BootsnAll Travel Network

Guarding the stories

I am so grateful for National Public Radio. After the inanities of television, even television news, even so-called “Public Television,” the depth of National Public Radio is a great relief. I often hear a snatch of something as I’m driving, and then I come home, go to the web site, and read what I heard, or listen to it again. This time it’s a series on War and Literature, and a book by Aminatta Forna, a woman from Sierra Leone. Her most recent book is called Ancestor Stones. This piece of it brought tears to my eyes:

[From Aminatta Forna’s novel Ancestor Stones published by Atlantic Monthly Press. Paperback edition to be published by Grove Press, August 2007.] In the corner a stack of chests once stood, of ascending size from top to bottom. Gone now. Fleetingly I imagined the treasures I might have found inside. Pieces of faded indigo fabric. Embroidered gowns crackling with ancient starch. Letters on onion-skin parchment. Leather-bound journals. Memories rendered into words. But, no. For here the past survives in the scent of a coffee bean, a person’s history is captured in the shape of an ear, and those most precious memories are hidden in the safest place of all. Safe from the fire or floods or war. In stories. Stories remembered, until they are ready to be told. Or perhaps simply ready to be heard.

And it is women’s work, this guarding of stories, like the tending of gardens. And as I go out to them, my aunts, silhouetted where they sit in the silver light of early dusk, I remember the women returning home at nightfall from the plots among the trees.

That reminds me how much I love stories, yes, the ones I read, but even more, the ones I hear; and that reminds me of Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes,” and the line, “each name a comfortable music in the mouth,” taken from this part of the poem:

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

And that reminds me that wherever any of us go, our first business is to befriend the people, and our second business is to hear their stories. We take that work with us anywhere, anywhere we go. More reason to be glad of being alive.

Speaking of which, it is flooding in Texas. We have had so much rain. Oyster Creek, where I walk every morning, is flooding, has flooded wild rabbits’ warrens. This morning, in the middle of the paved walking trail by the creek, a small rabbit’s soft body lies on its side in a position of complete exhaustion, its small mouth blue, its eyes open and unseeing, reflecting the blue patch of sky above the trumpet vines.

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One response to “Guarding the stories”

  1. Nacho says:

    Oh Kendall, now you are talking things that I love! Stories, Poetry, Mary Oliver, National Public Radio… and the concept of “guarding stories,” like the notion of harvesting and saving seed cultivars…

    Thank you for this wonderful entry. And thank you for your post today at WV. I hope you do get to move over this way (if that ends up being a good thing for you). First thing I’d do is go visit you.

    All the best,


  2. jessie says:

    To be a guardian of stories is so much more rewarding than being a cannibal of stories. That is how I so often feel. Like my undying need for knowing is my great flaw. My fellow Lesser Journalists are always amazed by the stories I tell about the people I meet. (All true stories, I asssure you.) The sports guy wanted to know why I have so many good stories. It is because I ask the questions that get me the good stories and I actively listen to their stories. I ask more questions and dig for details. Most people will tell you about the craziest thing they’ve ever encountered on the job or their most appalling family story. (Apendectomy on the kitchen table in 1910. . .)

    While cleaning up an old computer this evening I found a great story that brought tears to my eyes. My Aunt Julie lost her mother Vera to dementia. Vera was a witty, free-spirit who tossed her scarf over her shoulder and wore purple cowboy boots. When she was 12 back in the early 1930s she tagged along with her older brother and sister (both still living and driving, God help us) to the Chicago Charleston Dance Championship. Thousands of people showed up. It was like the American Idol of its time. Vera somehow slipped back stage and talked her way into the competition. She made it to the finals and then won the whole thing. We have a great picture of her dancing the Charleston on the sidewalk. She won a HUGE trophy. At her funeral, Aunt Julie filled it with flowers. A great send off.

    Jessie (AKA JetGirl)

  3. love the poem – thanks for sharing.

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