I Am a Storyteller

“I am a storyteller. The type that went from place to place, gathered people in the square and transported them, inspired them, woke them up, shook their insides around so that they could resettle in a new pattern, a new way of being. It is a tradition that believes that the story speaks to the soul, not the ego… to the heart, not the head. In today’s world, we yearn so to ’understand’, to conquer with our mind, but it is not in the mind that a mythic story dwells.”
Donna Jacobs Sife

I am a storyteller. There. I claimed it.

My friend Jennifer Simpson wrote a blog post on A Writer’s March titled “Day 28: You are Good Enough.” It’s about losing faith in her writing, and then reclaiming it.

I refer to that voice that questions my faith as the what’s-the-use demon. “What’s the use?” she (in my case, it’s a she) says. “You’re not as good as (fill in the blank). Don’t sound like (fill in the blank). Never will. Who do you think you are anyway?”

Now I know what to say to her. “I am a storyteller.”

If I want to get poetic, I could say, “I am a storyteller, bitch.”

Thirty-four years ago, I recorded my grandmother’s life story. I was about to turn 30. She turned 90 in the same year. I titled her story “Kid, I Can’t Remember Nothin’” because that’s how she answered my first question, “What’s your earliest memory, Grandmother?”

Turns out she remembered a lot: her father returning empty handed from the Cherokee Strip Oklahoma land rush; moving to Lawton, Oklahoma, when there were tents, and then there were houses; seeing Geronimo when he was an old warrior being held captive at Fort Still, Oklahoma; her brother cutting off her braid while she slept in a hammock; marrying her husband; giving birth to five children; the day World War I ended; flying on a jet plane for the first time; the death of her oldest daughter.
At the end of our final interview she spoke about how strange memory was—how things long ago were kind of a haze. “It seems like I can’t remember much of any thing anymore,” she said.

“But, Grandmother,” I said knowing I had the hours of tape that proved it, “it seems like you’ve remembered a lot.”

“Kid,” she said, “you can’t believe half of what I say.”

I decided I would believe all of what she said because it was her story. Her narrative. Her life as she experienced it. It was the truth from her perspective.

I grew up with a lie about women writers. Women couldn’t write interesting stories because they were concerned about things of the home—they didn’t have interesting life experiences like say, Hemingway. So how could their stories be interesting?

After I finished my grandmother’s story, I interviewed a 92-year old physician who had created small emergency centers throughout San Francisco. He encouraged me to visit the University of California San Francisco Medical Center where his medals and awards were on display.

I did as he asked. The medals and awards were hidden away in a drawer in the library.

In our final interview he told me that he had never wanted to be a physician. “But it was in my father’s will that I go to medical school, so that’s what I did,” he said. “Miss Hogan,” he added, “People remember my work, but they don’t remember me.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that his awards and medals were no longer on display for all to see.

I had gone into the interviews with him thinking his would be a much more interesting story than that of a woman who married, raised children, and buried a husband and a daughter. My grandmother was certainly no trailblazer. She said, almost offhandedly, that she had wanted to be a telegrapher, but there were so many at home (8 siblings) that she thought it was time she got married. She was only 19.
As I drove home from that final meeting with him, I realized that his story, his narrative, had not been as compelling as my grandmother’s because it did not have the emotional engagement with his life that my grandmother had.

The physician’s story, as it turns out was summed up in his confession, “I never wanted to be a physician, but it was in my father’s will that I go to medical school.”

A life story determined by the will of another, rather than the authentic yearning of oneself.
Writing is, I think, a good metaphor for living one’s life. It is fraught with the insecurity that one might not be good enough, ripe for the demon voice creeping into the space you need to clear so you can be open to the writing muse.

“. . . story speaks to the soul, not the ego . . . to the heart, not the head. In today’s world, we yearn so to ’understand’, to conquer with our mind, but it is not in the mind that a mythic story dwells.
Donna Jacobs Sife

“What’s the use? Who do you think you are anyway? You’re just a woman,” the demon asks.

“I’m a storyteller. That’s who I know I am. It’s not that I’m just a woman. It’s that I am just another human being trying to find and live my story. So bite me bitch,” I reply.

In the end, for my stories to resonate, I have to have faith in them. It is not an act of bending the stories to my will. Rather it is letting them speak through the heart and soul of the life that I have lived.

I am a storyteller.

The Right of Spring to be Sacred

Kali stood for Existence, which meant Becoming because all her world was an eternal living flux, from which all things rose and disappeared again, in endless cycles.
From The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets

Last week, blossoms started appearing on the bare branches of the red maple tree. This morning, a blue jay (at least I think it’s a blue jay) tugged at a still-bare twig, and then flew off with it. I assume a nest is being constructed nearby.

Though spring has been revealing herself for a few weeks (this is California, after all), today is the first day I felt her presence. The air is cool and crisp in the early morning, but the light has changed. The sky is intense, Mediterranean blue.

Persephone returns from the underworld.

According to The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Persephone is the Crone form of the Triple Goddess Demeter, the Queen of the Underworld long before legends of Hades/Pluto abducting her for his bride. She is the Death-goddess. She was, in another form, Kali Ma, the Hindu Triple Goddess of creation, preservation, and destruction.

Spring has always been a difficult transition for me. It has never felt like the beginning of something for me. It has been rather confusing.

I’m listening to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) as I write this. There is nothing pastel about it. Nothing Easter bonnet about it. It is the laborious ascent from formless to form.

“Black was Kali’s fundamental color as the Destroyer, for it meant the formless condition she assumed between creations, when all the elements were dissolved in her primordial substance.”
The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets

Now I know why spring was always confusing to me, why when I see the pastel blossoms, I also see the gnarly beauty of the twigs and branches they claim as their residence.

Spring isn’t the butterfly; it is the transition to the butterfly. Caterpillars, I think, are one of the most courageous creatures on earth. They respond to the call to enter the cocoon, in which they dissolve into a kind of primal soup that eventually gives birth to the butterfly. The same creature that trod on the ground, now flies above it—sees from a different perspective.

That is the promise of embracing the ordeal—creation, preservation, and destruction—that life is. In the end, we have a different perspective. What we once knew gives way to what we now know. To grow means to change.

I am not a fan of either matriarchal or patriarchal systems. I think that both tend to require a loyalty to a system over loyalty to one’s heart. So, I’m not advocating for a return to a matriarchal system.

I do think, however, that it is time for the patriarchal system, best exemplified by our Congress (in particular the Republican branch of it) and the Papacy, to give up the ghost. It would be nice if it did it quietly, but it seems like it wants to take as many of us down with it, including the earth as we know it, to prove it is right and powerful.

I am a woman in her sixties. This is the Crone phase of my life. We live in a society that demeans that. Think Mitch McConnell, a man in his seventies, called Democratic women “The Golden Girls” —as if that is an insult.

So while it is not necessarily time to restore the matriarchy, I do think it is time for us Crones to embrace what we have learned as women—within our own bodies we experience the profound way of life that is bound up with death and destruction as well as birth. It is time to call the patriarch what it has become—little-boy bullies—and send it scurrying.

We need to destroy the sentimentality that the patriarch has descended into so that life can ascend.

I ask you, would a society that really embraced the ordeal of life have allowed the poor patients in the charity hospital in New Orleans to die after Katrina because they were poor? Would we really think we have a God-given right to own weapons that are weapons of war—intended to cause as much death as possible in the briefest time? Would we deprive women of the right to make choices over their bodies? Would we think we are all in this alone?

Crones have been dismissed as dried up old women. Really what Crones are are people with the wisdom that comes from living life authentically. You do not have to be a woman to be a Crone.

It’s time for the voices of the Crones to rise and be heard so that what ails us—a disconnect from life itself—can be healed.

It is time for the right of spring to be experienced for what it is.

Bring in the Crones. Don’t bother they’re here.

The Bridge Players

On a certain Wednesday every other month, there would be a flurry of activity as my mother and I cleaned the house, hung guest towels in the bathroom, set up card tables and chairs in the living room, and put small bowls of peanuts and party mix on each table.

Coffee perked in the percolator. Sweet pink wine rested in the carafe. Small desserts sat on a serving plate next to the clear glass plates that included a saucer for the clear glass coffee cup that matched it.

It was my mother’s night to be hostess to her Bridge club.

It was probably the only time the guest towels actually got used by guests. Somehow, the ladies knew it was okay to use them.

Before I could drive, I would sequester myself in my room, which was right next to the living room, and listen to a low mumble of gossip (the good kind—here’s what’s happening in our lives) interrupted intermittently by a throaty voice of delight or regret.

Once I got my license, I would go to the library to study. I actually went to the library, but mostly it was to hang out with friends. A kind of a goody-two-shoes way out of the house. The bridge players would still be there when I returned, deep into the game, hardly acknowledging my re-entry.

The day after these games, they would talk about how they played the game, disbelief that they had made such a bad bid, pride that they had made a good play.

I came to associate Bridge with one of those things suburban housewives did in order to avoid the wider social problems of the Sixties that raged around them. At my slumber parties we talked about politics, religion, and books more than we talked about boys. I liked the intellectual stimulation of it. I liked that it was helping me form thoughts and opinions—thinking outside the suburban environment I lived in.

I never learned to play Bridge. It was my defense against becoming a suburban housewife.

It was much later that I learned that playing Bridge was not like playing Go Fish or Old Maid. It requires focus and concentration of intellect.

The women in my mother’s Bridge club were devoted to those Bridge nights. Bridge night at one’s house meant that everyone and everything else took second fiddle. It was the ladies’ night. Don’t eat the peanuts and party mix, don’t eat the desserts, and don’t use the guest towels, they’re for the Bridge club.

Bridge night must have been evenings when these women got to shed the persona of devoted-suburban-housewife-taking-care-of-everyone and reclaim themselves as individuals.

Over the years, either their conversations expanded, or I was just too young to see what was already there. Discussions about politics crept into the Bridge Club evenings. Soon it became clear that my mother and her best friend Marge were the only two liberals amongst them.

That did not lead to the demise of the Bridge Club.

Old age, infirmity, and death, did, however, finally disband it. It was Bobbie who became the first to leave. A widow, she lived alone and had fallen in her garage, where she lay for over a day with no way to call for help. She moved to be close to family who would take care of her.

Bobbie’s plight struck fear in the hearts of the Bridge Club. All of them widows, what happened to Bobbie brought it home that their fears weren’t just fears—they were vulnerable to the whims of life as an older woman living alone.

My mother was one of the last to die, but she died before Marge, leaving her bereft of friendship and a political ally.

Marge died a few years later. I helped her son, my friend Jim, tend to some of the details of her final days, provided him emotional support as needed. And so, he offered me the pick of the pictures she had painted that were left over from the estate sale.

I picked two. One, a wolf loping towards me through the snow. The other, four grey-haired women seated around a card table. Three hold cards in their hands, one has her cards turned up before her, her hands clasped in front of her. They all look intently at the card in the center of the table one is pointing to. A vase rests on a shelf behind them.

I don’t know what Marge titled it. I call it The Bridge Players. It hangs on the wall in my Writing Shed, to the left of the computer I write on.

Story is the Currency of Human Contact

Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact. — Robert McKee

In 2000, I took Robert McKee’s Story seminar. It changed my life as a writer.

A few months earlier I had lost the family I spent years building. I am a stepmother who had no children of her own. I wanted children, but for complicated reasons did not have them. So I “adopted” my husband’s children as my family.

This was around the time stepfamilies started being called blended families. I think it’s more like throwing everyone’s heart into a food processor and hoping for the best.

I fell in love with my stepchildren. One can’t help but do that when one listens to their tears, takes care of them when they are sick. I was fortunate to have stepchildren who welcomed me in.

I learned that stepparents have to earn the love of their stepchildren. Children naturally love their biological parents. They have to. They need to to survive. So it was a roller coaster of finding the right balance for me. Of opening my heart to these children, then having to let go when I had to take a backseat to their mother. I didn’t blame them, I didn’t blame their mother. I just came to learn to ride the roller coaster of a childless stepmother.

My husband and I did not know the depth of their mother’s dysfunction. She had become a heroin addict. The children, good children of an addict that they were, protected her and did not reveal the hell they were going through.

But, eventually, the shit hit the fan. The pain of abuse turned into rage, and when that happened, the emotional bullets were directed at my husband and me. We got banished from their lives.

I lost the family I had spent years building, riding the roller coaster of finding the balance of loving unconditionally while lowering my expectations of what could be returned. I just never expected that I could be thrown away.

I was traumatized, in shock, trying to reset my life without the family I had assumed would be a part of it.

Six months later I took Robert McKee’s Story seminar. A curmudgeon who believes passionately in the importance of story, he took the stage and spent three days drilling down into what story was, why it was important, and what it has to do with us being humans. Film was his genre.

For your characters to be real, to be believable, he said, you have to have compassion for them, which means you need to understand that the character is right, from that character’s point of view. You have to know, understand, and have compassion for his or her back story.

On the second day, he presented Ordinary People as an example of a story well told. As he identified the inciting event (the moment the protagonist’s life is turned upside down), I became overwhelmed by the story.

It dislodged the numbness that protected me from the grief of losing my family and I began to see my story.

I saw how each person was a character in the story, me, my husband, my stepchildren, their mother.

I saw that each one of us acted because we were seeking to love and be loved, and how life events had twisted this desire for their mother and damaged her children.

I saw that in retrospect, I could not have done anything differently. There was no way I could have protected my heart, that I loved because it was the right thing to do. And sometimes, the cards just turn out the way they turn out.

I got the emotional distance I needed so I could experience the depth of my grief.

At that moment, I understood the power of story. It changed my life as a writer—I became a better one.

My family came back to me. We are better than ever. I have the family I always wanted to have, one that can respect each other’s hearts.

The heart is both fragile and resilient. And so I look for, listen for, and write stories.

I have a life rich in the experience of being human.
I’m taking part in A Writer’s March. Click on over if you want to join in.

Dream Seeds of the Cold and Dark

Celebrate another passage through winter. Manifest the dream seeds of the cold and dark.”
From the Spring card in the Wisdom of the Crone deck.

Spring has come to my part of the world.

Delicate blossoms appear on the gnarly trees in the Arroyo where Tessa and I walked this morning. Buds appear on the tips of the lilac tree in our yard. We thought the tree was dead when we moved into our home. But it just needed a bit of care. Now it is a centerpiece in our yard, a sculpture in the middle of the path on the way to the Writing Shed. Mourning doves scurry past it this morning.

It was a rough entry into this new year. I found myself descending into a place I thought I had left behind—an esteem held hostage by the demon that whispers discouraging words. Words that dis my courage, send it deep underground.

Depression and a persistent virus silenced me. Or at least my blog voice. I wrote every day in my morning pages. I sometimes wondered if they were my mourning pages.

I would start my morning by pulling cards from the Animal-Wise Tarot deck and the Wisdom of the Crone deck. I do not see these cards as fortune-, or even truth tellers. They just give form to the chaos of feelings and emotions that rise during change. The recurring theme in the cards I pulled said, “Let go of the past that haunts you.”

What was the past that haunted me?

Ideas and concepts that I had discussed with various art groups appeared all over town during this time period, but with no acknowledgement of my contribution or any room for my own creative endeavors.

I’m not a victim. I don’t even play one on TV. Yet it is a recurring theme in my life—being left behind. So what was this about?

I have started writing Beans and Meatballs and the Pink Stuff—a creative nonfiction account of three women of similar age who influenced my life: my mother, and two women, Sally and Jeanette, I met through the Gray Panthers. I was 30 when I met Sally and Jeanette. I was in my late forties when they died. I was in my fifties when my mother died.

Each of these women was quirky, none aspired to be a lady. I don’t know what it would have been like to be the daughter of either Jeanette or Sally. Jeanette never married and had no children. If she had, I suspect she would have been a bit tyrannical in her expectations. Sally had a daughter. From what I could glean, I think that to reject the conventions of her time, Sally rejected the importance of mothering a child.

I do know what it was like to be my mother’s daughter. She rarely pulled out the matriarchal card with me. But when she did, that demon that dissed my courage was dissing hers, saying, “You’re a woman. To show love, you give up all that is you.”

It was a covert act, done under the cover of being for the “greater good.”

I was angry that my ideas and concepts had been co-opted. And then I felt guilty that I felt angry. That I felt entitled to what was mine. Guilty that I felt entitled to my own life. As I had done throughout my life, I sought to leave myself behind.

It was the ghost of that self that haunted me, a ghost left in limbo, waiting for permission to be, and wanting that permission to come from my mother. That ghost wanted to feel loved and loving. To let go of it, I had to leave behind the regret for the love I did not find in her, and still love my mother.

The dream seeds were planted in this cold and dark time—another round of grieving for my mother. The dream seeds are beginning to rise to the surface where they will reveal themselves. They are the seeds of entitlement to my life and the gifts I bring into the world.

Spring has come to my part of the world. Soon lilac blossoms will adorn the gnarly ancient branches on the sculpture that is the lilac tree. As I walk past it on the way to my Writing Shed, the delicate, subtle fragrance of its flowering will remind me that during times of cold and darkness, the seeds of change are awakening.