The stories we tell.

It was a book I’d brought home with me from clearing out my parents’ house ages ago, but I’d never read it.  It was one of many books I’d confiscated from their shelves, one of the older ones.  

The book jacket was long gone, of course, and the imprinted title was worn nearly bare from the hardcover cloth itself.  But when I opened the front cover, I discovered a small square folded gift tag that was still pasted securely onto the middle of the first page, just before the title page.  The tag was delightfully dated in its design, with Christmas bells and poinsettia blossoms and the words “Seasons Greetings” printed against a background of silver and blue.  Opening the tiny card, I found my mother’s familiar cramped handwriting:  To Byron (my father); From Helen (my mother).  

The book had been published in 1938, the year before my parents married, so I assume this had been a gift early in their 70-plus years together – perhaps their first Christmas as husband and wife.  It was, in fact, written about a young newlywed couple on a first trip to Europe.  The wife had written it entirely as journal entries documenting that year-long experience as they lived it – mostly in rural England during the husband’s employment there as a visiting professor.

The story was filled with often surprising and insightful reflections of place and time – told with humor and intelligence and keen observation.  It was a story that went beyond the experiences themselves, and spoke of society and culture, of political atmosphere (pre-World War II) and physical climate (a lot about the weather), of fashions and food, modes of transportation and living conditions, even insight into the equality (or lack thereof) between the sexes and races and “classes” of people.

It didn’t strike me as being an “historical” account particularly because it was written by a contemporary of my own parents.  Although it was published some 85 years ago,  it touched my heart and my mind as if it had been written just now, just for me, just as my mother might have told it to me.  My parents travelled a great deal during their time together, as well – perhaps inspired in part by this book that was shared between them at the start of their marriage.  And they, too, told stories of peace and of war, stories of startling differences and of surprising similarities, stories of welcome as well as mistrust, stories of unspeakable poverty and of equally unfathomable opulence.

I suspect that right now I may be especially aware of the stories we tell because I have just completed the writing of a new one myself – a novel.  And it has reminded me of the significance of storytelling, of how compelled we are to do it, even the responsibility of it.  Storytelling is such a purely human way of connecting with one another.  A way of reaching out and sharing ourselves with each other.

My conviction about authentic human storytelling was also thoroughly underscored these past couple of weeks as I was privileged to attend several performances of the “Joye in Aiken” series.  Here, the stories were told not through the written word, but in a vast and diverse array of astounding “voices” of sound and movement.  From vocals to instrumentation to dance – from individuals as well as collaborations – the stories were profound.  They were stories told for the most part by youth – yet many had their roots in generations of long ago, while others reached forward and introduced us to generations of what is to come.  

All of these stories were brimming with human energy and enthusiasm, talent and excellence.  And they were overflowing with grace and beauty and love.  But more especially, I suspect they were expressions of hope.  Hope for humanity and each other and a future for all the stories yet to be told.