Remembering my friend and storyteller, J.J. Reneaux

Note: I wrote this column for the Barrow Journal in 2009 in remembrance of my friend, J.J. Reneaux.  Today, February 29, 2012 is the anniversary of her death.  Since it only comes around every four years, I thought I’d repost it on my blog.  J.J. is the person who first taught me the importance of oral storytelling.

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been ten thirteen years this week today since my friend and children’s author/singer/songwriter/storyteller, J. J. Reneaux, died of cancer.  I met her when she taught a storytelling class, and though I always loved stories and writing, she is the person who made me realize how important stories are in our everyday lives.  Without stories, we would have no way of framing our own lives.  They can offer wisdom, tell our history, entertain and enlighten us.

J. J. spent part of her life living in Southwest Louisiana, and the folk tales from her varied background, especially her Cajun roots, inspired her storytelling.  According to her obituary (Athens Banner-Herald, March 3, 2000), J. J. won many awards for her books and recordings, including the Anne Izard Storyteller’s Choice Award for “Cajun Folktales.”  Her book “How Animals Saved the People,” which is my favorite and was published posthumously, also won the Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Award and was chosen for the Outstanding Children’s Book of 2002 Award from the Southeast Booksellers Association.  She toured in the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, and Europe, and she was a regular guest at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

I did not know how well known she was until I read her obituary.  This is probably due in part to my naïveté and also her easy, humble manner.  She had a beautiful, calm voice, and I looked up to her because I felt she had wisdom to impart to me.  I still think of her often, and I’m grateful that during the short time I knew her, she made me feel welcome in her home.  Whenever I feel like a fish out of water, I remember how she encouraged me to walk down my own path.

Before she died, I left for my yearlong stay in Japan where I was an assistant English teacher.  Though I knew she was ill before I left, I never once thought she wouldn’t be here when I got back.  I had looked forward to our continued friendship, so when I received word of her passing, it was very difficult for me.

I did receive hints of her condition before she died, however.  I used to write long, rambling e-mails about my experience in Japan to family and friends, and she rarely returned my messages except once or twice.  Once she told me that a person really learns who their friends are when you are in a wheelchair.  She added that she encountered some toddlers whose expressions were like, “Cool Wheels!”  It’s this that tells me her courageous spirit was unwavering, and I can only hope to emulate that in my own life.

She left behind a loving husband and two children, and now that I’m inching up to the age she was when she passed, I can’t help but count my blessings and my stories.  I plan to use stories liberally while educating my children.  Moral lessons and history lessons are always more easily digested when they are learned through stories.  Part of the reason I write this column, I think, is to record the stories I want my kids to remember.  And if there is anything I can do for J.J., it’s write about her so that you can share in her stories too.  So, please, next time you go to the library, look up one of her books.  I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Note: To find resources on how to start telling stories to your children, see my Storytelling Page.

We All Matter

Note: This column first appeared in the December 28, 2011 edition of the Barrow Journal.

Last week I received a touching e-mail from a man in Australia who had found a column I wrote last year about my friend, J.J. Reneaux.  She was a famous storyteller, musician and award-winning writer, and she died of cancer over ten years ago.

He wrote, “I have no great reason to write to you except that I thought it wouldn’t hurt to lend some affirmation to your feeling that she had a good and positive influence on peoples’ lives.”

He went on to tell me how he had bought her book, Cajun Folktales, while on a trip to New Orleans in the 1990s.  His eldest daughter, who is now 23, fondly remembers the tales, and his younger children enjoy them now.

He wrote of his son: “It’s certainly his favourite book and I think will be something, a shared experience, he may remember forever.”  This is important to him because he, too, is dying of cancer.

I was deeply saddened to learn about his fate, yet I was awed how J.J. is still affecting people’s lives…and even their afterlives.  And it affirmed for me a deep belief: that we all have meaning.  The stories we create in this life will keep affecting people well after we are gone.

But I’m not talking about stories we make up and write down in a book.  J.J. taught me that my personal story matters.  How do I choose to live this life?

Last year I also wrote about the kindness shown to me by an employee at the Winder Publix on Highway 11.  There was a terrible storm outside, and I needed help to my car even though I would never ask for it.  Though it was part of his job, this gentleman went the extra mile to help me, and the good cheer he showed me that morning stayed with me all day.

I’m sure we all have stories of meeting people whose enthusiasm for life is contagious.  Sure, there are those who feign happiness for the sake of appearances, but the sincere ones have an easy way about them.  We know it’s real, and it makes us feel good.

I’m not an award-winning writer whose stories will be read for many generations like J.J.’s, and I may not be remembered for bending over backwards for a stranger, but I realize that the thoughts I hold and the attitude I wear can make a difference.  Opening a door, picking up a pen that someone dropped, or even a smile can help a little. Moreso, scowling at the world, cutting someone off in traffic, or yelling at people for no good reason can have crippling affects that spread out.

That pebble thrown into water metaphor comes to my mind:  “Every act of kindness is like a pebble thrown in a pond sending out ripples far beyond where the pebble entered the water. When we’re caring and kind to our neighbors, our actions send rings of kindness that spread from neighbor to neighbor to neighbor.” That’s attributed to Angela Artemis.

If there’s one New Year’s resolution I make this year, it will be to remember that my actions have a larger meaning than I usually give them credit for.  Without my knowing it, something I said, did or wrote could affect someone miles away, long after I’m gone.  I hope you’ll remember that too.  You matter.  We all matter.