Posted in Storytelling

The Story Gatherer and the Fairy Chairs

For a few weeks now I’ve been grappling with recent rejections. One day I’m strong and tough skinned and two days later, the disappointment at not having sold my novel creeps in and wraps its greasy little paws around my neck.

This morning as I sat in bed with my tea, I asked myself if I was depressed. No, not depressed. I didn’t want to hurt myself or anyone else. I wasn’t planning on staying in bed all day. Joy of life? Well, it was a little compromised, a “down, but not out” sort of thing.

I talk out loud to myself sometimes, a habit that amuses my husband but helps to bring me clarity.

Me: What do you want to do?

Me: Go into town and look for stories. I want to be a story gatherer today.

Me: Okay, take your camera.

So I did. I drove into Lithia Park and began to wander the artisan stands at the edge of the creek. I talked to a photographer who told me about his printing technique. His beautiful pictures were too perfect for my taste, but I appreciated that he’d captured the essence of the trees that shade this area like giant sentries.

I talked to a woman who makes brightly colored pillows and potholders. She told me about how her crafts are only part time and the rest of the time she works for her ex-husband in his construction business. She spoke in glowing terms of how they had found peace with each other.

People’s polite narratives are not that interesting. I long to see the heart of the matter, the source of meaning, fueled by angst and distress. It wasn’t until I got to the third booth, and met the woman who made fairy chairs, that I was ignited by a story.

I snapped a picture of the chairs.”

She pointed at my camera. “You should ask first,” she said with a thin edge of razor like sharpness.

“Sorry. Do you mind if I take a picture?”

She nodded.

“When did you start making fairy chairs?” I asked her.

“I had a life altering experience,” she said. “Something that changed me irrevocably.”

Story. There it is, asking to be felt, asking to connect.

“What happened?”

“Nine years ago,” she began, “my house burned down. I lost everything. I needed to do art so I could heal. I needed to make something from the ashes inside of myself.”

I was enthralled. The violation of expectation had turned this woman’s life on its head. Her heart and soul and been consumed by the flame of that fire. And she’d found her way back, down a path of mourning to the place where fairies dance. Suddenly I knew that I had to have a chair for my writing muse.

Carefully, while believing in magic, I chose the one made of abalone shell. I would put it on my desk, and now my writing muse would have a place to sit. I took a few more photographs and we said our goodbyes.

The essence of the story is this:  the fairy chair lady took brutal loss and morphed it into art, sharing the energy of healing with others. She understood the place of all consuming flame and the ashes left in the wake. Everyone has times when they must pick themselves up and keep moving forward, dust themselves off and find beauty in grief. We are never alone as much as we think we are.

And that, my friends, is the story I gathered in the morning light of a Saturday morning in Lithia Park.

Is there a story that is touching your own heart?  Please share.

2017-02-19 11.31.02

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Freedom

iStock_000012993634XSmallInterstate-5 is the asphalt ribbon of highway winding its self through the state of Oregon, connecting countryside, forest and towns from the southern border all the way to Portland. This corridor will guide the three-hour drive from my home to the Oregon State Penitentiary.

When the Faith and Culture Writers Conference put out a call for original essays to read to the inmates involved in The 7th Step Foundation, I jumped at the chance. The 7th Step is an organization that helps prisoners change while they are in prison and successfully become law-abiding members of their communities upon their release. They have been producing this yearly essay event for a decade. I will be joining five other women in reading essays on the appointed evening.

I am not unfamiliar with the incarcerated population. I spent a few years teaching a creative writing class to women at a detention center in Colorado. Writing is a precious gift to me. It opens a door into an examined life, giving me a place to slow down and sort out my feelings and thoughts. It has grown from the thing that staves off the grief of life and into a thing that now creates stories and novels. I like to share my gift with those who are marginalized. I know all about feeling damaged. In sharing writing with incarcerates, my message is to show them that none of us is ever as broken as we think we are.

An essay entitled I See You and You Matter is what I read to the men of The 7th Step Foundation at the Oregon State Penitentiary. The theme is one of redemption and reinvention. No, I won’t publish it here. Truth is I feel safe sharing so much honesty and vulnerability with a group of inmates, safer than putting the essay out on the Internet where I might open myself to the shaming ignorance of a few. I tell myself that it’s okay to be self-protective.

The room is a large auditorium heated by the 90-degree plus temperatures outside. There is no central air in the 150-year-old facility. The room holds rows and rows of long tables and chairs that face a stage and a podium. I’m glad that the podium is on the floor and not on the stage. Until the event, I have not met my fellow essayists, and they turn out to be a warm, loving group of women with whom I feel close by the end of the evening.

The men of The 7th Step are welcoming, polite, humble and kind. They offer us cinnamon buns and fruit juice. A hundred men, who awkwardly mingle a bit before the presentation. Men who were enjoying a little bit of time away from the grit of prison life. When it is my turn to read, I am met by the open faces of men who are eager to hear hope and inspiration. They sit so still, listening with their hearts. “I see you and you matter,” my essay begins and ends, sandwiched around an account of my personal struggle and redemption.

The time goes by quickly as each woman reads her piece. I am struck that there is a message in each essay for me. We shake hands with the inmates, make small talk. A man reads me two of his poems and gives them to me. They are the most precious poems that I will ever enjoy. Just before the evening comes to an end, the men present us with certificates. My certificate reads: “The 7th Step Foundation, 10th Annual Essay Presentation congratulates Stephanie Raffelock for the essay judged to be the Most Insightful.” Each certificate awarded is different. They include things like most articulate, most inspirational, most uplifting . . . all positive messages, their gifts of appreciation to us. The men begin to line up against the wall. No one has to ask. They will be led back to the small cramped spaces in which they live their lives. I hold a prayer that each one of them will return to the outside world and lead a purposeful and satisfying life. I will go to a hotel off the Interstate and drive home in the morning.

The rumble of the freeway keeps me awake most of the night. I think about prison and just how much freedom there is to lose. I find myself grateful in the morning for the little things of my day, a private shower and sweet smelling soap. A large window, letting so much light into the room, a safe car to make the drive home. I ponder the prison of the mind, the prison of a grieving heart, the places that we all get stuck sometimes.

After a stick-to-your-ribs kind of breakfast, I am on the road by 7:00, following the snaking highway south. My heart is filled with the sense of loss and love. I spend most of the drive saying thank you over and over again. I am grateful for the opportunity to visit the men in prison. Grateful for the opportunity to read to them. Grateful for the husband and dog that wait for me. Grateful that I was given a moment to share what I value so deeply: the hope, comfort, inspiration and joy of the written word.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Change and the Hope of Possibility

iStock_000012181084XSmallGreat things happened this past week. The Affordable Care Act was upheld, gay marriage became a legal right, and the community of Charleston, South Carolina taught us about the power of forgiveness, Grace and unity.

In recent years, I have grown cynical. Never in my lifetime have I seen a President of the United States treated with such disrespect, a thinly veiled and ancient cancer of racism alive and well in Washington and modeled for the rest of the country.

I will never forget the image of Governor Jan Brewster sticking her finger in the President’s face. Whether you agree with President Obama’s policies or not, the rudeness and the ugliness demonstrated by so many in government has been a disgusting display. And our leaders do, in that regard, hold some culpability for what happened in Charleston.

Mr. Mitch McConnell did not care about serving the people, which he was elected to do. Instead he shared with us that his number one priority was to get rid of the black man in the White House. That remains the lowest point of his legislative career. And let us not forget that just recently Ted Cruz was heard to remark (on tape) that there was a “n*gg*er in the White House.” But yesterday, the sun came out and the Mitch McConnell’s and the Ted Cruz’s of the world seemed sadly out of touch, and moreover, insignificant.

For those who watched the President unite a grieving country as he eulogized Reverend Pinkney, was to bear witness to the greatness of a man and the greatness of a nation ready to move forward and evolve.

As the tragic event in Charleston, a full frontal ugliness of racism that sought to divide unfolded, the black community most deeply effected by a young man’s evil act, showed us a dignity of spirit, and a Grace of faith unsurpassed. And you had to be numb or stupid not to be moved by what these individuals taught us as one by one they stood in the light of their truth and uttered the words “I forgive you.” In an instant, leaders from that area of the country led by taking down the Confederate flag, a long time symbol of slavery.

Against this backdrop, the Affordable Care Act took root thanks to a Supreme Court who did their job. This is a cumbersome law, granted, economically unsustainable in its current form. Yet as its roots strengthen, this piece of legislation has the potential to morph and change into a health care system that is less about profit and more about humanity. This law planted the seeds of health care reformation so that one day profits will not be built upon the backs of the sick and injured. Just as President Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights act of the 1960’s had few teeth in its beginning, its results showed this week in Charleston where a black President comforted a nation and a black church that has had more than its share of attack, demonstrated to the entire country what it is to be decent and good.

While the President spoke of equality for all people in his eulogy, the Supreme Court again acted correctly by making legal marriage for gay people the law of the land. It was a week about equality. It was a week about freedom. It was a week about the power of love and it was a week that cracked the armor of  hearts and minds gown cynical by a court that in the recent past corrupted our democracy with its definition of “speech as money” and “corporations as people.” Maybe now as we drink in these past few days, we will find the strength and the voice to undo Citizen’s United and continue to make strides back to the intention of “a government of the people, for the people and by the people.”

The take-away from this week’s news cycle is this: Love is stronger than fear and forgiveness is uniting. All people, regardless of color, sexual orientation, financial status, or political leanings, are at their core, as Anne Frank once wrote, “basically good.”  I feel blessed to have remembered that this past week. For the first time in a long time, I feel hopeful. And in hope there is possibility.