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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"Once Upon A Time . . ."

Yesterday, from 11 am to 2 pm, the water was turned off.

The signs had been up at the top of the street since before Thanksgiving. I had duly made note of it. And then, promptly forgot it.

I didn't remember until I went to take a shower before running into town for an appointment. I stopped off first at the loo and when I went to flush, there was nothing. My first thought was that the toilet had broken, so I removed the cover on the back of the tank to check, muttering about how much money it was going to cost me to get a plumber.

It was empty. No water. What?

I turned on the faucet at the sink. Nothing. What?

Suddenly, my memory was flooded with images of the signs that had been at the top of the street: WATER OFF. November 29. 11-2. SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.

"No you're not," I grumbled. I was surprisingly annoyed. At myself for not remembering. At whoever "they" were for having the temerity to leave me without water when I wanted it. At not having water. Now. Right now.

The term, I think, is "On demand".

"For granted" may be more accurate.

After a bit of grumbling, I boiled up some of the water left in the electric kettle in the kitchen and made myself a cup of tea. I think it was more out of spite than an actual need or even want.

At some point, as I was savoring the taste and the warmth of the tea, I found myself annoyed that I had become annoyed. What's wrong with you? You have a lovely, cozy home with a window on creation. Your health is good. You have a fridge filled with more food than you can eat. A wonderful family. Good friends. Meaningful, compensated work. A little savings in the bank. And, you're going to grumble about not having water for a few hours?

What's wrong with you?

And then, her face came to me.

I don't remember her name, if she ever told me. It was 2005. I was in a remote village in Tamale, in the northern part of Ghana.

It was a scene right out of "National Geographic". Clay huts with thatched roofs and dirt floors. No electricity. No running water. Women dressed in garments made of brightly colored African cloth. Naked children scurrying here and there, giggling in the universal language of carefree, youthful delight.

Give a kid - any kid, any where - a stick and a round object to hit, bring along some other kids and, before you know it, you have a game. And, giggles.

Some of the women were returning from the local water pump, a miraculous new innovation which had recently been installed at the village well by a local Christian charity organization.

The women would gather in the morning in small groups of five or six and walk the mile or so to the well where they would, in turns, hand pump the water into large 20 gallon cans which they balanced on their heads.

I marveled at their strength and endurance and balance, even as I worried about how much it was, exactly, that 20 gallons of water might weigh and what that might be doing to their spinal column.

One woman saw me looking at her, slack-jawed and stunned, and smiled as she politely said, "Good day, madam."

I returned the salutation, after a bit of self-conscious stammering, and said something stupid like, "Oh, my, that must be very heavy."

She smiled kindly and said, "It is what we do." And then, smiling slyly, asked, "How else is it to be done? How do you get your water?"

"Well," I said, "I go to the faucet at the sink."

"Faucet?" she asked, feeling the foreignness of the word on her lips.

"Yes," I said, clearing my throat, "I suppose it's like a pump, except you don't have to actually pump. You just turn the handle and the water comes out."

She looked incredulous. I mean, it was enough of a miracle to her that one could now actually pump water instead of drawing it out in buckets and hauling it up the well to be dumped into her 20 gallon can of water.

"You just turn the handle? Oh, my!" She shifted her weight under her heavy load. I wanted to tell her that she could put it down for a minute while we talked and I would help her carry it back to her home, but before I could offer, she continued.

"And, where is this faucet and sink?"

"Well, it's in my kitchen . . . in the place where I cook. . .in my home."

"In your home?" she asked, again, astounded.

"Yes," I said. "Where I live, in the U.S., every home has a faucet with running water. Sometimes several. In the kitchen. In the bathroom . .. . "

And then, I saw her looking at me. She was no longer astounded. She looked . . . sad. Yes, decidedly sad. I immediately thought to myself, "Oh, no! I've become the 'ugly American', boasting of our wealth and conveniences."

"I'm sorry," I said, "I didn't mean . . . "

"Oh, no," she said. "It is I who am sorry."

I looked into her eyes and suddenly realized that her sadness was sympathy. She felt sad for me. Sorry. For ME. I returned her honest sympathetic gaze with my own honest confusion and curiosity.

She shifted her weight again, and sighed, "How do you tell your stories?"

"What? I mean, excuse me?"

She extended her hand to mine, as if she were consoling an impoverished person, and said, "If you do not have a well where you go and get your daily water, how do you tell your stories?"

Slowly, slowly, I began to realize what she was saying.

She was talking about the power of stories to build community. She was speaking the truth about how stories can inspire and educate. How they can hurt and heal. Stories are one of the building blocks of the formation of identity.

Poet and political activist Murial Rukeyser once wrote "the universe is made of stories, not atoms."

The woman I met in Tamale, Ghana, knew that and was teaching it to me, poor benighted soul that I am.

Shortly after I returned home from Ghana, I rediscovered a book on my shelf, "The Faithful Gardner: A wise tale about that which can never die," by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

It begins with these words, "How did stories come into being? Ah, stories came into the world because God was lonely." It continues with an enchanting retelling of the Creation Story:
"God was lonely? Oh yes, for you see, the void at the beginning of time was very dark. The void was dark because it was so tightly packed with stories that not even one story stood out from the others.

Stories, therefore, were without form, and the face of God moved over the deep, searching and searching - for a story. And, God's loneliness was very great."
Estes continues her story of God creating the heavens and the stars and moons and planets, and the land and the waters and the air - and all the creatures of the land and water and air, and then writes:
"Yet even with all these wondrous creatures and all these magnificent stories, even with all the pleasures of creating, God was still lonely.

God thought and paced and paced and thought and finally! it came to our great Creator. "Ah, let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness! Let them care for and be cared for in return, by all creatures of the sea, all those of the air, and all those of the earth."

So God created human beings from the dust of the ground, and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life, and human beings became living souls: male and female God created them. And as these were created, suddenly, all the stories that go along with being completely human also sprang to life, millions and millions of stories. And God blessed all of these, and placed them in a garden called Eden.

Now God strode through the heavens, wreathed in smiles, for at last, you see, God was lonely no more."
Our bodies may not be able to live without water, but I think our souls die without stories.

Indeed, I think there is a Very Great Thirst in our land, because we have become disconnected from each other's stories. So, we become arrogant and petulant and easily annoyed by minor inconvenience - like not having water, clean water, flowing freely from faucets in our own homes whenever we want it.

Our world becomes smaller and smaller, until it revolves only around us. We become our own planets, in our own orbits, spinning in our own sense of infinity.

If we do not share our stories, why should we share anything else?

Gather a bunch of little kids and say, "Once upon a time. . ." and they will soon be gathered, sitting 'round your feet, listening. There's something of a little kid in each of us, waiting, longing to hear a good story. And perhaps, tell one of our own.

Indeed, our faith is not built on atoms, but on stories. Scripture is filled with them. Stories of scoundrels who became saints. Stories of betrayal and friendship. Of great vulnerability and bold courage. Of tragedy and triumph.

Stories are a part of how we know who we are. And, whose we are.

Estes begins her book with this benediction, "We have an old family blessing,
Whomsoever is still awake at the end of the night of stories, will surely become the wisest person in the world."
Stories, I have come to believe, are the water of life. They flow through you and they flow through me. The challenge is that they sometimes become frozen in place by greed or arrogance and need to be set free to be told and enjoyed and cherished, one by one.

This, in fact, may be why God created water. And fire. And air. And land. To give us a place where we may gather to share and be warmed and inspired by the simple stories of our lives.

So that we might share with others the abundance we have been given.

And, not be lonely.

I have been given a story of wisdom by the wisdom and sympathy of a very wise woman in Tamale, Ghana, who, I'm guessing, is the last one to sleep at the end of the night of stories.

May it be so for you.

May it be so for me.

May it be so for us all.


Rachel Fraumann said...

Stunningly beautiful, Elizabeth. Thank you. Love always!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Rachel. Most stories are, when we allow ourselves to tell them.

Point of Order said...

A beautiful story, told by a beautiful woman.

I adore technology, but abhor it as well. The more time we spend with gadgets, the less there is to spend with people, the less time we have for our stories.

The failure to tell our stories is partly responsible for our ignorance and our forgetfulness. It is why we forget, even the most important things about ourselves.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, POO. I must point out, however, that technology has allowed me to share some of my stories with people I've never met.

That's pretty humbling.

Metella said...

What a wonderful post! I am currently taking a class on children's and adololescent literature, and I think I shall share this with my classmates.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I would be honored, Metella

marnanel said...

This is beautiful. Thank you for posting it.

JCF said...

Another awesome post, Lizbeth.

I mean it: write a book!

Mark Delcuze said...

My vocation to serve Christ and the church came a few dozen kilometers to the north of Tamale, Ghana in 1974 when (at the age of 16)I worked on a Presbyterian Mission trip building a feeding Station in Garu. We got a two gallon bucket of water every day for washing self and clothes.

In our three weeks up country I was overwhelmed by the charity of our hosts who frequently gave all that they had for our care and comfort.

Someday, we can sit and exchange stories of Northeastern Ghana!

Mark +

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Only if we share those stories over Mexican food and libations. Love to you, my brother. I pray you are doing well in your new home.

it's margaret said...

I love this. Thanks.

Matthew said...

I don't remember the source of the quote but I have heard it repeated a few times over the years and like it:

The wings of the gospel are the stories of the people.

RevMama said...

Beautifully written, as always.

Every evening when we put our 4-year-old daughter to bed, first there is a story or two from a book. Right now it's Disney stories. But then we turn out the light and it's time for the made-up story, the real story. I ask, "Who do you want the story to be about?" And my daughter says, "Tell me the true story of..." It may be a Disney princess, a cartoon character or one of her stuffed animals. And then then story begins.

I try to channel my grandfather, who was the best story-teller ever, and my dad, who could spin quite a yarn. I am always surprised at the unexpected directions these tales take. They are seldom factual, but they are always true. What a shame that our culture all too often demands facts when the truth is ever so much richer.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

One of the wonderful things I love about living in rural Missouri is "The art of the homespun story,"

For instance, if I were to pull out my family album and show you a picture of my Granny's brother Lloyd, you would hear something like:

"This is Granny's brother Lloyd. Well, he's not really her brother. My great-grandpa, Toley Brammer, see, he was the city marshal of Macon, MO, and one of his jobs was to check the boxcars for hobos, and he found Lloyd in a boxcar with a note pinned on him that said, "We can't take care of him anymore," so he took him home and at the time they had no kids, and it didn't look like they were gonna have any, and they raised him as their own...but then not long after, my granny was born."

Then more stories would spring from it. Lloyd trying to win my granny's 35 cents in a crap game when she was 9. Granny hitting Lloyd in the head with a hammer for snitching her hickory nuts. Lloyd thinking he saw a woman in white at the cemetery and it turned out to be a cow that got loose and had a bedsheet stuck in her horns. When Lloyd worked for the WPA and built highway 63. Many stories of Granny and Lloyd's sibling squabbling well into adulthood. Lloyd as a Seabee in WWII. Lloyd as the Chief of Police in Macon. Lloyd dying from being kicked in the head by a horse.

Lloyd died when I was 3 years old. I really don't remember him. But I feel like I know him.

That's what stories--including the stories of the Bible--are for.

Mary-Cauliflower said...

Loved this post. For me, your story ties into the discussion of the Advent Conspiracy at The Lead a couple of days ago. One commenter was weighing the value of "endless missionary trips" against distributing the money to people in need. Then, of course, there's the larger question of whether the money spent in celebration, feasting, gifts, and frivolity is well spent given the suffering and hardship in the world.

Well, I think your story illustrates something I am (slowly and repeatedly) learning: donating money, by itself, is not necessarily the "solution" to suffering. Carefully considered donation or investment may be part of the picture. But more and more, I am discovering that the first task is to connect and then ask what the problem really is. Money might be part of the answer, but the other part of the answer might be partnership, prayer, or activism to change a policy that's causing the problem in the first place.

I like the way your story illustrates the fact that the equation isn't simple.

Muthah+ said...

Yep, you wrote another great one--but telling the story is what we have been ordained to do--the story of how God works in the world.

When I am without water (and it happens in TX when it gets below freezing) I think of the stories that are told at the well in Tumbisca, Morelos, Mexico where I went as a missionary as a twenty something. I remember the children who had to go 1/2 a mile down the ravine and bring back buckets on their heads.

Stories are what the internet is all about too.

Paul said...

Wonderful post, and I enjoyed the comments as well. So much truth and challenge here.

I shared it with a fellow unpublished writer and she is passing it on.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Paul. Story telling is a real joy.

walter said...

It is time appropriate for essentially creative prognostic comparison from my manuscript 'The Blue Grotto Dimension: The Apostle of apostles..The Well of the Scripture: The well has a very long history in the biblical world. We have already pointed out to the servant of Abram, to Jacob, to Moses and to the tradition spread in the Hebrew world, received by the apostle Paul, of a well or fount, that followed like a particular gift the people of Israel wherever they would decide to put their tents, a traveling well. It outpoured from the stone, of which Paul affirms-The rock was Christ (1 Cor 10. 5).

We are in front of a very clear reference.

But the well is most of all the well of the Scripture, deposit of spring water that outpours from the guts of the earth, to put in communication the human being with Life Inherent. It is spring water that has the same propelling energy of a liquid that would be put under pressure and that thus would explode upward. According to a tradition, the well of Jacob had exactly this type of property. It was such an abundant well that the water grew until outpouring beyond thy border. The Fathers commented very willingly the pages of the Scripture relative to the wells. I want to read a passage to show how their way to deepen the meaning of the well can become also ours. About the well of Rebecca, the girl that would have than become the wife of Isaac, met by the servant of Abram in fact around the well, so writes Origen: Rebecca came everyday to the well and tapped the water every day, and just because she frequented the wells every day she became known to the servant of Abram and was united in matrimony with Isaac; do you think maybe that here it is about a simple fairy tale? And that the Holy Spirit will only to tell us stories in the Holy Scripture? No, it is about a training appropriate for the souls and of authentic doctrina spiritalis (spiritual doctrine).The text reaches you and train you to frequent every day the wells of the Holy Scripture to tap the waters of the Spirit and tap always in abundance so to be able to take back the vase full at home.

The passage is very explicit: The quintessential well is the Holy Scripture, whoever want to alter himself/herself of Holy Spirit will have to frequent this well every day. In the name of the One who keeps us centered and focused and truthful, Jesus the Christ. I love my Little Girl, I love my Girl, I love my Brother-Walter Vitale