Somewhere in Vermont a Wal-Mart and an asphalt parking lot now sit where a farm used to be. The farm was taken by eminent domain by the state in order to build a road that was never built.
A friend grew up on that farm and has memories of running barefoot through the stalks of corn that were taller than she was, the dirt squishing up between her toes. When she looked up past those corn stalks, the sky seemed infinite. She grew up rooted to her grandparents’ legacy, to what that farm taught her.
My friend dreams of growing old, buying a Winnebago and parking it on the Wal-Mart parking lot. “I’ll spend the night there,” she said, “and remember the stories that lie beneath.”
On the western coast of Turkey sits the four thousand year old remains of the cities of Troy. In the mid-1800s all that was left of Troy were stories and a mound of dirt more than a hundred feet high filled with debris from centuries of life. Since archeologists began excavating the site in 1873, nine levels of Troy have been found.
Each level contains the stories of people—how Troy served as capital of the region and was the home of a king, how farmers throughout the region often took refuge in the walled city of Troy for protection, how Troy became a thriving mercantile city linking land and sea routes, how the Greeks used a tall wooden horse to enter the city and claim it.
Stories lie beneath the Wal-Mart parking lot in Vermont and beneath the layered cities of Troy.
Until I was ten years old I lived in a house on the corner of 35th and Dudley in Lincoln, Nebraska. The tree in the back yard that held our three story tree house is gone. The people who live there now don’t know that my sister fell out of the third story of the tree house and my father, who was across the street when she fell, vaulted over a white wooden fence to get to her.
In the back yard we had a fort and a trampoline my dad surprised us with one day. There were lilac bushes that separated the neighbor’s back yard from ours but they didn’t stop us from running back and forth from yard to yard. And there were the irises my mother so loved.
The people who live in the house now don’t know that I learned to ride a bike on their driveway and in the garage was a freezer where my mom always had homemade kool-aid popsicles that the entire neighborhood feasted on.
There was a tree in the corner of the front lawn that was always “home base” for hide-and-go-seek or witch-in-the-jug. That tree is gone. The huge tree in front of the house now was a sapling the year we moved in. And the brick wall in the back of the house used to be covered with orange flowers we called Witches Fingers.
Stories linger beneath the little feet that run in the back yard and play on the swing set now. Fifty-five years ago it was my story. Now it is theirs.
Now I live in Western Massachusetts. Beneath my feet are generations of stories, stories before people. For a billion years the land beneath my back yard has been shifting and changing, moving, colliding and evolving, freezing and thawing. Volcanoes, glaciers and earthquakes have shaped a state.
A hundred and fifty million years ago, dinosaurs roamed Western Massachusetts. You can see their footprints in the park down the street. For ten thousand years the land beneath was inhabited by the Wampanoag, Narragansett, Nipmuc, Pocomtuc, Mahican and Massachusett. They have stories of tragedy and triumph, of love and life. When the Europeans came and drove the first people off the land new stories emerged. All these stories ground me, root me.
More important than the stories that lie beneath my feet are the stories that lie beneath and inside every person I encounter.
I recently had a four-hour layover in the Portland, Oregon airport that infamously lacks a good bookstore but famously has art work by local artists up and down every corridor. One exhibit caught by eye. It was called “Angels Passing” with artwork by Michael Hoeye and words by Joanne Mulcahy.
The black and white sketches were of people from the artist’s neighborhood in Portland. In the introduction to the exhibit, Mulcahy said, “Angels are messengers, winging their way through the paths of our daily lives. Do we hear their voice as we pass on the street? As we travel from home to some faraway place? Messages rest in a furrowed brow or sudden smile, in the way our bodies hurry or saunter. Each promises a story. How will the tales unfold?”
I looked at his sketches, read her words and tried to find the tale, the story beneath. Who is this person? What is she dreaming about? Why are they laughing? Why does he look worried? Where are they going? Who is she taking coffee to? What’s in the backpack? Who is she texting?
“The ordinary dazzles once we learn to see,” Mulcahy said. She was right. Each gesture, each movement told an extraordinary story of a life lived.
I often move past the stories quickly, missing the connection, the friendship. But right here, before me, everyday, the ordinary can turn extraordinary. The people I pass have stories. Their story is my story. Their lives are inextricably linked to mine in ways I never knew or never expected.
I need to take the time to see the stories that lie beneath. To know that the people I pass have felt love as I have felt it, felt grief as I have felt it. They have been afraid, joyous, proud, determined, disappointed, sick, confused, ecstatic. They have been loved by family and have laughed with friends. Sometimes they have felt that the world was against them every step, as I have felt. And sometimes their hearts overflow as mine does.
I need to stop and see these angels passing. And in that seeing I can find those stories of love and family, sadness and grief, loss and tragedy, triumph and joy. They are the stories of our common humanity.
We all have a story. Take a moment, however brief, and connect to those stories.
“Once we embark on the path toward seeing, we, too, can be seen,” Mulcahy says in her words and Hoeye says in his sketches,
See the stories that lie beneath. And in that seeing, be seen.