(Note – I wrote this in October, 2011 and am just posting it in January, 2012)
In this sprawling family of humankind, we all have stories to tell. As I write this I am in Crisfield, Maryland on vacation. I’m attending a Road Scholar program, one of those lifelong learning experiences here in the crab and seafood capital of America. Since I’ve been here, I’ve heard many small town stories of life on the Chesapeake shores, stories by watermen, boat captains, local leaders and museum curators.
On our way to Crisfield, two friends and I stopped at a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church in Annapolis for their Sunday service. A young intern minister preached the homily and she shared a story from her growing up years, about being raised by a mother who was schizophrenic and what that experience was like. At one point, during an acute episode, the demons drove her mother to spit in the face of her teenage daughter and then lock her out of the house. In despair, she sat on the stoop of the house and cried. And a man, a stranger, appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and placed a hand on her shoulder and said “I know your mother.” Just those four words. And that simple gesture gave her hope. She didn’t have to explain what she was going through or why; the man just knew. And it made her feel less alone.
Here in Crisfield I heard stories about a boy, and later a man, who for 60+ years stood on the same street corner on Main Street and sold the local newspaper five days a week to all the residents for $0.35. The little newspaper had a circulation larger than the total population of the town. When he retired, they dedicated the street corner in his honor and placed a placard bearing his name atop the street name signs. Later, on a walking tour, we met him – a pleasant, developmentally disabled man who was so proud of his contribution to the town.
We listened to a story told by an oyster shucker – a waterwoman, as they are known in these parts – a seemingly ordinary looking woman, work-worn and very likely work-weary, and old before her time, who appeared to have some difficulty putting her words together. But once she got going, she told us about her craft (almost a lost art?), of shucking oysters, demonstrating as she went with a bucket of oysters and an oyster knife, how it is done. No acceptable method has yet been invented to automate the shucking process, so it must be done manually. And I was amazed by the facts and details she knew about oysters, and how much she learned from her father, starting at the age of ten! She told about the long hours, up at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m., working until noon, shucking bushels of oysters – standing up, in the heat during the height of oyster season. And then in her “spare time” she worked in a restaurant kitchen and helped with catering. She had also picked crabs for a number of years, another grueling manual task. I felt fortunate, and a little guilty, that my life has been so “soft” by comparison.
In my “home congregation” in Mission Viejo,CA, I heard a story told by a gay man about how he and his partner came to adopt their daughter who is now two years old. It was poignant and touching. Many congregants were moved to tears. I remember stories that another church member, now deceased, told about being a trumpet player in the Artie Shaw Band during the big band era. The tales of the people he met and the places he played – his stories amazed the members of the bridge group to whom he related his tales. We never tired of hearing them.
I remember a story told by a minister during the holiday season of 2010-2011, just after Christmas. After the Christmas Eve service, 2010, he was driving home and looked over at his left hand. His wedding ring was missing. He wracked his brain and couldn’t think where he might have lost it, and after looking many places, without success, he spent a sleepless night agonizing over how he would tell his wife that he had lost his ring. Then in the middle of the night he remembered that in the frenzy of the season he had gone to the market to buy wine for a dinner party and had dropped the ring off at a jewelry store next to the market to have it cleaned – and promptly forgot all about it. The jeweler was to clean it while he was in the market and he would go right back for it when he came out of the market. But with his thoughts on the dinner party, it slipped his mind completely. And the jeweler did not have his name or phone number to notify or remind him. Most of us can probably relate to the feeling of panic and dread he must have felt. And he laughed about it later, but still…..
A new minister shared her story of being in a Starbucks with her laptop, struggling anxiously to find just the right points and right words to include in her first sermon at the “new church” she had recently contracted with. And a man in the coffee shop, a stranger, struck up a conversation with her and assured her it would be all right, that she would do just fine. I, myself, told some stories in my first book about my father’s death, about my schizophrenic aunt, about a Christmas without a Christmas tree, and about the feelings I had experienced associated with these events.
I listened to a woman tell a story about the death of her beloved dog and still another woman tell of the death of a precious cat. The point is that we’ve all experienced the feelings of loss, dread, despair, anxiety, stress, emotional pain, hope, joy – and often in unexpected or unusual circumstances. The tipping point, the particular circumstances, the seminal event may be different from case to case, but underneath it all our feelings unite us. Ultimately, pain is pain, grief is grief, and hope is hope – feelings cut across all manner of events and causes and circumstances.
Storytellers and peoples of old knew well the value of sharing stories. That oral tradition was vital before printed communication existed and before books were readily available. When our stories are passed down, they become our legacy. When we tell our stories, especially out of our own mouths in our own words, we realize how much we truly have in common as fellow homo sapiens. We are, reduced to our common elements, complex masses of atoms, protoplasm, genes and neurotransmitters. We live, we go about our various tasks, duties and fulfill our roles. We pursue hobbies and interests and we make our choices. As we go, we all experience the broad spectrum of human emotions. And it is by our stories that we are linked, that we unite in commonality, brought together by planned and unplanned circumstances – “human soup.” That is why being in community in a places like churches take on such value, aside from and beyond the religious tenets. Other social groups, such as quilting circles, bridge groups, book clubs, social service projects, coffee hours, potlucks, block parties and the like offer us settings and venues to tell our stories. They remind us that we are not alone, that we have company on the journey, that our joys and our pain are shared and that our experiences are universal.
Perhaps we do that to some extent through social networking – Facebook, blogging, Twitter. But I still think the in-person venues are the best for this sort of sharing to have the maximum impact. Hearing it in the person’s own voice, perhaps haltingly and with emotion, is much different than reading it on a blog post. I think it behooves us to take advantage of the opportunities our different microcosms afford us to tell our stories and listen to the stories of others. That shared experience can calm, soothe, connect and awe us. Telling our stories is yet one more a spiritual practice that doesn’t have to involve religion. It is a simple thing we can do, to engage with others and perform that practice often, thereby sending ripples out into the wider world.