the power of the story, and of the road, and of the telling

What an astonishingly wonderful gift to come home today today. Gloria sent this book, clearly from when we were at Exeter together, with a lovely, tear-jerking inscription. I have this book, but haven’t read it fully, and will cherish this new copy wholly.
Exeter has a tradition known as the senior meditation. Each senior writes a “meditation,” which (as I recall) is a personal essay with few limits than a general length guideline. Each Thursday morning there is a meditation period, when a member of the faculty, staff, or senior class reads their essay in the chapel (pictured above, still one of my favorite buildings ever). Mr. Valhouli, my beloved teacher, was an ardent lover of this tradition and when he read his personal comments in 1991, I was lucky enough to be sitting in the pews. This book, a compilation of some of the readings from 1983 to 1994, is dedicated to him:

This book is dedicated to the memory of Jim Valhouli, whose inspired teaching and love of words have taught us to believe more fully in the stories and adventures that shape our lives. Just as Odysseus did so long ago, Jim, in his journey to Ithaka, teaches us that it is the journey, not the arrival, that matters.

These words remind me of the dedication of my senior thesis, also to Mr. Valhouli:

This thesis is dedicated to the memory of James Valhouli (1942-1994). Mr Valhouli, Your inspiration will always be with me. Thank you for teaching me passion for Ithaka. I trust you are there.

I am going to dive into this book tonight and know I will find writing that is both elegant (one thing Exeter does well, after all, is teach you how to write!) and thought-provoking. I love this tradition and admire the tenacity and commitment demonstrated by Exeter’s protecting of 30 minutes a week for pure personal storytelling. In a world where each academic minute is squeezed, I am sure it is hard to maintain this tradition (and, in truth, I don’t know if it is still alive – it was important to me when I was there, though).

It takes guts for a school that’s measured so often on quantitative measures like test scores and college admissions to defend the value of the story. I am sure many alums, however, would tell you that the stories they heard, from peers and teachers, are the single most valuable thing they took away from the school. This was the central theme of Gloria’s remarks at assembly the other week, and it wasn’t until she sent this book that I connected those words with the meditation tradition and with Mr Valhouli. These are influences on my life that have privileged the individual telling of experience, that have valued highly the learning inherent in telling and hearing stories.

How often I think of you, Mr Valhouli – of your profound, quiet dedication to the beauty that lies along the way, to the value describing what we see. I am looking at your picture right now, on the board in front of my desk, and you look at me with that familiar, serene gaze that is at once calm and utterly penetrating. I am such a restless soul, and I am walking a winding road that is both exactly what I planned and nothing like I could have imagined. I find it grounding to remember that my feeling lost isn’t the point; it’s the stories I can find in each day that matter. I don’t think this book was written before he died, but I know Mr Valhouli would have loved this quotation, which I’ve shared with only one close friend who also has a fascination with story telling:

Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that to go on living I have to tell stories, that stories are the one sure way I know how to touch the heart and change the world.
Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure


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One Comment

  1. Samosas for One
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    This gets at exactly what I was referring to in one of my previous comments: the importance of you using your own words to understand your story.