Seven years old, I sprawl across the braided rug in front of the fire, transfixed as story records drop down one by one onto the platter of the Grundig—the unbearable tension as William Tell shoots the apple from his son’s head, or Dr. Suess’s Bartholomew Cubbins thunders up the castle hill on the mighty charger. My mother tucks me in with a life-on-the-prairie tale from her girlhood, and I see the corn blowing. She shuts the door, and I lie in the dark, smelling corn until I’m lulled out into the forest night by stories with no words: wind washing through fir boughs, raindrops plinking onto wet soil, an owl cry in the dark. Twelve now, at summer camp in Washington’s high Cascade Mountains, I am among the crowd minister Cliff Custer transfixes with stories, gospel events two thousand years old, but they are electric, riveting; somehow he is in them and sweeps us away with him. I am never the same again.
Seventeen, away at school in the Sierra Nevada, I begin to meditate in earnest. Still the mind, open the heart. I notice that I’m more concerned for the people around me—I’m sensing more deeply. Sometimes I can feel inside mountains as I ski. The oaks seem expressive and welcoming as I pass beneath them. Summers, as a camp counselor, I tell tales, stories of all kinds, and the kids gather round, eyes eager, ears straining, minds afire. I go to college, become a teacher, use stories to awaken imagination and the ability to feel the world deeply. Sometimes kids shut their eyes and listen. Meditation.
Twenty-seven, an author, I’m traveling the country to tell nature stories and teach environmental education. Grownups listen to stories of the land; they approach afterward, tears in their eyes, and tell me of their childhood trees, streams, and thickets. The words have touched them, they say, reawakened old, wonderful memories. “I could see as clear as day the pictures you painted with your words,” they exclaim. “I could see everything as if I were there.”
We understand only what we experience. If someone is awake to a perception or understanding and can embody that perception in a vibrant expression, this charged, spirited communication provides a vehicle for others to awaken, perceive, experience, and understand. It’s almost like a transfusion. The storyteller’s language is far more than just words. The language includes body, face, eyes, breath, stance, rhythm, tone, and presence. If a storyteller tries to control all of this manipulatively, through technique, it’s tremendously hard work and rings false. But if a storyteller deeply lives and feels his story, characters, and meanings, all this is translated naturally into the body and breath, voice and tone, face and eyes, and the story is communicated powerfully, viscerally, to the listeners. Consciousness is communicated. An authentic experience is conveyed.
Meditation helps me as a storyteller to enter my stories, characters, and settings; to find a deep resonance with the essence of a story. Meditation is listening, stilling the body and turbulent emotions, quieting the jabber of the mind. A deeper presence shyly emerges. Buddhists call it mindfulness, Hindus dhyana or absorption, Christians contemplation, nature lovers awe; it is coming into touch with the quiet heart of life that beats inside the robin, the thief, the friend, the mountain, and ourselves.
Storytelling involves quieting our private personality and preoccupations long enough to absorb ourselves in the reality of another person or place for a time, to feel their heart and their truth, and then to give them voice, allow them to delight, inspire, broaden, and instruct. An ant can teach and amplify us, as can a felon.
Age thirty-seven, I’m talking with prisoners. I say little and listen and listen and listen as their stories come rolling out. Parting, they say how wonderful it was to talk.
It is good to listen, to give space for stories to come out and be heard. Whether we listen deeply in meditation or listen deeply to others’ words, we come close to essence and draw it out. Listening is like pouring water down a well shaft to prime the pump. It gets things flowing. It invites the water up.
One of the inmates, Cass, is a white-haired, blue-eyed Sioux, 55, bronze skin smooth as a child’s. He grew up on a South Dakota reservation but was taken away from his parents to government school when he was eight and not allowed to visit home. When he came back at 14, his parents were both dead. A little boy with one eye adopted him, looked up to him like a savior, then like a father. They were inseparable for four years, living, working, cooking, eating, and playing together. Cass taught him everything. “He was like my son.” But then the government took the son away, took him away to school. Cass was angry. When he was older, a white man tried to take away his business. The anger flooded out, and he beat the man. Now he’s in prison.
Recently Cass had been on an inmate crew helping an outside contractor put up chicken wiring to keep sparrows from nesting in the beams and pooping on the exercise equipment below. The project went on for two weeks. It took a long time, what with short hours and scaffolding that had to be taken down every day for security.
“Don’t you feel strange, Cass,” I ask, “about helping to fence the birds out of their own nests, being Native and all?”
“I’ll tell you something.” Cass winks and leans closer to me. “I tore a couple of big holes in the wires before we climbed down for the last time. The birds’ll get in just fine.”
Over the years I’ve come to understand that the aims of storytelling and meditation are similar: to awaken compassionate understanding, to take us beyond the confines of our own perspective and smallness, our own judgments and apprehensions, to help us see things from another’s point of view, to feel into another’s heart. Our pedestrian concern for efficiency, for example, could blind us to another’s essential reverence for freedom, until we understand his story.
More fundamentally, both meditation and storytelling connect us to other people—to everything, really, on the irreducible level of shared beingness. Whether we seek understanding or wisdom through spiritual discipline, through art, science, philosophy, devotion to God, or compassionate social service, we arrive at the same awakening: we are intimately related to every other person and thing. We begin to respond with compassion to the infinitely varied but universally rooted expressions of human nature.
Forty-four, I drive out one winter afternoon and see a young Latina at the bus stop. An hour and a half later when I return, she is still there, cold, her forehead furrowed. I roll the window down. “Are you okay?” I call out in Spanish.
“I’m waiting for my friend,” she returns, “pero no viene”—she hasn’t come.
“I’ll give you a ride,” I holler, swinging the door open, and we set off for “the Canal,” a district where many recent immigrants live in cramped apartments. The young woman, 30 maybe, seems happy for the ride, for the warmth of the car, for the company. Paula is shy but apparently trusts me, for as we drive she tells me her story. She’s only just arrived from Guatemala, where her husband “disappeared” when he stated his intention to retire from the army’s ruthless intelligence unit. Paula came home one day to find her house in shambles and a scribbled note from her husband telling her to get out of the country as fast as she could. She barely escaped, fleeing for her life, leaving everything: the husband she still doesn’t know is alive or dead, her home, her teaching position with the university, and her four-year-old boy, who she hopes is safe with her parents, if they are safe. Her journey north was a nightmare. Now she’s here, working as a house cleaner.
I say, “Your story needs to be heard. Most people driving by didn’t even notice you. Those who did saw you as a brown woman waiting for the bus. They don’t understand.” So I work with others; we get a grant and begin to record the stories of the Latino immigrants. Amazing stories, heroic epics, terrible, joyful, courageous tales. We put them on the radio so people might understand better who these people are. Some will be interested; some hearts might open; some will begin to look beyond the surface, begin to wonder, begin to feel.
Meditation awakens intuitive compassion. Stories nourish understanding.
I visited my mother recently in her new home in New Mexico. “I have a surprise for you,” she said. She put an old LP on a little portable record player she’d bought just for this. Down went the needle and up came the story, and all of a sudden I was behind Bartholomew Cubbins again on the back of the charger, thundering up the castle hill. As I lay in bed that night in the dark, I listened out the open window and could hear the wind, not in fir trees but in aspens. It didn’t matter. The quiet whisper, the wordless universal story took me, as it had when I was seven, into the heart of the world.