Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story

by Christina Baldwin

New World Library, 2005. ISBN 1577314913.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 11/08/2005

Nonfiction: Creative Life

In a world of advice and new-fangled approaches to timeworn ways, it has been very refreshing for me, and many thousands of others, to remember the ancient, simple way: telling stories. We can begin by revealing our own story to ourselves. Then we can share our story in community so as to find common ground with others.

Christina Baldwin has led the way of story since publishing her first book on journaling thirty years ago. One to One: Self-Understanding through Journal Writing was followed by Life's Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest. (You will find a review of the latter book on this site.) Calling the Circle: The First and Future Culture describes the way of council for us to use in whatever context we meet with others. This is the methodology Christina and partner Ann Linnea have shared around the world through their business PeerSpirit, Inc. Christina's fourth book published in 2002, The Seven Whispers: A Spiritual Practice for Times Like These, invites people into a dialogue with soul.

All of these approaches to story have led to the richness of this offering: Storycatcher. The very word invites us to step into our stories and to see ourselves and our story through the "spiral of experience." The spiral is engaged when "something happens to shake up the status quo of our lives." Other tools for storycatchers are charts that describe what "story space" is and "Setting the Space."

Our lives are filled with stories—television commercials, newscasts and e-mail chains are stories. Coworkers share stories on Monday morning. As Christina points out, "Story is both the great revealer and concealer." Her theme throughout the book is authentic stories. It takes courage to tell them, but sharing our wisdom is what we need for survival. And storycatching is "a skill we can remember and practice and encourage in each other." While an intentional circle may be possible, stories can also be told spontaneously around the dinner table when someone poses a question for reflection and sharing.

All of the charts, tools and prompts come from Christina's own poignant and powerful story in relation to her experiences as a young writer; her family, especially her brother Carl; and world events like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Reading of her own beginnings as well as answering the questions she poses at the end of each chapter, will help you remember what's important to you. You may write those thoughts down and appreciate your own insight as you reflect on your life's story.

As storycatchers, we are practitioners of the heart of language. "In serving as the heart of language, story imparts four distinct gifts." They are: "1) story creates context; 2) context highlights relationship, 3) context and relationship change behavior and lead to holistic and connected action; and 4) connected action becomes a force for restoring/restorying the world."

In the second half of the book, Christina includes the stories of others. A young woman in Africa, a grandmother in Arizona, a visionary Danish friend, two Episcopalian priests. Each has something in his or her life that resonates with our own. The gift is that resonance, but it is also the vision—how they took their stories into the world.

Christina has identified four activities required to work with self-story: linking (to another's story), editing (through therapy or journal writing), disorienting (what could be a "sudden reversal in circumstances") and revisioning (a foundation for our life's work).

The Arizona grandmother Christina writes about is Kit Wilson, a psychotherapist who is an alcoholic and has a family history of addiction. Kit works with her family stories through journaling and time away to grieve and commune with the spirit of her dead mother. As Kit says, "I am contributing to my lineage backwards and forwards, through the personal work I've done to heal myself." The compassion she began to feel for and from her mother is personal work that will help her in her practice. It is also of great benefit to family members such as her grandson, also an alcoholic. In the section titled "Writing and Talking in the Seven Generations," Christina includes a list of what storycatching in the family line requires, including saying what is without drama and being ready to forgive.

From the personal, Christina takes us to the impersonal state of the workplace. But, as she points out, it isn't a place without story. People work there after all, and the organization or institution also has a story. Christina describes the work of Toke Paludan Møller, a Danish man she met through her work with From the Four Directions, and who is "a spiritual warrior for story space." Toke has favorite questions for his work in an organization, and Christina includes a list of them. When Toke works with a group of people, he thinks about three levels of story: "the individual story, the organizational story, and the species story." Christina and Toke, among others, are part of a vision called the Art of Hosting, where a team of hosts volunteer to hold the space for the three levels of story. What results "is a community of people who are practicing the power of conversation to change the world."

From the story of the self that begins with our birth story, we continue through a process of remembering, speaking, writing about our own lives. We decide "what we want our lives to include and what kind of a legacy we want to leave behind, and then we are challenged to act on this story—to become who we say we are." Can we as storycatchers change the world? From my own experience and from the stories Christina shares, her vision and her dedication, I know we can.

Your story begins with a question: How might you help story survive?

Check out our interview with the author of Storycatcher.

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