Thursday, January 14, 2010

Stories

I have been mulling over stories the past few day. I used to not understand the power of the written or spoken word, and that wasn't because I hadn't thought about it. I knew that the printing press changed everything and that wars were fought over the Bible, but I didn't understand why. I am a little slow, but I think I am figuring it out at last.

I guess it started with the realization that Mormons are perhaps slightly paranoid and then trying to figure out the source of the paranoia. As I dredged through my own memories, I could think of several small instances when people responded negatively to my religion. Teasing, distance, and concern for my soul have been the most common responses, but nothing to really bolster up a healthy need for paranoia. And then other memories came, not of my own experiences, but of stories that I have been told.

Of course the one I heard most as a child was about William Walton Burton walking six miles to see Rachel Fielding and then being so shy he merely asked for a glass of water and walked six miles home. And then when he finally got up the nerve to propose to her, she said he had to marry her older sister too and then when the youngest was old enough he married her too.
(C├ęsar used to tell me "Sweetheart, you have some strange stories.") I guess that story was one about my ancestors that was considered appropriate for children.

Later I learned about a white haired (some number of greats) grandfather coming out with a white flag, being shot anyway, and then hacked to pieces with corn knives and thrown down a well during the Haun's Mill massacre. Ancestors in the Martin and Willy Handcart companies froze in the mountains because they left for Utah too late in the summer. Widowed relatives nearly starved to death even after making it to Utah.

Every Mormon descended from pioneer ancestors has stories like that, but I started wondering why that should cause paranoia. It was a long time ago that those things happened. But then from another perspective it was not so long ago really. After all, there are still people alive today who knew some of the pioneers those things happened to. They heard the stories first hand and they tell them the same way they heard them. Some of the stories are written down, but reading them isn't the same as hearing grandparents tell it just the way they were told, by the ones who survived.

There are happier stories too. Like when the pioneers were starving and a flock of quail landed there in front of them and the birds didn't even try to escape as they became a winter time feast. Hundreds of letters telling the story were recently displayed in SLC along with feathers from the quail.

Then I started thinking about the Middle East, the unending wars, and I bet the people there have stories too.

And then two of the loveliest, kindest people that I ever worked with, who refused to speak to each other because one was Pakistani and the other Indian. I bet they have stories too.

I have been thinking about stories a lot for the past few days. There is a lot of power in stories, especially when they are told to us. They tie people together like links in a chain that extends through time and travels great distance.

World War II was always a confusing and strange thing to me until it got explained to me with stories. The first stories I heard were the ones about concentration camps. For the longest time I had the strange idea that the war was fought because of the concentration camps, which seemed like even worse places when I realized that they weren't the cause of the fighting. Other parts started coming alive when I saw Grandpa's war medal and asked him what it was. I was shocked when he, the most mild-mannered and quiet of men, started telling me about parachuting out of a plane, escaping the occupied Netherlands through the Dutch underground, and running for his life from men shooting at him with machine guns. Hearing from my grandpa that he had ever been shot at ever, let alone with machine guns, seemed almost surreal. And then the war in the Pacific came to life when I found the name of my Great Uncle, Arno Kerske on the list of people rescued from the Cabanatuan prison camp after surviving the Bataan death march. He hadn't written the story down, but other survivors had. Their stories became especially real as I found some of his medical records and realized that the stories told of him getting beaten until his kidneys came loose were true since kidney failure ultimately resulted in his death. World War II is very real to me.

I have been wondering about stories and their place in a politically correct society. Is it okay to talk about people getting hacked up with corn knives? Probably not, as it makes people feel paranoid. But on the flip side, there is compassion. It seemed that President Hinckley tried to push Mormons in the direction of compassion rather than paranoia as he emphasized the importance of pioneer history. President Monson certainly does that. He is a master story teller and a tremendously compassionate person. Every time he tells a story, it is to move people towards compassion.

Last night, I went to Relief Society Meeting. We have a new RS presidency and the members of it are practical people. The topic of the meeting was choosing books for children. Poverty and illiteracy are high in Merced and children don't get read to very much in a lot of families. A principal from one of the elementary schools talked about good books for children and where to find them and then she gave away books to the people who attended. My favorite part of the meeting was when it was mentioned that President David O. McKay, the prophet, referred to the great masters of literature as minor prophets. He didn't explain why he called them that, but when one considers the power of stories, I think that it becomes clear.


1 comment:

Carroll said...

Wonderful insights! I like what you are thinking about. This also well written, as I read it I want to read more and finish it. You are remarkable!