Stories We Need

Roz in UmbriaWe all have stories to tell–sometimes they haunt us and sometimes they keep us going. Sometimes they’re powerful and sometimes we think they’re unexceptional. But sharing stories is a way to find out what other people think and feel.

A friend told me about the organization Narrative 4, familiarly called N4, that harnesses the power of stories to create empathy. Author Colum McCann is one of the founders and the current president of the organization. (I’m on the waiting list for his latest novel, Apeirogon, which has been getting excellent reviews.) N4 brings people, often children, together to tell their stories to others. Many of the events take place in schools with trained facilitators. Their motto is: “Tomorrow’s leaders must learn empathy today.” Take a look at the good work they’re doing.

I just finished the lovely new novel Exile Music, by Jennifer Stell, which is about a Jewish family who managed to obtain visas to Bolivia in the late 1930s. Once Hitler had annexed Austria, and they saw the Austrians rejoicing, they knew they had to leave. The story is told from the point of view of the young daughter, Orly, who spends her teenage years in La Paz with her parents, both musicians. Although life is hard, they are very grateful to be there. When Orly is finally able to start school in La Paz, her first writing assignment is to pick two things–people, objects–that are very different from each other and find a way to connect them. Isn’t that what literature–and our lives–are all about? Poets know that very well. Of course the exercise helps Orly think about the contrasts between her present life and the one she left in Vienna, but it applies to so much in our own lives. We’re always trying to make connections, find common ground between disparate things, especially now. Social isolation has made a break in time for us; we’re living in the space where our old life intersects with this new world of isolation and  we’re trying  trying to find connections.

If you’re feeling frustrated about not having access to your library and want to buy books, take a look at This is a project that supports your local independent bookstores with a portion of the profits from book sales. Book orders are fulfilled by the huge book distributor Ingram, so availability isn’t usually a problem. And unlike Amazon, which has currently de-prioritized book sales, selling books is the only thing that does. At the moment they are offering discounts. If you want to support independent bookstores, take a look and buy a book!

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