Sometimes our story lives within us. Sometimes it is so close to our very core that as a people we just can’t untangle it from reality. We continue to see out of an old pair of glasses, one which no longer enhances our sight. Yet no matter how distorted this vision, we trust in what we see. Such is the nature of a country’s story. I began to think about these stories and its tellers at the death of Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a very, wise, old woman.
The American story is fairly young as stories go. It is part folktale (think George Washington and his cherry tree) and part myth (the sacred treatment of a flag and the fervent respect for a constitution). But the story lives mostly as a legend – a tale with a kernel of truth that has grown much bigger than life. And there is not just one story but many, many stories – different variants of that single story. At least, that’s true in the United States where the diversity of experience portrays vastly different narratives. Nevertheless, a teller steps forth for each story. Perhaps it’s a Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Wilma Mankiller or Cesar Chavez. It can be anyone who holds at least a part of the story in her heart and has a great need to tell it.
Megan McKenna writes of such stories and their tellers in Keepers of the Story.
In every culture, in every geographical place, among every people there are individuals who are encrusted with the words that belong to that place and group. They hold the heritage, the experiences, and the stories that express who they are and how they stand in the universe. These are the keepers of the Story. Their lives are dedicated to preserving, to keeping true, to guarding and protecting what is not theirs alone, but what has been given into their care by others.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of these tellers and an icon for many. She keeps the heritage and experience of American women throughout history. “I ask no favor for my sex, all I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks,” she once said. McKenna explains the urgency in these teller’s work.
It is a vocation, a calling, a responsibility, and a work that defines them in relation to their people and in relation to other groups and their stores. They live on the words, but they never make their living from the words. The tales tell them. The stories use their flesh, their voices and minds, to remain alive and to keep the people alive. The keepers are given words and are held in sway and bondage by the lifelines of hope, suffering, exaltation, births and deaths, resurrections, and visions: by the Story. (McKenna)
But what is the American story or perhaps are the American stories? One version is the tale of the underdog. The story of a people who overthrew a King and fought an army for religious freedom and independence. It’s a tale of a document that promised a new way of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It granted great freedoms of speech, the press, religion, to assemble and petition the government. The document promised equality (at least for men) and opportunity. It’s a tale of our founding fathers and those rugged individualists, pioneer settlers, who had grit and optimism. People who were willing to risk and fail and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The story fueled a dream that anyone could achieve a better life here if only they tried and worked hard enough.
That’s the legend anyway. One that struggles against the other version. This story is a tale of suffering and loss. It’s the story of wealth achieved on the backs of others. It is a country ruled by those of white, European ancestry – entitled, aristocratic, imperialistic. These founding fathers moved to American shores feeling justified in colonizing it. They believed in their own superiority and in the right to take the land of indigenous people and enslave others. They’ve held the power and amassed the wealth for hundreds of years. This story portrays an America in shambles.
Stories are a matter of the teller’s perception sometimes more than a reflection of truth. It’s the keeper of the story who crafts the narrative and captures our attention. It can encourage and motivate or demoralize and anger. We see that time and again in our divisive world today.
“There are many keepers,” McKenna writes, “…but there is only the one Story. It is a single question in myriad forms. It is a universal pronouncement in expressions beyond numbering. It is a cry sounded in every generation, every place, and in each human heart that wonders, asks, demand, whispers, shouts, chants, begs, prays and repeats again and again and again. Who are we? Who am I? Who are you? Who art Thou? Are we all one? What is truth? Are we true? Is the end in the beginning? Where are we now? What is it that sings among the stars and in our blood and in the empty places of the world and in the wolves howling in the human heart?”
Those are the big questions, existential questions. Each teller and story keeper holds the answer in their words. Each has a different wolf howling within a human heart. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s story reflects the experience of a people oppressed. It spoke of a history of bondage, and the suffering of slavery not addressed. Yet his answer to the question “Who are we” may not be that different from Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s. She found her story in the law - especially as that law addressed the rights of women and minorities. She remembered the making of our constitution when Abigail Adams asked her husband John to “Remember the ladies.” He laughed at her absurdity and women continued to be the property of their husbands and fathers. She knew the struggle for the vote was a lengthy and difficult one, a victory which took decades of agitation and protest. When the Equal Rights Amendment didn’t pass, she knew women continued to struggle with inequality of pay, opportunity and legal protections. Ginsburg didn’t give up. She held fast to her story and worked long and hard to find equality “the long way round.” This was her story: one she spoke, shared, and embodied.
We see how a country’s story shifts with the teller. Our president’s vision of America is very different from mine and dismissive of Ginsburg’s dream of equality for all. But with all these story variations, is there one common vision remaining of America or have all these stories splintered? I contend that the best tellers share a collective story. They can persuade and help us see through a new lens. Our perspective shifts and our vision becomes clear. These tellers can motivate us to become our best selves and strive as a country to be better and something more. What is the one story we wish to tell as a country? How can we craft a tale that inspires and motivates us all?
This is the Story, the only Story there is to tell, to refashion and tell again. It is the only Story there is to listen to and discuss and share with others, to pass on to our children and to use as an introduction to other nations, religions, peoples, cultures. (McKenna)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg held tight to a story, a version of America that saw our violent and oppressive past, yet bridged that truth with the possibility of something more. It’s a potential for people to grow and progress - to see the errors of the past and make amends. She knew the nature of oppression, injustice and inequity. She spoke of it in her dissents. She worked tirelessly for a country and its people, always hoping, always holding on to the belief that wrongs can still be righted, equity can exist, and reparations be made. It was the one story she told time and again: a vision that law can still perhaps triumph over tyranny.
In the speaking we find our voice, we remember echoes and take heed of all that converges on us in blessings and blunders. In the hearing we are sounded, tuned and drawn into the universe – the one poem, the one verse, the one harmony, the one Holiness. (McKenna)
Ginsburg was a wise crone if ever one existed. She was a force to be reckoned with to her dying day and certainly not a grannie in a rocking chair. Should anyone ever tell you that you are “too old” to be concerned about issues of social justice, remember Ruth. Her legacy of devotion and truth should be our call to action. Our rallying cry becomes, “Once more, dear Ruth, unto the brink!” as we make our way to Washington.
The mystery of the one Story is forever giving birth to expression, to transformation and transfiguration and redemption as we live, endure, and die. Even if the essence of the Story is wrenched from us or twisted, broken or lost, there is a fervent belief among the keepers that killing the teller only gives the Story more meaning, power and possibility. (McKenna)
Although Ginsburg no long walks among us, her story can live on. We can embody it ourselves and share it with our daughters, sons and our grandchildren. It is the generative task of the crone to be the keeper of the stories and to share them for the benefit of others. This is a story still without an ending, that needs telling and retelling. “I would like my granddaughter when she picks up the Constitution,” Ginsburg writes, “to see that notion – that women and men are persons of equal stature – I’d like them to see that is a basic principle of our society.”
The real issue is: Do you serve? Do you obey? Does the Story seize hold of your flesh and tell you? Are you, are we, coming true? Do you believe the words that have been given to us? Do we stake our life on the words? Do the words set free and loose compassion and hope for the world?... What word are we in the Story? What will be told of us when we have become the ground of “once upon a time”? (McKenna)
The wise crone, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, leave us with one final message. “Fight for the things you care about but do it in a way that leads others to join you.” Don’t let her story die, become a keeper of the tale and share it in your own way!
McKenna, Megan, Keepers of the Story: Oral Traditions in Religion, New York: Church Publishing, 1997.