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January 12, 2009



The Hub City Writers Project will publish Kirk Neely’s latest book, A Good Mule Is Hard To Find: Stories from Red Clay Country, in Autumn 2009. The book is a collection of his “By The Way” columns. The column this week is an excerpt from the book.


            “I remember dancing naked in the woods with you,” my pharmacist said to me recently. The other customers and employees in Smith’s Drug Store #2 shot strange looks at both of us, my old friend and me.

Perish the thought of these two sixty-something-year-old men running through the woods at all, much less without proper attire!

            Actually my friend was exaggerating. At the time of our woodland escapades we were Boy Scouts scantily dressed in what we thought was authentic Cherokee Indian regalia. The Native Americans who inhabited the forest long before our romp would have been far more discreet.

            “I also remember sitting around a campfire listening to you spin those yarns. Even back then you were a storyteller.”

            Years later, on the plains of Indiana, I received a similar affirmation. I attended a national Boy Scout event with our three youngest sons and two of our nephews. I was serving on staff as chaplain to the nearly 15,000 scouts assembled at Purdue University. Among the guests at the event, was Abe Conklin, then the Headman of the Ponca people of Oklahoma. Abe attended our worship service on Sunday morning.

One night during the week, a group of us walked to a private place beyond the campus. There, Abe Conklin conducted a smudging ceremony. He moved from one person to another offering a Christian prayer in the Ponca language.

Using burning cedar and sage, he fanned smoke over us with the wing of a Golden Eagle. Traditional Native American prayers are often accompanied by smoke in the belief that as the smoke rises, prayers are lifted to heaven.

Prior to his prayer, Abe said a few words about each of us in turn.

I was deeply moved by the things he said about our sons and about our nephews. When Abe came to me, he acknowledged my role as a pastor and my responsibilities as husband, father, and uncle. Then he said, “You are a weaver of words, a keeper of wisdom.”    

Storytelling is a treasured part of my heritage. My grandfather had a tale suitable for every occasion. 

Now in his eighty-eighth year, my dad is master storyteller. My earliest memory of a religious experience is of Dad telling the Old Testament account of Gideon, the man who won without fighting.

My father-in-law, Mr. Jack, was a delightful storyteller. As was often my experience with my grandfather and my dad, Mr. Jack and I could exchange tales for hours at mealtimes.

My mother and my grandmothers shared their own wisdom through stories, usually read out loud. It is one of the reasons that I value books as I do.

There are several questions I am asked about storytelling.

“Why is storytelling so important?” My best answer is to tell a story.

A diligent student went to a great teacher as often as possible. The pupil sat at the master’s feet receiving instruction. The teacher taught through stories.

One day the disciple asked, “Master, why do you teach me through stories?”

The teacher answered, “Bring me some water.”

The student took a clean brass water pot to the well, filled the pot with cool water, and returned. He offered refreshment to his teacher.

The master asked, “Why have you brought me a pot when I asked only for water?”

Stories are the vessels in which wisdom is contained. Aesop told fables, Jesus told parables, and the best teachers have followed their examples. Stories are the containers into which moral instruction, deep pathos, and real humor are poured.

 “Where do you get all of your stories?”  For me, it is a matter of paying attention. I find stories everywhere, in everything I read, in every conversation, in silent encounters during the course of every day. Every person has a story to tell. They are almost always willing to tell it if someone is willing to take the time to listen.

“How do you remember so many stories?”  Stories have a very short life expectancy. They have to be used quickly or stored for later.

One way to remember is to keep a journal. I almost always have a notebook close at hand.

Another way to remember is to tell the story to another person soon after you hear it. Every time you tell it, the story becomes more deeply implanted in your own mind.

“Are these stories true?” All stories tell the truth, even those that are fiction. In the best storytelling tradition, the truth is far more important than fact. In fact, fiction is one of the best ways to tell the truth.

Storytelling rings true when it is about what you know and where you live. Ernest Hemingway wrote one of my favorites, The Old Man and The Sea. He understood the power of a blue marlin. Mark Twain wrote the definitive American novel about life on the Mississippi River, the place where he grew up.

My stories are about my neck of the woods. My stories are rooted in red clay. They spring from the lumberyard, from the cotton mills, from the rivers of the Piedmont, and from the Blue Ridge Mountains.

After our nine-year-old son had spun a long yarn in his third-grade class, the teacher asked, “Where did you hear that story?”

            “My dad told it to me, “he said.

            “And did your father teach you to tell stories?” the teacher inquired.

            “No, Ma’am. That just runs in our family.”


Kirk H. Neely

© January 2009

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