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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

The Sacred Work of Story-telling

“A truer nomination for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person. What differentiates us from animals is the fact that we can listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats – and they in turn can listen to ours.” - “The Art of Listening,” Henning Maskell

Audrey came to bed several nights ago, her pants hiked up as far as she has been able to pull them, a goofy grin smeared across her face. I remembered that yes, it was only a couple of days ago that I had told her the story of my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. A_______, describing the unthinkable heights to which his belted waistline had soared and cinched his top-heavy, Humpty Dumpty body.

It’s a story I may not have told two weeks ago. The memory of Mr. A________ and the black topped tables of high school chemistry class would have flashed vaguely in my mind, making its casual appearance but continuing on its travels. Two weeks ago, we would have stayed strangers, this memory and I.

Except that last week I packed my bags and spent a week away from home telling stories, first and last to my friend, Wendy, she my captive audience as we traveled from Toronto to Cincinnati together. I told Wendy stories that I don’t know I’ve ever told anyone (other than Ryan). And when we landed in Buffalo in darkness at the end of our week together, two hours of driving still ahead, even then I had not come to the bottom of the stories. They were confessional and side-splitting, as complicated and as cryptic as me. They were good to tell.

I told my stories to strangers last week, reading aloud the words I’d wrangled for four days behind this very computer screen. Wendy and my three new friends would know intimate and incriminating details of my life as I peeled back my defenses of abstraction and apology. Those stories, too, were good to tell, and when the last of the 2, 784 words I had written was voiced aloud on our last night together, those strangers - friends - handled the bones of my secrets with courage and grace. I would be grateful to them.

I suppose it’s been a long time that I’ve been looking for someone to grant me permission to tell my stories. Maybe that sounds hopelessly narcissistic - and selfish. But maybe the story telling is more than expression of an over-indulged ego: maybe this storytelling is sacred work. It might be the very way we purpose to do our work of paying attention.

Copied in the front of my journal is the permission I grant myself to listen to God even as I tell my story. It’s a quote excerpted from Frederick Buechner’s book, Telling Secrets:

“Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories, in all their particularity . . . that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally.

If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but spiritually.”

I return from the writing retreat and tell Lisa that she must write the book about her mother. I tell Larissa she must keep the journal about her new days as a mother. I tell Sharon that she should blog and that I’ll encourage her if she needs it.

And when a friend tells me just yesterday that my blog is different since I’ve come back, I nod and make a mental note. To write this post.