is not meant just for me. Our stories also have the capacity to transform others, to connect them to a past way of life that they will never experience, and to teach them valuable lessons for the future. So I tell my daughters, Alyssa and Amya about walking two miles to school every day, about buying two coconut biscuits from the parlor for a cent. I teach them the games that my father taught me, “Pincher, pincher, fly away”, and I tell them of the time when all I had was one pair of shoes for church. These stories I hope, socialize them into a simpler way of life and cultivate in them an appreciation for their heritage.

And so, on some nights, I still choose to pull  my daughters close to me, and we sit in their rooms with the lights off. Then in my best imitation of Ma’s voice, I begin to weave a Trinidad folktale: “A long time ago, before my time, before your time, when animals talked and lived like people, there lived a….. “ And I watch their eyes open wide as they wait expectantly for my next words…. And in those moments I am able to connect them to their great grandmother, and their grandfather, to the place of my birth and a time all of which are foreign to them.  And in those moments, I am amazed and in awe of the power of story to connect the past and the present and to offer an open link to the future.

There is power in story!