“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.”~ Hannah Arendt.
When your father is a minister you grow up seeing him as a man of authority, commanding space, making pronouncements. More than the average father, his word carries weight. People defer to him. Teachers used to hold that kind of space too, traditionally in the classroom setting the student sits and listens and feverishly takes notes while the teacher declares and proclaims. Of course nowadays we talk about ‘flipping the classroom’, and try to get the students involved in their own learning by researching and creating and synthesizing information rather than have them collect the pearls of wisdom that drop from the mouth of the sage.
As minister’s children go, we were lucky. My father first and foremost was a teller of stories. In his hands pages came alive. The Bible became a book of stories, of history and geography; of politics and intrigue; of war and of romance. My mother had assigned him one night of fatherly responsibility. Friday night was his night to put the kids to bed. How and when the tradition started, I don’t know. But he would tell us a bedtime story (of his own creation) which starred a little mouse called ‘Ben Tup’ (Bent up, get it?). Ben Tup was a troublemaker, an asker of difficult questions, persistent in his desire to know more about life. And the foil to Ben Tup was his teacher, a poor long-suffering woman who spoke with a lisp. So her name (Miss Smith) was pronounced (by my father) Mith Mith. Whatever the escapades Ben Tup got up to, poor Mith Mith (or was it Mith Thmith?) would usually have to go and lie down with a headache.
When my parents moved the family from the city of Manchester, England to the heart of rural Jamaica, my father made it his business to get to know the people of Jamaica as quickly as possible. He did it not by talking, but by listening. He paid attention to their stories, to how they spoke. His natural lilting Welsh accent fit in nicely in Jamaica, and he soon learned to incorporate Jamaican sayings and words into his weekly sermons. (“And is true, you know?”) He saved up stories, human stories, to weave them into his messages in a way that brought his points to life. When we can relate to elements in a story we are held spellbound, as if it is our story being told.
To support his memory, he traveled always with pen and notebook, keeping them handy to jot down (in his sometimes illegible hand) notes and reminders. He was a fan of those pocket protectors (Esso, or some other gas station logo); his shirts always had to have a top pocket. As a minister he made the rounds, visiting the sick, the elderly, those in distress around the area (on the days he wasn’t teaching). He loved to tell the story of one church member he visited, a retired policeman. Mr. Baker had many tales to tell. And of course my father sat there with pen and paper at the ready, jotting down his shorthand to include in some future sermon. In one of his last visits, Mr. Baker was rambling somewhat. But in a moment of clarity he told my father that he knew he would die soon. And he had seen God. And what seemed to worry him was that as he spoke to God, God was listening to what he had to say, and He was writing everything down!
I find myself following in my father’s footsteps, listening to people’s stories. Stories illustrate, help us relate, help us to remember. In the classroom the teacher has to not only educate, but engage and entertain. And stories help us to make our lessons more memorable. I once heard that the Chinese say there is no story without a coincidence. It is the coincidence that turns it from a recitation of facts into a spellbinding account.
What is interesting to me is that there are some who tell their personal stories without knowing how special they are. And sometimes it is not until we share them with others, and see the reactions of others, that we see ourselves differently. When you are going through a challenge you are too close to it to see how you are handling it. Talking about it to others makes it a little more objective, allows you the distance to perhaps see yourself as the hero of the story. And some of us (let us be honest) add to our stories to make them more entertaining. Comedians recognize what makes an audience laugh, and so the story becomes a little more unreal with each telling!
The other day I heard a man tell his tale on the radio, and it was a harsh life; a life of many low points. He said: “It’s not how you fall, it’s how you get back up that counts.” At times we don’t even recognize that moment of picking ourselves up and getting ready to face the next challenge.
This Friday morning, I hope you are remembering some good stories. I hope you appreciate your own stories, and see how they have made you who you are today. I recently heard an interview with a writer, who said that the aim of the writer is to help others see things in a slightly different way, to open the mind to other perspectives. Though most of my father’s work was spoken not written, I know that was one of his greatest gifts.
May you have a wonderful weekend Family!