The Importance of Stories

Years ago I recall hearing something on NPR from Story Corps. I’ve heard several of these over the years, but while I don’t recall the specifics, I recall being riveted by one person telling a story that was relevant to the other person. Might have been a father talking to a son or perhaps it was a grandparent, but they were telling a personal story and you could hear how personal that story was in the storytellers voice. I recall that I stopped wherever it was I was driving to and turned off the engine and waited there until the story was over. It was that interesting, that engaging, that impactful. It was that good.

Storytelling, it seems to me, is largely either a lost art or, at least, one that’s not practiced as much as I choose to imagine it was once upon a time.

It’s easy for me to imagine that sitting around a fire, sitting around the fireplace, sitting around at the end of a long day and someone telling a story to the rest of the gathered listeners. Maybe it was a personal story. Maybe it was a story that they had been told in a similar situation when the were younger.

We don’t really do that much anymore.

The Story Corps program tries to facilitate that. You can find them at www.storycorps.org. One of the many things they offer to help get things started is a list of Great Questions which you can use to help get things going.

What was the happiest moment of your life?
What are you most proud of?
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?
What is your earliest memory?
How would you like to be remembered?

This is just a sampling but they are the kind of great open ended questions that seem like they would result in a story that, perhaps, you haven’t heard before from someone in your life.

Back when my kids were little, I think my son was maybe six and my daughter was three, I decided to take my video camera and sit them down and interview them.

In my head I wanted to capture them at that age. Ask them questions, see how they thought about things, what they thought about. My attempt wasn’t long. Maybe 10 minutes for my son and somewhat less for my daughter, but I’ve gone back to that video a few times to remember what my kids sounded like, what they looked like, how they behaved when they were little and still very young children.

I think I’d like to create an opportunity to do the same with them now as young adults. I think there is much I could learn from them and I suspect it would help me understand them better.

The reality is, now that they are out of the house and starting their lives separate from me, the bulk of our communication is around checking in. How are you doing? Is everything going alright? What’s next? How goes the dating life? Are you doing well? Fairly surface queries intended to elicit a quick read on how they’re doing and whether there is anything I can do or that they need.

I know my kids have their own stories and I think I’d like to help them capture those stories, mostly for themselves but also for them to pass on to their families as representative of who they are, what they look like, what they sound like at their current ages.

My mother passed a few years back. One of my big regrets is that I never sat down with her and interviewed her to try and learn more about her. If she wasn’t comfortable being on video, to at least capture her voice as we talked about things. I miss hearing her voice. If I concentrate and try to remember very hard, I can hear her voice in my head. But, as time goes by, I suspect it’s more like chasing phantoms as I remember remembering her voice and I become more and more distant from the actual sound of her voice.

I wish that I’d had a chance to ask her more about what her life was before me. In my very self-centered world view, I really only know about my mom in terms of how she impacted my life. I don’t really know that much about her from when she was young.

I know she had secrets she didn’t want to tell us. Either because she was embarrassed or because they weren’t appropriate stories to tell us as kids. I know there are things I don’t want to tell my kids. Events or stories or interactions that, while formative, are embarrassing or don’t show me in the light in which I would like them to think of me.

I never got to hear those stories from my Mom and perhaps she wouldn’t have wanted to tell me even as an adult. We all edit our stories. We all present a version of ourselves to our family and to the world that involves a certain amount of self-editing, I suspect.

I still have the opportunity to interview my dad and I’ve given it a great deal of thought but I haven’t pulled the trigger on that. No great reason I can of but time continues to pass so I’m kind of curious as to my reticence.

And, at the root of all of this, since this is me telling my story, is me.

That same time I interviewed my kids, I did my own, talking a bit about who I was, what was important to me. That’s hard video to go back and watch, but I still think it’s valuable maybe only to my kids to see who I was, what I looked like, what I sounded like at an earlier time in my life.

There are fairly obvious and mundane reasons for this year of writing: that I set a goal, that I practice a craft with the goal of trying to improve. In addition to those I have a semi-secret goal. That goal is to write something that captures some of the stories about me from when I was growing up. Some I’ve shared with my kids, but probably not all. These stories, I hope, shed some light on who I was and how I got to be the person my kids know, because I want them to know not only who I am but who I was and how those versions of me connect.

I want them to hear my “voice” in my writing. Hear what I care about, what I believe, what I feel strongly. Things that I hopefully have passed along to them, but perhaps not. We don’t spend a lot of time with me sitting around telling stories because, as is the way of the world, rather than sitting around listening to stories, my kids are out making their own. This is the way of things.

But, that having been said, I want them to have this to look back on as a snapshot of who I am today because I know I will not always be this person. And I know that stories that seem fresh (albeit self-edited, no doubt) will not always remain so.

One of the realities of my life is that I have Alzheimer’s coming at me from both sides of my family. Both of my grandmothers suffer or suffered from it for a long time. One of my favorite Aunt’s suffered with it for years. I believe my mother may have started to show signs of it before she passed.

I wasn’t around to see if affect my Aunt, but I was around as it took my grandmother. Slowly it took away her memory and her personality until all that was left was the husk of the person I remembered. When she passed and I was one of the pallbearers at her funeral, I recall looking at her and thinking that she seemed so shrunken and small from the dynamic woman I remembered. I remember thinking that it was as if the Alzheimer’s had sucked all of what made my grandmother out of her leaving this husk as the final reminder.

I fear Alzheimer’s. Perhaps irrationally. I don’t know. But I fear it’s ability to rob me of my own memory. And as I get older, those memories are what give us a sense of self that is contiguous and fill our timeline and help keep us grounded with who we were when we were younger. If that disease robs me of that, who am I?

It’s terrifying to think that a time would come when I don’t even know to care that I don’t recall those details. Know to care about what I’ve forgotten.

That brings me back to the original intention of this piece which is the importance of stories.

I want to capture these stories for all the reasons that I’ve covered. For my kids, certainly. But also for myself. Because a time my come when I can’t write these stories down. When I don’t recall these stories, when I can’t tell my kids about my happiest moment or what I’m most proud of.

Before that time comes I want to spend some time capturing some of that. Maybe in writing, maybe in video, hopefully in conversation with my kids and with the other people who are most important to me in my life.

There’s always the possibility that I’m being over dramatic. Science progresses and we understand Alzheimer’s better every year. We may have a treatment in the next 10 years, hopefully before I ever have to deal with it IF I need to deal with it. But even if that’s the case, I hope my kids will have this to look back on to see and read about a version of me that they don’t have access to anymore.

I hope it encourages them and others to think about their stories and how they can capture them and how they can pass them on to later generations so it’s not lost as my mother’s stories are now lost, aside from the bits and pieces that float amongst the family.

Stories are important. They ground us. They tell us where we come from, who we are and where we’re going. I don’t know what the digital equivalent of telling stories around the fire is, but I hope we find it and I hope we find value in it and I hope it helps us grow closer and stay closer with those we love.

 

 

[box type=”shadow”] Note: Image courtesy of Doug Beckers (http://www.flickr.com/photos/dougbeckers/) and licensed via Creative Commons
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