My talented storyteller friend, Liz Weir, sent me the link to Kiran Singh Sirah’s stirring talk on the power of stories “to change the world.” If you’ve ever wondered why the ancient art of storytelling has such cachet these days, spend a quarter of an hour watching this inspiring video. Then think of your own life, your work, your family, your friends and how your stories just might start a ripple that changes the world.
Until I landed on a farm and became acquainted with animals who had never been part of my life, I thought cowboy poetry was just a bunch of dorky rhymes. Living with livestock and the vicissitudes of country life taught me the value and power of this branch of the poetry of work. Bull riders, barrel racers, and cattle drovers all told their stories through the medium of poetry. They made me laugh and cry and took me into the deep rivers of a way of life I would never fully comprehend but learned to appreciate.
Though I never considered myself a cowboy poet, I did try my hand at writing some pieces about farm life. I had talented teachers in people I met on the cowboy poetry circuit, people whose written and oral expressions of lived experience shattered my stereotypes.
Rhyming poetry is still the norm in cowboy poetry, though many poets also write prose poems. What’s critical is what they express, not their meter. Still, the heart beats in rhythm. Songs rhyme. Dancing is rhythmic. We humans are attuned to rhyme, and I came to appreciate it in cowboy poetry.
This poem is one I wrote to tell the story of my first Christmas Eve as a small-scale farmer. I still feel the magic of that night.
Stock Talk Christmas Eve
One wintry night the relatives
Were gathered in our barn.
They’d all come from their city homes
For Christmas at the farm.
‘Twas Christmas Eve, and just before
The wassail was passed ’round,
We donned our coats and headed down
To hear the magic sound
Of animals at midnight,
For then the power of speech
Is given to all sheep and cows,
Or so I’d heard it preached.
My husband, he was skeptical,
The relatives amused.
They figured I’d gone round the bend
Since donning country shoes.
But to the barn they gamely trooped.
They’d humor me this time.
We flipped the switch and walked into
A scene that was sublime.
The sheep were calmly bedded down.
They looked, then turned away,
For we’d disturbed their peaceful rest
And hadn’t brought them hay.
I thought of tales of talking beasts.
“Let’s sing to them!” I cried.
Embarrassed silence met my plea.
“Let’s not,” my husband sighed.
No word came from those woolly heads.
I blushed and murmured low,
“They prob’ly talk when we’re not here.
I guess we’d better go.”
Then coming from a darkened stall,
We heard a little cry,
Soon followed by a throaty one
That pulled us to draw nigh
And watch a newborn struggle up
To reach her mother’s teat.
She crumpled, rose, and tried again
On tiny cloven feet.
While ewe and lamb crooned soft and low,
We cleared our throats and sang
Of friendly beasts and silent nights
And bells that angels rang.
Then all the livestock in the barn
Began to bleat and crow
And oink and quack and gobble
In the languages they know.
The relatives fell silent
Till one softly observed,
“That’s the closest thing to talking
This city dude has heard.”
So maybe friendly beasts don’t speak
In English or Chinese,
But if you listen close
You’ll hear them talk on Christmas Eve.
©11/94 Cathryn Wellner
This poem appeared in American Cowboy in November/December 2001. Since sheep are not a normal part of cowboy culture, I changed them to cows for that publication. But the real story features those woolly friends.
I came across this quote by Andrew Wyeth and stopped breathing for a moment. We are all like the winter he describes, the bone structure in our landscapes hides the story beneath. When we feel safe, we share bits and pieces of it. Rarely do we reveal the whole landscape.
Sometimes Neil Gaiman writes or says something that sets my inner tuning fork humming. Come to think of it, he does that a lot. When I read the quote below, I thought of how different people look to us when we learn their stories.
In our western, disease-care system, the power of stories has been pushed to the periphery, even though they are central to the spirit that promotes or undermines our healing. Fortunately, a whole field of narrative medicine is blossoming. Rachel Naomi Remen was one of the first people to introduce me to the field, then Rita Charon and Jack Coulehan.
After I moved to British Columbia, I met Arthur Frank and read his powerful book, The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. I became aware of a B.C. program to honour stories, the Patient Voices Network and Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program.
So when James Borton contacted me about his new book, The Art of Medicine in Metaphor – A Collection of Poems and Narratives, he piqued my interest.
Borton is a teaching associate in the Department of English at Coastal Carolina University. He is also a blogger (All Heart Matters) and writer on medical humanities. Here’s how he describes the incident that prompted him to collect the poems and stories of people’s experiences with health care:
Three years ago I learned a painful lesson about how a patient bleeds a story. Following a triple bypass, I emerged after nine dark days from a coma after losing all of my blood from a ruptured coronary artery. It’s no wonder that my call to others to learn about their broken health stories met with remarkable responses.
In 2011 he organized a symposium for physicians and professors, “The Art of Medicine: Metaphors & Narratives.” And in courses and workshops, he gathered the stories of medical personnel and patients. Now he has published an anthology of illness narratives, told through stories and poetry. In his foreword to the book, Dr. Coulehan writes:
The Art of Medicine in Metaphors represents the process of encountering illness by dividing it into three stages—recognition, tension, and transformation—that form sequential sections of the book. While there is often overlap, the stages constitute a useful way of conceptualizing the material. First, the person’s familiar world is swept away. A wave of new images and alien feelings overwhelms them and he or she must attend to (recognize) the changed reality. Second, the person’s language, beliefs, and emotional resources confront this new world of illness, creating tension. Finally, but unfortunately not always, the person emerges with greater self-understanding (transformation). The dynamo that drives this process is language with many resources—mental, emotional, verbal, and written.
Borton sent several searing excerpts from the book, including Debra McQueen’s story of a young man dying of AIDS and his determination to travel to the Philippines to see a faith healer. Sam Watson contributed a poem about the moments between being wheeled into the operating room and succumbing to ether, ending in a breathtaking moment of clarity. Patricia Dale’s story of depression and self cutting was painful to read, yet ended with hope.
The seed of healing lies within our illness narratives. Our bodies eventually succumb to age, illness, accidents and death. No matter how much our medically trained allies patch our bodies, we all carry around an expiry date. We give meaning to our fleeting journey through our stories.
Barry Lopez described it well in Crow and Weasel:
The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.
Stories and Social Media: Identities and Interaction sounds like a book I’d put at the top of my reading list. It’s hot off the press, just released by Routledge in November 2011 so I immediately surfed over to Amazon to see if I could buy a copy. Alas, the academic publisher has not embraced the digital world. It’s not available for e-readers, and even with Amazon’s discounting, the hard copy would set me back $111.37 before taxes. I’ll order it via interlibrary loan, but if your book budget is higher than mine, don’t wait.
For anyone as intrigued by storytelling in social media as I, this new work by Ruth Page sounds like a fascinating exploration of the phenomena. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s description on the Routledge Web site:
The online stories are profoundly social in nature, and perform important identity work for their tellers as they interact with their audiences – identities which range from celebrities in Twitter, cancer survivors in the blogosphere to creative writers convening storytelling projects or local histories.
Stories and Social Media brings together the stories told in well-known sites like Facebook and lesser-known community archives, providing a landmark survey and critique of personal storytelling as it is being reworked online at the start of the 21st century.
Reading that sent me in search of more about Ruth Page, and I found her Digital Narratives blog, with its wealth of observations and insight. Page is a lecturer in Birmingham, focusing on digital narrative and the impact of gender on storytelling. Her research has uncovered differences between the way women and men tell their stories through social media and also in the ways celebrities use Twitter.
A review of Stories and Social Media: Identities and Interaction for Science Daily quotes her:
The study shows an increasing trend for using ‘expressive language’ in Facebook (for example, for emphasis or to project friendliness), which is being led by young women aged between 19 and 25 years. Between 2008 and 2010, for example, the style used by young women was later picked up by other women, especially those over 40 years old, and by teenage boys; but not by men.
The role of young women as leaders of the changes in the styles of storytelling in social media is significant as it is at odds with other statistics that show that they are under-represented as the developers of social media sites and software.
Page also looks at the way celebrities use social media. While many use it only to promote their work, others, such as Jamie Oliver, make a more personal connection with followers. Again from the Science Daily review:
At the time I was looking at Twitter for this book, he was promoting his Food Revolution tour in the US. Many tweets are telling the Followers to join the campaign, watch a programme, try a recipe etc. (more or less selling his products) but all of that is countered by his efforts to engage with the followers by writing back to them, telling snippets of his family life and so on.
I’ve embraced social media. Though I’ve sampled a lot of others, I’ve settled on a handful: WordPress (for blogging), Facebook, and Twitter. I’m a fan and regular user of Scoop.it which makes it easy to share links in a curated form that is like an online newsletter. I know that the choices of what I share through those social media outlets tell my story. They don’t tell everything, of course, but they leave a trail of breadcrumbs that are easy to follow. They reveal a lot about what is important to me and how I see the world.
The turnaround for me was blogging. I avoided it for a long time because it seemed narcissistic. Besides, with the number of blogs exploding daily, I couldn’t see the need for yet one more.
An eight-month trip to Australia changed my mind. Blogging became an easy way to respond to the “tell us what you’re experiencing” requests from friends. I could post to Crossroads and send out a brief e-mail. Friends who really did want to know about our trip could read it. Everyone else could ignore it.
I was hooked. As someone with a passion for storytelling and a definition of it that is broad and inclusive, I came to appreciate the possibilities of telling our stories online in a way that mirrors another quote from Ruth Page in the ScienceDaily review:
“Although there is a lot of talk about how digital technologies will lead to the end of the book, social media shows us that storytelling remains a key way of how we make sense of each other.”