I’ve come to believe the gift of storytelling is our most evolved attribute as a species, the heritage of humanity if you will, but the truth is our most powerful stories often come about as a result of something tragic. They emerge unexpectedly, as if Moses from a basket in the river of time, swaddled in complex circumstances that leave us feeling desolate, hollow, searching for the promised land. Stories have become the manna* of modern-day life.
They feed us.
This pandemic is ripe with unharvested stories from places near and far that have the power to nourish our famished souls. Perhaps the fruit of our travails are the stories that lay rotting on the floor of life, fighting to take root and sprout. I believe these very stories have the potential to remedy our suffering not only today but far into the future if we allow them such leverage.
Stories are the soothing, rocking safety of bedtime rituals and goodnight kisses.
I spent some time digging into modern-day tales of people assisting each other for no other reason than human kindness which I believe springs from the rich soil of one’s heart. The following are stories I’ve read about, heard about, or experienced myself. I pass them on to you in the hopes a good story will fill you with something substantial, keeping in mind the happening and telling are very different things. Karen Fowler says, “language does this to our memories, simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An off-told story is like a photograph in a family album. Eventually it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.”
“I will tell you something about stories . . . They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.” Leslie Marmon Silko
The thing about true stories is they can’t be told as they are unfolding, only after the experience has occurred, backward if you will. We reinvent them from the vantage point of the present so I’ve told them in first person, as if Jonah, the disobedient prophet who is vomited upon the shore, after surviving three days in the belly of a whale. All Jonah had to offer was his salvivic tale.
After hiking to an obscure waterfall for a few hours of a long awaited vacation, we returned to our rental car to find that it had been broken into, all our belongings gone. We still had our plane tickets, ID, and the keys to the car. No cash, no clothes, no wallets. We drove to the nearest town and asked if there was a police station where we could report the theft. The officer on duty was a native Hawaiian woman who was very sympathetic, took our information, and at the end of her shift, she took us to her own home and we were welcomed as precious guests by her large family. They insisted we stay the night. The next morning, she took us to the office of a local lawyer who managed an emergency fund for locals who had fallen on hard times. He suggested we borrow some money from this fund to get us home and pay it back when we could. We didn’t sign any documents, no receipts, or time frame was asked of us. This experience, which could have been a disaster, ended up being the highlight of the trip, because I will never forget the kindness and generosity of this small community in Maui, Hawaii.
I recently moved to Boston from Florida. I took the commuter rail into the city, and one stormy winter’s day the train was delayed for hours. People were cold, wet, tired, and grumpy. When I finally made it to my car, well after dark, I found it covered with snow and blocked by a two-and-a-half-foot wall of snow from a plow. Without a shovel and feeling frustrated and teary-eyed, I searched my car for a makeshift tool. I had to resort to using my hands to clear the snow. After making a couple of passes with my arms and hands to clear the snow off my car, I looked up to see a fellow commuter not only shoveling my car out but offering me his snow brush to clear off my windows. I couldn’t thank him enough! We made fairly quick work of digging my car out and we both went our separate ways. On my way home, I cried like a baby.
In a rustic breakfast joint in the heart of Santa Rosa I was sitting adjacent to a table of ten or twelve exhausted firefighters. After a rather quiet breakfast for such a large group they headed to the cashier to pay their bill, and they were told that a guest had already paid, but wanted to remain anonymous. The firefighters looked around the restaurant searching for the benefactor of their pancakes, waffles, and scrambled eggs, saying out loud, “Whoever you are, we thank you.” Just about everyone in the restaurant stood up and applauded the firefighters, as they were the ones who deserved our thanks. I’ve never forgotten that moment of grace. Made me aware of the impact of acts of kindness with no need for recognition.
It was my birthday last week, I turned sixteen, with no party or celebration to honor the occasion. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and all I can say is I’ve been feeling depressed and alone. I sat in my quiet room, with my computer on my lap, listening to my third class of the day on zoom. The teacher was going on and on about some guy who lived two thousand years ago. I’m thinking who gives a shit? I start scrolling TicTok when I catch a few words about this dude curing people who were depressed, isolated, and sick. I forget how she explained it but what I remember was this guy, a total stranger to many of the people he helped, was willing to help people, where they were, and when they needed it without any compensation in return. He cured all types of illnesses, he fed thousands of people with a couple loafs of bread and some fish, he opened deaf ears and blind eyes, he befriended those marginalized in their own communities. I thought that was kind of cool but this is what got me. She said he had this deep connection to our suffering and he was able to cure people with a presence the world has never known. He was so intensely loving that illness and disordered emotions simply could not exist in the same space. Then she sent us into breakout rooms with previously selected and trusted friends and gave us a half-hour to, per her instruction, “listen, validate, and encourage each other.” No worksheets to fill out, no videos to watch, no documents to read. It was that day I realized my depression weakened in the presence of love.
I took my then 2-year-old son to Florida to see my family. While waiting to board the plane my son fell asleep. I had him in my arms, his stroller, my diaper bag, all masked up, with our carry-on luggage. Out of nowhere a little old lady came up to me and said, ‘My darling there you are! Let Bubbie help you with the baby!’ She didn’t let my blue hair, tattoos, multiple piercings, and a sleeping child dissuade her. This very proper Jewish grandma moved in as if a beloved relative and saved the day. I hugged her and thanked her and handed her my sleeping son so we could board together. When we finally got to my seat, she asked the man next to me if she could sit with us and he very quickly gave up his seat. And there we sat on a three hour flight, two very different Jewish mothers, and a little boy who slept through the whole thing. I’d love to find my mystery Bubbie and thank her again but I’m sure she knows.
I was driving North on the I-5 between Los Angeles and San Jose after working an eight hour shift in construction. The traffic was horrendous, when suddenly my lane comes to an unexpected stop, I overcorrected moving abruptly into the right lane to avoid a collision, but unfortunately collided with the guard rail, which sent my truck rolling across the crowded freeway, paraphernalia flying from the open bed, until I landed in the dusty meridian with the engine on fire. It took a few seconds before I came to my senses, bleeding from the head and arm, I released my seatbelt as the smoke filled the car. I tried to shoulder the door open but it wouldn’t budge. I felt trapped inside the cab surrounded by intense heat, broken glass, and approaching flames. Some good hearted people pulled off the freeway, jumped out of their cars and raced toward my crumpled and burning vehicle. Reaching through a broken window they lifted me out of the car and guided me to safety. The three of us watched as seconds later the car exploded into flames. I was lucky. Who runs towards a flaming car for no reason but to save the life of a complete stranger? Let me just add that my mother is forever grateful for these Good Samaritans.
We currently live in Napa, blessed with land and plentiful resources. When the fires of 2020 resulted in severe smoke damage to the local grape crop, the harvest was unexpectedly canceled. We noticed many of the workers who lived in this region were not able to feed their families with no work and no paycheck. So we pivoted, scrambling to plant a huge garden on our property in order to donate the reapings to an association called Agape. These are our neighbors, worthy of our time and money, they have been the backbone of the wine industry for more decades than we can remember. Agape serves healthy meals to those struggling in our community who have landed on hard times. When asked how long we planned to support this cause with our time and resources, we said, “as long as we are needed.”
I was the recipient of a kidney from a complete stranger whose donation significantly changed my life because at 72 I had not considered that a transplant would be an option for me. My altruistic donor and I met in pre-op on the morning of the surgery, and only then did we discover that we were not only both educators, but we each survived campus shootings 19 years apart. I was teaching at Columbine High School when a shooting occurred in 1999 and she survived the Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting in 2018. Here we were laying on gurneys we once narrowly avoided but came to willingly today in an effort to sustain life. It’s strange because a tragic experience like that bonds you, maybe even more than the sharing of a kidney, or maybe because you understand the capriciousness of life, and consider every breath a gift. I said to her right before we were rolled into surgery, “what you give me is the gift of time, I’ll use it wisely.”
After my family and I lost our home in the Tubbs fire last year, I found myself sobbing in a McDonald’s parking lot a day or two later. I didn’t think anybody could hear or see me but a woman came over to my car, gave me a huge hug, and pulled out her wallet to give me a fifty-dollar bill. I kept trying to give it back to her, but she insisted. I felt like I could do nothing but cry more and tell her thank you, while the only thing she told me was, to keep it and help my family. I never even got her name.
I live in South Carolina, so our southern roots tend to melt like butter on a hot day when we witness or receive kindness. My Grandma had died and as we were driving from the church to the cemetery, three little boys, roughly aged 6-9, who had been riding their bicycles got off of their bikes, took their tiny little baseball caps off, and put them over their hearts and stayed in that position until I could no longer see them. That’s the only thing I remember from that day.
The term agape is a special form of God’s love, it refers to unconditional love, the highest form of charity, the love of God for man and of man for God (used inclusively).
We learn much from our stories, they shelter us, they heal us, and if we’re lucky they’ll transform our hearts. In our present time, where much of the world is suffering from illnesses, extreme weather, fires, and crime, there is a necessity for interdependence like no other time in the history of the world.
The truth is we might define our community by blood, maybe by choice, sometimes due to necessity but I believe the things that hold a group of people together are their stories.
Even though these stories revolve around tragedy narrowly averted, a crisis resolved, assistance at the last moment, even foolish heroism ~ the tales people tell each other weave a strong fabric that acts as a security blanket when we are lonely, cold, and in need of solace. Stories are eternal in their impact and importance, the good ones rise to the top as if cream, they’re the ones retold around kitchen tables from one generation to the next.
There’s no right or wrong to storytelling, you might forget a piece of the tale, but as they say, the smallest sliver of light can illuminate a dark room. I encourage you to invite everyone into your circle, coax out those stories from the young and old, the introvert, the stranger, the ones with blue hair and tattoos, and then be prepared to be warmed by the embers of their fiery tales.
I invite you to add your own story to this palatable cauldron and together we might stir up some good in the world. When were you rescued in a time of need? When did you help someone? Or were you a witness to a generous deed? Every story is worthy and luminous in it’s own way.
I’m Living in the Gap, gather round, it’s story time.
- “You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.” Erin Morgenstern
- “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” Graham Greene
- “There either is or is not, that’s the way things are. The colour of the day. The way it felt to be a child. The saltwater on your sunburnt legs. Sometimes the water is yellow, sometimes it’s red. But what colour it may be in memory, depends on the day. I’m not going to tell you the story the way it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it. Mitch Glazer
*Manna was the supernatural food God gave to the Israelites during their 40-year wandering in the desert. The word manna means “What is it?” in Hebrew. Manna is also known in the Bible as the “bread of heaven,” “corn of heaven,” “angel’s food,” and “spiritual meat.”