I didn’t realize the internet ate this one up, so it never migrated to here from my other sites...
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-=[ Blackout Specials and the Glow of Botanica Candles ]=-
“Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that to go on living I have to tell stories, that stories are the one sure way I know to touch the heart and change the world.”
-- Dorothy Allison
It’s nighttime and the only glow in the room comes from the huge glass-encased candles – bought from the corner “Botanica” -- storefront shops found in Puerto Rican neighborhoods that sell herbs and magic. Candle wax poured into long glass receptacles with images of the saints and the Virgin Mary inscribed on the glass and promising anything from good luck to financial success. Though it is dark and cold, we – my two sisters and I – sit in rapt attention before the figure of my father, who is in the process of telling us a story. Our mother is somewhere in the darkness preparing the “Blackout Specials” we have come to love so much. However, the real star tonight is the “story.” For it is the story we crave tonight. Its story time in the
How many of us have experienced the relief and serenity after expressing our pain and sharing the burden of a sorrow with another? Life is too difficult, the day is too long, to carry our grief alone and keep our joys to ourselves. How many of us have spent long periods in solitary loneliness? Then, like anyone who has been alone and finally gets a chance to speak, we have so much to say to one another.
I come from a long line of storytellers (no smart remarks! LOL!) and I believe firmly in the power of the story to change, educate, and bring us to wholeness. I believe this because it is in the telling of the story that we find healing. It is the basic unit of human communication, this telling of stories. Since the dawn of time, we have gathered together to tell each other stories -- to share experiences, to ward off the darkness.
Tonight, my father is in really into it and he’s telling us the story of “how the solar system was named.” He starts with mercury, mentioning that it’s my planet, me being a Gemini, tells the story of Mercury. He moves to Venus and tells that story, and on and on. They are his stories, to be sure: classical myth, sprinkled with Puerto Rican folklore, but it’s a great story and we laugh and giggle, and hold our breaths in anticipation.
There’s a television in the room, but it is turned off and no one cares, it’s a “Blackout Special” called by our parents. In fact there are no lights on, all electricity has ceased to exist for us and we couldn’t care less, as we sit around the kitchen table, drinking the “Blackout Specials” (scoops of vanilla ice cream floating in orange soda). Tonight everything has been set aside. Beyond our kitchen, modern life can be heard to be happening, but here we are into the story.
When we tell about our pain, fear, or the unmanageable aspects of our lives, we open up to the possibility of being more honest with ourselves. However, some people will tell only parts of their stories because they are looking for validation for their pain. This is not the kind of sharing I am referring to today. That kind of telling is evident in the raunchy type talk shows where sick people, suffering from lack of boundaries, go up in front of a national audience and humiliate themselves.
And we watch and pass judgment…
No, the kind of sharing I am speaking about happens within a truly respectful and spiritual meeting and includes our questions and the incomplete thoughts in our stories as well as the thoughts that are fully completed. The kind of sharing I am talking about is the kind that you tell on yourself for the purpose of creating positive change, not to stay stuck in your pain.
“Blackout Specials” was where I first learned the importance of the story. It became a family tradition, one we passed down to our own children and whom I hope will pass it on to theirs. My father was a consummate storyteller. He could gather all the children on our
I remember when I first went back to school – in my late thirties -- I was afraid of everything. Mostly I was afraid of making a fool of myself, and I felt out of place because I was much older than the other students were. Because of this, I would not go to certain places at the university, one of them being the cafeteria. One day, as part of psych class assignment, I shared about this fear.
Well, one girl, who was overweight, started sharing about this same fear about going to the cafeteria because she was afraid that people would look at her and judge her for being overweight. As she shared, she began to cry. Then, one after another, other students began to share about their own fears. Eventually we all came to the same conclusions: that we were not alone in our fears (that it wasn't something that “wrong” with us), and that when we looked closely at our fears, they were sometimes a wee bit funny and irrational at some level.
We all went to the cafeteria and laughed about it.
That’s the kind of sharing and telling I am talking about. Some things need to be kept more private and shared only with those we trust deeply. Nevertheless, sharing is important because it is in the telling that we find true healing.
It got to the point when we would call our own “Blackout Specials.” The only rules were that everyone had to tell a story and everyone had to respect each other’s story. When the speaker of the story had the floor, no one could interrupt. The story could be a joke, a story of a found object, an event, whatever. The important part was that we had a sharing space where we would sit and listen to each other, in sacred space – telling our stories to one another. Those times – these Blackout Specials – make up some of the most memorable times of my youth. It is where I learned awe and wonder and learned that I too had a story. That my story was as important anyone else’s story and that I had to tell that story somehow.
Since the dawn of time when our ancestors huddled around the fire to ward off the cold and darkness, we have told stories. Unfortunately, today the ones telling the stories -- the TV news and talk shows, the movies -- don't really give a fuck about sacredness or our health. We need to take back our stories and tell them to each other and pass them on to our children so that we will not lose this precious gift. As we talk, we unburden ourselves and learn from each other about closeness and what it means to be a human being.
Many years later, I’m walking down the street with my own son who was nine years old at the time. He loved stories too and when we would come home from picking him up at school, we had a game we played. The game was that we had to tell the story of something new we learned that day. When my son would run out of school, you could see the anticipation in his eyes as he would ask, “Well, Pops! What did you learn to day?!?!” and I would share my story and he would share his.
In the year my father passed away, we requested that he lead a blackout special. My father was very sick at the time, but there we were, all the brothers and sisters with all his grandchildren –now all veteran Blackout Specials themselves. We all took out turns, telling our story. My son told the story of a scarf he and I found – he created a history for that scarf. We each sat and listened in the glow of Botanica candles.
Then came my father, the legendary storyteller himself – the creator of the Blackout Special -- in all his glory in the rarest of forms telling the greatest story ever. It’s is a moment we all will never forget.
And the story of the story? It wasn’t until many years later, when we became old enough to understand, that we realized how “Blackout Specials” came to be. You see, it was a matter of necessity. We were poor and sometimes my parents had to decide which bill would be paid. Food had a higher priority, so if it was the electric bill or food, food won out. So my parents, in order to lessen our sadness, came up with the idea of the “Blackout Special.” On top of everything else, this taught us the most invaluable lesson of lighting the candle instead of cursing the darkness. My parents put the power of the story in my heart.
May you be able to tell your story always…
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And so it is with us here in the blogosphere: we tell our stories. Our stories of love and heartbreak, of our wishes and hopes. We tell of our gardens, of our victories and defeats, and in that way, we connect somehow in this world going so quickly into madness. We have no time to tell our stories anymore so we come here and cast our lines and we weave a web of stories.
And we listen, read, and tell…
I want to know who you are. I want you to know who I am. I want to hear your stories and I want you to hear mine. Each of us has someone who put the story in our heart. That person can be a teacher or parent, usually an ordinary person who becomes, as author Christina Baldwin says, “extraordinary through the power to touch another life.”
There are very few rules in this storytelling. We can start with these simple ground rules: Mostly that we respect and honor one another’s stories. That we will not share these stories without permission, and that we treat the space of storytelling as something sacred. Also, we’re not looking for technically proficient writing – just tell the fuckin story, no need to be a novelist. We all have stories, I see them around here everyday.
Tell me a story (Adapted from Christian Baldwin’s Storycatcher: Making sense of our lives through the power and Practice of Story):
Take a family heirloom or artifact – a photograph even, and write down its history. Where did it come from? How old is it?
Describe the place where you come from: what is the landscape? Who lives there? Use all your senses to describe the way you remember this place.
Describe one of your earliest memories. Who was with you? Bring in all five senses. Do you know if this an actual memory, or a story you have heard?
Describe your relationship with your grandparents or your elders. How involved in your life were they
What do you know about their own growing up?