The Stories of Others

Learning to tell our storiesSince writing in a public space I have done a lot of reading and thinking about story – specifically writing the stories of others. I think about this as I come back from Iraq, full of stories, and I begin to tell these stories in this space.

Indeed, there is a lot to think about. The first question is if I even have the right to tell the story of another. Should I tell the story or not?

For help in sorting this through I have read several essays but the writer I continually come back to is Katherine Boo.

Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes about poverty. She writes stories for those with no voice. In 2012 she was interviewed by Guernica magazine. The interview is a thoughtful, long-form piece and I encourage you to read the entire interview. What I love about her words is that she honestly addresses the struggle of writing with integrity. She addresses the criticism of telling the stories of others and the soul-searching that a writer who tells those stories goes through. While the topic she specifically writes about is poverty, it holds true for other stories as well.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Guernica: At a lecture at American Academy, you recounted that during your reporting on that evacuation shelter for The New Yorker a woman told you, “Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” She seemed to sum up the moral dilemma that reporting on poverty raises. Can you speak to some of these ethical questions?

Katherine Boo: She said it better than I did. We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories. Anyone with a conscience who does this work grapples with that reality, and if they don’t, I’d worry. I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.

But if writing about people who are not yourself is illegitimate, then the only legitimate work is autobiography; and as a reader and a citizen, I don’t want to live in that world. Because if you take a kid like Sunil, who’s been denied the possibility of an education that allows him to write his own story, and all of the people who lack the means and access to do so, they go down the memory hole. They’re lost. What it comes down to is, the only thing worse than being a poverty reporter is if no one ever wrote about it at all. My work, I hope, helps people understand how much gets lost between the intellection of how to get people out of poverty and how it’s actually experienced. 

There’s more to this than the telling. It’s also how we tell the story.

If someone is entrusting us with their story and has given us permission to share the story, it means we have an obligation, a responsibility to tell it the best way possible. If we are telling our own story or the stories of others, we have a responsibility to tell the narrative with integrity and truth. But we also have a responsibility to write and tell stories as well as we possibly can – and that means with descriptive language, with passion, with sensitivity. We have a responsibility to write so that people want to read and want to share. We are the voice for the one who doesn’t write. We are custodians of the story.

In the next few posts, I will be telling some stories of those whose voice would otherwise not be heard. I write, both grateful and fearful. Grateful, because I was able to sit with people and hear their hearts. Fearful, because it is important that I honor their story, and in an online space that is not always easy.

But if you as readers have shown me anything, it’s that you honor stories. So I hope you’ll join me as I tell some of the stories that I heard in Iraq. Thanks for reading along.

“Everything Has a Story”


Narrative – a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.

My husband took this picture on a recent trip to Portland, Oregon. The name of the store is “Narrative” and the tag line is appropriately “everything has a story“.  I love the picture. I love the reminder and challenge.

It’s what I think of as I walk to work this Tuesday. Everything, indeed everyone, has a story.

The person I discard because they didn’t serve me quickly enough? He has a story. Valerie, who sits outside the subway in a chill wind? She has a story. The woman in front of me getting coffee, smelling of money with expensive jewelry and coat? She has a story.

And all these stories matter. They are infinitely precious to God.

A recent post on The Gift of Writing website challenged and encouraged me on both these counts: that everything has a story and that these stories matter. The author, Claire De Boer says this:

Figuring out why our story matters and the role we play within a greater story gives us meaning and purpose.

Your story matters. So I invite you to tell some of your story. Perhaps you would love to tell some of it but no one has invited you to do so, perhaps you think about starting a blog, but not sure that’s the direction you want to go. Here is your chance!

Last year I hosted a guest post series called So.Many.Stories and this year as we rapidly approach the end of 2013, I am opening this up again. I invite you to contribute to this series. We’ll begin with holiday stories and then move on to other stories.

Because Communicating Across Boundaries is largely about stories: stories of grief, identity, memory, place, home, communication, faith.

If you would like to participate, I would love to hear from you. Whether you’re single, married, a global nomad, or have stayed in the same area all your life — you have a story. And Communicating Across Boundaries loves stories. I’m looking for essays 600-700 words and I want to hear from you! If you’ve got an idea, but not sure it will work – send an email to

For inspiration take a look at this beautiful video called “Sonder”, sent to me by my friend Tina.

Sonder | The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows from John Koenig on Vimeo.

Stories & Resilience

What's your story

“The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”* 

There is much written on stories, the power of stories and their ability to connect us and help us learn and grow. In fact, recent research has shown that children who know their family story are able to withstand more of life’s troubles than those that don’t. In a word, they are more ‘resilient’.

The research comes from two psychologists out of Emory University. They developed a tool called “Do You Know” that asked children to answer 20 questions about their families. They found that the more a child knew about their family the higher their self-esteem and their ability to withstand stress, to function normally. It turned out to be the “best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

Because it is about being a part of a bigger story, being a part of something larger than we are.

I think about this, about resilience and the family narrative and look back on some of the chapters of the story. In my story there is the chapter where “Grandma K” lost Grandpa, he was only 50 years old. My mom was thousands of miles across the ocean and received the news by telegram. My cousin Leslie Ann was there, remembers his stomachache, how they all thought it was about something he ate. But it wasn’t – it was a heart attack. Grandma K weathered her grief and loss with grace, moving on to welcome many more grandchildren, and then great-grandchildren into the family narrative.

There is the chapter where my oldest brother almost drowned in a canal in Pakistan, a family friend rescuing him and my mother doing CPR – something she had just read about in a Reader’s Digest, praying all the while that he would live.

There is the chapter where my mom stood on the roof of our home in Ratodero on Christmas Eve, deeply discouraged, lonely and alone. Friends from a town 45 minutes away on a dusty road drove to surprise us, singing Christmas Carols to announce their arrival. Another chapter where my oldest brother, but 28 years old, lost his first wife to cancer, leaving behind both him and a beautiful 4-year old – Melanie Joy.

There are too many chapters to count – one goes all the way back to John Howland of the Mayflower.

And then there are the chapters that my nuclear family have written, are writing. Those chapters include Pakistan, Egypt, Istanbul, Essex, holidays, plane rides, arriving in the United States with all our earthly possessions in 26 suitcases and an Egyptian Siamese cat, pictures of Yassar Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in a heart-shaped frame on our mantle, tea-time on winter nights, curry and kusherie, lots of goodbyes, a wedding….and that does not include crazy traditions and inside jokes that are all a part of the story.

The narrative continues day after day, year after year where we are a part of both a bigger, extended family unit, and our own smaller unit. Woven through the years in both these narratives are the good times and the hard times, the richer times, the poorer times, the times of sick and the times of well. The tapestry is made up of joy, grief, anger, peace, strife, reconciliation and laughter….always there has been laughter. 

But for me this is about more than research, more than resilience from a family story. It’s about being part of a far bigger and far greater story – a story written by God himself. A story that tells of redemption and restoration, that gives me something greater than a family narrative, bigger than any earthly memories.

It’s this story, a story that tells of people willing to risk all because they believed, a story that gets bigger and better and truer each passing day, that gives me resilience, that tells me I am part of a narrative that is larger than all I am and all I have.

Because the story I’m in now, as good and as hard as it sometimes is, is just the beginning of that Great Story where “every chapter is better than the one before.”

“But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” from The Last Battle by CS Lewis

*From “The Stories That Bind Us” by Bruce Feiler published in NY Times “This Life”.
Image credit: convisum / 123RF Stock Photo

Guest Post – Witnesses to Our Lives

Lately I’ve been missing stories. Somehow my world has been too narrow, too tired, my ears too closed. It’s as though my eyesight needs healing and my ears need cleaning, for there are stories all around me.

Over a year and a half ago I posted on The Power of the Narrative. In that post I said this:

“I think that the power of the narrative, the story, needs to be revived in our country. We hang ourselves on sound bites and 140 characters and have lost the ability to concentrate on stories that are longer than a 500 word blog post. How often can the tweet of 140 characters make you feel and cry, rejoice and laugh, rage and empathize. Stories do. Narratives of life lived and our response to how it was lived. There is a power in stories – a power in the telling, and a power through the listening.”

The responses on that post were wonderful. They gave witness to the impact stories had on readers and why they were important.

It is one of those comments that I am posting today – a powerful reminder of why we need stories.

It’s a reminder I need today. 

Join Pari Ali – a long time reader of Communicating Across Boundaries in “Witnesses to Our Lives”

There is always a story. Each life has many short stories, a few plays, innumerable anecdotes and at least one full length novel. People always tell me their stories, even in the rest room. Maybe that is my big story. I have this face that invites confidences, a face that invites stories.

English: View from Kuwait Marina Mall

Some I will not forget – they are so unexpected. There I was in the restroom of one of Kuwait’s malls, Marina Mall and the attendant was a Sri Lankan woman. As I washed and dried my hands and brushed my hair, she told me about herself, how she was from a well to do family but had married a poor man of another religion against the wishes of her family and they had broken all relations with her. This man had later deserted her and here she was– forced by her circumstances to make her living cleaning out the toilets.

When I was admitted to the fever hospital for malaria, there was a lady in the next bed who worked as a maid for a Kuwaiti woman. She had just returned from India like me and also contracted malaria. She spoke Telegu and Arabic, my Arabic was not good and Telegu non-existent but that did not hinder her telling of her life story.

She had married the man she loved only to lose him three months later to a snake bite. A young widow, she then discovered she was pregnant. After delivering her son she had to leave her infant and come to Kuwait to earn a living. She began working for a Kuwaiti family but soon after the husband divorced his wife who also had a small baby. The two women became close and 11 years later she was still working for the same employer who took great care of her.

One day I was going home in an auto, it was raining very heavily, I saw a woman standing in the rain fully drenched waiting for a bus, I wondered what was her story? Rich or poor? Educated or illiterate? Town bred or country-bred? Each one of us has a story. All that is needed for them to come out is some compassion and interest.

Why do we tell our stories? I think because we need witnesses to our lives or perhaps a desire to leave our mark that says we were here, came, we felt, we suffered, we enjoyed, we loved, we gave, we received, but most of all we lived and in all that we did and all those we met we left our mark.

What about you? What are your stories? Do you believe we need witnesses to our lives? 

About the author: Pari Ali is a poet, a writer, and a photographer. She now lives in Kuwait with her husband and two daughters.

Remembering the power of the narrative – bearing witness to the stories of others.

Marilyn R. Gardner

It is the function of Art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.~ Anais Nin

While living internationally, we rarely went a day without having a story to tell that demonstrated our clumsy negotiations in a country where we were guests. Whether it was wrong translations on birth certificates, getting completely lost in a city of millions, or using the wrong word when communicating, there was always a story. At parties a game favorite was Two Truths and a Lie. While many in the United States may have played this, the responses are totally different when you live overseas. Responses such as “My maid of honor was a Nigerian gentleman”I had dinner with Yasser Arafat’s brother” “My appendix were taken…

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So.Many.Stories – Safety and Success

Today I continue the So.Many.Stories project with a wonderful piece from Kimberly Burnham. Kimberly grew up as a third culture kid in Colombia, Belgium, Japan, Canada and yes, even Cleveland. You can read more about Kimberly at the end of the piece. For now, enjoy this challenge to do what you love.

Bullet Statement: Do what you love, what you are passionate about, safety and success will follow.

It is hard to imagine I paid money, a lot of money, to step onto this stage. I chose to speak through the fear, sadness and, yes, elation coursing through my veins. In a moment of insanity, like the time I roped up and walked face first off a cliff in Utah’s Western desert, I chose to storm this stage in front of a room full of entrepreneurs.

“Own your power. Stride on stage like there are lions who will eat you if you waver,” says Bo Eason, professional football player, storyteller extraordinaire and actor in Runt of the Litter. “Move on stage like a lion. Make the audience feel if they look away, you will eat them,” he coaches.

At 14, I walked face forward off the edge of a cliff. I trusted the strength of the repelling ropes, around my waist, to stop me from crashing a hundred feet down to the tree lined canyon floor. I trusted the survival trip leaders to ensure my safety. As I walked down the cliff face I controlled the speed at which the rope slid through my hands. I felt powerful. I felt safe.

At 54, I repeat to myself, “each day is about the peak moment, when supported and encouraged by others, I feel powerful.” I am the master of my destiny, I remind myself as I take this stage.

“I am here!” I plant my claim to the stage, to my life, to my story.  I have begun to convey my experiences. Now, there is only forward. There is no turning back, running off stage and pretending my inner introvert no longer wants to share my message, the story of how I use complementary and alternative medicine to contribute to peace and health in the world, the way I walk the tightrope between passion and safety. Through the nerves and love of my life, I tell the story.

“I am here!” No one wants me here but the Egyptian shop keepers whose stalls line the edge of this much fought over beach. I am here to scuba dive in the Blue Hole, my dream since I was a child listening to Jacques Cousteau, the most famous undersea explorer of all time. The jagged coral, the poisonous lion fish, the deadly rip tides, it is the Red Sea, where waves of deep blue water meet the red sands of the Sinai desert. Cousteau describes, “the most beautiful place on earth.”

Every cell in my body is listening as I tell the tale. “My friends and family feared for my safety. My life insurance company called it high risk behavior and that is just the scuba diving, not this Egyptian beach. To get here from my hotel, I had to jeep through three check points manned by soldiers carrying machine guns.”

“There in the distance,” I paint the picture for one person in the audience. I can get through the emotions I feel. I can tell the story, if I focus on one person. I look for the light in the eyes of one person hungry to hear my story of hope, of ways to thrive in this world.

“Way in the distance across the Red Sea, I can see Jordan and Saudi Arabia. And back beyond the checkpoints and my hotel is modern day Israel.”

Standing on the stage, I know where the story is leading. Emotions well up. Tears at the very edge of my eyes, I say, “It is a good day when you can cross something off your lifetime to do list. I went scuba diving in the Red Sea among the alligator fish, a pride of lionfish, and their deadly cousins, the stonefish, small terrorists of the sea.”

Telling the story, I start to recognize the patterns, the openings to joy and connection. I say the hardest words for me to say.

“A week  later, I watched on a big screen TV in a downtown hotel room in Tel Aviv, Israel as the Twin Towers burned. I understood that day,  September 11th, Tel Aviv was safer than New York City.”

“There in the Middle East for three weeks, I worked in a physical therapy clinic, helped an Israeli soldier live pain-free, supported a child to walk with more balance. I explored treatment options with a much loved Rabbi, committed to finding ways to deal with cancer, without fighting terror with terror.”

I believe people who feel better, make better choices for themselves, their families and their community. I can contribute to peace by supporting healing and decreasing pain.

As I talk to large audiences and individuals, I share my experiences and the stories of my clients, not because it is easy but because I am grateful for the ability to inspire hope and offer real solutions in the form of knowledge, self-care exercises, visualizations and treatment approaches from Integrative Manual Therapy, Matrix Energetics, acupressure and other forms of complementary and alternative medicine.

A lot of people ask themselves, “how can I thrive, make a difference in my community and contribute to a peaceful world?”

On my desk is a heart chakra green and white postcard which says, “Do what you love. No excuses.”

Do what you love, what you are passionate about, safety and success will follow. Building a wall and locking the door is not the way to keep yourself safe. Not doing things because of fear, doesn’t increase your safety.

Perceive the opportunities. Live passionately. Contribute to quality of life in this amazing world.

More about Kimberly: Born in Provo, Utah, Kimberly Burnham has a BSc in Zoology from Brigham Young University ’82 and a PhD in Integrative Medicine ’96.Kimberly is the author of several books and a chapter, “Fractals:  Seeing the Patterns in our Existence” in Jack Canfield’sPearls of Wisdom, 30 Inspirational ideas to Live Your Best Life Now! (2012) as well as  “The Eyes Observing Your World” a featured chapter in Christine Kloser’s Pebbles in the Pond, Transforming the World One Person at a Time (2012). Her upcoming book is The Nerve Whisperer. Kimberly’s goal is to change the face of brain health and how each of us experiences this incredible world. She lives in West Hartford, Connecticut with her partner, Victoria Carmona. Find out more about Kimberly at  and,


Tales from the Arabian Nights :*Denomination: ...

“There is no other people in the world (says one Eastern traveller) who love a good story so well, and are so excited by hearing romantic tales, as the Arabs.” source unknown

When our children were younger and we lived in the Middle East we began buying a series of children’s books that told tales from the Arabian Nights. Boasting titles like “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” “The Story of Alladin and the Wonderful Lamp” and “Sinbad the Sailor”, they were adapted from the larger book “One Thousand Nights and One” – other wise known as “Arabian Nights”.

Although adapted, these books were not dumbed down. They were long, intricate and involved. They told complex tales of thievery and deception; longing and love. If we wanted to put our children to bed quickly we did not opt for these tales as their bedtime story.

One day as I was reading one of them to my children I started thinking about how much more enjoyable these books were than some of the western children’s books that we had on our shelf. Most of them couldn’t compete with the stories from “One Thousand Nights and One”.

As time went on and we lived longer in the Middle East, our family, lovers of stories to begin with, began to love stories even more. Whether at Cairo coffee houses or around expatriate dinner tables, good stories were plenty and memorable.

And we began to spin our own tales. All true at the core but, like any good story-teller, embellished with rich additions that made the telling and the remembering all the better.

It’s stories that we sometimes miss in this part of the world. We love stories. We love books that tell stories. We love films that tell stories. And we love people who tell stories. It’s not that people don’t have stories in the west, it’s that at times we’ve forgotten how to make space in our world to hear them.

And that brings me to you. Communicating Across Boundaries hit a milestone with views this week  and it’s because of you. You read, you comment, you share posts, you let me know when I get it wrong by not commenting (!) you read more, you share more, you even Facebook and tweet posts!

And you have so.many.stories. So to celebrate I want your voice. I’m starting a series called So. Many. Stories and I want yours! I want guest posts from around the world. Introduce us to your world and tell your story. You don’t have to be a blogger to take part. Write up your story and  it to I’d like stories between 500 to 700 words but if you have a great narrative that is longer, let’s talk! Those chosen will be featured in the So.Many.Stories series and if you have a blog I’ll happily link to your site.

What’s in it for you? More stories and more thoughts from more people. It’s a lot like the “More Bars in More Places” slogan from the cell phone carrier AT&T! Please contact me in the next month if you want to participate.

Statistics are Like Bikinis

“Do you realize that the United States spends forty percent of their GDP on healthcare?!” I said indignantly to some friends a while ago.  Our friend Jon, a professor of mathematics, looked at me in surprise “Forty percent?” he said “That seems really high”. “I know!” I said, even more indignantly! “Canada spends only ten percent!”

I have heard it said that fifty percent of statistics are made up on the spot. Well – there you have it; I am guilty as charged. While the United States does spend significantly more than Canada on healthcare, it is more like eighteen percent — not the forty that I passionately and indignantly claimed. In a moment of passion I forgot the real figure and made it up on the spot. I was the only one in the room that had significant knowledge of the healthcare system in this country and so I was only vaguely questioned. Had my friend not been a math professor I would not have been questioned at all.

What is it with the western world and statistics? We LOVE them! We love to prove our points through those elusive numbers. Why? Is it because you can argue with a story, but you can’t argue as well with numbers?

“Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is interesting and what they conceal is necessary”

I heard this quote several years ago and have found many occasions since that time to use it. I love it. In my working hours I live in a world of empirical data, numbers, and evidence-based programs. It’s a world where the quantitative, or numbers, trumps the qualitative, or stories. It’s a world where grant funding is fought for and millions of dollars are either awarded, or not awarded, based on data. It’s also a world where it’s possible to manipulate data and just show what you want to show – thus the bikini analogy.

In fact, as I said above, the west as a whole loves numbers. Think about it for a minute. You can hardly listen to a news program without having those ominous numbers thrown at you. And what percentage of statistics are wrong because they are bought into the way preteens with limited body parts buy into bikinis? What percentage are wrong because of bias? Because of the way words are used to state the statistic? Because they are made up on the spot?

I grow tired of the numbers. I grow tired of the statistics – and yet I know that through them, through these numbers, we receive money to do some important work in communities that have needs and problems. We also receive money to do work in communities that are not needy – because statistics are like bikinis. We can twist them this way and that, covering up those essentials, moving the little top here and twisting the panties there until we have the perfect set up. The set up that will guarantee maximum attention and be quite interesting, perhaps even eye-popping, to look at. But all that is concealed? What is concealed is necessary and so other communities, made up of needier people, lose.

And all the while, I, who love the narrative, who love the stories of people; stories  that show need and ingenuity, desperation and creativity, have to sit back and work out details of a program that will support the numbers.

It can be exhausting. Public health exists to reach the most people possible with the least amount of money. But the compelling narrative behind the statistic is lost in the process. For every statistic we read there is a real story, a real person, a real situation, a real heartache or crisis, a real disease, pregnancy, or cancer, In our effort to analyze and quantify we often fall short of reaching the story.

I don’t have an answer to this. I know numbers do matter and I know that when you have only the story, you have a bikini as well, so this quote helps me to dig a little deeper. To be willing to share and fight for the single story in the midst of the overwhelming data that supports the numbers. Fight for the story that is right in front of me, significant but somehow concealed.

What do you think? Do you get caught up in statistics or hate them? Would love to hear from you in the comment section.

Are you tuning into this blog for the first time? Welcome and check out these posts that others have liked!