Telling stories

Michael Chabon wrote about how his life changed when his younger brother was born. “But it was not until that moment, in early September 1968, that my story truly began. Until my brother was born, I had no one to tell it to.” (Manhood for Amateurs)

I wrote in the margin of my book, “So our story doesn’t exist unless we have someone to tell it to?”

A few years ago Cyndi and I went to Uganda and Kenya to visit our friends John and Linda Witte. After we came back I couldn’t stop telling stories and writing about our adventures. One friend told me, “I would rather send you on a trip and listen to your stories than go on the trip myself.”

Well, I didn’t believe that was exactly true, but I realized the corollary was true. If I don’t have an opportunity to tell my stories when I get back, I might as well never go on the trip. For me the stories were more important than souvenirs. Stories are the artifacts of life.

One time I heard Gary Barkalow ask at a Wild at Heart camp, “What is something that you cannot stop doing?” He wasn’t asking about bad habits or eating chocolate or nervous tics, but rather he was asking about the clues into our personality and character.

My answer to his question? I cannot stop telling the stories of my life and the lives around me. If I have any sort of experience, I have to tell about it. For me, the trip hasn’t happened unless I have stories to tell. The book hasn’t been read without a story. A backpacking trip never occurred without a story, and a story doesn’t usually bubble up unless something spectacular happened – like a disaster, or a storm, or a beautiful sunrise, or a wild animal. And the best part of running a marathon is the story-telling session afterward. Without a story to tell, it’s a waste of 26.2 miles.

One year at CornFest at our house my friend Todd cut his hand while carving an ear of corn. He thought he’d have to go to the emergency room to get stitches until Linda put him back together with Super Glue. It worked perfectly. In fact, he healed so completely he didn’t even have a scar. The guys at work didn’t believe his story because he didn’t have a scar. Without a scar, there was no story; and without a story, it never happened.

Like Michael Chabon’s, my own brother was born twelve years after I was, so we each grew up as an only children. We had nothing in common. I was a freshman in college when Carroll started first grade. We grew up in different phases of a parent’s lives. We grew up with different friends and different music and different movies and different family stories. We finally connected during the past ten years as we raised our own families. We finally had stories to share that both of us understood; stories about our families and about each other. Now we talk at least once a week for an hour, usually late at night (late in my world, not in Carroll’s world). Carroll calls me because he actually remembers to make phone calls and he is much more social than I am.

Recently we met for lunch at Rosa’s in Midland and told stories for a couple of hours. I think we were both surprised at how many personality traits we had in common. Who knew? It took stories to bring it out.

Roy Blount wrote about a friend of his who was visiting her mother in a nursing home. Many of the other residents had Alzheimer’s, but the friend’s mother’s mind was unclouded. “They’ve forgotten their stories!” she said of the others. “They can say anything!”

I always think of stories as defining us, of communicating our heart. To say, let me tell you my story, is to say, let me tell you who I am and what I believe and what I think is important and who I love and where I’m headed, and all that. To know my stories is to know me.

And in fact, if I want to describe someone else to you, the best way to do it would be to tell you a story.

The mother in the nursing home said if we have no stories we have no boundaries. We can be anybody, which is to be nobody. One day we are a musician, the next a mountain climber, then a mechanic, maybe a rocket scientist, maybe a street bum. Stories not only tell who we are, they keep us true to ourselves.



“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

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