Tag Archives: stories

How to (not) write the best story.

The latest book I’ve been listening to if I can’t sleep is The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit. I read it once before to my children long ago, and didn’t remember any details. I love it very much, this story of the adventures of three kind and resourceful children whose father was mysteriously called away, they don’t know why or how long. Because of this the family has suddenly become much poorer, and they have had to move to the country. Their new house is near the railroad, and their days become centered around trains, and the people they meet at the station or in the neighborhood..

Last night I was struck by a passage that portrays a poignant moment in which a parent passes on her faith in a very honest and personal way.

It is close to the end of the book, when the reader knows that the father must be going to return any day, because there aren’t many pages left. 10-year-old Peter interrupts his mother while she is writing and speaks wistfully about how hard it is being the only man in the house:

“I say,” said Peter musingly, “wouldn’t it be jolly if we all were in a book and you were writing it; then you could make all sorts of jolly things happen, and make Jim’s legs get well at once and be all right tomorrow, and Father would come home soon and….”

“Do you miss your father very much?” Mother asked….

“Awfully,” said Peter briefly… “You see,” Peter went on slowly, “you see, it’s not only him being Father, but now he’s away there’s no other man in the house but me…. Wouldn’t you like to be writing that book with us all in it, Mother, and make Daddy come home soon?”

Peter’s mother put her arm around him suddenly and hugged him in silence for a minute. Then she said, “Don’t you think it’s rather nice to think that we’re in a book that God’s writing? If I were writing the book I might make mistakes, but God knows how to make the story end just right, in the way that’s best for us.”

“Do you really believe that, Mother?” Peter asked quietly.

“Yes,” she said, “I do believe it, almost always — except when I’m so sad that I can’t believe anything. But even when I can’t believe it, I know it’s true, and I try to believe. You don’t know how I try, Peter. Now, take the letters to the post, and don’t let’s be sad anymore. Courage! Courage! That’s the finest of all the virtues…”

Bishop Latour meets the elegant goats.

I’ve read Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather three times, including an audio recording narrated by David Ackroyd which I only recently completed. These three readings were so far apart that each time seemed a fresh introduction to the characters and the setting. And yet, I do think that the first two readings helped to form a love in my soul for the Southwest territories of the United States, so that this third time I found it there waiting for me, like the warm sand beneath a red rock butte, a place where I might bed down for the night under the stars and feel whole.

Ackroyd’s voice and narrative style seem perfect for the story. There is a steadiness and a lack of hurry that aligns with the faithful dailiness of the lives of the two missionary priests as they try to meet the spiritual needs of a vast diocese that had just enlarged by nearly 30,000 square miles with the Gadsden Purchase.

They are based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but make frequent trips by horse or mule of hundreds and thousands of miles, even into Old Mexico, to take care of ecclesiastical affairs, to baptize babies and perform marriages, and to serve Mass. Their characters are sympathetic and rich; the story of their friendship over the decades is a thread woven through the novel, made up of small stories scattered through the years.

I’m using this audio book now the way I have two or three others in the last years since I sleep alone, for the times when I don’t sleep. I put a well-known story to play on my phone, set the timer for 30 minutes, and let David or another nice person read me to sleep. This only works with voices that do not draw attention to themselves in various ways, usually by being overly dramatic.

That means I am reading/listening to the book, based on a true story by the way, a fourth time. Because every anecdote and scene seems more luminous and meaningful than ever when it is told or described by a warm human voice, I may post here some passages that appear plain and dry to you poor people who may never have breathed the air of New Mexico or seen the Arizona desert in bloom. But today, it’s only goats we will consider, and I imagine that they are goat-ish the world over.

“After the feast the sleepy children were taken home, the men gathered in the plaza to smoke under the great cottonwood trees. The Bishop, feeling a need of solitude, had gone forth to walk, firmly refusing an escort. On his way he passed the earthen threshing-floor, where these people beat out their grain and winnowed it in the wind, like the Children of Israel.

“He heard a frantic bleating behind him, and was overtaken by Pedro with the great flock of goats, indignant at their day’s confinement, and wild to be in the fringe of pasture along the hills. They leaped the stream like arrows speeding from the bow, and regarded the Bishop as they passed him with their mocking, humanly intelligent smile. The young bucks were light and elegant in figure, with their pointed chins and polished tilted horns. There was great variety in their faces, but in nearly all something supercilious and sardonic. The angoras had long silky hair of a dazzling whiteness.

“As they leaped through the sunlight they brought to mind the chapter in the Apocalypse, about the whiteness of them that were washed in the blood of the Lamb. The young Bishop smiled at his mixed theology. But though the goat had always been the symbol of pagan lewdness, he told himself that their fleece had warmed many a good Christian, and their rich milk nourished sickly children.”

-Willa Cather in Death Comes for the Archbishop

The poetry of a wise man might crack your shell.

Many people seem to think that politics will save us, that if we could just get the right people, or “our people” in office, they would begin to set things right, however we envision that. Anthony Esolen in the article Listening Up, in the Nov-Dec 2019 issue of Touchstone magazine, discusses some reasons for this idea, and its often corresponding impulse to judge our human forefathers for their sins, judgment not “by eternal verities, but by the cheap modern substitute, the ‘political.'”

He believes we lack historical imagination, and he sets out to consider the different ways one might make better use of stories and history in general, giving examples first from antiquity:

So to attempt to transpose Xenophon or Cyrus to the current day, and to grill him with “political” questions, is not to think politically at all, but to replace reality with a caricature. You will learn nothing from Xenophon that way. You may instead be out to teach him a lesson, him, that is, being the cartoon Xenophon you have made. At no time do you allow yourself to be still and to learn, so that the poetry of a wise man might penetrate your shell, crack it open, and show you the stars.

Once you enter the world of history, you encounter the maddening complexity of human affairs, not to mention that labyrinth called the human heart. With hindsight we can say, with some confidence, that the young Octavius was far better suited for governing the Roman world than was the elder and more experienced Antony. We cannot be so sure of ourselves, though, when it comes to the noble-minded Brutus, and the ambitious and capable Julius Caesar, whom he assassinated.

Esolen goes on to mention American leaders of note, and of complex history and character, such as William Tecumseh Sherman, and Stonewall Jackson, “a genuinely kindly owner of slaves.” And then he comes to his “three broad categories of modern man, each of them characterized by the stories they listen to and tell”: The Man of Faith, The Man of Wistful Unbelief, and the Man of Superstition.

I found his categories to be very helpful in understanding differences between people in the first two groups especially, and their stories that nourish our hearts. Oh, if only the third group would quiet down and listen to some true stories! But they don’t like the stories of the other two groups, and have their own ever-changing and doubtful heroes.

“History is too dark and tangled a forest for them, sacred Scripture too high a mountain to climb. Therefore they fall into worship of the biggest or most prominent things near them: sex, themselves, the State.”

“They are not brave enough to enter the dark caverns of the human heart…. they cannot forgive what men and women really are. They have no sense of sin, which afflicts everyone, including themselves, but they grasp at being among the elect, by having the most up-to-date pseudo-political opinions.”

You can read the whole article here: “Listening Up.”

People who make history know nothing about history.
You can see that in the sort of history they make.
-G.K. Chesterton

 

The story of the universe.

From Father Stephen Freeman:

The public narrative (news and history) is like watching actors in a play. However, the actors have stumbled into the notion that the play is reality. They react to each other and the narrative within the play, but the reality off-stage (which is the rest of the whole world) is nowhere in sight. We might easily conclude that the entire idea of a public narrative is absurd (and it is, largely).

But people are story-tellers. If you ask, “What’s happening?” the answer will take some sort of story form.  Apparently, God is a story-teller as well. In St. John’s gospel we read:

“No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:18)

The Latin translation of this verse says that the only-begotten Son “narrates” Him (enarravit). And this is precisely the case. The Christian claim is that Christ Himself is the story of the universe. He is the author and the protagonist. He is the meaning of the true story. Every sub-story (my life and yours) gains its meaning and purpose from the greater story of which they are a part.

Read the whole article here: World Story – The News and the Good News

Myrrhbearing women at the tomb
Myrrhbearing women at the tomb