By Kevin Cordi
Book Review: Trail Guide for a Crooked Heart: Stories and Reflections for Life’s Journey
A student follows a wise philosopher for years. He wants to know all that he knows. He wants to understand how this philosopher is able to assemble complete strangers together. He desires to know how he can help cease wars and start conversations. He travels with the learned man for years. Enduring a thousand storms, he keeps company with the wise one. In the mountains and the countryside, he suffers scrapes, bruises, and exhaustion, but he knows the wisdom will soon arrive and he will know his place.
Everywhere the philosopher travels, he shares a tale. He recounts, an old story that is told from a time long before he walked the earth. A story about what happened yesterday. Stories of places he knows and places he does not. Stories of the imagined, impossible, and improbable. All the time –stories, stories, and more stories. And then the philosopher stops, and listens to more stories. Stories, stories. Stories.
There is a point where the old man full of wisdom can’t travel or he is destined for a new place. The young man, who is not so young anymore is still with him.
He says to the student, “I need to leave you now. You must carry on my work.”
“I can’t, I don’t know enough. I have traveled with you for over 30 years, always by your side and whether you are with rich or poor, strangers or friends, all you do is tell stories. When oh master, will you teach me how to connect with others? All I have heard is stories.”
With the last vestiges of breath, the philosopher asks the man to come closer. He realizes this is the time where truth will be revealed. The old man begins, “Once upon a time…” The young man listened, truly listened and knew his journey had begun.
Jim May stands as that philosopher. I have known Jim for years, as an active listener to his tales as a farmer taking care of Nipper Sink Creek, as a friend sharing in the art of telling stories, and after reading his new book Trail Guide for a Crooked Heart: Stories and Reflections for Life’s Journey (2016, Parkhurst Brothers) as a guide for others to value the rich stories that reside in us. He reminds us to listen for the old tales and directs us on a crooked road. From reading this book, we discover narratives serve as windows to understanding life and our place in it.
In the conversations I have had with Jim I know him to be a deep listener and someone who takes the time to let stories guide him. However, with this book, he continues this practice in written form to allow us to see importance of narrative. His rich experience as a teacher, counselor and as professional storyteller for over 30 years enriches his view of the world and in this book we see it, flesh with questions, responses, and most of all, stories.
He reminds us that a crooked road is not a wrong one. He shares through stories and his insight that our journey is meant to have jeers, jags, and junctures that are crooked and misunderstood. Regardless of the edges, we need to walk on and most importantly, reflect on where we have traveled. The tales of our lives takes time. He offers many stories in this book including the story of the loss of his sister and equates it to the story of Noah’s Ark and how we need someone to look out for us. Without sermonizing or dictating moral stances, he allows the story to provide us a place to pause and reflect and make decisions.
Using an Arthurian legend of Sir Percival. he advocates that we need to watch out for others and ask “What ails you?” This is the way we find the grail for others, just ask the Fisher King. This important question is perhaps the most important there is. Jim asks this questions not just of others, but himself. But perhaps there is something else being asked here, according to Professional Storyteller Jay O’Callahan who states in the forward, this questions are really asking “what is your story? This is the reason for the book, to demonstrate the need to ask for stories and to value what they provide to us.
Upon first reading, one might think this is simply a collection of stories but upon deep reading, one discovers that these stories are intricately woven, like a fine tapestry, to provide insight and questions on living.
They are complimented by not only Jim’s eye to his life experiences, but the rich learning that can be found in a Jack tale, Zen tale, and from a gracious peddler.
In this book Jim honors not only the tales, but the wisdom keepers and tale bringers that have affected him and many others search to finding the narrative. From the Scottish world of Duncan Williamson, he shares a new story, but I am sure old in oral tradition, but new in written form about the time when Jack went to school. At eighty years old, we see the rye Jack outwitting the King yet again. We also are privileged to have a personal account of Ray Hicks and his family as Jim spells out how story- driven Ray was, whether he was telling for 1000 people under a tent at the National Storytelling Festival or an audience of one. There is value in these passed on tales.
These stories had not been learned in a school, for the most part, but in weathered wood-frame houses and cabins scattered throughout the mountains. The tales were told for entertainment, for their wisdom, and to keep the children working at the many tedious tasks, like shelling beans, that were necessary for survival (p. 34).
Stories teach us. They offer us choice as Jim shares with us how the concept of war would change if we followed the non-violent narrative of Gandhi. He skillfully offers from two stories of the same incident with different results. It is a powerful reminder of how much a narrative change when we are actively involved in it.
Stories guide us. As Jim reminds us, we also need a Raven to help us along the way, someone to listen to our stories and show they care for us. Jim leads us to the story. He is a care-taker of narratives. As we follow his insight, he delivers rich narratives that direct us to our own. The crooked path is one meant to be walked and Jim shows us how to take the first steps and/or examine the paths that we have trod and are traveling. However, he reminds us walking the trail is up to us.
We invite you to catch more reviews and soon we will have an interview with Jim. If you know of some book or person we need to check out (including you) let us know. We are listening. Share your story.
Kevin Cordi is an international award winning educator, author, storyteller, story teacher, coach and consultant.He’s told stories for over twenty-five years on a national and international level. He strives to help others learn, engage, and refine their storytelling skills.
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