Balancing Our Stories
I’m a natural storyteller, a bard, and I love stories. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to hold a balance of stories in my heart, stories of happiness and love right alongside stories of pain and suffering.
Yesterday, a Facebook friend from childhood shared a post about growing up in Garden City, Michigan. The post was nostalgic for the good old days, days when families ate suppers together of meat and potatoes rather than “fast food”, which was a rare treat, days when children were disciplined with paddles and belts and taught to respect their elders, days when cursing was very rare and a child who experimented with it got her mouth washed out with soap.
I grew up just down the street from the friend who shared the post, and I embrace much of his longing. Ours was a mostly white neighborhood of cookie cutter bungalows built in the early 1950s. My childhood universe was the working-class families who lived in the twenty or so homes that lined Gilman, a wide, paved suburban street. Each house was personalized by the owner’s choice of a front porch treatment and landscaping. My dad built a long, wide concrete porch across ours and installed a black wrought iron railing. Mom planted roses, peonies, and lilacs around the house. My family often sat on the porch at night, eating ice cream.
I can list the surname of every family who lived on the block. We played kick ball or baseball in the road until the streetlights came on. In summer, many of the kids would congregate in the 3’X15′ swimming pool my dad installed behind a redwood fence in the backyard, the first in the hood. If we weren’t in the pool, we were often nestled in the crooked limbs of the big box elder maple tree that stood next to the garage.
I’ve been told my writing is often nostalgic and I think that’s true, because I find a lot of happiness as I look back over the chapters of my life.
As I thought about the happy times described in my friend’s post, I also reflected that there was a shadow side, an underbelly to the nostalgia. There were moms and dads living in those homes who drank too much. There were women in those homes who made huge contributions to the world as homemakers, but I know some of them longed for fuller freedom to express themselves. Some were victims of domestic violence. There were children in those homes whose parents stepped beyond discipline into outright abuse.
There were at least two families whose skin was more olive and brown-toned. They never seemed fully integrated into the neighborhood. It’s hard to say if that is because they kept their distance, feeling different, or if they were shunned, even in subtle ways. I viewed them as dissimilar, exotic. I was curious about them but also afraid, A Pentacostal Baptist church stood at the far end of the block that we derisively called the “holy roller church.” I remember sneaking down to it on my bike to look in the windows on Wednesday night so I could see people dancing, shouting, and shaking. Their religious observance was a stark contrast to the staid liturgical worship in the Catholic Church I attended, and that made it suspect.
I am able to hold a balance of stories in my heart about my childhood neighborhood. It was filled with so much goodness. And, there was a shadow side, a story of sorrow that I can also tell and hold. Both the good and the ugly can inform the great, unending human journey to evolve, to be better.
I’m learning to do that, too, with my sense of American history. I learned a very one-sided story about it, a white story, all the way through my undergraduate college education. There was much, much goodness in that story. But there was also a deep shadow side, a narrative filled with unending sorrow.
My first real exposure to the sorrow side came via my late husband. He had lived and worked as a missionary in the Philippines for twenty years when Ferdinand Marcos was in power. He returned home with his sense of a perfect America scarred by the atrocities he saw committed firsthand by the CIA as our government sought to keep a dictator in power. Once you see something, you can’t unsee it. I could no longer see our American democracy as perfect. Instead, it was a work in progress.
Years later, I had the good fortune to meet, befriend and study with Native American teachers who introduced me to both the beauty and the sorrow stories of the indigenous people. My eyes widened to see a nature-based spirituality, an extraordinary cosmology of oneness that became part of me. I also could no longer avert my eyes to the genocide practiced by our government and churches toward indigenous tribes. Those sorrowful stories haunt me still. They are not over.
I’ve known for a long time that the black experience contained far more sorrow than I could imagine. Garden City was near Detroit, and I remember peeking from behind drawn curtains to watch National Guardsmen with their rifles drawn patrol in convoys down Gilman during the 1968 riots. I was 13, and the full significance of that experience was lost on me, preoccupied as I was by white, privileged teen-aged concerns. Through the years, I have studied, worked, and lived alongside black friends, and I thought their experience had improved. But while working as a Dean in a Catholic university just a few years back, I taught and loved graduate-level counseling students from black neighborhoods in Detroit. They told stories of resilience and hope, but also of poverty, violence, fear, and systemic racism. Their narratives shattered my heart and balanced my stories and I am grateful. I am grateful this balancing continues as more black people step forward to share their stories, both those of beauty and sorrow.
Long ago, I realized that I could either hold on with nostalgia to only certain stories that I liked or open my heart and embrace a wider set. It was the holding the balance of all stories that held the best promise of hope, change and forward movement. The heart is big enough to hold balanced stories. The heart is brave enough. The heart can celebrate the good in any beauty story and, at the same time, love enough to extract and tend to the thorns in stories of sorrow.
I hope we can learn just how big and wide the heart is, before it’s too late and holding on to one-sided stories, be they those of beauty or sorrow, destroys us.
Dr. Linda Sandel Pettit, a priestess-at-heart and retired counseling psychologist, can be found at www.thedrspettit.com. Linda loves putting her intuitive nature, spiritual understanding and clinical experience in service to others. She is available for on-line or phone-based psychospiritual or intuitive conversations. For information about fees and packages, visit BOOK NOW. Email questions or requests for assistance with fees to firstname.lastname@example.org.