The Stories We Tell
Last week, I had the pleasure of attending The Moth Radio Hour story slam in St. Paul courtesy of my son Shawn and his wife Beka. I’ve not been a big attendee of slams in general - story or poetry - and I’m not quite sure why. Laziness? A preference for getting my stories elsewhere?
My preference may change. This story slam was great fun, and the way people told their stories along with the topics they chose was fascinating. Ten storytellers took the stage, each one given five minutes before a warning sounded that told them to wrap it up. They had no props. They had no notes. They each zeroed in on larger issues of popularity, fitting in, realizing a dream, parenthood, and more through an ordinary story that twisted into some sort of epiphany with succinct clarity and just the right amount of embellishment. There was one about running for president of the church choir. Another was about being a third-grade boy selling pages from stolen Playboy magazines on the playground even though the whole bottom half of female anatomy made no sense to him. Another was about spearfishing somewhere near Bali and being seriously injured by a boat propeller. Once each storyteller finished, judges scattered around the audience voted on a scale of 1-10, holding up numbers like olympic judges. The guy who sold the Playboy pages as a kid won.
The only other acquaintance I’ve had with The Moth is through one of the collections they’ve published as a book. Shawn and Beka gave me one of them for Christmas: All These Wonders. I’ve been reading a story or two before going to sleep each night. I love this book just as much as I loved going to the story slam. I love how these stories don’t always put the storytellers in the best light, but they tell the story anyway because of where they ended up. They tell them because there’s community in telling stories.
And all this has made me think about the stories we tell each other over and over as part of our own private lore. The family stories that get hauled out on holidays, weddings, and funerals. The stories about our parents in past times that we will never experience. The stories about ourselves as children doing silly things we don’t remember. The stories with shared experiences that we do all remember, but each of us would change the story just a little bit.
I think that’s where things are the most interesting - that place where a shared history is told by each person involved in a slightly different way. My stories about my parents, for example, are very different from the ones my much-older siblings have simply because I grew up without them in the house. My vantage point as the kid who still lived at home versus their vantage points of adults living elsewhere made us all look at things through vastly different lenses. One of those stories is when my parents chose to sell the house we had in Northeast Minneapolis to downsize to a mobile home. I was the only one still living at home and, at the age of nine, it didn’t faze me that my parents decided they didn’t want so much stuff or such a big house. I didn’t care how much room we had as long as we had a place to sleep. I was a whole lot more worried about going to a new school. My brother, who was 29 at the time, thought they were nuts and were throwing away a good investment by selling the old house. He couldn’t understand why they would want to go - as he saw it - backwards. But what I saw, even as a kid, were parents who were tired of working so hard on something that didn’t make them happy. A mobile home was easy and small, offering a less stressful life. I saw a mom who hated housework, who would prefer time for reading. I saw a dad who wasn’t so keen on maintaining a yard and a postage stamp of a lawn suited him just fine. I saw two parents who wanted to be able to drop what they were doing and hit the road without worrying about their house. They were like recently trendy tiny house owners, only several decades earlier. Same event, very different stories.
But we all agree that the old (as in before I was born) story my father used to tell about finally getting his long-awaited wages the day before he was going to leave on a much-anticipated vacation with my mom was funny. Seems that before Dad went home that day, he went out for a drink with his co-workers, and that turned into several drinks. Dad got pretty drunk, came home very late, and, for reasons known only to a drunken mind, stuck his pay behind the clock on the wall just inside the front door for safekeeping. The next day, he couldn’t remember what he did with it and my mother was furious. She had already been furious that he got home late, furious that he had so much to drink, and the missing wages just compounded all of it. They went on vacation anyway to some lake up north, but had no money to do anything while they were there. (Somehow, that part of the story didn’t get told in any great depth that I remember; seems possible that Mom didn’t talk to Dad much on that vacation.) When they got back home, I believe it was my mom who found the money behind the clock, baffled as to what it was doing there. She still didn’t forgive my father. That story got told many times through my life, including at my nephew’s pre-wedding bash in South Dakota. Notably, most of us were pretty tipsy at that retelling and the story was, thus, hilarious.
The Moth stories bring with them some sense of nostalgia for the stories I grew up with. Hearing a story in the same room with the person telling it, and feeling the reaction around the room when the storyteller says something outrageous or surprising or funny brings that sense of community that makes it so much fun to be there. I miss hearing my father talk about working on the Al-Can highway or being on a minesweeper in World War II. I miss hearing my mother talk about being fired from her job with the phone company because they found out she was married and only single women were allowed to keep a job there. I miss hearing about the time my father ran over a rattlesnake and my mother said, hey, let’s get the rattler, and then they discovered the snake wasn’t quite dead yet. All these stories we tell, these stories we carry with us, are meant to be shared.
Community. That’s what The Moth brings us. That’s what telling stories offers. Go tell some of yours soon.
By the way, that rattlesnake did eventually part with his rattle. It sat on the bookshelf in our living room for most of my childhood.