I began telling stories to conceal the truth – from myself and from others – and to reveal it to the same tough crowd. Life can get complicated. Stories help us navigate ambivalence, ambiguity, and… whatever else that Scarlet Letter stands for.
I had been married sixteen years, and for twelve of those years to an Episcopal clergyman. We met in graduate school in the Department of English at the University of Minnesota, got married, then moved from Minneapolis to Chicago so he could go to seminary, and from there to Michigan for his parish work. We started a family. It was a happy time in many, many ways– though the plans I had had for a teaching career (with my highly marketable doctorate in Victorian Religious Literature) had taken a back seat to parenting and a technical writing job at Ford Motor Company that helped pay the bills.
When the kids were four and six, we moved to Tennessee so my husband could get his Ph.D. in theology. He wanted to teach in a seminary. I took my technical writing job with me – personal computers were just beginning to make this possible. I was experimenting with my own writing at the time – children’s books first, then fantasy and science fiction. There were monthly family letters to two sets of long-distance grandparents and a growing list of friends who asked to receive them. And finally, there was a column, Ordinary Time, for our church newsletter. Ordinary Time is what churches that follow a liturgical calendar call the period after Pentecost and before Advent. Most people think it means “ordinary” in the sense of “mundane,” or “common,” but the term actually means “counted” time, because the Sundays after Pentecost are counted. So it’s ordinary like ordinal numbers. Sequential. Orderly.
Spoiler alert: I am no longer writing columns for a church newsletter. And a lot of things in my life are no longer orderly. But it was in those letters and in that column that I first began to find my voice.
One year a friend of mine from Minnesota with whom I had recently reconnected (on AOL, people, back when the Internet ran off of opaque projectors) asked me if I lived anywhere near Jonesborough, Tennessee and was I going to the National Storytelling Festival. I had heard about this event from my former neighbor, a librarian in the Nashville Public Schools. Every year in October thousands of people descend upon this tiny little town, and they set up tents just like an old time revival meeting, and people get up on stage and told stories, beautiful stories, all kinds of stories – personal stories, folk tales, myths, historical stories, ghost stories – all sorts of stories from all different cultures. And you just listen and have a good time.
But previously I’d never found time to go.
This festival was on a weekend, and my husband worked weekends. Any time he had off we generally spent in family travel to those long-distance grandparents, or to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where he had a summer gig, and we got a free cottage. But here was an old friend, who had once been much more than a friend, asking if he would see me there. It was 1998. I was forty-two. For the first time in a long time it occurred to me that I might go somewhere alone.
The stories at Jonesborough were indeed wonderful – though surprisingly, the teller who most moved me was a Deaf performer named Peter Cook from Chicago, who told a story in ASL about a dog in Vietnam trained to sniff out mines. An interpreter spoke the story while Peter signed. It was mesmerizing.
I came back from that weekend wanting more. There were parts of myself that had gone missing, and I began to find them, and gather those pieces together again, through storytelling.
That November I went to my first Tellabration!, an annual storytelling festival that the National Storytelling Network sponsors in local communities all over the country. It fell on the date of a parishioner’s wedding. Nobody I was particularly close to, and my husband said I had no obligation to attend. I took him at his word. I don’t think he expected that.
In 1999 we ended up moving back to Minnesota. That was unexpected too.
Spoiler alert: I am no longer married.
I’ve told a number of stories of varying lengths and complexity around this fact. No doubt I will keep telling them, like the Ancient Mariner, till I bless something unawares and the albatross drops from my neck. You can read the version I told at the Twin Cities Moth slam in 2013 here.
Why I write and tell stories has changed over the years. But the core reason has always been that writing - memoir writing in particular- is a form of insight meditation for me. I learn things about the meaning of my own experiences, and make connections to the experiences of others that I hope will make me a more empathetic and compassionate human being. When my writing and storytelling resonates with an audience, it confirms that insight. When it does not – when the story line is hiding a reality I do not want to face or admit to – a good audience picks up on the hollow, the strident, the caricature, the simplistic moral, the too-neat ending. Not always, but often enough.
I rely on this.
In 2013 my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, like her mother before her. It’s been a difficult journey, and I don’t expect it will get much easier. But it has made me think deeply about the privilege of having a Self: a consciousness, a personality, an intelligence shaped by experience – and how fragile and ephemeral that Self actually is. It has given me a new awareness around what it means to make my experiences accessible to others – particularly those I love and care for, and who love and care for me - when they are no longer accessible to me, or I am no longer able to articulate them.
For what it’s worth, you’re welcome.