Once Upon a Life

I happened into Eastern Mennonite University’s master’s curriculum as one of only three North Americans in a cohort of about about thirty students. This was delightful. I learned so much from my classmates, about listening, about tolerance, about humor and other vital nutrients for healthy people and healthy communities. One of my classmates was Babu Ayindo, and his focus was and is on theater, art, and storytelling to transform conflict into an opportunity for growth and healing. Babu is Kenyan, and the Rwandan genocide was very much a recent memory as he pursued his master’s.

I fell in love with Babu’s voice. He could relate how he got lost on the way to the convenience store, and I’d be enthralled. Here’s a short clip of him talking about the EMU program.

I hadn’t started writing romance yet, and my reaction to storytelling as a means of transformation was intrigued puzzlement. But then I realized that stories to shift perspective have been around probably as long as language itself. Name me a source of spiritual strength–every religion or indigenous culture, strong communities, strong families, healthy businesses–and stories will figure prominently in their traditions. My family got to group-texting this week about that time fifty years ago when my dad went to a costume party dressed as a frog… everybody hopped on the thread.

Then I came across this article, about the Inuit, who live in as inhospitable a climate as a people can, one that forces them into close proximity with each other–really close–for months at a time. They don’t hit their kids, they don’t yell at their kids. To the Inuit, that kind of “dominance parenting” models the exact behavior that nobody wants to see in an adult–and I absolutely agree.

Easy to say, but when something as simple as going outside without a hat can be a life or death mistake, how do they keep their children safe? How do they inculcate the values necessary to survive in a very challenging environment?

They tell them stories. They turn those stories in to parlor-plays. When the bad moment for the child has passed, they humorously play-act the consequences of the child’s undesirable behavior.  They model self-control and loving kindness. What a concept.

I’ve watched our political dramas over the past few years, and seen a struggle over what our national story will be, and who will get to tell it. Many people have referred to national politics as a “farce.” Effective propaganda is nothing so much as a false but convincing story loosely tethered to a few conveniently chosen facts. A parable that endures for centuries is another kind of story with very different power–it uses fiction  to aim at an eternal truth.

Once I started looking for stories, I realized how powerful they are and how a coherent culture depends on them for identity. I write romance in part because I believe the central story is vital to human survival: People who choose love and courage over spiritual compromise and safety will merit the happily ever afters—for themselves and for the cultures they belong to. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

What stories have influenced you? Do you see romance as standing for a different tale than I do? Has one story stuck with you throughout your life? To three commenters, I’ll send a SIGNED copy of When A Duchess Says I Do.


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18 comments on “Once Upon a Life

  1. Gone With The Wind is a book that I have read many times. Scarlet is truely a flawed character who truly does not see that she is loved. Her experiences shape her & she makes poor decisions. The time period and Scarlet’s determination to get her family through the war facinated me.
    Anne of Green Gables is a childhood favorite. Her adventures, her family and growth make her story a great read.
    The Captive resonated with me. Such a great story Gilly & Christian has to put their past behind them to find love. I loved their story because they had the courage to chose love.
    Scarlet, Anne, Gilly and Christian had choices to make- that’s what makes reading fun for me. I like it when a character chooses happiness.

    And I am enjoying the family group texts – such fun memories & stories.
    It’s a great way to stay connected!

    • My oldest and youngest siblings are fifteen years apart, so there’s all kind of story that the elders missed because they were “off to college,” or that the youngsters missed because, “you were just a baby.” Getting those blanks filled in feels like finding the puzzle piece you’ve been searching for… a wonderful sense of aha!

  2. I think stories add to our lives by linking us to others. Stories that old friends tell to new friends in our group help link us together and make us closer.

  3. I was lucky enough to know my grandparents–really know them–and a good number of their siblings, my great-aunts and uncles. I heard stories of their childhoods and our country during pivotal times in our history.

    My grandmother would tell a story of how HER grandfather, during WWI, would speak German to the kids playing outside. They would be embarrassed, since the US was at war with Germany, and tell him to speak English–then run like hell since he was famous for being strict!

    Grandma also told the story of a hot day in July, when she took my Dad (probably 6 or so)downtown to shop. On the way home on the streetcar, they streetcar couldn’t get through in front of the Biograph Theater–Dillinger had been shot by the FBI!

    My Dad is still alive at 91, and sharp. We’ve been working with the Chicago Dance History Project, telling his stories of being an assistant to a Big Deal Chicago choreographer and being on Broadway with her as well. Dad is the only one alive to be able to tell stories about his vaudeville partner and his beginnings. He has the only papers and photos of their act because his partner’s step-mother threw out all of his scrapbooks. His vaudeville partner is famous and you would know who he was–google *Riff Brothers* and that will tell you who it is.

    There are many stories which influenced me in my life–I can’t decide which to tell!

  4. I was13 year’s old and feeling very proud of myself,I stepped up the steps to the stage and received my presentation prize for coming top of the class that year.But two years earlier it was a very different story.When I started my first year at Lausannes school for girls at eleven I struggled in the form they placed me.I made friends that was not the problem.But I was being left behind and did not enjoy most of the lessons.When that first year was over I was moved down a grade and coped a lot better and started to enjoy reading history geography writing,learning about great authors.By the third year I was back up to the grade I started the A stream.The book I chose for my prize was Wuthering heights by Emily Bronte.Despite my age I understood this powerful story and have through the years understood more and more about love and desire und destruction obsessions jealousy.I still have the book it has been read many times It is 57 years old.What I also learnt from that time of my life was that we are all developing our minds at different speeds ad it should not be rushed or pressured.Only nurtured.My love for reading is for me my comfort my release my peace and joy my tears my laughter.Thank you Grace and many others.

  5. I remember my great grandfather who was 17 and living in Galveston during the Great Storm of 1900, still the worst natural disaster in US history. The family’s lives were saved by sheltering in a large church but their home was destroyed and they lost everything. He told terrible stories about the aftermath. They eventually left Galveston and resettled in Houston. This story taught me that you might lose every possession you own, even your employment, and you can still go on and live your life. Things don’t matter. Family does.

  6. I’ve always believed in the power of stories. Some of the first stories told to children – The Little Red Hen, for example, teach a valuable lesson wrapped up in an entertaining, suspenseful story. I only realized that when I had the pleasure of reading them to my child.

  7. We share the same perspective about romance stories. I don’t read too many romance writers, but those I do, I’ve read and re-read. Your books are moving and a ray of light in a sometimes awful world.
    I particularly liked this: “Effective propaganda is nothing so much as a false but convincing story loosely tethered to a few conveniently chosen facts. A parable that endures for centuries is another kind of story with very different power–it uses fiction to aim at an eternal truth.”

  8. I heard that story on NPR about how the Inuit teach their children and found it fascinating!
    So depressing to think of how much propaganda is being slung about these days. Reaching the news is an exercise in fortitude, but I think its vital to remain informed.
    Little Women and A Prayer for Owen Meany have stuck with me for years. Those are stories that speak to my soul.

  9. I do think stories are important. They were vital to my children’s development. When they were younger and I could actually get their attention, we would not just read stories together, but talk about what they mean and I could reference them later at salient times to correct their behavior or reinforce an idea. Now that I have teenagers, I still try to discuss books or TV shows or movies with them – the characters, the ideas. What did you think about….? Was that fair? What would you have done? Do you think that was portrayed accurately? They won’t talk much about themselves, but at least I can use these conversations to check on their personal development, make sure they have some empathy and compassion and reason.

  10. Grace my father-in-law only lived long enough to experience and interact with 2 of his 9 grandchildren. My husband was his oldest son and our two daughters are the only grandkids that were lucky enough to know the man. We said so many times that had he lived beyond his age 59, he would have really had a ball with all the kids because he was a kid at heart. One time that sticks in my memory, and your story actually made me smile reminded me of that Halloween. We got our little girls all dressed up to go Trick-or-Treating and had to stop at Nanny and Poppa’s house first. We walked in, fully expecting everyone to make a big deal over our 4 and 6 year old goblins, but instead we walked in to Boy George’s song Karma Chameleon Blasting on the radio and Poppa with a long brown braided wig with lots of feathers hanging off of it, a fedora and a pink silk bathrobe. He was dancing around shaking his booty singing the words at the top of his lungs!! We all cracked up! This guy was a cop. At work, he was the aviator glasses, mean looking stereotypical morotcycle cop with the hard helmet…but he was a different person when my girls were around…Your story gave me a really pleasant fleeting memory of someone we lost a long time ago. Thanks!

    • Grace, your story helps keep your siblings close to you and mine, which has been told to all of the children of our family, has helped them get to know a grandfather they never met. When we all hear that song, we think of that story of a tough old Korean War veteran and cop turning into a big funny goofball for his two beloved Grandkids. It connects our whole family, eventhough he is gone.

  11. I agree that romances teach the power of perseverance and love. It would be nice if more people would learn this lesson. I read an article this week about how fairy tales are older than we think and how most cultures have similar tales – most of them teaching life lessons children need to learn. There are a large number of young adults and children today who are not as familiar with fairy tales and folklore as previous generations – I wonder if repeating these tales more often might make a difference in society. Maybe I’m being optimistic thinking they could. As far as a certain story that has stuck with me, my default favorite fairy tale and lesson is Beauty and the Beast. We all need to learn to look beyond appearances.

  12. Discussion can bring about change. I enjoyed reading the pieces here, but when the discussions are oral, people often talk over each other. I really dislike that. I watch a certain channel in the evenings and some hosts seem to easily moderate the discussions. Others don’t and I have to leave the room when several participants talk at once – even if I agree with them.
    I do believe that romance novels offer a view of life that I would term “hopeful”. So much in the news is dreadful and reading about it exclusively makes me want to retreat from life. Romances keep me steady, holding my own in this world we live in.

  13. I love stories where the ending is not what I was expecting. In April of 1993 Carolina beat Michigan in the college basketball final. Secretariat winning the triple crown. In a romance there is a problem which must be overcome for love to prevail, but it does, that gives me hope. when listening to sad stories on the news channel.In Little Women Jo doesn’t marry Laurie, she marries the professor. He understood her love of writing. He didn’t try to change her, he loved her just the way she was.

  14. Happy Saturday! I have been reading since I learned to read. Some books that have influenced me include Little Women, the Lion Witch and the Wardrobe, the Anne of Grren Gables series, the Betsy Tacy series and countless others. Reading showed me the beauty, depth and diversity of the world. Thank you for your books! Books are wonderful! Have a blessed day.

  15. I draw encouragement from the books I read daily, but for specifics I could not do better than the Vorkosigan series by Lois Bujold. The damaged and handicapped hero makes one ashamed of ever whining about one’s limitations as he faces life “full speed ahead”. And there are the occasional bets she puts in, such as, ” Your reputation is what others know of you; your honour is what you know of yourself.”