He knelt on the cold concrete of his cell as a chorus of coughs and curses, the prisoners’ psalm to darkness, began to decrescendo after midnight. Out of the depths of his own lungs he felt a tremor, a tectonic shift, a guttural, diaphragmatic contraction, the stirrings of a call and response from breath to the clay of his wracked body, bent like hot iron in the furnace of shame; his desperate hopes boiled to the bone in a cauldron of condemnation; he fell away into this pit called “home,” and his tears made an ashen paste of the pardon he’d longed for, but never felt he deserved. Into the eviscerated cavity of himself, sorrow poured its salve. But, in this, he knew no balm. Then, from the corner of an eye he saw a hooded figure; no warden, no inmate, but a strange, silent witness to his torment. The figure, only partially revealed in the soft light of a dangling fixture outside his cell door, seemed to emit a sanctity he had never known, and the ambient air was imbued with truth. In this mysterious presence, he remembered the words his grandmother had spoken to him years hence, of the call of Abraham, the father of faiths, one ancient, starlit evening. “He believed the Lord,” so the scripture goes, “and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Righteousness through belief. The pardon he had longed for. But could it be so? His soul was spent save for this singular desire for mercy. Then, a voice sounded from the edge of the darkness… “My child, I have known the chambers of your contrite heart. And I have seen that your remorse is true. Now, please believe this… you are forgiven. Live in the freedom of Love.” The figure then vanished with no trace but for the subtle, swinging motion of the crooked light just beyond the cell door. His body then quaked in torrents of weeping, as he lay on the unforgiving hardness of the cell block floor. The warden on duty shouted, “Silence!”, suddenly feeling the faintest breeze, like warm breath on the back of his neck. For a moment, as the voice of the whimpering prisoner called out to the concrete and iron of the cell block halls, the warden thought he heard someone whisper… “I believe. I believe. I believe.” Then he nodded off to sleep.
“To tell one’s own story, a person needs others’ stories. We were all, I realized, wounded storytellers.” —Arthur W. Frank
In the wells of our lives, we hold the stories of others, each one of its own unique hue.
When I am the privileged hearer of another’s story, I am changed, and the other is changed, cross-imbued with eachothers’ shades, validated by shared truths. I then carry those colors, drawing from them, in part, to make the art of my life.
After the telling, a storyteller, with her inner eye, may be able to perceive a part of herself, her narrative, in the one who listened, who heard, who let his own colors be shaded by another.
Thus, the storied shades of lives twine together in patterns that beautify from the inside out, salving the wounded world.
To read and to reckon with “no’s” in the book of life’s “yes’s”— whose indelible ink cannot be blotted; to discover one’s own dark words, guttural groanings of night, death’s doglegging of one’s pages; to see each story as a tale of the self with different covers… the hero’s myth played out de novo, each memory, a new-old chapter’s script— is to know the epiphany of music, when flat words waltz into lyrics, and paper “no’s” turn to black keys, grace notes in every ballad of “Yes.”
“Honey, old Papa doesn’t have much of that. But, come to think of it, here’s a little tidbit. Just tuck this one away somewhere, and it may show itself later when you least expect it…”
“Learn to recognize your own soul.
You’ve met it before, dear. But you may not have recognized it. It could have fluttered past your eyes like a butterfly or moth, or fallen gently on your nose like a raindrop that finally broke free from a leaf above your head. Then again, it could have looked like the gray earth after a rainless summer, or the sunrise on that mountain you loved on our family trip last year. Some time in the future, it may look like a rosebud on a gravestone, or a letter you saved from a departed friend. It might resemble long-lost love, turning to run back to you, or a strangely glowing cloud of darkness when you’re weary of searching for light.
Learn to see it, and when you do, don’t be afraid to cry.”
“Goodness, no, child. Why would you ask Papa something like that?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I messed up. If I lost myself for some reason, and maybe made poor decisions, or found myself in a weak spot, or not knowing which way to go. Something like that. Does it make sense?”
“Yes, I think it does, dear. It’s natural for us to ask such questions, to wonder about such things. We all want to be our best selves, to be in control of our responses to life and to make good decisions. And we usually can do those things. But sometimes, life can throw things at us that can catch us in a bad place and overwhelm our toolbox, and we may find ourselves searching, ashamed and afraid. No one else can quite understand the reasons another person may be where they are at a given moment. But dear, here is what I want you always to remember… Papa knows who you are inside. He loves you, and always will. And he will never, ever give up on you. There is nothing you could do and nowhere you could be that Papa’s love will not find and hold you and support you. And do you know what? Someone did that for old Papa once upon a time, when he had the same questions that you do.”
“Thank you, Papa. You make me feel better. I love you.”
A little family made its way through rain. Green-wooded father caught wind drops of cold, fear-filtering the world of the mother-nestled child— a tiny bird house holding three fresh eggs of robin-blue— as spring’s first shower wept for winter through the louvered nursing home window at nap time.