The story blog

All story, all the time.


the sacred space of story

In 1993 while in Brazil working on a project about violence against women, I met a model whose boyfriend had doused her with alcohol and held her over a gas stove. The reporter with whom I was working had arrived ahead of me by days, and my job was to document with photos the lives of the people we were featuring in this part of the project. When a translator introduced me to the model, a black woman with a smile that still radiated beauty from her scarred face, she sent her young son out of the room and closed the door. Then she took off her clothes and through the translator told me to look at her body, a canvas of skin furled and tightened by flames.

I misunderstood. Thinking she wanted the damage documented I raised my camera. But, no, that wasn’t it, she told the translator. This, she made clear, was for me only, so that I could see what this man had done to her. Though I was there in the role of documentarian, this moment did not make it onto film. Still it lives with me because it was an instant in which she shared something of herself and trusted me with it. I can’t put words or thoughts in her head, but I believe that she simply wanted to connect with me so that no matter what else I might photograph of her life I should remember that she was human.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that narratives – in this case, the bit of story embodied in damaged flesh – have an inherent power whether they are witnessed by one or by thousands. And that power lies in the ability to form a connection among humans.

Over the summer, I led a small group of women who sought to put into words a significant moment in their lives. Over the course of seven weeks we sat around a table and through readings, writing exercises, and group feedback, each woman drafted a personal narrative. Sure, they want to publish their work. But I think that in this process they also sought to make sense of these stories, to see how they’ve shaped their lives over the years and to come to terms with these significant events. And, they wanted to share these stories with others.

One of the pleasures of this class was that while we all come from different walks of life, we experienced compassion for one another and for our disparate life journeys. Like the Brazilian woman with whom I shared little beyond our gender and the knowledge that because of it, others will discriminate against us, our class was filled with moments when the spheres of our lives touched, where we could share a bit of common ground.

The weight of how stories connect us to one another is something that I also explored with high school students at a literary festival earlier this year. The annual event exposes students to the likes of Billy Collins, Anchee Min, Michael Chabon, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Tobias Wolff, among other literary stars. In my small role I led several classes in which the students mined their own lives for story. Though I’ve done this several times before, I approached the classes differently this year.

We did a series of timed writing exercises and some of them shared the results of the work. They saw how turning off the inner sensor we all carry allowed their minds to go beyond the surface stories they’d taken for granted in their lives. At the end of class I told them that I don’t expect, or even hope, that they will all go on to become journalists, novelists or poets. The point of exploring and sharing these personal stories was to let them see that where they connect with the stories of others is a powerful place. It is where we can recognize one another’s humanity, and sometimes it’s the only place that allows us to see one another not as black, or Christian, or gay, or straight, or liberal or conservative, but simply as people with similar wants and needs. After all, as I told these bright young people, when they are in the working world leading companies, doing scientific research, practicing law, treating patients, or teaching university classes, no doubt there will be people they do not like. And yet, they will have to find common ground in order to co-exist, if not get along. 

In that sense, I believe that these spaces – these touch-points where we explore our commonalities rather than our differences – are sacred. We may not always document these moments into history, but I believe they further the evolution of our souls, and they are a good place to begin the process of understanding. Like the woman in Brazil who disrobed that I might know a part of her story, these moments ask of us: See me. I am human, too.



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