“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here!” — Albus Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Composer Frank Ticheli has said that his hope for “An American Elegy” is that it might serve as “one reminder of how fragile and precious life is and how intimately connected we all are as human beings.” Ticheli was commissioned to write the orchestral piece to remember those who died in the shooting at Columbine High School in April of 1999, and to honor the lives of those who survived.
One of my dearest friends, about whom I’ve written often, heard the music played by her son’s school orchestra and was moved beyond words by the power of it, the poetic strength coupled with such vulnerable emotional resonance. She tucked away the title just like she tucked away other other things that moved and inspired her, quotes from Emerson and St. Augustine among them. After she died from metastatic breast cancer, Ticheli’s piece was played at the beginning of her memorial service, an instruction she had left behind for her family. Whenever I hear the opening bars, the music never fails to take my breath for a moment, in goosebumps and tears, just like it did the first time I heard it at her service. Read More
“Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”— William Wordsworth
Wisconsin nature photographer J. Marion Brown has been taking pictures since her kids were born, but became passionate about nature photography in the 1990s when she began camping with her family on the wooded property where they ultimately built a home, after years of testing it out first in tents. With her trusty Canon in hand, she has honed the practice of paying attention to a fine art (literally) as she catches glorious moments in nature the rest of us miss. Read More
“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
When I was four years old, I asked everyone to call me “Cowboy Bob.” I can hear myself pausing indignantly and growling, “Don’t call me Lucy. Call me Cowboy Bob.” I cannot recall how long this phase lasted, what prompted it to start nor what caused it to end, but when I think of this era in my life, I smile.
About the same time, perhaps a year or so later, I received a gift from my parents– a ukulele. What I really wanted was a guitar and, in all honesty, I was offended by this toy-ish instrument. Didn’t they take me seriously? Didn’t they know I was ready for the real thing? I was almost six, and in my mind I was an adult already. I don’t know if Cowboy Bob and the ukulele are linked, but somehow I feel they are.
In the 40 or so years that have passed since then, my musical life took a lot of twists and turns but never took off. I begged for piano lessons. Got piano lessons. Begged to quit piano lessons. Quit. I got a guitar. Took lessons. Never practiced. Quit. And at some point, I put away all instruments for a long time.
Somewhere in my 30’s, the guitar called to me. I picked it up and this time I didn’t quit. I don’t have the soul of a virtuoso, nor the patience to practice enough to truly master an instrument, but I found out why I was so drawn to these instruments and to music. An unknown, untrained place deep in a corner of my heart told me I that I needed to put my stories to music to save them, to savor them, to share the beautiful truths that lived in them.
I bought a ukulele and started playing it again. It felt so at home in my hands, like it belonged there, like it was always supposed to be there. Why on earth had I ever put it down?
Recently, I was looking on ebay at vintage ukuleles– old instruments with dings and nicks and personality. I wasn’t looking for a fancy or expensive instrument, but one that had a history in it. When I came across a uke with the Harmony logo on it, I recognized it instantly and realized I already had what I was looking for. It was on a shelf at my parent’s house.
One phone call to my mother, a few days of waiting, a UPS delivery, and voila! My old ukulele was back in my hands. I put new strings on immediately and tightened the sticky tuning gears to get them hold a tune. I admired the nicks and dings in the uke’s body, history that I had put there myself.
Almost immediately, the ukulele began to show me a song. It was about coming home and about being welcomed back; about what we toss away and what we carry forward; about what makes us leave and what causes us to return. Most of all, it was about the “knowing” that is always with us but that sometimes takes a long time to learn.
Looking back, I realize that Cowboy Bob had an important piece of wisdom for me that I knew all along and yet had missed at the same time. The cowboy in me was saying loud and clear: “Take me seriously. Listen to me. I have something to say!”
I had tossed aside the ukulele because I misjudged it, underestimated it, didn’t think it was big enough or serious enough to hold all my intentions, my ambitions. And yet, many years later, I found it was the only instrument I ever needed.
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.
In this day and age, with all the demands on our time, resources and energy, many of us learn to stay afloat and keep our sanity by drawing our boundaries– by “just saying no.” While boundaries are important and knowing when to say no is an invaluable skill, I would like to extoll the virtues of “yes.”
A recent project took me to Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis to film my friend Barbara McAfee singing her song “Yes.” I heard her introduce this song in concert once, saying that when she began writing music as a twenty-something, one of her first compositions was entitled, “No!” She said it took her 25 years to write “Yes!” I laughed and thought of the classic behavior of two-year-olds, when they discover the power of the word “no” and can hardly be convinced to answer a question with anything else.
But what about “yes?” In the fast-paced daily grind, do we lose sight of the many things– big and small– that make us make us leap for joy, that comfort us when we need it, that sustain us? Barbara’s song is a jubilant expression of just these kinds of moments and a beautiful reminder to pause and “just say yes.”
For the video, Barbara’s friend Tom Peter, The Tree Guy, known in the Twin Cities for his artistry with wood, loaned us his Crystal Canoe and joined us to help with filming. I had no idea what a stir a seemingly invisible canoe could cause. Everyone who saw us was mesmerized, from toddlers to hipster teens to leather clad motorcycle dudes to gray-haired grandparents. Each and every passer-by broke into a huge smile and stopped to talk, both to us and to one another. Many even sang along as we filmed around the lake.
As I witnessed the laughter, the conversation, and the joyful commotion– not to mention the sunlight on the water, the heron taking flight and the lily pads in bloom– I knew I was in the midst of a golden “yes” afternoon.
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