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This might sound strange coming from someone who is a professional writer and teacher of writing: Out here in the middle distance, I have finally discovered that what I love, what truly moves me is a good story. It’s hard to explain and even more difficult to understand, wrapped up as I have been with loss and grief, feeling that stories were far too thin to sustain the psychic and emotional bombardment of the deaths of four loved ones in less than four years.
But stories have sustained me and are now and have always been the stepping stones of my particular spiritual path. The best stories evoke wonder, and the problem with suffering is that sometimes we wrap ourselves so tightly in our own pain that we lose our sense of wonder. A well-told story always brings me back to the land of the living.
Last night I listened to two very impressive religious men, scholars, discuss spiritual practice in Christianity and Buddhism, where similarities and differences arise, what it means to have a spiritual practice. At first, I admit I was a little bored by their theoretical prattle. But my interest peaked when one of the men began to tell a story about a walking practice he devised, in which he strolled down one of the streets of our town, in the city center, and determined that he would behold every sight as a blessing — ugly or pretty, natural or unnatural, deprived, depraved or dilapidated, he would look at it and see it as a manifestation of God’s love.
His story was not so different than mine or anyone else’s, not the Buddhist sitting cross-legged next to him on stage, not the homeless man sleeping under a tree a few blocks north, not the angry man who thinks the world he once knew is going to hell in a handbasket. Not the mother whose child has ended his own life.
What else can we do after all, but look at what surrounds us and embrace it? We might glance away and go screaming into the night, we might rage and wail and wonder why, but this is where we must return or face alienation and madness.
Now I’ll tell you why his story worked. It had a physical setting — Tejon Street in downtown Colorado Springs. It had an interesting character who was confronting a specific conflict of the spirit, a young man with big responsibilities. It had concrete and street signs and sidewalks and sky and flesh and blood. It was of this world, and it was a story about beholding the world in a perpetual state of wonder.
In his book God Laughs & Plays, Montana writer David James Duncan says something I heard again in last night’s conversation: “By deploying cynicism, rationalism, fear, arrogance, judgmentalism, we can evade wonder nonstop, all our lives … It may not be biblically sinful to evade wonder. But it is artistically and spiritually sinful.”
The first time I read this, I had been in a dark place and I had forgotten the gift of stories to channel wonder. Duncan reminded me that the world and all its stories were a gift and I had better well remember it.
This morning, a story woke me up yet again. A student in a class I teach in Denver had sent me his first writing assignment, a draft of a personal essay that looked as if it was going to be about cancer and alcoholism and recovery. As I moved forward through its first difficult paragraphs, I wondered when the story would emerge. And then, in an instant, I was transported to New York City on September 11, 2001, to this man’s office window next to the twin towers just as they were struck. The image he chose was the sound of hundreds of feet in dress shoes, clapping against the concrete stairs as he and his fellow workers fled the building, echoed nearly a decade later in the clip-clop of horses’ hooves as this same man took his two sons horseback riding in Colorado.
Wonder of wonders. I barely know this student, our class just began last week, but this morning I loved him for giving me perspective, for giving his precious story to the world. I kissed my dog, grabbed my keys, walked out to the car, to the clear blue winter sky, to the sight of the big white mountain. And I gave thanks out loud for being alive.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feaest: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.
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