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Campfire Stories

Who hasn’t had the joy of sitting around a campfire singing songs and telling stories? Campfires invite some of childhood’s scariest ghost stories.

Our prehistoric ancestors told stories while they were keeping warm or cooking their dinner around the fire. They didn’t have television or computers to entertain themselves. No social media. They told stories.

One told how he narrowly escaped being eaten by a huge tiger. Another described a cave hidden by a waterfall she found a half-day’s journey west. And one related how he saw a man ambushed by strangers in a narrow valley just before the fishing river.

Stories are how the hunters and gatherers of long ago learned how to survive. If they didn’t listen, they would miss valuable information in the stories of others, and when they were in a similar situation, they might not have time to figure it out on their own. They needed to learn. They required that information. Or die.

We are naturally attracted to story. “Once upon a time . . . ” invites our attention because our brains were designed for survival. It cues our subconscious brain, which is always scanning our environment, discerning what is important and why, and deciding what to do about it.

Story is how our brain processes what has happened before, whether to others or us, and what could happen now or in the future to us or those we care about. Story is possibility.

Around a campfire or at a coffeeshop, in a movie theater or bookstore, it’s all about the story.

Movie Review: Little Women (2019 release)


I rarely see a particular movie more than once for the same reason I don’t often read a book twice: there are so many others and only so many hours to spare. But the new version of Little Women deserved extra hours to appreciate the fullness of the director Greta Gerwig’s vision.

Compiling a narrative from the timeline of intentional backward-and-forward snippets of both the book’s and the real author’s stories is effective, especially since Alcott’s life forms the basis of the novel. Gerwig challenges the moviegoer, trusting us to actively engage in the puzzle she gives.

In the climax of the movie as the sisters giggle over Jo to help her go after her love, the director appears to play with the audience, spoofing romantic comedies. Jo runs in slow motion, with closeups, into the professor’s arms.

This resonates perfectly with Alcott’s selling her heroine to the publisher when she adds the new ending he insists upon. Alcott gave the audience (her publisher) what he wanted just as Gerwig gives her audience (Little Women fans and rom-com fans alike) what they want.

Standing in an observation area closely designed to look like a hospital nursery, Jo/Alcott watches the book’s birth, perfectly illustrating Alcott’s personal sacrifice of a wedding band around her finger for ink stains on her fingers. And becomes the mother of her stories.

If you’ve never read Little Women or seen previous movie versions, you may enjoy seeing this once or twice or three times.

A First Story

The cabin in the northern Idaho woods was warm, but the fireplace needed wood soon. Ellie still lay on the second-hand sofa, trying to relax.

Her belly tightened. She inhaled sharply and held her breath, closing her eyes.  Relax. She forced herself to inhale and exhale into the pain–slow and deep. A minute later, the squeezing subsided. She rubbed her abdomen, eased into normal breaths. She opened her eyes to huge snowflakes framed in the large living room window.

She was beginning to regret insisting Matthew go to Chicago for business that morning. As the first snowflakes of winter fell behind him, she’d shooed him out the door. “Freak snow storm. It’ll be melted by noon,” she told him with a wave of her hand.

But it hadn’t stopped snowing, and it was near dusk.

She pushed herself off the couch, her belly sticking out like an over-inflated basketball. And she wasn’t due for another three weeks. She waddled to the window and leaned her forehead on the cold glass. It was too early for snow.

And, please, it was too early for labor, too.

It’s all new to us …

Handling an emergency sets our actions into automatic motion.

We go into labor or run out of gas on a deserted road. Our elderly parents won’t answer the phone all day–in another state. While hiking, we come upon a bear.

What can we do, especially if the situation is a new one for us?

Or is it? 

Our brains’ database searches for stories we know. Whether in a book or a movie or a family story, we’ve learned from others’ experiences and this is why–to help us in similar situations.

Stories empower us.

Let’s do this …

We become participants in story as we read or watch or listen. We experience what the characters experience–biologically. Our brain lights up in the same areas as if we had been the character ourselves.

Birth stories teach us about miracles and strength.

Coming-of-age stories show us how difficult it can be to grow up while we discover with the protagonist that we, too, are unique and strong.

Love stories give us hope that there is someone for us, someone who understands us and accepts us for who we are.

Adventures allow a safer way to feel the thrill of events for those of us who might not put skydiving or war or swimming with dolphins on our bucket list but might like to try certain thrills.

Mysteries, crime, science fiction, historical and more have their own flavors, and since we all are different, provide us with stories that appeal to our own tastes.

Even contemporary fiction has a wide range to give us a glimpse into different cultures than we are in. Socioeconomic, gender, race, and religion differences–to name a few–blur in the pages of story.

Family stories told around the dinner table or at family gatherings tell us not only where we came from, but inspire us with what our ancestors have overcome.

Ellie’s story

Even though Ellie was alone, she was also the youngest sister of four. She’d listened to her sisters’ and many friends’ birth stories. She’d read, not just childbirth books, but also birth stories, and she knew what to expect.

But more importantly, her brain knew she could do it. In all those stories of other women she’d read about who had given birth, her brain experienced the events as if she were there.

Because of the stories she knew, Ellie knew she could do it. And she did.

Hours later in the early dawn, she rocked her newborn baby. She stroked her soft cheek. And she told her her first story.

What’s the first story you can remember? Do you have a favorite type or genre of story?

When was your Last Letter?

 

When was the last time you got a letter in your mailbox from a friend? A real letter?

Do they even exist anymore?

More likely, your friend sent a quick text, or if you were lucky, an email. Special occasions might net you a card in your mailbox on your birthday, Christmas, or an anniversary. It would be extra special if the friend adds a personal note.

After I sent a friend in Canada a Christmas card with a newsletter and a personal note, I got a letter from her bringing me up-to-date with her past year. I appreciated the letter and news. It made me smile and want to make the time for a visit when the weather gets better.

Letters are ways of telling our stories, usually our current ones, such as telling about family members, significant changes, and trips. We want to both share our own and learn from the letter stories we receive.

Letters have always been special because they take time and thought. But it always has been a great way to connect with others, and so it is extra sad that letter writing is becoming a lost art.

When was the last time you got a letter in your mailbox? Who was it from?

When did you last write a letter?

 

Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master’s Son, set in North Korea, by Adam Johnson is a literary tale about identity and story. The setting, plot, and characters captivate on their own level to bring us a story we can relate to.

Identity

Most of the major characters are unnamed or given a pseudonym. The main character never knows his real name and, in the first part of the book, chooses his own from a list of martyrs. He picks Pak Jun Do and goes by Jun Do (John Doe).

Sun Moon is the actress whose picture Jun Do gets tattooed onto his chest so he wouldn’t be mistaken for a spy, but that is not her real name. It is given to her by the dictator Kim Il Sung who discovers her. Her children have names but never tell them because “[n]ames come and go. Names change. . . A name isn’t a person. . . It’s you that matter, not your names.”

In the second part of the book, Pak Jun Do takes on the identity of another man, Commander Ga, whom he may or may not have killed in self defense. He moves from being the one  “steered by others” who is “trying to escape from their paths” to “a man who steps on the gas” when he puts on Commander Ga’s uniform, rides in his car, and moves into the house Ga had shared with the nation’s movie actress, Sun Moon.

Story

Story is the thread that stitches Jun Do’s narrative together. He is told early in the book that it doesn’t matter who you are in North Korea, all that matters is your story.

When Jun Do names the orphans (and himself), his choice is based on the martyr’s stories. With his kidnapper job, he hears a story (opera), and his spy job enables him to listen to the stories on the short-wave radio, his favorite part of his job.

Whenever a situation occurs that could prove dangerous, Jun Do and his fellow workers make up elaborate stories to share with the government agents who question them. The final part of the book is about an interrogator whose job is writing down people’s stories before erasing their memories with a special machine.  

Madeleine L’Engle in her book Walking On Water states “to write a story is an act of Naming.” Jun Do starts out not knowing his real name, and, by the ending, he is back at that same place.

The government, in trying to extract his story from him, is unable to learn his identity. This powerful government which rules the lives of all its citizens is impotent.

 At the end of The Orphan Master’s Son, Jun Do approaches his lack of name as a changed man.

He embraces this reality because he has written his own story of who he is.

Now he is his story. And he is named.  

 

Why Read Fiction?

People say fiction is only make-believe and those who read it want to escape life. Nonfiction is reality, they say; fiction isn’t. Why waste your time?

It’s true that non-fiction describes life accurately. But fiction shows us truth in a special way.

In story, we enter the world of the tale through words on the page. We use our imagination to understand. We see, hear, taste, touch, and smell what the characters do, and when we do, the narrative comes alive.

Studies have shown that as we read, our brains react as if we are doing the action ourselves. We run on a treadmill at the gym, but if we read a story where the character runs for their life, our brain thinks we are running for our life. Physiologically, we become the character.

As we live the character’s life, we learn. We encounter difficulties, see the world in a new way. Through the story, we understand things about life we hadn’t known.

Fiction can also heal the reader as a character overcomes wounds, mistakes, their past. Story is a safe place–not to escape the world but to make sense of it.

When a child grows up in a chaotic home, he can, in a story, find a bigger world to give him hope. Reading books is a gift for the future.

Fiction lets us know we are not alone; it is a place to find answers we hadn’t thought of, a place where make-believe becomes the best truth of all.

Love Story

 Love and marriage go together like salt and pepper or shampoo and conditioner. So what happens when the love disappears? Often that means the couple lets the marriage go. But does that make good sense?

If you ran out of conditioner, would you refuse to shampoo your hair? If you ran out of salt, wouldn’t you still add pepper to make your soup taste better?

rosemary garlic pork chops or burgers?

It might take ten years for the loving feeling to change. Or two. Suddenly (or gradually) the wife sees only his shortcomings. Or he finds himself focusing on how she’s changed in ways he didn’t imagine. Oh, no, she not only is beginning to look like her mother but now she acts like her, too.

She realizes they don’t have much in common other than their house and children. For entertainment, he likes to watch or play sports, and she reads or goes to the movies. Even his preference for plain meat and potatoes opposes her desire to cook gourmet meals. Opposites.

me or us?

Without the softening of love, one spouse simply irritates the other.

“Love covers a multitude of sins” is true in marriage. Love filters our spouses’ many imperfections.

Can a marriage survive if the love is gone? Can a couple get the love back so they can be happy in their marriage and as individuals?

fighting and starving equals love?

In the play Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye asks his wife of many years, “Golde, do you love me?” Golde sings back, “Do I what?” She refuses to answer him, replying he’s stressed out with all the turmoil in their family and town.

Tevye asks her again. Golde reminds him she’s washed his clothes, cooked his meals, helped in the family business, and given him children for all the years they’ve been together. She doesn’t think it’s necessary to talk about something like love in that light.

He asks again. She replies, “I’m your wife.” Then she thinks aloud about how they lived, fought, starved, and made love together, ending with “if that’s not love, what is?”

feel or act?

Although Fiddler on the Roof was set in the early 1900s and our ideas about love and marriage have changed, their values are still relevant today.

Tevye talks about love as a feeling; Golde refers to love as action. They know marriage is a mixture of good feelings and the right actions.

Because love is both.

Sometimes we act loving even when we don’t feel like it only because we chose the other person. So we do the right thing regardless of what we really want to do.

surf’s up!

Feelings are like the tide. High tide and low tide, but as long as the moon (our action) is in the sky, low tide gives way to high again. So we can ride the emotions when they are strong, and hasten them back when they are low.

Because as Tevye and Golde tell us, “It doesn’t change a thing, but after twenty-five years, it’s nice to know.”

 

Old Stories Made New

My sister loaned me her Jesus Christ Superstar movie. After I watched it, I was struck by how awe-inspiring the familiar story was–as if I’d experienced it for the first time. When was the first time? I couldn’t remember; it was so deep inside me from such a young age.Because it is so familiar, when I read the old story, I already know the details but lack fresh eyes to truly see.

An early scene in the movie depicts many people clamoring around Jesus. Understanding he is special and can help them, they want, need, demand from him. They hadn’t known of him, but they are ready to find out all they can.

For those of us who have grown up in church hearing about, even coloring pictures of Bible stories, we think we know all about him. We’ve heard those stories before.

If we can go back, imagine we just now heard about this Jesus man, like the people in the movie. Or we just now get dropped back in time with Matthew, Mark, Luke or John where we could hear this new story, where we could see with new eyes.

Then we might truly see. 

Can you think of a story that was retold in a different way, perhaps from a different perspective, that came alive for you?

 

Book Review: Quaker Summer

Book: Quaker Summer by Lisa Samson

This women’s contemporary fiction was more than an enjoyable read. The main character, Heather, is unhappy with her (from the outside looking in) wonderful life but doesn’t understand why she isn’t content.

She struggles with guilt from her past. She leaves her perfect church where it seems everyone there wears a mask. And she goes looking for answers.

In her journey, she finds God. He shows her what she’s missing. Many interesting people and situations enter her life and eventually  point her in the right direction. People she’d never have imagined knowing, like an old Quaker woman and her sister, a nun, some drug addicts, and a drug dealer.

We watch her struggles as she moves forward. We’re there with her when she faces her own ugliness and the beauty of God’s grace. We root for her to risk all she holds dear as she understands what she needs to be truly happy.

The author, Lisa Samson, ties up the ends to both Heather’s past and future in a tangible way. In an interesting way, Heather’s past is redeemed in a subtle way.

The universal themes of forgiveness and grace make this story important for anyone who has ever needed them. And, in the way a character from a book can do, Heather can be a best friend, showing us things about ourselves we may not even know.

 

Book Review: One Thousand Gifts

Most mornings she woke weary, beaten down by dirty floors and crying children and heavy tasks. Her mind looked for escape from what lay ahead: the same as yesterday, tomorrow, and next week. Like a stagnant pond. She worked hard yesterday only to find much that needed to be tackled again. Would her life ever change?

But several circumstances rippled her life’s surface. A dream, a letter, and an email all spoke of death, starting a wave for her to realize she didn’t want to die. She did want to live, but now to live more fully than she had been. Some people she knew seemed to live with joy and peace. But how?

Ann Voskamp, the author of One Thousand Gifts, looked at Jesus’ life and death and saw He gave thanks a lot. He thanked the Father, and the original language for thanks uses the word eucharisteo. The root of eucharisteo means grace, a gift we don’t deserve, and more still, a derivative of that root is joy. Joy and grace and thanks are intrinsically linked like a braided rope. A strong rope.

Our life is a gift of God’s grace, and as we thank Him for it, we are filled with joy. We live fully. Thanksgiving introduces grace and joy into our lives.

Ingratitude, ungratefulness. Adam and Eve fell prey to this in the garden. They were discontent with what God gave them so they coveted more. Satan, also, fell from Paradise because he wanted to be more than he was. We all want more. More possessions, more fun, more money. Whatever we have never contents us. We are driven to get more.      

Of the ten lepers, only one went back and thanked Jesus for his healing. And what did Jesus say? “Your faith has made you whole.” (ASV) His healing was complete, fuller. The others were healed, too, but this one received more. When we give thanks in everything, we prepare the way for salvation’s complete restoration. To be fully whole, we must give thanks for everything.

Many times Jesus thanked God for bread and fish, resulting in miraculous bounty to feed the multitudes with Him. God multiplied whatever He was thanked for. The people had all they needed and more from God.

When Jesus offered thanks on the night he was betrayed, He thanked God for all that was to come, including his death. This invites us to give thanks for all that God allows in our lives, even our death. Dying daily to ourselves, our selfish desires, and giving thanks for it? Sounds painful. And hard.

But Jesus came that we might have life and have it more abundantly, more fully. So we thank Him, trusting Him to multiply our everyday blessings. We thank Him because He is good even if our situation looks bleak, and we confidently expect He remains in control of our lives, eager to exchange our thanks for abundant life.

So our lives can change, no longer a stagnant pond. A new attitude — Thank you, Lord —  bursts free those same daily routines, becoming gifts, becoming joy.