Why I Tie a Rope around my Ankle When I Write – A Guest Post by Shawn Smucker

There’s a sort of holiness in the room when I sit down across from someone, some ordinary person, and place the recorder on the table. I try not to show that my hands are shaking.  5750218032

Some stare at the recorder for a moment before beginning – they know that once they speak, there is no going back. Their words will be captured, like lightning bugs in a glass jar, glowing on the cheeks of their captors.

Others pretend the small, black, plastic contraption doesn’t exist, and these are the ones who tell a good story. They ignore this reaping of their words. Sometimes when they venture back into time they close their eyes. They are alone in the world and no one is listening.

But we are listening, my recorder and I.

The stories dance around, looking for somewhere to rest, somewhere that will keep them safe, and then they fall into the recorder. Stories have a deeply ingrained desire to survive, but it’s a dangerous world out there. Most of them wait too long to be told (they’re rather shy, after all) and they lose their voice to death or disease or memory loss.

Once stories are buried, there is no way to bring them back.

* * * * *

The leaf that spreads in the light is the only holiness there is…it’s out in the open field, with the green rows looking at the sky. I don’t know what it is, this holiness: but it’s there, and it looks at the sky. – Kage Baker

* * * * *

An unproven legend says that in Old Testament times the high priest ventured into the Temple’s Holy of Holies once a year wearing bells around his waist so that if he died in the presence of God those outside would hear him fall and know. They wrapped a scarlet rope around his foot in order to pull him out, if necessary.

I wonder if that rope was ever used. It seems unlikely that God would award such bravery with immediate death.

Or perhaps, if God is all He is cracked up to be, dying would have been a great reward. Perhaps there were priests who wanted to meet Him, who wanted to see His face even if it meant the end of them. Perhaps they stood there so still, waiting, that their buddies holding the other end of the rope gave it a tug, just to see if they were still in the land of the living.

* * * * *

In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in trees. – Annie Dillard, For the Time Being

* * * * *

This is what it feels like to absorb and preserve stories:

A gentle walking into the holiest of spaces.

Waiting for the spirit of the story to make itself known.

Finding beautiful shards not yet ground down into sand.

Stumbling into a forest glade at dusk when the fireflies first begin to rise and blink above the heavy grass.

Maybe the next time I sit down across the table from a storyteller and gently press the play button on the small, black recorder, I should make sure a scarlet rope is tied securely around my ankle.

One never knows when the holiness of a story will overcome you.

Shawn is the author of “Building a Life Out of Words” and “How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp.” He lives deep in the woods of southern Lancaster County, PA, with his wife and four children. Find out what else he’s up to over at Facebook and Twitter.



  • http://www.dianatrautwein.com Diana Trautwein

    Wow. This is so lovely, Shawn. Thank you. How I wish I had capture more of my family stories before the dementia moved in. . . blessings as you continue to capture yours.

    • http://shawnsmucker.com Shawn Smucker

      Thank you, Diana.

  • http://deuceology.wordpress.com LarryTheDeuce

    I love reading anything by Shawn. Always a pleasure.

    • http://shawnsmucker.com Shawn Smucker

      Thanks, Larry.

  • http://afieldofwildflowers-kellys.blogspot.com/ Kelly Chripczuk

    Beautiful, Shawn. My church spends a lot of time telling stories, at least one Sunday even three or four months, and it’s amazing how it draws us all together, how we are captured by the drama and experience of people who walk the same ground we do.
    I like to think that stories linger in some intangible way even after their owners have passed. I think about this as we’re about to leave this little house that has held us for ten years now – how the fingerprints of our lives, our stories, will remain on it for some time to come. I guess what I mean is that stories don’t just reside on the surface of things or in our bones and sinew and brains, but in the air around us, the ground where we walk, the places we gather to eat and rest; they are more than just part of us, they ARE the warp and weave of life.

    • http://shawnsmucker.com Shawn Smucker

      I think you’re right, Kelly – stories do linger even after we’ve passed. And while they can never be known in the way “knowing” is traditionally understood, I think something remains, something tangible, something that can be found. Maybe that’s what makes them holy?

  • http://annetteskarin.net Annette Skarin

    Thanks Shawn, this was a very interesting post. I can imagine you make people feel at ease when you listen to their stories.

    • http://shawnsmucker.com Shawn Smucker

      Thanks, Annette. I hope so.