The Storyteller

As a child I spent many hours in the sandbox that my dad built beneath two large maple trees in our backyard. On summer mornings, a small gang of us–my red-headed, younger brother Charley, his chubby friend Mikey, my frizzy-haired friend Jan, and my older brother, Les—would meet there. We all looked up to Les.

At eleven Les was already six feet tall and would have been the star of the elementary basketball team if my mom could talk him into wearing his eyeglasses. He was terribly blind until third grade when Mrs. Vawter figured out the only reason he could not read was because he could not see. Maybe that is why he was not a stellar student in his early years. Maybe that is why he became a storyteller instead. A good one. In truth he could have won an Emmy for his stories about the life-sized crawdads that haunted our neighborhood sewers.  By the time I arrived at Southport Elementary my brother’s stories had earned him an epic reputation.

One summer morning when our usual gang of five gathered around the sandbox, Mikey told us his well-loved cocker spaniel named Bounce was missing. Les shook his head like he knew exactly what had happened. “Probably that witch who lives across Banta Road again.”

“The green witch?” asked Mikey.

 Les had a string of stories about an evil witch and her black cat who lived about a mile down the hill across Banta Road in an old, gray Victorian house with funny little towers that pointed into the sky and seemed to pierce the dark clouds that always hung over it. Beside this dilapidated house was an orchard with apple trees that were black and all twisted like you see in Halloween movies. But the place was so creepy we never trick-or-treated there. Besides, we weren’t allowed to cross Banta Road.

In the past Les had said he believed the witch was a rare breed—a green witch, and Mikey confirmed it. We always drove past that house on the way to school, and one day Mikey got all bug-eyed and later explained he had seen the “green” witch on the porch with a black cat, casting spells. He talked about it for weeks.

But that summer morning, Les explained that on his way to buy bubble gum the day before, he had heard a dog barking in the witch’s orchard.  “Maybe Bounce,” he said.  “I hate to tell you, Mikey, but I am pretty certain that green witches are known for kidnapping dogs, feeding them poisonous apples from twisted, sick trees, and then cooking the poor critters for dinner.”

“No!” screamed Mikey. “No!!  What can we do?”

“We have to stop her!” cried Jan, her unruly hair bobbing in all directions.

The whole gang flittered about like a hive of angry bees. We wanted Bounce back. Now. Within minutes Les had corralled our motley gang of five and armed us with sticks that had fallen from the nearby maple trees. Following his lead, we marched down the hill, and crossed Banta Road.  Adrenalin drove us past the orchard, through the gate, into the yard, and up the creaky steps of the porch of the old house. Waving our sticks in the air, it was clear we had a mission.

“We want Bounce!” shouted Mikey and as he did a furry black cat napping in a sunken porch chair, jumped in surprise and scurried into the house through a small doggie door.  Emboldened, the whole gang of us tapped our sticks on the floor of the porch and cried out “Bounce!  Bounce!!”

Without hesitation Les banged on the large wooden door, and we could hear the intense barking of a little dog. “It’s Bounce!” I cried.

In a moment the lock snapped, and a door opened. Mikey gasped at the sight. Instead of his cocker spaniel, he beheld a ferocious little chihuahua barking like a lion at us from the arms of a tiny little grandma with her hair pulled back in a loose bun, wearing a baggy blue dress, and Birkenstocks. “Can I help you?” she asked, in a voice that sounded more wise than evil.

“Have you seen-seen- my-my-my dog?” stuttered Mikey.  And Les explained that we had lost a cocker spaniel and thought we might have heard Bounce in the orchard the day before.

“Hmm.  The only dog around here is Clarke,” explained the sweet little lady. By now Clarke had calmed down. Even with our sticks we must have looked harmless.

“I thought you were a green witch,” I blurted, surprising myself, “and that you kidnapped dogs and fed them poison apples from your orchard.” The lady in the blue dress pulled back surprised and stared at us for a minute. Then she laughed, and it was a soft little ripple of noise that was followed by a big smile that lit up her round face. “I am Ishy,” she said. “What are your names?”

Shyly we answered—one by one. Then she eyed our towering leader, my brother Les. “I imagine you are the storyteller,” Ishy chuckled as she said this. Les rarely looked guilty, but in that minute he shrugged and smiled down at Ishy. He never minded being busted. “We need to find a missing dog,” he explained with his usual charm, and Ishy laughed again.

Before we left, Ishy had fed us sugar cookies. Enough to make up for all the Halloweens we had skipped this house. Then she gave each of us a small bag of her pink apples that had come from the arms of the weirdly twisted trees. Almost instantly we all started eating them as we began the trek back up the hill.

Of course, we all arrived home to the unspeakable anger of our moms.  We had crossed Banta Road without a thought. While we tried sharing our apples as peace offerings, the moms weren’t buying any of it. Every one of us was grounded in our yards for a month. And Bounce found her way back to Mikey’s house later that same afternoon. But Les was legendary, and we all knew it. A genuine master of the story. We didn’t mind being grounded with him in the backyard sandbox.

Fifteen years ago, after seven painful surgeries for cancer and one devastating infection, I lost my storytelling brother. His death left a big hole in my heart—and the hearts of so many folks.

I have never been able to tell a story like my big brother, but it was his love of sharing stories and fully living in them that made me want to write them. I first tried to write about the green witch when I was nine. Pieces of that first story are captured here.

My brother taught me to share the stories that mattered in my heart. I remember holding Les’s hand when he was dying. I never wanted to let go. Often when I write a story I can feel him, and as I try to honor his love of the imagination, I visualize Les is still holding my hand and living in the story with me. It is a great comfort.

Acts of Beauty

written by Billie Cox

In my extremely long life, I have witnessed ordinary people doing beautiful things for another.   Sometimes it’s simple.  This week a friend I rarely see emailed me an uplifting poem and mailed me a package filled with thought-provoking articles and a pair of socks that say, “More feminism, Less bullshit.” Hope, mental challenge, humor—I needed all 3.  How did she know?

It’s beautiful when someone gives a gift unasked for, unexpected.   One of my sister’s dearest friends was diagnosed with brain cancer toward the end of last year.  Marilyn and Teresa had been close for over 50 years, sharing ups and downs, tears and laughter.  So, when Teresa was faced with a flagging memory and complicated cancer treatment, Marilyn was there for her in spite of Teresa’s insistence that she needed no help, didn’t want to be a bother–all those things one says when unable to face the realities ahead.  Marilyn delivered groceries, fed the cats, accompanied Teresa to doctor’s appointments and chemo-therapy, and took her to see an attorney to set up a will.  And now she will write Teresa’s obituary.  None of those tasks were easy; all of them were beautiful.

Another beautiful thing one can do for another is to give them hope. My daughter and son-in-law had one unsuccessful IVF experience and were unsure they could afford to do another in spite of how much they wanted a child.  Over drinks at a happy hour, three of my friends said they wanted to help and each one contributed $1,000.   Katie and Russ were overwhelmed since they had feared that parenthood was just not in the cards for them.  Now they have twins who have three wonderful fairy-godmothers.

As a member of the Foster Care Review Board, every month I hear devastating stories about parents who are mired in drugs, alcohol, domestic abuse and consequently neglect their children or worse.  Some of these parents manage to change their behaviors and re-gain custody; many do not.  But I also hear stories about relatives and strangers who are willing to give these kids a loving home.  One that stands out for me centered on a little boy, age 2, who due to shaken-baby syndrome had lost his sight and hearing.  When it came time for his review, those of us on the board heard that his foster mother had brought him, and we really weren’t sure we were up to the task of seeing him in person.  A young woman came in with a darling child who played with a toy during the meeting, laughing and sparkling the whole while.  His foster mom had been his therapist and was now in the process of adopting him, a move that had cost her a relationship with a significant other who couldn’t face the challenges ahead.  The gift of love is surely a beautiful act that one person can do for another.

All around us there are people doing beautiful things for others.  We just have to pay attention, notice, and, hopefully, be inspired to join their numbers.

Write Your Story

Eleven years ago, I discovered I had breast cancer.  The experience shook me to the core. Although I knew my life would change, it would be a long time before I realized it would be an uplifting and needed change.

Before cancer, I had always planned to pen my story, but I had been too busy raising my sons, too busy with Steve and my friends, too consumed by teaching. All I wrote were pages in my journal. Over the summers I wrote articles, stories, and during graduate school I completed the draft of a novel, but I am thankful it was inadvertently hauled off to Goodwill on the hard drive of my old NorthStar computer.

Then in 2012 I had the diagnosis. According to a recent Mayo Clinic report, half of us will face mutant cells diagnosed as cancer. Fifty percent of us! Several months later, as I lay in bed recovering from a double mastectomy, scribbling in my journal, I intuited a new path. I would finally write my story and weave into it how story and writing had given my life renewed meaning. Of course, my life had been filled with many transitions–marriage, children, teaching, graduate school, but in truth nothing has remade me more than writing my story. It grew me exponentially. Now I watch my writers experience the same wonderful growth as they write.

For me this growth began with a mentor. On my shelves I had all of Christina Baldwin’s books. She was a visionary who started the personal writing movement when I was a young high school teacher. Her work was pivotal in helping me not only to teach writing, but in showing my students how writing could lead to positive change in their lives. I thumbed through all of her books, but I buried myself in Storycatcher—Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story.  

The words of this book took hold of me. It helped me frame my understanding of why I had always taught stories and how I had come to believe that we are the authors of our own stories. While we cannot always control what happens to us, we can learn from our experiences, and we can reframe our hard stories in positive ways that encourage personal growth. Baldwin’s book led me into deeper and deeper research—Pennebaker, Michael White, Timothy Wilson—the list is long. When I wrote to Christina about my work, she agreed to help by reading my chapters. A friendship was born.

While I started writing my story in 2012, The Story You Need to Tell wasn’t finished until 2017, five years after I began. At first, I was buoyed by all I was learning. Once I had a messy first draft, the real work began. I had to juggle my learning, test out my ideas, and teach this new method of writing to my students. I wrote life stories and rewrote them. I reframed, edited, rewrote, and did this time and time again. The work was both challenging and rewarding. Often it was lonely.

At some point I wrestled with the issue of publication. I was troubled that at my age I might never publish. But then it hit me. The writing was the real gift. Publication would be like whip cream—nice but not essential. The writing helped me see my life as something that I was creating and giving meaning to. It allowed me a deeper understanding of who I had been, who I was, and who I was becoming.

Christina told me books have their own lives. Writers just give birth to them. This proved to be true. When I connected with a publisher, New World Library, the book charged forward with her own personality. I stood by in awe as she embraced writers and women and cancer patients. While it wasn’t easy to juggle all the hoopla surrounding publication, it was worth it. The connections. The interviews. The learning. The whole of it.

In the end, what did I learn?  I learned that we all have stories that need to be told. I learned that we have the power to change our perspective from victim to victor, from survivor to thriver, from loser to winner. Many of my insights are summed up in the book’s foreword.

You cannot go back and change your life stories. Embracing your stories is not about lying or self-delusion. Becoming the author of your story is about claiming the power to define what something means to you and to take charge of the ways your life events impact you and influence how you move forward.

All of us get knocked to the ground. Rather your challenge is watching your best friend shot in the face while at war in Afghanistan or struggling with the accidental death of your son to fentanyl, you must manage your life—and it will not be easy. The promise I uncovered was that we all have the power to take the next step forward and writing can help you find your way to the next risk, the next move, and to keep saying yes to life. You can.

I am grateful to Christina, and I am grateful to my readers. Writing my story changed my life more than I could imagine, and I am calling out to you to find and write your story. I believe it will be worth every hard, lonely, and beautiful moment. Do it!

(A special thank you to Christina Baldwin for her support and the inspiring name she created, Storycatchers!)