Scenario 1: A parent settles against a pillow propped on a bedroom wall next to his young son, now curved about the warm bulk of his father. Readied for a visit to a marvelous world, then sleep, dreamtime. A worn book is drawn from a jumbled pile on the nightstand and opened. The first well-thumbed page is gazed upon, soon given life as the father reads beginning paragraphs of a familiar, always beloved tales of the Berenstain Bears. They’re family tales of daily living. They include a small adventure with a moral that teaches three cubs a lesson or two about ordinary but challenging scenarios: a visit to the dreaded dentist, a not-so-predictable fishing trip, going to school even when you feel unpopular, or how to manage when mother or dad is sick and how to weather death of a pet or friend. It satisfies every time, these stories, and the boy drifts off after the very last lines which are recited by heart.
Scenario 2: The children lean into the firelight, shoulder-to-shoulder with adult family members. One with a deeply lined face and hardened hands and feet sits tall within the circle. She intones a saga of fears and hardships, of courage and perseverance, survival and joyful victory. It is one that has been handed down for generations, and encompasses spiritual beliefs of the tribe. The ways of community are also inscribed in that tale, the prohibitions, rituals, customs. There arrives humor along with pathos and emotions fill the room as each listens and gains something anew. And takes comfort in the gathering of so much love and learning.
Scenario 3: On a falling down stoop an older boy sits above younger children. He half-playacts a story of the mad one who once lived in the neighborhood. He crept through shadows by day and later roamed the blind darkness, stealing food and even garbage, stealing day and night dreams, stealing light from the moon and streetlamps, leaving a mess of bad energy. There was a gang of kids who found then lost and found again the shadow man. But they got together and took turns keeping food safe and at least one street light on. The dreams, they had to be made up, shared with each other but kept safe from the shadow man, kept for the future.
The story is for children who must trust and depend on each other. Adults are chancy. Kids, it is clear, can adapt, are strong, are fleet of foot and mind, gather hope. They laugh and shiver and huddle together.
Stories: we enter the world as a collaboration of new and old story, a fresh new suit to live in, then at long last leave it, letting go of its billowing hem and frayed seams. In between birth and death flesh and soul are torn and banged up, repaired and made anew with stories. Ours and others’. Why are stories so vital in our lives, both youthful and grown up?
They can make or break us with reassurances or new ideas or warnings of worse to come. They can change our individual courses, reinforce what we know, challenge a community’s accepted ways. And they inform us of where we come from and who we are expected to be–or how to be someone unlike the usual, acceptable child, woman or man. We absorb these things before we can read, take a lead in the storytelling. We may even learn it from birth, when we are named for someone the parents value or given creative names unlike any other. They have meaning, our origins, our names, the textured stories woven with others we are told. There are legends with which we are gifted by a country’s long history, by cultures, by family, by friends and lovers.
Do you recall the first stories you were given as a small child? Was it a prayer you memorized alongside a small poem? Perhaps a family tale whether inspiring or unnerving to carry forward. Or a tattered book handed down from siblings. Later there is ongoing table talk, random neighborhood chatter about this person or that, our own individual moments–they all comprise a framework within which to grow, struggle. Every day, circuits of shared language operate within larger story talk. Language provides form and function to feelings, defines hopes and beliefs, strengthens attitudes, disavows what is not acceptable, tallies the truth.
Whatever truth is. Isn’t truth what we are told and at some point what we learn to tell ourselves? Even that blur between truth and lie becomes part of being informed about life’s puzzles and signals as we accessed that lie somehow. It impacts how well we may or may not operate with the personhood developed.
It can be argued that storytelling creates one’s real life viewpoint, values, expectations. It may determine the trajectory of our lives, our personas as well as our authentic, at times guarded selves. We are shaped from an early age by what we hear and see, by what we gather into us. Our families teach us first, those who cared for us or did not.
I grew up with a mother who was, by any standard, moderately verbose. She said it was because she was Irish, was strongly pulled into life with its characters and events. I hung on every word. I just thought she was born a natural storyteller, but perhaps that was one and the same. Animated, emotionally reflective, expressive with her hands as well as language, she could make a walk to the grocery and back an anecdote that entertained.
She tucked me into bed with amazing (to me, a little girl in the city) stories about growing up on a farm, playing tough games of basketball in school, being best friends and then falling in love with my father as a teenager, making her way to college despite stiff odds because she was not going to be a farmer’s wife. She loved talking about her large extended family. It was as if they walked in and out, sharing their own entertaining monologues.
What I learned was that her family was resilient, affectionate, stubborn and a bit rough around the edges at times and could create something from nothing. And that pigs were smart but could be mean. That cleaning a barn was a thankless job and that fresh eggs were the tastiest despite hands being pecked often. That strangers might come to the back door looking for a handout of food if times were hard and be given what could be spared. That Gypsy infants had pierced ears but other children did not get to have them. That losing his good farm in the Depression did my Grandfather Kelly, whom I never met, right in.
I also heard that persistence and belief in one’s self could change a life. Being a strong and athletic girl was a good and fun thing to be. And that curiosity was a near-sacred thing, imagination a great tool but I must leaven both with common sense. Her words reflected a basic bedrock of hope even amid despair. Her life was a vivid series of stories within stories and it seemed bigger than regular life to me–but she said all lives were like that, astonishing.
My father was quiet, some might say so introspective that he was silent much of the time. But his eyes spoke to me: thrilled, sad, angry, bemused, proud, amused, worried. A look from those large light blue eyes took the place of fifty fancy words. His fine grasp of language at home was used when he felt the words would add interest to a topic but felt my mother was better at elucidating matters. Yet I had heard him speak to large audiences when he conducted musical groups, for church affairs, in classrooms, at conferences, for public occasions–and his way with words was succinct while humorous and also wise. He was a born public speaker. He loved a good joke. He taught me pacing, ways to capture attention with that smooth delivery. People listened deeply to what he said, yet he spoke with a humble elegance that struck me each time.
But he also taught me about praying and faith. That riding a good bike well taught me balance and gave me strength, joy and a practical means to various ends. He taught me that learning world history provided a structure for the present and future, even mine. And any sort of travel meant opening a door to surprises that illuminated life in big or small ways. His many actions and fewer words instilled in me the idea that anything can be fixed as solutions abound; that civility is a valuable thing; and I am responsible for my actions. That music was God’s mouth. He told most of his stories, though, by conducting, teaching and arranging music, and by playing musical instruments. Best of all for me, he would play piano for fun, the notes nuanced and light and I would sing jazz standards beside him, his voice chiming in here and there.
Storytelling was a given in my life. It is for most people, no matter time or place. But sometimes one’s story seems not so easy a thing to tell, much less embrace.
When starting out as a mental health and addictions clinician I was given an opportunity to teach–more guidance with teaching tossed in–addicted, high risk, gang-affiliated or -affected youth. One of my duties was to help the actual teacher at the alternative school classroom in the residential treatment center. I tutored and engaged them in various activities as well as planned and facilitated field trips (including ballet and opera, which most even enjoyed). But what I longed to do was enable creative writing experiences. So I did.
Each day young men and women took their places at tables, bored and slouchy, irritated with one more class– writing, at that. My only objective two times a week was to encourage them to put a few words down on paper, then a few more until it might grow to a page full of phrases. Daydreams and feelings welcomed. I wasn’t correcting grammar, spelling, syntax–this was not my interest. The kids were asked to reach in and seize their complicated or simple stories and put them into a form that clarified things for them.
When traditional prompts of opening sentences or magazine photos provoked less than I had hoped, I sought aid beyond the usual box. I couldn’t fill up a whole 45 minutes with my own voice; they wouldn’t put up with that, either. One day I decided to bring in the facility’s “boom box”. I asked them to choose music to play as long as it didn’t center on drug use or violence–a hard thing for them. Then they were to write whatever came into their heads. What they wrote was still bombastic and violent, a loose stream of consciousness. Still, anything was a good start. It was the early nineties so I suggested they put those fragments into a rap of their own. It was poetry class that day in my mind, and in theirs it was a chance to voice their mind’s contents in ways the felt more comfortable.
After they were done–they all seemed to scribble down something–most were hesitant, masking it as usual as toughness and boredom. I picked a guy who had musical talent and he stood up and gave a short intense performance. The group hooted and tried to hurl insults but they responded rather than show their stoniest faces. They relaxed then better participated. Their offerings were vividly descriptive, at times bloody and bitter but each piece was a true creation of what they felt, saw, heard in their lives. Some may have exaggerated–they had to be as “bad” as the others– but the context was honest, feelings raw.
I had to be careful to not start a firestorm of emotion, to be calm and firm. Unafraid of what they wrote. “Just tell it like it is, tell your own story,” I encouraged each time, “no one is getting judged or graded.” As they worked away I stood nearby, answered a few questions, then sat at back of the room as they spoke aloud their words. Haltingly at first, then more expressively as time wore on. And if someone skipped saying parts aloud, that was alright for the moment. It was for their benefit, not mine, I assured them. They were at last engaging in story making and telling.
I tried other routes. I might choose a word or a pair that seemed opposites then put them on the chalkboard. Ask them what song they’d choose to sum up their day and then write additional verses. Or suggest they share what their mothers were like or what their fathers advised them. Or what it was to live on the street, need the next heroin fix, steal for alcohol and drugs or food–but all on their terms. Incomplete sentences was okay. Single words listed one after the other was fine. A rap song of their wars or their loves, the bullets dodged, a knife fight they survived. I asked them to put an object they cared about on the table, write about why they kept it close. A picture of family could free more words than anything despite their running away or being sent away.
It wasn’t fast or easy. But they knew I wouldn’t back down, either. They resisted, they argued, they refused to do much some days. I read them poetry they liked or dismissed or found stupid. I brought in books they might read and sometimes enjoyed. I played recordings of poetry slam poets that they enjoyed. And I told a few stories of my own life, not too much, just enough. They didn’t give up on me and the class nor I, on them.
Sometimes a braver kid would lead the way and other times a quieter one would show boldness. But soon I was being regaled with portraits of these youth. Fragmented, harsh, filled with hurt that gnawed at them and too often a lack of hope for better days. They were stories of daily adaptability, of survival, of some good intentions if even they may have failed. One of the most important subjects they wrote of was their mothers. And younger siblings. They said they would die for them, period; death was not the worst they could imagine. But they tried to stay alive for them, at least, despite a precarious existence.
Some were good writers, a few talented. But they all offered stories that moved me. Helped me think more deeply about who they were. Made me better understand various culture clashes. There were rival gang members sitting near one another, writing poetry or memoir. Most of them began to channel aggressions and pain more effectively–not so often shouting abuse or talking over everyone else or spewing racism or starting a senseless, black-out fight for which police would be called.
Their stories were imbued with greatness: their intimate voices, given some power and heard a better. They began to see writing as a tool to map the landscape of their lives and sussed out some of the whys of what they felt and thought, a dawning of insight and accomplishment. Over time, youths slid up to me after class and said, “I get it now (a feeling, problem, desire, loss) a lot better. I couldn’t figure out how to explain it. Or I was too freaked out to say it out loud.” In that way, aspects of who they were became parts they could examine and feel, then piece together. This was no small feat for kids whose operative mode was a rage brewed from self-hate. Some decided to keep writing after classes. They had found an outlet, a way to frame their past and present with words. Ideas and possibilities. No one told me the class was worthless. And later in their rooms or in the hallways when some of the kids got obstreperous or combative, I would tell them: “Go write it down.” And more and more often, they chose to do that.
What did they learn about themselves by writing and telling their own stories? If nothing else, they more clearly identified from whom and where they had come and who they might be if not in gangs, on the street, in the drug house, in juvenile detention. There were moments of hope pushing between those fervid lines. They could say things that mattered. Their words were worth being heard. What I gained was deeper compassion. Patience. Even greater faith in the creative process. Gratitude for the chance to work with those teenagers for nearly five years.
I also worked with Native American women in another residential setting. The results were strikingly similar but powerful in different ways. Many of those women were also wives, mothers and grandmothers; their burdens were heavy with years of experiences. The prohibition against speaking the truth of their private lives was intense. To speak of traumatic things that had happened was physically taxing. Writing was hard, too. But when encouraged to share histories and dreams and fears orally in their own tongue first, sing their songs, dance, they began to speak. And weep. We always stretched and breathed deeply first to loosen the bones, to open the heart. We even danced our own simple line dances, snaking down hallways of the institution. And they began to smile, to even laugh, and to not often cry as if they could not stop. They embraced each other despite having held enmity toward one another due to multigenerational grudges between tribes or certain members. By speaking the truth, they came nearer the next steps needed to rebuild and share their lives. When they went from whispering with eyes downcast to raising arms and shouting out joy, I knew they had begun to save themselves with transformed stories.
The human body holds stories inside heart and mind. Sometimes finding them and excavating them is hard and sometimes they come as if riding a river to freedom. Other times they are in bits and spurts. But they are waiting to be given a chance. What stories do you tell your children, yourself? Are they true? That is, are they what you really mean? Do they tell something that is valued, that can mark you as who you are in this world or want to become?
My son and I were talking the other day about my lifelong urgent desire to know things, to root out and hold close authenticity in this life. That this is the writer’s way. He immediately understood what I meant. Since he writes songs and loves to orally share stories, I suggested he write them down more often.
“No, Mom, that’s for you. I am the story, I’m just living it,” he said and put his arm around my shoulders and squeezed.
That’s what we all do, after all: inhabiting a story we make anew each day. Share yours, won’t you?