The Stories We Tell – A Summer Service

First Parish Watertown Unitarian-Universalist – Summer Lay Service August 14, 2016
The Stories We Tell
Service Leader – Izzy Tappan-deFrees

Prelude Imagine – John Lennon
Imagine there’s no heaven.  It’s easy if you try
No hell below us. Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for – and no religion, too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us and the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions. I wonder if you can.
No need for greed or hunger –  a brotherhood of man.
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us, and the world will live as one

Chalice Lighting
Good Morning – With this morning’s music, I have tried to select songs which, much like folklore, have strong, simple stories, and impactful messages. John Lennon’s Imagine is clearly one of those in my mind. There is magic in its tightly edited lyrics and memorable tune that brings its universal call for peace to life.

This morning, I want to talk about the role of stories in our lives. To begin, I would like to dedicate this service to the most joyful story-teller that I have ever known – someone who I will miss greatly – with her sparkling eyes and powerful messages of concern for our community – Betty Latner. I would like to light the chalice today in her memory and welcome her story-telling spirit join us this morning.

Opening Hymn Edelwiess – Rogers & Hammerstein
This simple story illuminates the power of nature to rekindle memory
Edelweiss, Edelweiss
Every morning you greet me
Small and white clean and bright
You look happy to meet me
Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Edelweiss, Edelweiss
Bless my homeland forever
.

Opening Words
From ‘The Adventures of Isabel’ by Ogden Nash
Isabel met an enormous bear,
Isabel, Isabel, didn’t care;
The bear was hungry, the bear was ravenous,
The bear’s big mouth was cruel and cavernous.
The bear said, Isabel, glad to meet you,
How do, Isabel, now I’ll eat you!
Isabel, Isabel, didn’t worry.
Isabel didn’t scream or scurry.
She washed her hands and she straightened her hair up,
Then Isabel quietly ate the bear up…

OffertoryMoon River – Johnny Mercer/Henry Mancini
This song carries strong memories for me. It is one that I used to sing with my mother as she played the piano, which was our common entertainment, when we lived in the country, before we got a television. It also is a song that carries a dream that I have for a traveling, adventurous, wandering in the future…

Moon river, wider than a mile
I’m crossing you in style someday
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker
Wherever you’re goin’, I’m goin’ your way

Two drifters, off to see the world
There’s such a lot of world to see
We’re after the same rainbow’s end, waitin’ ’round the bend
My huckleberry friend, moon river, and me

The Stories We Tell – Thoughts on the Words We Share
Perhaps because I am an inquisitive mother of a teenager who relishes his privacy and freedom, I have been thinking a lot about stories – what we choice to share with others – what we delight in retelling of our life’s story. I think that this service is actually a bit of an odd topic for me, because, in general, I am someone who listens to stories WAY more than I actually tell them. I most often find myself surrounded by storytellers and have likely nurtured a reputation for being something of a ‘Compassionate Listener’. Truthfully, I am less proud of the many times when I am probably a ‘Judgmental Listener’. It is hard for me to tacitly bless self-pity when there are seemingly obvious paths to self-improvement. This character weakness aside, Listening has become a fallback place for me because I am someone who struggles to think of stories to tell.

In my past work life in the publishing business, I sat in a cubicle and wrote computer code. In my current work life, I travel to people’s homes to groom their dogs and cats. In both of these lives, my success has largely been due to my ability to embrace a steady, methodical, calm, almost meditative work style. This has allowed for great productivity, with little room for distraction, but it does little to offer ideas for dinner-table storytelling. How was your day dear? Great! I coded 2 reports today, or Super! I washed, dried and groomed Bubbles, Honey, Sweetie and Bessie today… The stories from one day to the next always have a familiar ring, and after a while I find myself bored by their retelling. I have the same problem when asked, as many people do – How is your business going? Great, I say… busy every day… because I am, but I wonder somehow if that is not the level of detail that the asker is hoping for?

As the youngest in a family of five children, I was not raised to be a storyteller. I was raised to be self-sufficient and practical. But, it seems to me that good storytellers are not afraid to introduce a non-sequitur. For me, there are stories in my head, but there rarely seems to be a time to recall them that makes sense… that fits into the flow of a conversation. For the purpose of talking about story-telling, I hope then that you don’t mind if I jump around a bit today.

Two weekends ago I drove my 90 year old mother to visit friends in NY State, and during the car ride I had a rare chance to ask her for some for detailed stories of her growing up. I was reminded, among other things, that my grandfather, Carl Hilton, was one of the early boy scouting executives in Massachusetts – taking the job in the late 1920’s. I can only imagine how many campfire stories he told or heard over his career.

This past weekend we had the chance to give a young friend who was visiting from France, a driving tour passed the Rumford, Maine statues of two of our great folk story heroes – Paul Bunyan the lumberjack and Babe the Big Blue Ox. I am hoping that all of you have had the pleasure of hearing or retelling some of their stories.

But, what about me? What are my stories to tell?  Which of my memories can be woven into a message worth retelling?

I could, and probably have, told stories about depression in adolescence, young adulthood, or middle age – But, I wonder who really wants to hear sagas of past sadness? I sure don’t like the emotional memories that they carry and recalling them just seems to dredge those up.

I could talk about my experiences as a young feminist growing up in the 70’s… Certainly Hillary Clinton’s dream to scramble to the top of our highest government peak makes my memories more vivid to me. Hillary, by the way, is someone criticized for her lack of storytelling genius – and she is competing against someone who seems to be a pathological storyteller… But that leads off topic.  Somehow, when I try to compare my young adult experiences with the issues that young feminists discuss today, my memories feel like ancient history– the issues that drove my personal is political fires have either gone into hiding, or are masquerading themselves as something totally different. Does any young girl today have to sit in the middle school cafeteria listening to the most unpopular boy in school confidently spout off about how there is nothing other than childbirth that a woman can do as well as a man? Does any 15 year young lesbian today, as I did almost 40 years ago, have to rely on the East Lansing Michigan based, US mailed, carbon copied ‘Lesbian Connection’ newsletter – with its ‘Contact Dykes’ listing of one or two woman in her state who were willing to share information about what it is like is live as a lesbian? My issues, my stories, now seem so out-of-place in today’s gender-fluid, LBGT media friendly culture and I question how relevant these stories are to someone who is young now and full of political energy, which frankly, I am not.

I could talk about the joys of making music, or taking improvisational risks in performance, but these experiences are very personal and hard to describe to someone who does not enjoy performance. I find that when I try to tell stories about this, my words leave my mouth and sound like bragging, not sharing.

I also could tell stories about fun family travels from recent years, around the US, in India and Thailand, Singapore, Canada, London and Sri Lanka… and I could tell stories about future adventures that I am planning on having…But, just as I have overheard people complaining about the excess of travel photo sharing on Facebook, I really don’t have confidence that there is a wide audience that wants to hear what other people have done for fun…  Is this just some form of elitist bragging?

So, it does seem that my over-introspective brain gets in the way of my storytelling…

However, despite my storytelling struggles, I do feel a strong desire to know and be known. I find that I have embraced the medium of Facebook, where, if I work hard to carefully sort through my daily snapshots while traveling, I can create a single photo collage can perfectly captures the mood of an entire, wonderful day and almost wordlessly pass that on to anyone interested in knowing me better. These are wordless stories, photos woven for the mind to fill in the details. I wonder what narrative could be written if these collages were all gathered in a book. Would it be worth retelling?

This idea of stories through photos hit home with me lately in two other ways. My wife Beth has been compiling edited books of photographs for each of the years that we have been together as a family. Three of these books arrived in the mail recently and looking back through them and enjoying the look of reminiscence in Elijah’s eyes as he relived fun times has truly been priceless. And recently, in preparing to celebrate my mom’s 90th birthday, I dug out an old box of slides that mom had given me – I converted them to digital images and put them into a movie. They are mostly images of group family shots from my childhood years, catching fish, shirtless, with my grandfather, parading in the driveway with my sisters, playing at the beach with my brother, hiking and camping trips, singing around the piano with my mom… I have to say, that these are not the memories that I tend to carry around in my head about childhood, but there they are, reminding me of times that, looking back at, just seem idyllic. There are no squabbling siblings or overworked parents in these memories… not anymore at least.

These photos bring home to me the true power and importance of sharing stories and memories, because somehow these memories do not merely recall my past, but they actually shape it. It seems there may be no walls to block the transformation of memories from bad to good, or vice versa. There is only the impact of what I recall reflected in my current eyes and life experience. Is there TRUTH is story-telling? Perhaps none that needs to hold up in court.

I do have two stories from childhood that I find myself retelling, and in prepping for this service I have found myself asking ‘Why these?’

One is the story of surviving a great fall when I was about 10 years old. We lived then in a tall, 13 room Victorian house in a Connecticut mill town, each of us kids with our own rooms. My father spent about 6 years, up on the top of a very tall ladder, stripping and repainting that house, it had so many nooks and crannies. “Izzy!  Don’t sit on the porch railing in your socks!” – cautioned my oldest sister.   “I’m FIIIIIIINE” I told her, and then proceeded to plummet two stories over the railing. Fortunately, my head managed to land away from the large boulders that lay below and I only fractured my wrist as it broke my fall, but I think that I remember this story because I feel that I can distinctly recall the memory of falling and it felt like it took hours for me to land…down, down in a floating darkness…no pain on landing…just concerned parents and siblings surrounding me when I opened my eyes.

And I have a similar memory from a time many years earlier. I was probably 2 or 3? We lived then in the cow-pasture country, in a log home that my parents had built by hand – and were still building. The family and some friends had gathered in the clearing above the pond that we called the ‘picnic area’ and we had a campfire burning. The story is that I was sitting in a fold up camping chair next to the fire and the chair folded up and my feet went into the fire. Now, I don’t actually know if I was sitting near the fire by myself, or with a sibling, or how close the grown-ups were who must have actually come to grab me out of the fire – Because, the story that I recall and retell is this: I fell into the fire and clearly remember standing in the fire for a long time, looking all around, watching a gang of kids playing on the swings WAAY over there to my left… and a group of adults chatting at the picnic table WAAY over to my right…feeling no pain, wondering how long before someone would notice me standing in the fire…

I spent that summer with bandaged feet, frustrated to have to crawl again instead of walk, getting quite a few wagon rides from my siblings.

These stories probably tell me more about how the brain reacts to shock, than they do about what actually happened so many years ago. But the funny thing is, I think that I credit these events for the fact that I have since lived my life free from fear of pain or trauma. My memories tell me that experiences like these are survivable and are not full of pain. And if I really look hard at these stories, of course the truth is that my family was watching out for me – and while my family could not always stop me from falling, they most certainly were there ready to help me stand up again. So these stories of trauma are powerful to me, because they are also stories that comfort.

In an odd way, the fact that I have literally held my feet to the fire, may also hold a key to explaining another side of me – the unquenchable thirst that I have for enjoying outdoor evenings around a campfire. There is something very primal for me – sitting there before the glowing flames – I always get the feeling that I have come home and I never want to leave. You can bet your house that campfires feature wildly in my retirement travel fantasies. We have, in fact, recently put a down payment of a small, mobile vacation home in the form of a teardrop shaped camper. Next summer you can certainly count of new travel stories posting on my Facebook page if you are interested in following along.

Now, my wandering stories about stories have landed us here, and without telling you many, I have actually told you quite a few. In my telling, I am painting a portrait of who I want you to know me as. I am shaping myself at least as much as my stories have shaped me. I am also realizing that if you want to be my friend, at least with the depth allowed by Facebook, then I must tell you my stories as often as I listen to yours. That is it then – life is little more than a jumble of stories, and the people who we share them with and retell them to are the only ones who matter in life. Now some storytellers have audiences that spread across the world. And some have audiences no large than those who gather here today.

In the end, none of that matters.

What does matter?

Can you find a good story from your life today? I’ll bet you can.

And, if you will listen to mine, I will listen to yours. Well, the truth is, I will always listen to yours, because that is who I am. But leave room for mine too. That is who I also am.

May our stories continue, together, for a very long time to come.

Musical Meditation– The Rose – Amanda McBroom
Some say love it is a river that drowns the tender reed
Some say love it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed
Some say love it is a hunger an endless, aching need
I say love it is a flower and you its only seed

It’s the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking that never takes the chance
It’s the one who won’t be taken who cannot seem to give
And the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live

When the night has been too lonely and the road has been too long
And you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter far beneath the bitter snow
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love, in the spring, becomes the rose

Closing Hymn– Let it Be – John Lennon/Paul McCartney
When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be
For though they may be parted, there is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
There will be an answer, let it be

And when the night is cloudy there is still a light that shines on me
Shine until tomorrow, let it be
I wake up to the sound of music, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, yeah, let it be
There will be an answer, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, yeah, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

Closing Words
‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

 

 

 

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About respectthepaw

Izzy Tappan-deFrees is proprietor of BuddyBarber: In-Your-Home Pet Grooming - I offer an animal friendy service for all dog and cats, with special usefulness to older, timid, anxious or travel phobic pets, for service-dogs who need to stay near their owners and for owners who struggle with animal transport issues. Serving Metro-West Massachusetts by appointment only. Izzy is also a former IT worker, a musician, a wood carver and a student of spirit around the world.
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