Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Story of Jack and Norie

"Disheveled Saint," by Brian Kershisnik

Today is the national day on writing. So here are my thoughts about why writing matters: Story is the heart of writing, and stories are the food we live on from the time we are very young. They are the crumbs dropped from the beaks of our mothers into our open, eager mouths as we nestle into our pillows and words flow over us, creating strange images in our minds and mysterious stirrings in our souls. These stories become a part of us and create our worldview. Each life is a story composed of all the stories that have fed it. When I was young, I would ask my mother to tell me stories, and she would. When she was tired, she would say this: “I’ll tell you a story of Jack and Norie, and now my story’s begun. I’ll tell you another of Jack and his brother, and now my story is done.” And I would groan. “Please, mom.” And she would smile and kiss my forehead. Now I am a father, and when I am tired, I tell my children very short stories—one sentence stories about the births of butterflies or the flights of whales or the smells of gardens. And sometimes they groan. And sometimes they smile. A story does not have to be elaborate, but we are creatures that crave narrative.

One of my favorite writers suggests that perhaps God invented time so that there might be narrative: creation, fall, atonement. Incarnation, resurrection, return. Hope and miracle. These are all stories. And stories connect us. They are a form of communion. In a very real way, we share stories. While I took the sacrament today, my son held up to my attention a piece of bread roughly the shape of Chile. It was the longest, biggest piece in the tray, and I could tell it felt like victory to him. He smiled and said, “Dad, do you remember the story of the Last Supper? It was Jesus’s last night and He broke the bread and gave them water.” (We are Mormons, and so we remember the wine as water, you know?) “Yep.” “And then He died.” “Yep.” “And do you remember the story of the five loaves of bread and the two fishes? Jesus fed five thousand people.” “Yep.” These are stories we share, of the bright, gentle Son of God wandering around the plains of Judea, feeding people. We ate these stories together, my son and I, as we chewed small pieces of bread and sipped from small cups of water.

We share the story of the young curious farm boy who wandered into the woods and cracked open the heavens, who talked with God and spent the rest of his life telling people that God wanted to talk with them, too. Who gave his life for his witness that God is not so different from us, or we are not so different from Him. This story made a people. We are part of that people. It continues to make us, to teach us our value in the eyes of the Holy One of Israel.

I tell my children stories so they will know me. One recent Sunday night I asked them if they wanted a mission story. “Yeah!” shouted my two oldest. “I want a fight story,” Oliver said. “Do you want a mission fight story?” I asked. “Yeah!” they all three said. I told them the story of one of my mission companions who grew up in Mexico City and whose brothers were car thieves for a living. He told how he sometimes rode in the backseat of the stolen cars as a young boy and how he remembered them speeding across the border into the Distrito Federal, being pursued by police officers. This companion’s name was Elliott, and he had seen some things, let’s say. The companion he had before me had said something Elliott didn’t like, and Elliott punched him in the face. That’s how he and I became companions. That was the fight I had promised to tell my children about. But the story was really about how much this kid taught me about love. We would get on our bikes and ride past all the houses and out through the countryside and stop on bridges and watch turtles sunning themselves on rocks. Some of my favorite memories of Mexico are those bike rides with Elliott, sunning ourselves like turtles on rocks. But when we went far enough out, we found very small communities of outlying people. And one day we knocked at the fence of a small house with a big yard and lots of chickens, and we met Claudia. She was blind and she had two daughters, and they craved the stories we told about God’s love and God’s attentiveness to human cries. About pillars of light and the warm voice of God. They were baptized and each week made the long journey to the church in the city to hear more of these stories. I left that area shortly after this. I did not speak Spanish very well then, and I did not think this little family would remember me. Elliott was the one who taught them the stories, really. Elliott was the one who loved them so very much. But about two years later, I returned to Mexico with my parents, and we drove a car out to the little fence around Claudia’s house and banged on the fence. Claudia came feeling her way out of the house. “Hola, hermana!” I cried. “Taggart?” she said, a smile slowly creeping across her worn face. “How did you know?” I asked. “How could I forget the voice of the boy who taught me the stories of God?” As I told my children this story, I cried. Six-year-old Emerson began to cry as well. And then Lydia. Oliver looked at us, and said, “Stop crying!”

So we write to tell stories. Because stories matter. Stories matter more than we can put into words. So we tell stories. And we write so that the stories do not die with us. We write to connect, to commune. That is why we write.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Six Hours

"Thorn and Sparrows" by Brian Kershisnik
A boy who usually comes late and almost never says anything stood up at the front of the classroom and looked at the other students in the class and said, “I want to tell you a story.” The story was about his great uncle. “I wasn’t really close to him,” he said, “but I really loved him. He lived on this big field, this farm. He always laughed. He made everyone laugh. He was my grandfather’s brother. He was very old. He was out walking, and something happened to him and he fell down, he like collapsed. He could not stand, and his wife did not know where he was. He lay on the ground in his field for a very long time and it was cold and then his wife finally found him and took him to the hospital. My family went to sit with him at the hospital, and we were all, you know, crying and stuff, because the doctors said that he was going to die. He was very old.” The boy looked in the eyes of the other students and then looked away and continued his story. “He was telling jokes and we were laughing and crying. I mean, he was dying and he was making people laugh. He was such a nice person. And then he said, ‘Why are you all crying? Isn’t it time for General Conference? Somebody find a TV.’ So we found a TV and set it up in his bedroom. And he was dying and he just wanted to listen to the prophet, and he was so happy all the time, and I thought, ‘I maybe should want to watch Conference.’ So next time I am going to watch it more. And now I know he’s up there with God. And, well, that’s really all I wanted to say.” He sat down and no one said anything. But they didn’t really need to. He had pretty much said it all.

And then this big old football player boy said, “Well, I was going to play a song on the piano, but since my, you know, my concussion, I don’t remember some things too well. And I can’t really read music, but I have played since I was three just by ear, and I, well, I’ll just play what I can remember.” And he sat and played something that sounded like grace. Why does it always surprise me when boys like that have magical fingers?

And a girl said, “You know, the scriptures don’t really say what the angel did in the Garden of Gethsemane to comfort Christ, just that an angel came and comforted Him. And I kind of wish it said how he did it because I have a lot of friends and some in my family who struggle with depression, and I sometimes wonder what I can do. But I think I might know some of what the angel did. My dad has this sign by his bed that says, ‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’ And I think sometimes people just need us to stand there, by them. You know? They just need to know straight up that we are going to love them no matter what. And then we need to actually do it. To make good on our word.”

And a boy who grew up in Samoa and has more cousins than I have days on my calendar said, “When I was ten my mother died, and ten days later my best friend died. And it was in the tenth month. And so now people ask me why I always choose the number ten for my football jersey, and I tell them about my mom and my friend. And some people think that’s weird, but it’s like, I don’t want to forget them, and the number ten reminds me of them and makes me want to play better and to be better because, like, I know they are looking down on me, and, well, I want to, you know, make them proud and live to see them again. And I know I will. So ten is a hopeful number to me. I don’t know if you get it, but it is.”

And a big, strong, silent boy said more words than I’d ever heard, and I had never noticed that he sort of has a lisp, and it made me wonder if that’s why he’s so strong and so silent. And it made me wish I had known he had a lisp before today. Man, have I never heard him say enough words to know that? You know?

And another quiet boy—the younger brother of two boisterous, gregarious boys I have taught before, a boy who one day told me, “I am not my brothers”—this boy said, “Everybody gets sad. And if the great sorrow has not descended on you yet, you are not off the hook, because it might one day. You never know, you know? So you kind of have to be patient with people. And you have to know that God always loves you, you know?”

And a girl told about her friend who doesn’t believe in God and this girl in my class “sort of tricked her,” as she said, to come to her grandma’s house and listen to the apostles speak at Conference. And in the first talk this atheist girl heard, someone shared that scripture from Matthew 22: “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” And this girl in my class looked over and her friend was crying. “And she’s sort of a tough girl, and she never cries. And I asked her why she was crying. And she just said, ‘That scripture was the most beautiful thing I have ever heard.’” And that girl in my class sat down, and we all sat there thinking about that. The most beautiful thing she had ever heard. Love. Love was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard. And I sat there thinking that it was probably the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, too. You know?