The Beauty of Storytelling

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

 “There is no greater agony,” wrote Maya Angelou, “than bearing an untold story inside you.” Over the past, agonizing year, more than a few of us tackled our inner agony by telling our stories. Not for fame or fortune, just for the joy of telling that untold story. 

Everybody has a story. This is an argument for storytelling, along with a few suggestions about how to tell your own.

I have just finished (you might have figured something like this was coming) a collection of stories for my children and grandchildren, thanks to the help and persistence of an interesting website called StoryWorth.com. This is a totally unpaid plug. Other sites may also be great, among them StoryCatcher, StoryCorps, Ancestry and MyHeritage.com; I just happen to have landed with StoryWorth and haven’t tried the others. Consider this anecdotal – but enthusiastic.

My enterprising daughter purchased – with my advance consent (an important detail) – a StoryWorth account for me over a year ago; that’s how long I’ve been working on this project. In the end there is now a collection of stories – as close to a family history as this family will come – about their parents and grandparents. But it is also about great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, far-flung cousins; cities and towns; quirks and foibles that inhabit the past. I would have given all my worldly goods for someone to StoryWorth my own grandparents.

How to start? The value of enrolling in a program of some sort is that the storyteller gets both guidance and a constant nudge. StoryWorth sent a weekly question such as ‘What were your grandparents like?’ or ‘How did you get your first job?’ or ‘What did you read as a child?’ When I later realized I could write my own questions I invited my children to submit their own. Surprise, they didn’t send any softballs. How about ‘What was the biggest challenge you faced growing up?’ ‘How did you handle it?’ But questions and nudges help get stories told; the challenges thing is in my collection.

Stories need not be just for families. Every cause you support, every job you’ve done or place you’ve lived weaves itself into history, just as all of us become a part of history in the process of passing through. And history is nothing but a collection of stories.

Storytelling also may just be good for the soul; what’s good for the story might be balm for the teller.

Among young people, storytelling is the great introductory ploy. It’s the way high school students break the ice, the way nonprofits build community among their supporters; in my MFA program (University of San Francisco, Class of 2000) we spent the summer session writing an autobiographical narrative – telling our stories – that launched us, both individually and as a community of writers, into the semi-rarefied atmosphere of graduate study.

In senior communities, encouraging people to tell their stories is increasingly seen as a way to bring meaning – and joy – into often lonely lives. For those not inclined to type their stories there is a growing supply of voice recorder apps, and there is the old-fashioned tape recorder which can record stories that then can be digitized. So it seems one is never too old (and seldom too young) to benefit from telling one’s story.  

Today looks like a good time to start.

The Gift of Hand-Written Letters

OK, not everything about the good old days was all that good. But handwriting? For intimacy, eloquence and personal expressiveness in communication no replacement has been offered. Social media, photo apps, zoom calls all dissolve into a kind of frozen distance once you’ve taken a screenshot; but a few lines in the hand of a familiar are with you forever.

I miss cursive. I mourn the old fourth grade Locker Method exercises that drove us all nuts. I miss handwritten letters. When you got a handwritten letter you got the bona fide person, coming headlong into your heart through the mail slot. If it was a message from your mom, there was comfort before even opening the envelope. If it came from a lover, your heartbeat would quicken just at seeing your own name, as if spoken in your ear.

In the olden days one learned to print, but it was considered juvenile and (rightly) time consuming. Some bastardized quasi-cursive now functions for personal signatures and for those stalwarts who write actual notes on very special occasions. But with cursive the words flow, the emotions transfer to the page; individuality and identity are forever sealed into one’s signature. Entire careers have been built on the science of graphology: tiny handwriting = shy, studious, meticulous; big, bold handwriting = assertive, gregarious. Ugly handwriting? Maybe you’re just very smart and your brain gets ahead of your penmanship. Whatever. The key here is the writing – and printing is not writing. I miss cursive. Longhand, the real thing.

My father learned handwriting early in the 20th century – probably in a one-room schoolhouse somewhere in rural Texas. Same for my mother in the farm country of Virginia. They were both born in 1897, into families with no money or resources but a ferocious dedication to education. My father, therefore, graduated from SMU (among the first of its graduating classes) and my mother, after two years of high school – her only post-elementary education – finished at the top of her 1918 class at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. Over the half-century of their courtship and marriage they exchanged daily letters whenever they were apart – which was often. Hundreds of their letters survived; a few I could not toss when my sisters and I buried our father. (He outlived my mother by 20 years, those years punctuated by handwritten letters to his family, friends and newspaper editors until his eyes were no longer up to the task.)

My beloved’s longhand was of the tiny-scribble variety, but it served him well during his early ace-reporter days, and for about six more decades of note-taking at board meetings, art auctions, a limitless variety of occasions for which electronic devices now offer a cold alternative. Stare at an iPhone all you want, no emotion will ever rise from its impersonal digits no emoji is likely to express accurate emotion. You can always even print out that Word doc letter, but it will never reveal the person behind the word. Ah, longhand.    

Watching History Eerily Repeat

Ted Eytan, Creative Commons

We’ve seen this movie before:

A newly elected president is on his way to Washington to be inaugurated. The results of the election have been certified by electors in all the states, and are waiting in two boxes to be read aloud by the sitting vice president – a mere formality. But word has gotten out to thousands of Americans who vehemently oppose the new president and they are determined their candidate should be the one going to the White House. So on they come, storming toward the Capitol to take it over and reverse the outcome of the election. Many of them are armed – and they are a determined, angry mob.

This was one hundred and sixty years ago. That president was Abraham Lincoln, the man Republicans point to when they speak of being “the party of Lincoln.”

Earlier presidential advisors

The Capitol survived that time, thanks to a vice president who protected the electoral college boxes despite knowing he would be announcing his own loss. (More than a few people were concerned he might be tempted to destroy them, or be set upon by someone who would make off with the boxes.) That vice president was Kentucky Democrat John C. Breckinridge; he was expelled from the Senate after siding with the Confederacy, which he later served as Secretary of War.

The Capitol was only lightly defended. The mob might easily have succeeded in taking it over, and lives would definitely have been lost. But there was another man who had opposed the newly-elected president and lamented the outcome of the election – but didn’t want to see the Capitol, or his country, destroyed. He was General Winfield Scott, also known as Old Fuss & Feathers (he was picky about military etiquette) and as the Grand Old Man of the Army. He was old, too obese to get on his horse, and a native of the soon-to-be secessionist state of Virginia; but a patriot. Fortunately he also happened to have his own militia, so he dispatched it to protect the seat of democracy.

Thus, 160 years ago, democracy survived a close encounter. Full disclosure: absolutely none of this came from a store of knowledge in my aging brain. Most of it comes from historian Ted Widmer’s excellent book Lincoln on the Verge. It was published about six months before history repeated itself in Washington.

We’re living through another painful repetition, with more than a few lessons to be learned:

“Hospitals unable to keep pace with the volume of new patients. Political leaders taking to their beds. The morgues overflowing. This isn’t Milan, London or New York during the 2020 coronavirus crisis. It was Paris in 1832 during the great cholera pandemic.” Thus wrote Time Magazine’s Maurice Samuels in the May 15, 2020 issue. (This was before we had a president working to address the problem.)

Others have pointed to earlier pandemics, their similarity to the covid-19 crisis and the ways they were or were not well handled. I’m old enough to have watched a cousin and several friends be stricken with polio; they would suffer the effects throughout their lives. I also remember the immense national relief when the Salk vaccine was developed. It was a painless little drop on a sugar cube; but to the consternation of government and public health officials, many Americans still feared the vaccine more than the disease. That virus was eventually eradicated in the U.S., but remains endemic in several parts of the world – perhaps as a reminder that we cannot close ourselves off and expect to be covid-free forever.

Another authoritarian leader may one day reach the White House; another virus will surely be roaming the globe. Here’s to lessons of history being learned and remembered.  

Going From Vaccine Envy to Vaccine Guilt

Getting my first shot, from a dancing nurse

Recently I joined the ranks of the vaccinated. A great relief for an octogenarian, which I have been for quite some time. But, as has been or will be true for most citizens, about the time I rolled my sleeve back down I was beset by other emotions: guilt, angst and a nameless fear for my fellow citizens and the country at large. Not unlike the feeling one has when walking back to a warm home for dinner on a rainy day – and passing a motionless figure huddled in a doorway.

America is facing yet another division between the haves and have nots, the entitled and the shoved aside, but this one is a division between life and death. Here’s how that plays out, from the vantage point of one newly-vaccinated. I am also among the Haves: white, upper middle class, living in an expensive assisted-living facility. We the elderly are, of course, among the most vulnerable. Many of us have underlying health problems; all of us have the problem of being old. Which means we tend to die faster and in greater numbers if we get covid-19. It is admittedly scary to be old in a deadly pandemic. But should I be first in line? Should I have been ahead of my granddaughter’s teacher? Already my granddaughter has lost the experience of a normal senior year in high school. My friends’ grandchildren have lost other school years. How can we possibly weigh the safety of our own health against the hopes we have for our grandchildren’s future? If we simply concentrated on getting every teacher vaccinated and schools made as safe as possible, this might give our children and grandchildren at least a modicum of educational normalcy. Most of us would at least give that some thought.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

But then again. Why shouldn’t essential workers be at the front of every line? Those driving the buses, cleaning the streets, making it possible at least for our cities and country to function. The janitors and cooks who make it possible for medical personnel to function. The vast majority of these bottom-level workers are Black or brown, so the vaccine divide feeds straight into the ongoing divide of racial and economic inequality. Even given the technological challenges of many seniors, most of us in the middle class at least have the skills and resources with which to check around for vaccine availability. But should that put us in line ahead of the less-advantaged who make getting in line possible? What about childcare workers? Millions of parents depend on these generally underpaid women (they’re almost always women) to look after their children. If childcare workers are somewhere far back in the line, their own lives are in jeopardy and the ripples of disrupted lives among their small clients and wider families are incalculable.

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to prioritize vaccine distribution by age drew an immediate outcry from the disability community. How can this sizable demographic, which seems perpetually destined to fight one battle for survival after another, not be at the front of the vaccination line? Mobility problems beset many in this community; others have compromised immune systems that make them dangerously vulnerable. My lungs are compromised from being old, but they weren’t helped any by those years I smoked in my teens and twenties. Considered in this light, it seems hardly fair that I should be in line before my disabled neighbor.    

It is also hard not to take the vaccine guilt business onto the global level, a peripheral part of the giant divide. America First isn’t going to cut it with this virus. I am enormously relieved to be vaccinated, and now I want my friends and neighbors – all of them, rich, poor, Democrats, Republicans to get vaccinated just as fast as humanly possible. If we reach herd immunity in the U.S., though, and the virus continues to rage across Africa, its mutant cousins are coming for us. Offering support for getting the vaccine into Ethiopian arms is less an altruistic wish than a matter of self-preservation. Would I have given up my dose for someone in Ethiopia? Or for anyone in the above demographics? Probably not. But this should not excuse me from wrestling with what is a national, universal ethical dilemma.  

Staring into the Great Beyond

Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Since this space is often devoted to end-of-life issues, today’s essay is offered as a new and unique perspective. And in case you need a laugh. It was written by my old and definitely unique friend Bob Dodge, a fellow supporter of End of Life Choices California. Asked for identifying bio he replied only that “the author had become delusional and cynical while standing in a local Bed, Bath & Beyond. He grants no interviews and wants to avoid being crushed by requests for TV appearances, magazine articles and the like – BUT – PBS or NPR requests will be considered. Meanwhile – – – ENJOY LIFE.”

I have never thought much about the name of the chain of stores named Bed, Bath & Beyond, thinking as most would, one can find items for furnishing different rooms of one’s home or apartment. Trash cans, wash cloths, hampers, rubber thingamabobs for shower, kitchen or bathroom and now electronic security gadgets for monitoring your goldfish, pets and the creatures, like raccoons and skunks outside near your car and front door. I really don’t mind going to these stores once in a while to browse through the isles searching for an unusual item to ponder on as to why people might want to buy such an item. But, I guess they do buy them else the store would have swept them off the shelves and replaced them with something else also so bizarre that nobody wants or really needs.

Today, Friday, I had a revolutionary experience at a Bed, Bath & Beyond in Redwood City that changed my perspective of this commercial outlet and I may return on my own free will! Let me set the scene: Mary was looking for some new items for our master bathroom, like a new rug with matching hand-towels and face-cloths and a new squeegee for the shower glass. Also on her list were new pillows, none of which interested me given I tend not to notice if the rug and towels match, the shower glass is streaked or that the pillow is sweat-stained since I prefer sleeping with my eyes closed and therefore don’t see what my head is resting on. Just knowing the pillowcase is clean is what matters most to me.

Anyway while Mary is off down one of the aisles, I am standing there, masked as usual these days, gazing at the RING displays of electronic security items, trying to figure out what all the displayed gadgets do. This display is near the check-out counters and as I am standing there a voice calls out asking, “Are you ready to check out, sir?” I look up to see a young, maybe twentyish, masked female staring at me. “No, I am not ready to check out, thank you very much,” I replied. And then it dawned on me… The BEYOND part!! NO! I am not ready to check out. Come on, I am only 83 years and 10 months old and doing pretty well thank you very much! I really didn’t think I looked so bad physically that I would attract attention! I had not realized that End-of-Life issues had advanced this far and into retail establishments no less! Imagine asking potential customers if they are ready to “check out” right there in front of other customers. I would think the process would be kept a little more private. I kind of had the same reaction when I went to buy condoms for the first time in a pharmacy. “I need to buy a package of prophylactics, please”. Pharmacist: WHAT? “Oh, CONDOMS! WHAT BRAND AND WHAT COLOR?” he seemed to shout to the few others in the store. But at B,B & BEYOND it seems to be out in the open and maybe that is good for the movement.

Another thought about choices at the end of one’s life. I think there should be a hotel chain with a name something like SWEET DREAMS or THE LAST GOODBYE or maybe CHECKING IN BUT NEVER OUT Hotel. Senior citizens could pack a simple overnight bag of a few items like a small toothpaste tube, hair brush, old and well used toothbrush and a favorite pair of jammies. Then they tell the hotel clerk, “Checking in to check out”, simple as that. And they check in with confidence knowing that when check out time comes the next day there will be no line to stand in. Fait accompli. 

This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com

2021: The Year of Apprehension

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com – In remembrance of New Years Eves past

The COVID-19 pandemic, the battered democracy, the turbulence of racial and economic struggles – this is definitely the Year of Apprehension. We’ll probably all survive. Even if a lot of people continue to suffer and die and need our attention.

Given the difficulty of looking ahead, I dug into the archives for a look back. New Year blogs – and a bunch of New Year stories that pre-date the era of the blog – turn out to offer many bright spots and a little reassurance.

New Year’s 2000 – That one was fun. Remember the Y2K problem? The Millennium Bug? Computers everywhere, unequipped to deal with this new digit coming after 1999, would be crashing and burning and taking us all down with them? My husband and I actually attended a somewhat subdued New Year’s Eve dinner party at which one of the other guests was an official of a global engineering company which will remain un-named. He spent the evening with an ostentatious black box at hand – during dinner he did get it off the table and into his lap – because of mysterious dangers that might need his immediate attention at the stroke of midnight. We followed that stroke across time zones. Our highest moments of hilarity were speculating about exactly what that black box was going to do to us all when he pushed his magic button; our engineer friend was not amused. The covid bug does make the Y2K bug seem quaint.

Photo by VisionPic .net on Pexels.com

When New Year’s 2009 arrived I was heavy into brain exercise, having become a participant in a brain health study not long before. That piece reflected on the proliferation of brain health studies – New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the University of Texas’ Center for Vital Longevity to name two – specifically targeting the aging population. The resultant general recommendation was for everyone to plunge into word games and math games and we’d all be fine. Having still never found the time to get into games of any sort, I guess my brain just continues to muddle along.

In 2010, as the year turned, I was still preoccupied with brain stuff: esoteric questions (and some more fancy studies) about the passage of time. It was a sort of “Where in the heck did ten years go?” rumination. Considering the fact that the past year has seemed at least thirty years long, this perspective also makes past issues seem quaint.

For many of the in between years I included a favorite poem, just because poetry seems a good way to start a new year. So for these troubled times I offer the first and last few verses of Ian Frazier’s priceless holiday poem “Greetings, Friends!” in the December 28 issue – back in that old year – of The New Yorker.

Friends one and all! Let us unmute,

Excite the timbrel and the lute,

Make merry with our pots and pan

(The hour is seven, so we can),

Shout from the balcony or lawn

For joy at what will soon be gone,

And praises sing for what is here:

The end to this undreamt-of year!

Frazier goes on for 70+ poignant and hilarious lines, rhyming in friends and neighbors and people we know of or wish we knew; and finally winds up thus:

Let gladness rise, despite, despite;

“Love one another” routs the night,

And kindness is a folding chair

We carry with us everywhere.

In depth of winter, prospects brighten;

Mighty streams of light will lighten

The miles ahead, and goodness reign –

Once more, the angels’ grand refrain!

Thanks, Ian Frazier, and everyone who helped us though the old year with reminders that grace and humor still abound.

Happy New Year, and welcome, 2021!

Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata on Pexels.com



This essay also appears on Medium.com

How to Stay Sane in 2021

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Everything is not either all bad or all good,” observed my friend Oli. “There’s a little bit of good in things that are bad, and a little bit of bad in things that are good.”

This was after a discussion of how COVID-19 is affecting the entire country, in ways almost too numerous to face. Oli tends to get deeply involved in conversations of these sorts.

“For example, take pollution,” he said. “Since we’ve been staying home more, pollution has fallen dramatically.” Other observations were possibly less significant, but still to the point: “Noses aren’t as cold as they used to be, thanks to mask-wearing.”

Oli is seven years old.

This issue is way beyond “Out of the mouths of babes . . .” Surviving the weeks and months ahead – vaccine or no vaccine – is going to take a good bit of creative effort. As someone who has not seen her family for well over a year, who has had moments of panic and nights of insomnia over exposure to the virus – real or imagined – and who suffers from hug-deprivation to a major extent, I do not look forward to more months and months of masking, distancing and observing every precaution 24 hours a day. Because I live in a senior housing facility I will probably be an early recipient of the vaccine, but little will change other than perhaps feeling a little personally safer. Too much remains unknown, too many people will continue to sicken and die well into the (otherwise surely happier) new year, but these vestiges of the old year need to hang out with us until a new normal evolves in the new one.

So how to get through it with our sanity?

I think Oli is onto something. Finding ways to counter the sadness, the feelings of isolation and desolation, the sheer continuing disorientation of the months ahead might just be easier if it’s possible to discern a little good within the bad – while minimizing the bad that clouds the good.

This site, over the past few months, has featured brief glimpses into the struggles of aging, the pleasures of city walks, the art of communicating while masked, San Francisco city life and California wildfires, and one of the many great losses of 2020: Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Looking back, there’s one common thread: good was always found alongside the bad.

RBG’s legacy is wide and lasting. Amid the horrors of the wildfires there were extraordinary acts of kindness. Masks can’t keep strangers from interacting with eye-messages. Outdoor dining might just become a permanent fixture across the U.S. as it’s long been elsewhere: think Parisian sidewalks. Even among the sequestered elderly, friends and laughter make life livable. And most recently, with the remarkable convergence of Jupiter and Saturn just before the solstice, there was proof that no amount of stress on earth can eliminate the wonder of the universe.

Thanks for noticing, Oli.

Happy New Year to us all.  

This essay also appears on Medium.com

What If the Stars Align?

The scene from within the cathedral

It was like entering a giant cathedral, invited to a mystical once-in-a-lifetime event to which the entire world was also invited. Yet there was an intimacy unlike anything Notre Dame ever offered. On the way up – a familiar climb that bore an unfamiliar sense of impending awe – I encountered my first fellow pilgrim. She was in running clothes despite the chilly December dusk and I’d heard her swift sneakers approach. I was stopped mid-climb, though, as is somehow my regular custom on steep hills.

She stopped. “Are you OK?” I could hear her concern. “Oh, sorry,” I said. “I ran a half-marathon in 2006 myself. But I was 73 at the time; now I’m catching my breath.”

“That’s impressive,” she said, now running in place. “Are you going up to the park?”

“Definitely. I think I’ll be in plenty of time.”

Jupiter slipping past Saturn, unconcerned

“See you there,” she said, taking off upward. “Merry Christmas!”

Pilgrims, I think, are bound together by both a common purpose and a sense of goodwill. Of the others who passed me on uphill blocks – I can still hold my own on the level ones – most said hello; one, “beautiful night, isn’t it?”

Reaching the park and beginning the last uphill climb along the path was when I entered the cathedral. Darkness was quickly falling on this longest night of the year. Fellow pilgrims were scattered along the path and across the meadow – carefully staying more than six feet from each other – and most were motionless. Like Rodin statues artfully spaced across the cathedral, they reinforced the feeling of awe.

It was utterly silent.

Jupiter and Saturn do this little dance for earthling admirers every twenty years. But it’s been eight centuries since they performed this particularly stunning pas de deux for us, a “great conjunction” created by Jupiter’s catching up to Saturn just as they are orbiting the sun. People who understand all this far better than yours truly say the last time our fellow planets did their Great Conjunction thing and it could be seen by earthlings, was in 1226.

Well, no wonder there was wonder. Some Christians think it was this event that led the wise men to Bethlehem. Fine with me, a Christian who struggles with much of the whole virgin birth/manger/shepherds/wise men thing, because mostly all I could see from the cathedral aisle way down below was one incredibly shining star. I guess I could have brought binoculars, but doubt they’d have made a lot of difference to my macular-degenerating eyes. Below me, though, under a park light, was a young man with a serious camera on a tripod. As I walked back down I said with some redundancy, “Can you see both of them?”

“Sure,” he answered. “Take a look.”

And there they were. Jupiter, orbiting its way around the sun exactly as planet earth is doing, and Saturn orbiting its own way around the sun, with even its rings also visible in this fine earthling device under the light. All three just going about the order of the universe without the slightest concern for the heartaches everywhere on the smallest planet of the them all. Amazing.

Peace on earth, goodwill to all.