Happy Ending: There’s A Story Behind All Good Play

I’ll never forget how they came raffishly crashing out of the woods—bits of sticks and leaves poking out of their hair. My sister all wild-eyed and flushed. My little brother trailing dutifully behind.

“We found a man!” Chris said, eyes darting from my face to the hills behind me as if said man would appear at any moment.

“What?” I asked, not fully understanding. I had only just come outside, curious as to what my siblings were up to. My stomach twisted in disappointment at the thought of missing out on their obvious adventure. These were the things lost to me when I spent my mornings with my nose buried in a book.

My sister and brother proceeded to tell about an old hermit they stumbled upon in the woods. He lived in a giant oak tree just beyond the border of the woods, they said. Chris had talked to him for a while and the man told her his name was Hermrette. He said he didn’t much care for people; that’s why he lived in the woods—trying to get away from the prying eyes of others.

“What did he look like?” I asked her.

He was old, she said. With a long white beard. An image of Rip Van Wrinkle floated around in my mind. “Did you talk to him?” I asked my little brother. Benji suddenly looked shifty. “I just saw a little bit of him,” he said, avoiding my eyes. “I was across the creek when Chris found him.”

“But you saw him, right?” My sister prodded.

“Yeah, I think so,” Benji responded, smiling convincingly at both of his big sisters.

We were in elementary school when this grand adventure unfolded, the precise ages now fuzzy in my mind. But we’re all two years apart, so it’s likely we were five, seven, and nine. Or maybe six, eight, and ten. Who knows? We were young enough to practice expansion of belief—to open our minds wide enough to allow the possibility of the story to take root in our hearts. The story is the thing that sticks. We had our very own wood hermit, and though none of the rest of us ever saw him, he was as real to us as the trees. Many follow-up expeditions ensued, with my sister trying to retrace her steps back to Hermrette’s tree-house.

We never found him again, of course, and our young minds surmised he had moved on to another tree—chagrined at being discovered. To this day my siblings and I smile in warm remembrance of that elusive recluse.

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When I was young I found my greatest adventures in books. I couldn’t string two words together without tripping over them in conversation, but I grew up hiding behind the words of others. Tucked under the pages of books, I felt safe. Maybe this was one reason why—when I was 12 and my parents divorced— for a little while I carried my Bible with me everywhere I went. My world was falling apart, but I would cling to this: the One Thing I knew would not change. It was the first time I would read those words cover to cover—not understanding much of them, but clinging, breathing in their life. They were real. Concrete. Stories to live by.

Children know intuitively that stories help us make sense of the world. Stories have a way of opening us up to deeper truths hidden in our experiences. Children always weave a narrative around their play—whether inner or outer. It might be the tale of a wood hermit, or the girl who wants to be known as the fastest bicyclist ever, or the boy who finally scores more points than his big brother. Children use stories to name themselves; they use stories to learn about their world—to work through complex questions that are so deeply buried in their unconscious they cannot articulate them.

Isn’t this still true in our grown-up lives? Don’t we still weave our living around stories? It’s the running dialogue in our heads, the words that lead the moving toward the big goal, the idea of the happily ever after…We live out the stories we tell ourselves. This is what I tell my patients every day I see them: It matters what we say to ourselves. My field of psychology has a technique called cognitive restructuring in which we teach people to identify maladaptive thoughts and restructure them into more beneficial ones. We teach them to rewrite their internal narrative—their story.

Why is that internal narrative so important?

In an article called The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains, Leo Widrich says, “A story can put our whole brain to work.” He says:

If we listen to a powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part in the brain gets activated. Scientists call this Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.

But when a story is added, everything changes.

“Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.” (Widrich, 2012)

Chip and Dan Heath, those writing-partner brothers, call this “a kind of geographic simulation of the stories we hear.”

[W]e cannot simply visualize the story on a movie screen in our heads; we must somehow simulate it, complete with some analogue (however loose) to the spatial relationships described in the story … studies suggest there’s no such thing as a passive audience. When we hear a story, our minds move from room to room. When we hear a story, we simulate it … (Heath, 2008)

This simulation in our minds gets us ready for action. When more of our brain is drawn into the story, it reaches beyond an intellectual level…it reaches the heart. If you feel skeptical as you read this, go spend some time with the kids. The unselfconscious way they immerse themselves in pretend play will open your eyes. Stories have a way of engaging the whole self.

This reminds me of an ancient Jewish teaching story that I read in Annette Simmons’ book The Story Factor. It goes like this:

Truth, naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. Her nakedness frightened the people. When Parable found her she was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Parable gathered her up and took her home. There, she dressed Truth in story, warmed her and sent her out again. Clothed in story, Truth knocked again at the villagers’ doors and was readily welcomed into the people’s houses. They invited her to eat at their table and warm herself by their fire. (Simmons, 2001)

Story is a thin place. Writer Mary DeMuth says this about such a place:

The Celts define a thin place as a place where heaven and the physical world collide, one of those serendipitous territories where eternity and the mundane meet. Thin describes the membrane between the two worlds, like a piece of vellum, where we see a holy glimpse of the eternal—not in digital clarity, but clear enough to discern what lies beyond. (DeMuth, 2010)

When we hear a good story—one that reveals Truth with a capital “T”, the holy comes close. You’ve felt that, haven’t you? After reading a good book, seeing a movie that makes you cry, or watching someone you know live a courageous story. It touches a place deep inside. And God is there.

 

The above is a modified excerpt from my book, Playdates with God: Having a Childlike Faith in a Grown-up World, copyright 2014. Used with permission from Leafwood Publishers, an imprint of Abilene Christian University Press. All rights reserved. In the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some thoughts on play and featuring excerpts from my book in honor of Play it Forward, the workshop Laura Brown and I will be teaching this spring and summer. If you want to rev up your creative life, play is one tool that works! Read more about our workshop here, and feel free to ask me any questions you might have. 

In Praise of Fiction

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While skirting the headlines of the local paper last week, I was delighted at a little gem tucked away at the bottom the front page. The article chronicled a London theater group’s attempts to determine if being exposed to Shakespeare would increase milk production in a herd of dairy cows. The Changeling Theatre Company performed scenes from The Merry Wives of Windsor for Friesian cows at a Kent dairy farm.

“We selected scenes from the play we felt to be lyrical and relaxing,” said Rob Forknall, artistic director for the group.

Milk production was found to increase by four percent. It is believed that exposure to the Bard’s work relaxed the cows, therefore boosting milk production. I’ve never read Shakespeare to bovines, but I can vouch for the relaxation effect of a good piece of literature. Stories soothe the wild beast. And, um, the more placid, cud-chewing, lactating one (apparently).

When I was a girl, there were no books in my home. When money is tight and the library too far away, Dr. Seuss takes a backseat. There was no toddler lap time with eyes focused on colorful pages. No picture books with single words to jump start my reading skills. No sing-songy poems to capture my attention. No books. But there were plenty of stories.

At night when my mother tucked us in, she would always give us a bedtime story. Mostly, she offered well-known fairy tales—Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs—but sometimes she would spin her own. These were always the favorites. She was an animated storyteller—changing her voice with each character, giving sound effects where indicated. My brothers and sister and I would cocoon together in the dark, eyes wide with the wonder of pages of pictures turning in our heads.

That is where my love for story began. I learned to read with Dick and Jane in the first grade. But the decaying school I attended those first years of grammar school had no library. Still no books. Then, the summer before my third grade year, that old school building was condemned and the kids from our hollow were transferred. The first time I entered the library at Adamston Elementary, I was astounded. The walls were made of books and books and books and I had never seen anything like it. That library is where I found Nancy Drew, traveled to Narnia and The Island of the Blue Dolphins. It’s where I first experienced A Wrinkle in Time and spied my first Little.

That library was a place for a shy girl from an impoverished family to find new friends. Reading opened up the world for me. I learned about other cultures and other ways of life while nestled in  a small country lane in West Virginia. It connected me to the world in ways that simply were not available to me at the time. Reading showed me possibility.

I have carried my love of a good story with me through the years. There are few things I enjoy more than spending a free afternoon  with a well-written novel. But a good story is more than a warm fuzzy feeling. It is widely regarded that reading fiction helps develop imagination in young children (and probably adults … know anyone who can use some improving in this area?). Some maintain that reading novels is a more engaging way to improve vocabulary and thus improve scores on standardized tests. There is much documentation of the benefits of reading fiction for stress relief and improved mental health. Research by psychologist Raymond Mar found that fiction readers have better social skills and more empathy than those who purport to only read nonfiction. One study even suggests that reading fiction can change our personalities.

A well-crafted story reminds us that we are part of something larger than ourselves. It’s the reason humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time. Stories help us make sense of the world and understand who we are. As researcher Keith Oatley says, … fiction is about possible selves in possible worlds. Anyone who has ever been swept into an imaginary world and emerged to find himself changed in some way understands this very well.

Reading fiction enriches the way we experience life. We are, after all, each writing our own story in the way we live our lives. As for me, I plan on bringing some Shakespeare along the next time my phobic son has an orthodontist appointment. I just won’t make it MacBeth.

This article first appeared in variation at The High Calling.

Playdates with God: College Summit

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One of my fellow Writing Coaches, Jamecia. What a gifted and passionate young lady she is.

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There were about 39 kids in our workshop, from various schools and counties.

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Here I am with our Writing Coach Coordinator, Lionel. He is awesome.

I look into his dark eyes and think about my own children—this brown-skinned boy who towers over me is someone’s son, someone’s grandson. I don’t know all of his story; but I have watched him shine among his peers for four days—boldly daring to step out from the crowd and be noticed.

For the past few days, I’ve been volunteering at a College Summit Workshop. College Summit is a non-profit organization whose mission is to “transform the lives of low-income youth by connecting them to college and career.” It was founded on the belief that every student deserves the chance to go to college. Through them, at-risk kids from at-risk communities all around the country are invited to stay on a college campus and work with volunteers to learn about financial aid and the college application process, craft a college application essay, help a college coach compile a list of possible schools to apply to, and grow in confidence that they can further their education.

My job has been as a writing coach to a small group of students—we call them peer leaders, because that’s what they are: leaders. They are daring to believe they can be more than a statistic. They are reaching for more than what their communities have told them they are capable of.

A funny thing happens over the days as I coach the kids. We hear stories of loss and trauma, violence and addiction, abuse and neglect. And we see resilience, strength, beauty. We watch kids of all different color, from diverse backgrounds and stories—we watch as they hug and lean on one another, laugh and cry together, lift each other up and celebrate the uniqueness of one another. As I coach these kids, a funny thing happens. I not only grow to believe in them and their beautiful hearts, but I am reminded to believe in myself also.

These kids teach me about acceptance, about love, about grace. And I begin to understand that our struggles are what make us human in each other’s eyes. I begin to understand once again how important it is to share our stories. This is the only thing that will help us see past skin color and invisible social barriers this world has imposed upon us: Sharing. We were created for each other. To share our stories.

On our last day together we have “closing circle.” The adults and kids join hands and form a circle. Anyone who wants to enter the circle to share words or acknowledgement does so. After that, we form two concentric circles. The volunteers and staff join hands and form a circle, facing out. All the kids join hands and form a circle around us. We stand, face-to-face, and the leader tells us to thank one another with only our eyes. No words. She talks us through this uncomfortable exercise.

“With your eyes, tell this person how thankful you are that they are here. Tell them how valuable they are, and what this weekend has meant to you.” After a time, she tells us to take a step to the left. We make our way slowly around the circle like this, looking into the eyes of each student.

This is how I come to be standing in front of him, this beautiful, sloe-eyed boy who towers over me. The exercise draws to a close and the leader says, “As the music fades, I want you to move toward the person in front of you in any way you are comfortable doing so.” Before I can even take a step he reaches for me. I feel small as the strength of his embrace wraps around me, consumes me. But he whispers gentle words in my ear—a blessing, his gratitude, his heart.

I could be holding one of my sons. It feels like I am.

Every Monday I share one of my Playdates with God. I would love to hear about yours. It can be anything: outside, quiet time. Maybe it’s solitary. Maybe it’s loud and crowded. Just find God and know joy. Click on the button below to add your link. I try to visit a few of your stories every week, so if you are a new visitor, be sure to let me know in the comments so I can welcome you. Grab my button at the bottom of the page and join us.

Laura Boggess