Sometimes I tell the same story, because it is a story that is so powerful it must be shared again and again. And I am reminded of a poem I read at my college graduation, because I was selected to give the speech, about telling stories over and over, about how that’s kind of what life is about.
The poem was Anne Sexton’s “Cinderella,” and I had been student-teaching high school girls for several months, learning what it was like to present a work of literature and sit in a circle and ask them questions, and see their thoughts, and have them even write their thoughts on paper for me to read quietly, later. And wow, did I love getting to work with high school girls. Did I love the opportunity to sit with poetry, or plays, or short stories, or novels, and read them, and take notes, and think about the messages and the characters, and the conflicts, and then present those stories for discussion.
I still do that now, in all kinds of ways. It’s remarkable how much a person can change and grow, and how something still stays in the root of her, something she keeps coming back to in life, not out of choice, but out of a kind of ordination or destiny. Me—I keep ending up, over and over again, in situations filled with Catholics, focusing on lifting up girls.
So Anne Sexton’s poem (and Anne Sexton has quite a story herself) is a remake of the traditional Cinderella, showing us that this fairytale has some holes and gaps. This idea of “happily ever after” is just bogus, see, and really needs to be picked apart. Sexton’s take is that Cinderella is the story of a wounded, victimized woman hitting the lottery. Sexton glibly goes through the events of the Grimm’s tale, the blah blah blah of it all, the woman who is treated like shit by her family but who goes to a dance one night and meets this wonderful (maybe?) man, and how he shows up with the glass slipper to find the magical woman he danced with, and how the stepsisters slice their heels off to fit into the shoe but “the blood told as blood will” and the frustrated prince finally finds Cinderella hiding in a corner somewhere and puts the shoe on her preciously clean foot and it fits and, well, you know the end.
And oh, did I love me some Anne Sexton. The wildly talented dark woman smoking cigarettes, writing her way out of suburban housewifery, believing just enough in her words to get her above water before she submitted to depression and ended her life. The tragic tale, the lost heroine.
The end of the poem goes:
Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
And when I shared this poem with the crowd I impressed the importance of reality instead of some imagined dream about what life would be, and my desire to instill in young women the importance of finding their own true callings, and not waiting for a prince to come around and save them. And I also said something about the problem of our fantasies and our fairytales, which suggest that a wedding ceremony is the end of a life, and all is honky-dorey from there. And I stressed the beauty of hearing the same story twice, because I often thought of how my mother told me the same stories over and over again, and how a part of me was annoyed and always saying, I know, I know, and another part ate it up, loved living in that story, loved hearing her history through her words, helping me to know her in a way I hadn’t always.
We are a culture lacking in stories and in imagination, a culture who needs to be sitting around fires and hearing stories over and over and over again, because unless we hear them often, they don’t become fibers of our being, they don’ t live and breathe in us. It is important to birth the stories in air and then carry them within us so that we thrive, because damn, we are surrounded by a lot of noise.
And so, here is a story I must tell twice, because it surfaces in my own consciousness again and again, and the man I met was perhaps my greatest human teacher, and I don’t even know his name.
I was walking through Florence, and I had spent the afternoon in a museum with the statue of David, and wow, David is big. If you stand in that hallway and look at that sculpture, whew, David is a very big man. But it was crowded and there were lots of other nice paintings, and then I left and it was an intensely hot week in Italy, and I was sweating immensely every day, but I was also taking refuge in churches and I was praying. And the prayer I was working with constantly was a prayer around money, around forming a relationship with money, about knowing how to manage money in my own life, since I was in a state of transition and I seemed to keep coming back to this issue, year after year, of wrestling with a desire for security through money and yet not wanting to be a slave to it, and grappling with how to develop a healthy relationship where I saw it come and go and did not hoard, and yet had enough for my needs, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. This is a predicament that does not easily go away. Because love doesn’t cost anything, see, and yet money makes the world go ’round.
And I prayed to God, and I wrote about leadings of the spirit, about how God comes to you through people. And so often when I’m facing a new situation or endeavor in life, I just turn my head up and ask the Divine to teach me about it, and I know SheHe will.
So I walked down a street on the way toward the train, and a man approached me and asked for money, and on impulse I told him I didn’t have any cash, which was a lie, because I had gotten some earlier, being a woman alone who may sometimes need to use cash instead of card. And then he said, “How about bread?” And it was that word, bread, that caught me, and I said, Sure, of course, because I could get someone food, but I was not going to be rifling about in my purse for cash in the middle of the street, you see.
And so he led me to a store for bread, and this was a unique situation for me, and I began to get antsy about where, exactly, he was leading me, because this bread store did not seem close enough. And he asked me where I was from, and told me he was from Nigeria, and he had a small girls’ backpack, and sandals, and a bit of a belly. And finally we arrived at the McDonald’s which was his destination, and as we stood in line he told me about his trials in being homeless. He said, “It’s really hard.” He had been in Rome, and he had come to Florence, but now he wanted to get back to Rome because he couldn’t find work in Florence, and even the shelters cost money. And I asked him if he prayed, and he became animated, and he said he prayed all the time. And it was clear his faith went deep, and his faith was the thing that was getting him through, and he said, God knows my heart. And he said, He has taught me so many things, built my character. And he said, I know God has a plan.
And I was so astounded and moved to tears by his faith, by his trust even as he had nothing but his backpack, and this stranger buying him lunch, and my heart started to pound the way my heart pounds when the holy spirit is calling me to action, and so I gave him all the cash I had for his bus ticket, and then he took my hand and we hugged, and I needed to get out of there, I needed to find a place to cry, because it is so easy to take your life for granted, see. It is so easy to think you are the center of the world. It is so easy to deny the riches you have within you and around you at any given time. And so one of my greatest gifts ever in this life was the opportunity to look in the eyes of a stranger who needed something, and whose faith was vast and sturdy, and to know that I was delivered to him as reward for his faith, and he was delivered to me as reward for my seeking.