April 12, 2016

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Poetry Friday: How It Is Told

Writerly Friends, it's Poetry Friday, but I've been thinking about stories.

Today's Poetry Friday host is
Kerry at Kerry Recommends
Whether we are talking about outlandish fiction like the Harry Potter books, sharing family history, or "How was your day?" over dinner, a lot of our time is spent sharing stories. Why do we read them, listen to them, tell them? 

Here is a true story:

A brilliant young person is accepted into a well-respected college. With degree in hand, the person embarks on a promising career. Feeling unfulfilled, our protagonist drops out of chasing the American Dream and opts, instead, to study Buddhism. This study becomes all-absorbing, as the person enters into monastic life as a Buddhist teacher.

The twist? This story is true for two people.

One is Sister Dang Nghiem, MD.

I read about this Zen Buddhist nun and disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh in Prevention magazine's January 2014 issue. "Sister D's" story is compelling. A Vietnamese refugee living in California, she had pushed her own difficult history aside to become a successful medical doctor. A catastrophic event led her to attend a mindfulness retreat with Thich Nhat Hahn. There, she began a different kind of life as a Buddhist nun.

The article is entitled, "The Healer." (Read it at Prevention.) It includes such subtitles as "You Can Cultivate Joy Even When You're Hurting," "Mindfulness Is Powerful Medicine," and "Kind Actions Matter." The story speaks admiringly of Sister D's  "peace, mindfulness, and clarity."

Sister D's book is published by
Parallax Press. Find it here.
But the brief story I told above is also true of another person -- a member of my family.

I won't share the details of this person's life without his permission, but: brilliant young person, Ivy college, degree, promising career -- all of these are true of him. And, like Sister D, he stepped away from everyone's expectations to become a Buddhist monk.

What made the Sister D article resonate with me so deeply was how closely her story parallels the life of the person I know, except in one respect.

How it is told.

Remember the loaded words in the Prevention article's subtitles? Joy, Mindfulness, Powerful, Kind.

When my family talks about our Buddhist monk, those are not the words I hear. This person is spoken about in other terms: Disappointment, Crazy, Kook, Threw It All Away.

At a recent gathering -- our monk was not there -- I listened to how my family was telling his story. Sister D was on my mind. I asked the speaker, our family patriarch, to look at the monk in a different way. 

I asked, "Hasn't he been doing this for twenty years?"

What I meant was, our monk isn't a crazy twenty-something who's throwing his college degree away to live like a kooky Buddhist and disappoint his family. He is a grown man who leads a peaceful life, even if that life is one the rest of us struggle to relate to.

At the top of this post, I asked all of us to think about why we read, listen to, and tell stories. This experience answers some of that question for me.

We tell stories to understand life and the world around us. The way we describe an experience shapes and is shaped by how we feel about what happened. Sometimes, as with my family, we need to stop telling the story in a way that has become habitual, and create a new narrative.

As writers for children, it is our responsibility to be aware of the power not only of story (plot), but of how it is told (word choice and tone). The words we use as storytellers profoundly shape young readers' and listeners' points of view.

Here is a poem for Poetry Friday, "Call Me by My True Names" by Thich Nhat Hahn

Call Me by My True Names

Do not say that I'll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his "debt of blood" to, my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all
walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh gives a beautiful reading of the poem in this YouTube clip.

This is a lot to think about, Writerlies. I welcome your feedback.


Regina Sokas said...

Very thought provoking. How do I tell my own story? As a therapist, I hear people tell their stories all the time. So much sadness. (People rarely come to therapy to share joy.)I wish I had a little more of the Buddah in my outlook.

Linda B said...

First of all, Laura, thank you for writing what must be a challenging post to share. I suspect there are others who will make a personal connection to these words of what I might call "averse to change". We write & tell stories to make sense of our worlds, yet it is tragic that so many hold onto fixed beliefs, cannot (or will not) open to the new. I find that expectations for being a widow are varied, and am surprised that I now face questions I never thought I needed to answer. People do not enjoy discomfort, & change in their expectations cause discomfort. I prefer finding those who open their arms & call me by 'all my names'. Thanks also for the video of the poem-lovely!

Author Amok said...

Regina, I think that's the key question: How do I tell my own story? Do you think that children's literature helps young adults figure out just that?

As a therapist, how do you help people adjust the way they tell their stories -- either to give a little distance if they are in pain, or to lose a label that isn't working?

Author Amok said...

Thank you, Linda. I was reluctant about this post. I want to discuss this issue without judging "How It Is Told" in my family, instead focusing on how we can use different words.

I am not surprised that people carry a lot of beliefs around the word "widow." Sending you an open armed hug!

Linda B said...

This really opened up things for me as a teacher too, about presenting a book with a particular stance, even if I believe in that stance, how to present it as 'one part' of the story, allowing the students to hold the experience until they can grow up and continue to gather more information? It is, was moreso in class, a continuing thought process of dealing with influence. Thanks Laura-really made me think about this again!

Amy LV said...

Laura, I was touched deeply when I read this article in prevention the other day, and your post helped me to connect the story to stories in my life and too, the way I tell stories and use language. Thank you for once again seeing through something, bringing it to light. This poem, too, is beautiful and so true. I feel grateful to be a part of your community here. xo

Author Amok said...

Linda "allowing the students to hold the experience until they can grow up and continue to gather more information" is something I struggled with as a young HS teacher. I thought I was student-centered, but I was really enamored with all the knowledge I had to share! Teaching poetry with elementary schoolers has taught me to let go and meet the kiddos where they are.

Author Amok said...

Amy -- Thank you so much for your lovely comment. The Prevention article is beautiful. It's just by chance that I read it when I was troubled about our family's response to "our monk." I'm glad the experience is resonating with so many people.

Linda said...

Laura- I'm beginning a unit in my sixth grade reading classes called, "True Identity." So much of how children see themselves comes from who their friends and adults expect them to be. I loved your post. Thank you for reminding me to help my students find their true identities based on who they WANT to be. (I hope this makes sense. It's been a long day!)

Author Amok said...

Linda, it makes complete sense. Your students are lucky you are there to guide them through this. My daughter turned 14 today. We talk a lot about high school, and having the opportunity to reinvent yourself in a setting where no one but you has expectations about who you are. I see and talk to many, many teenagers who need a fresh start in middle or high school for exactly this reason. They need to see themselves as they are, not as the labels others have weighed them down with.

Diane Mayr said...

Thanks, Laura, there is a lot to consider here. At the ripe old age of 64, I still feel the need to reinvent myself. I suppose it's something that means we still have a ways to go! The journey is what's important.

Julie said...

Thanks for this reminder about the choices we make when we tell our stories. My writing students and I always talked a lot about a character's "controlling belief" - that is, the basic way she or he saw the world. Are people good or bad, is life about luck or about hard work, is the glass half full or half empty, is someone who turns away from "success" to study Buddhism becoming joyful and mindful, or is he becoming a loser? What belief guides the characters actions? We could all use a sit-down once in awhile to ask ourselves what our own controlling belief is, and to reflect on how that belief affects the way we present our personal stories to our family and friends. Thanks, Laura - I'm glad for the reminder.

Tabatha said...

Well done, Laura. You pulled these thoughts together excellently. I will add Sister D's book to my list. You reminded me of a poem for Thich Nhat Hanh by Amy Uyematsu called "Tea," which says: [He] Lifts the cup to his mouth,
a man who's been practicing all his life,
each time tasting something new.

Author Amok said...

That's a beautiful line, Tabatha. I'll have to look for that poem.

jama said...

Thank you for this enlightening, thought-provoking post, and for sharing your personal connection to Sister D's story. I love what you said about creating a new narrative. All of us are in a perpetual state of becoming and reinventing ourselves. It's sad and frustrating when people in your own family cling to senseless beliefs. We have to respect each person's choices, even when we don't understand why he or she has made them, and trust that they are doing what they believe they must do.

Robyn Hood Black said...

Powerful post, Laura - thank you for sharing. I am passing along to my husband (a very mindful psychiatrist!) and kids (college) with appreciation for your putting it together.

Tara said...

Just such a powerful post, Laura - and I love the way the two stories overlapped. I also appreciated the way you maintained your family member's privacy, but gave his story respect, compassion, and admiration. The poem was beautiful - it was the essesntial message of both stories.

Tara Hart said...

Laura, This reminds me of Chimimanda Adichie's wonderful TED talk on "The Dangers of the Single Story."

Author Amok said...

Tara H -- Thank you for recommending that TED talk. I will take a look.


Donna Smith said...

Word choice is a powerful tool. Newspaper journalists realize that all too well.
It is ALWAYS best to keep in mind that there is another side to a story, and other ways that something could be said to give a whole different slant on the same facts or "near facts".

Joy said...

Simple is best--Thank you.

Heidi Mordhorst said...

Yesterday there were two stories competing, I felt, in my classroom--the story of our brave hero MLK Jr. and the story of a group of kids who can't quite get it together and their weary teacher. This rich, provocative post reminds me that a) those stories need not compete but complement each other, that bravery and persistence can look many different ways; and b)that each day is another chapter that can begin with joy and hope instead of resistance and resignation.

It's always about love, isn't it?

Liz Steinglass said...

I was really struck by the contrast between the words used to describe sister D and those used to describe your family member. I'm certain my family would use the same ones yours does.
I found this story on NPR about the power of the stories we tell about ourselves fascinating.

Bridget Magee said...

Beautiful and brave post, Laura. Thank your for sharing the importance of story and how it is told.

Mary Lee said...

We have a choice, right? And it makes all the difference to choose to tell our stories in a positive way. Great reminder.

Ruth said...

This is a powerful post. I will be thinking about it for a long time. Thank you.

Renee LaTulippe said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post, Laura. As a non-religious person, It has always amused me to think that my favorite aunt is a Maryknoll nun. She is such a joy and so strong and profound and forward-thinking. I even spent a weekend in the convent with her once and was amazed by the other nuns, many of them having come to the sisterhood as a second or third career. I met microbiologists and Asian studies scholars and nurses (like my aunt) and so on. It was a vibrant, engaging community, completely unlike anything I expected. Even found beer in the fridge! What better way to live your life than by following your own convictions and truth? I wonder how "your monk" feels about the labels placed on him, and if anyone has visited him in his world.

Author Amok said...

Thank you to everyone who resonated with this post. I have appreciated all of your comments. Some of the poems, links, and online talks you've mentioned are wonderful ways to continue the conversation. I'm grateful to all of you for sharing this experience with me.

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Wow, Laura. I'm sorry to be coming to this conversation so late. The power of Thich Nhat Hanh's poem was extraordinary, of course, but well matched by your personal account. Thank you for the honesty and for the insight.