It’s often through story-telling that I rustle through my confusion, my wonderings, my gratitude, my worries, my joys, and my faith. Stories, in specific places, where I remember the smell of the air or the scents in a room; the sound of traffic, or church bells, or the ocean; the texture of pavement or dirt or upholstery of the car’s seat; the touch of a warm hand on mine or a strong arm around my shoulders; the taste of tears coursing to my lips. Stories, peopled with family, friends, strangers, or no one but me and my cat.
Stories. They’re the best way I know to describe the indescribable Divine presence, and they’re often the way I encounter the Divine in others. So it’s no surprise that I’m drawn to a faith tradition, Quakerism, that calls us to speak from our own experience, to tell our own stories of encounters with Spirit.
In May, I joined with others from several Quaker meetings in the area to learn more about telling, and just as important, listening to, Spiritual Stories. Kathy Hyzy, editor of Western Friend, led a day-long workshop about this practice of both listening deeply and sharing from our deepest selves (http://westernfriend.org/community/spiritual-storytelling/). She began by suggesting that we all are storytellers—we’ve all told jokes, we’ve all shared memories of important events in our lives, we all have at least a handful of experiences that we tell over and over again. To prove her point, Kathy directed us to pair up with another person in our multi-age group to tell a “scar-y story.” The room hummed with tales of how each of us had acquired a particular scar. Yes, we all have stories to tell.
Kathy’s goal in this workshop was to share techniques of storytelling that help us tap into “the nuggets of experience that are spiritually important, times in which we felt close to God or encountered a sense of opening, Presence, or transcendence.” She instructed us in techniques of storytellers and writers to bring our personal stories to life—sensory detail of people and places, descriptions of characters, the use of dialogue, building tension to a climax, and reflection. Then, we all had the opportunity to practice telling and listening to stories. I came to know people—both long-time friends and new acquaintances—deeply.
For me, it’s often in the telling of a story, usually first through journaling or writing, that I come to understand the significance of an event or the understanding that arises from it. A walk with my cat has become one of those stories I tell over and over.
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For twenty years I worked as a nurse, primarily in public health. I felt led to serve the poor by being at their bedsides, visiting in their homes, and advocating for their care. I believed my compassion, as well as my skill, could help bring health and wholeness. I approached my work with a zeal born of a desire to save the world, believing that if I only worked hard enough, I could.
My drive took its toll. Early signs of disillusionment nudged me to move to a smaller town, take a job in a smaller organization, and get back to hands-on nursing care after several years as a public health bureaucrat. Within a couple of years, I was overwhelmed by my caseload’s never-ending stream of pregnant teens; I began to feel hopeless about the young women I cared for who were struggling with parenting complicated by poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, or domestic violence.
I tried to ease my burgeoning feelings of failure as well as the fatigue of witnessing so much suffering by moving into middle management. However, the impotence I felt in direct service was magnified in my new role caught between those with power and those in need. The clarity I had once had about my calling as a nurse was fading, and I knew it was time to re-evaluate. Fortunately, my family supported my need to retreat, and retreat we did, in 1994, to the tiny village of Stehekin, Washington.
Translated as “the way through,” Stehekin once was a passageway at the end of 55-mile-long Lake Chelan for Skagit and Salish Indians. Later, highways were blasted through parts of the North Cascades, but none ever made it to Stehekin. Today, most people get “uplake” by a commercial passenger-only ferry that makes one trip daily. Others arrive by float plane, the hearty by hiking a full day over National Park and Forest Service trails.
Telephone lines from the “downlake” world never made it to Stehekin, and there aren’t any cell towers, either. For the community’s 80 or so year-round residents, a single public telephone, for outgoing long distance calls only, haltingly relays voices via satellite when messages beyond Stehekin are urgent. Internet service has arrived recently, but just for those who install a satellite dish.
Despite my yearning for respite, there was one concern I carried with me to this remote, idyllic place. I feared I would forget. Forget the effects of abuse, disenfranchisement, and oppression. Forget injustice’s aftermath if I no longer looked in the eyes of people who lived with it daily. Forget the despair of limited opportunities as I experienced the privilege of choosing a different way of life.
There was no Quaker Meeting in Stehekin, so I went often to my favorite place of worship, a rock outcropping we named Boris’s Bluff. It was Boris, our tabby cat, who led me to a wooded sanctuary just a 15-minute walk from our house. To my surprise, he always trotted along with me on my treks there. Together we hiked through pine needles and scrambled over boulders that had rumbled down from mountain peaks over the centuries.
One day, sitting on a moss-covered rocky mound, I breathed in the pine scent of the surrounding woods and was warmed by the sun radiating off the stone. Encircled by mountain walls that gave the illusion there was nothing beyond, I was awed by an unexplainable feeling of connection with all people. Though I couldn’t see or hear others, I felt their closeness and no longer feared I would forget.
I hadn’t expected that the boundaries of water and rock that separated me from others could restore my awareness of my place in the circle of humanity. But there, in that valley nestled in the mountains, surrounded by old growth Ponderosa Pines and Douglas Firs reaching a hundred feet upward, I could see the effects of the cycles of melting snows, droughts, forest fires, and the rush of the Stehekin River. They taught me that the smallest touch, the briefest contact, the quietest diligence, can make a difference—can change the course of a river. It was there, in the solitude, that I had a palpable awareness I wasn’t alone. I embraced both my smallness and my greatness and felt released from the responsibility to do it all; I grasped it’s not up to me alone.
I don’t live in Stehekin anymore, but it lives in me. I didn’t go back to the old house, or the old job; instead, my family and I moved to a slightly less isolated community on Lopez Island in Puget Sound. Here, when I despair for the needs of the world and question how I’m to serve, the story of Boris’s Bluff strengthens me.
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We Quakers have many avenues to tell our spiritual stories and to listen to those of others. These stories sometimes come in the form of spoken ministry during Meeting for Worship. Others arise in response to queries during worship-sharing. Some are put into print in the form of personal essays and memoir. And now, technology provides additional venues to tell our personal stories of encounters with God. I often listen to podcasts of Northern Spirit Radio (http://northernspiritradio.org/) and read Quaker blogs. You can find links to some blogs in Western Friend at http://westernfriend.org/2011/02/quaker-bloggers-in-the-west/. I follow a number of them as well as these:
I’m grateful for such generous spiritual story-telling.