Saving Up Stories

Photo: Dana VanderLugt

This blog post was originally published on The Twelve

My grandpa passed away last winter. One of the things I miss most is saving up stories for him.

My family still gathers around grandma’s table every Sunday, and most weeks my husband, kids, and I are there. My Grandpa was never one for much small talk, for casual conversation – but he loved stories, especially those told around that well-worn, oak table, and especially when the table was extended to its full length with a mismatch of chairs pulled up around it. As I grew, I was trained to be attentive, to watch and listen for captivating moments, to save up stories for Sunday and for Grandpa because I knew he would want to hear a good one, and that he’d probably re-tell it over and over to each person who visited that week.

For the past month, I’ve been gathering with a handful of people at the local pub on Monday nights, reading through the New Testament together. We sit around the table with the text open, exploring the story. We read the verses – some of which I admit I’ve read only in isolation in a greeting card – in context. We talk about what surprised us, what we struggled with, what convicted us, what gave us hope. We have better conversation than I’ve had in a church setting in quite awhile – because we’re just talking about the story. We are trying to come to some sense of understanding and allowing lots of space for questions.

This week in one of my classes we were discussing a novel just before I introduced the next writing assignment. One student’s hand suddenly rose. “Does this paper have to have a thesis?” she asked. “Do we have to come right out and tell our reader what our main point is? Because I love reading and discovering it myself, just like in this book we’re reading; I like when the author lets me figure it out rather than telling me what I’m supposed to think.”

Doesn’t it seem that sometimes stories work when arguments fail? That stories have power that facts and statistics can’t hold? That parables, anecdotes, and real-life accounts often make more room for questions and complexities than a 5-point lecture or pages and pages of statistics? As a teacher, I find myself scavenging for good stories, for examples, because facts, figures, and tricky vocabulary often can’t close the gap.

There is no doubt I’ve been fed physically around my grandparents’ table throughout my life – buttery rolls fresh from the oven, ham garnished with horseradish, apple crisp made with Cortlands from the family orchard. But words have filled me there, too. It’s where I learned my voice, learned how to spin a tale – what details mattered and what might be better left out. I grew up on a steady diet of familiar fables, of images and lines worth repeating. Those stories shaped me and gave me an appetite for more. Stories nourish; they fill us up in a way that arguments don’t. They introduce us to new flavors, new ideas, different ways of seeing the world. There’s space and mystery in a story – it’s not all given to us; there is not one right answer. Stories provide a way back to each other – and make room for the rough edges of life.

When life is complicated, when there is wrestling and uncertainty, when there are disagreements with those across the aisle – or the dinner table – stories are the sound of chairs moving and of making room for each other.

Photo: unsplash.com

 

Hidden Hope

 

(A version of this piece was first published on The Twelve.)

During the summer, my schedule permits me to take a walk nearly every morning, just after sunrise. I pop in headphones, tune into a podcast, and head for my favorite path. Quiet neighborhood sidewalks open into a paved trail that winds through a farmer’s field, sometimes dotted with freshly-rolled bales of hay. I make my way around a small pond (albeit a former gravel pit with condos along one side), cross a bridge over Buttermilk Creek, and then veer off to a two-track under a canopy of trees.  I rarely make it back home without a feeble attempt to capture a shot or two with my camera phone – it might be the sunlight reflecting on the water or a purple wildflower standing proudly in a drainage ditch.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the snow had melted enough to allow for a February walk along this same trail. The sun couldn’t find its way through the clouds, and the gray sky matched the barren trees, but I caught myself snapping pictures of details I hadn’t noticed before – just as the voice on my podcast spoke of how almost everything has an “underbelly,” a hidden side we avoid or don’t know as well. I noticed tree roots twisted into the creek banks, the shimmer of ice hugging the pond’s shore, and that same canopy of trees – in shades of gray instead of forest greens.

I found hope on that walk. Hope in the beauty of the gray: like God gently tapping me on the shoulder to remind me that things don’t have to be shiny and perfect to be good, that grace meets us where we’re at, that creation still cries out in the midst of a dark day. And it’s led me this week to notice more of this, to keep a list of hopeful things.

Extra chairs pulled up to a table.

The sudden, distinct memory of my Grandpa’s deep voice singing his favorite hymn.

A student with down-syndrome, who passed a basketball to a student in a wheelchair to make a basket. Bleachers full of middle schoolers filling the gym with cheers.

An eight-year old shaking the hand of a refugee, no words exchanged, just shining eyes.

A well-written 8th grade literary analysis. The thesis: there is beauty in the ugly. And ugly in the beauty.

The yellow of a sunrise on a barren, winter field.  

The friend, an atheist, who found herself in a church pew at the request of her son, and said she just may come back.

A child dancing without music.

A driver who stopped, smiled, and waved me through an intersection.

The Writer’s Almanac. A poem each day standing calming amidst a cluttered inbox of advertisements.

Bible Study in the brewery.

Friends who listen. Who need say little more than, “me too.”
On Ash Wednesday, I’m remembering that author Barbara Johnson says that we are “Easter People living in a Good Friday world.”  That even in the dormant seasons, God’s story – for redemption, restoration, for the world to be made right again – is not at a standstill. We wait and we work with hope, grateful for a God who shows up in small and big ways.