Monday, July 12, 2010

Revisiting Stories

I learned something remarkable this week. Or rather, I have been learning it, and will continue to learn it, but this week it crystallized for me.

It is about ingesting stories through art... As a person's time on this earth lengthens, and more and more life experiences accumulate, such stories only deepen.

This may seem obvious, and if you had told me this as an 18 year-old, I would have said, "Well of course, that only makes sense." But there is a big difference between knowing it superficially, and experiencing it in a way that takes one's breath away, as this 26 year-old recently did.

This happened to me twice within the past week. And both times, the experience drew upon the same moment -- from my past, but also in my present and future, since it will forever be a part of me and make me who I am at any given time since it happened. The moment is the death of my father.

Without dwelling too much on the moment itself, for the purposes of the remarkable thing I learned and experienced this week, I will just say this: My father's death was very hard, for myriad reasons, all very complex. It happened two and a half years ago, and involved three very difficult weeks in which my dad was in and out of the ICU. He is the closest person to me who has died, thus far in my life. Who I am, and the life I live, has not been the same since.

That being said, I now want to share about two bits of artistic storytelling which, for extended periods of my life during my teen years, were stories that worked on me. They are completely unrelated to each other, and they are also both stories I had not revisited since my dad died -- not for any noteworthy reason in particular, but simply because there are new and different stories (as told through art) that fill my days today. But both of these stories, I had cause to revisit within this past week.

The first is the HBO series Six Feet Under. I grew up in a home that, for better or worse, had HBO. When this show started, created by the writer of American Beauty (one of my favorite films as a teen), I knew this would be something I would like. And it was, for the first few years at least. The premise was quirky, the characters real. The story, as told every week in each new episode, did to me what it did to millions of viewers: it let me relate to characters who struggled with the hardness of life. And it told their stories in strange and wonderful ways. I confess, though, that after several years, and once my schedule in college became very full, I fell out of touch with the Fisher family. In the interim, I became aware that the series ended, but I did not participate in this in any meaningful way, other than nostalgic thoughts of the years of my life spent watching it.

The second is the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods. Being both a theatre and fairy tale junkie, it is no surprise this show was incredibly important to me as a teen. I owned the VHS recording of the original Broadway production, as well as the cast recordings for both the Broadway and London productions. I knew the musical score inside and out. During my musical theatre days, I sang songs from the show. All of the stories told in it, and the bigger story they all unite to become, beat out a rhythm in my life for many years. But, as is wont to happen, my musical tastes expanded after college, and between folk music and Orthodox Christian chant, in recent years I have not found much time for the music of shows like Into the Woods. By not listening to the recordings any more, the stories drifted from the front of my mind and settled like a dusting of snow into the back recesses of who I am. I may not have been consciously aware they were still there, gently lingering, but they were, and thank God for it. They just needed to be woken up.

And so, I bring us to this past week. Last week my friend and colleague Teresa posted on her Facebook wall a link to the final scene and montage of the series finale of Six Feet Under. I thought, "Oh, yes, I remember really liking that show for several years. Let me give this a watch." (It is a 9:51 minute video clip.) And boy, as I watched the final montage, in which we are shown how each of these characters ends his or her life here on earth, and particularly how those who had gone before are waiting to greet each one as he or she passed... I felt like the breath had been knocked out of me. The images and sounds I was seeing and hearing penetrated a depth in me that did not exist when I watched the first episode of the series almost ten years ago. I know, of course, that this depth in me was created by suffering, and grace. But the entire thing was remarkable, that these characters and this storytelling, about death and loss, could have such an effect on me now, when nine years ago my experience can only have been superficial in comparison.

Then, yesterday, my other friend Beth began "Showtunes Week" on Facebook, where she will post a video with a fabulous showtune each day this week. I thought this was fun and decided to join her, and chose as my first video Bernadette Peters singing "No One is Alone" from Into the Woods. I watched the video of Miss Peters sing the song, which I have heard and seen many times (having owned the CD and VHS of the live performance in question; did I mention I was a big fan of hers?). She paints pictures with her voice, and it was lovely (and, of course, nostalgic) to behold. It caused me to decide to dig up the CD that had this recording on it, and I am currently revisiting it in my car. "No One is Alone" is the second song on the CD. So, on my way to work today I listened to the song again in the private world I enter when I am alone in my car. And a curious thing occurred: instead of stretching my voice in order to sing along with Miss Peters, as I would have done and always did as a younger person, I decided to simply listen. When she reached the words, "Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood," again this deep, deep place inside of me was pierced -- a place that did not, could not have existed the last time I listened closely to this song. (And I'm not counting having watched the video the evening before, because I did not listen closely but encountered only nostalgia at that point.) This song, about forgiving people you love for their mistakes, and also about recognizing that they are still with you and love you as best they can amidst those mistakes... Again, it took my breath away. And again, there is no way I could have truly understood this meaning in the song all those years ago, when I would listen to it on repeat and attempt to let it work on me as deeply as it could. It is clear that, whatever depth it may have reached in me as a teen, was nothing compared to what happened this week.

And so, this week I learned:

There is beauty and depth in stories told in artistic media. If the story is well-told, that will be evident the moment one encounters it. However: Never, ever think you have completely mined the depths of a story, even if you ingest it over and over and over again in a short space of time. (I was an obsessive kid, in case you didn't pick up on this yet.)

And also, and more importantly: Never, ever think that story has finished mining the depths of you. If it is a story worth telling, there is always something new and surprising (sometimes breathtaking) to encounter in it and in yourself.

And I suppose a third thing I learned is this: There is joy to be found in suffering. This joy comes when an encountered story manages to absorb your suffering into itself and tell it back to you. In this encounter, healing and grace are to be found.


Here are the two videos described above:


  1. I want to respond to this post as the two identities you listed, as your friend and your colleague. And thank you for describing me as such, for opening the space that allows me to respond as the two people I simultaneously worked through your post as :)

    1) as your colleague: I love that you characterize the pieces as "stories that worked on me." Rhetoric as a discipline does a lot of work on narrative and its functions. If you're really getting into the power of narrative, you may be interested in two books: Alterity and Narrative: Stories and the Negotiation of Western Identities ( and On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction ( I have copies of both if you're interested. A better read/listen, though, is Toni Morrison's Nobel Lecture. I use it frequently in class. (

    1.5) blurred line: yet another reason why fb is so important in terms of communication and sociability. It was bc of fb you had these experiences, this professional and personal realization.

    2) as your friend: I wanted to post this message to your wall last week, but I've been accessing fb via phone lately and am lazy bc of it. Here it is: the more I learn about you the more I like you. We seem like two very different people on the surface (you very positive and energetic; me kinda cynical and harsh), but we have so much in common and are very much alike. I'm so grateful I get to work with you, and in doing so I get to know you :)

  2. Very cool post, Donna. I LOVE stories, and I think one of the things about you that resonated with me was this love of stories. I mean, that one time we actually hung out together ;) , didn't we talk about Harry Potter the entire time? :)

    Anyway, as someone who has just surfaced from a coma of watching episodes of the new Dr. Who series (some GREAT stories there, if you're into that sort of thing), I thoroughly enjoyed your post. :)

  3. Well told stories are the touchstones of our common humanity. That is why the Gospel is populated with stories and not merely didactic instructions. The drama of being human and thus universally broken and seeking light and grace in our fragile existence and relationships is what all good stories touch within us and articulate what we sometimes are incapable of expressing in the moment. Beautiful post.