The Power of Life Story Sharing--
To Build Relations, Bridge Differences, Link Lives, Convey Values, Transcend Time and Space
(Adaption of speech Dr. Dolly gave in 2000 to Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Plattsburgh, NY.)
One recent summer day, my friend Dorothy Latta and I crossed over Lake Champlain from Plattsburgh, NY, to putz around Grand Isle, VT. We were heading to North Hero for house tours and a little antiquing. A sign scrawled "Barn Sale" forced my Mazda off the highway, down a few smaller roads. The barn was full of old goodies, from 1980s magazines to plates and plastic Santas. Dorothy paused at a collection of Strawberry china, cups and saucers, cream and sugar pitchers. "My gramma Latta had a lot of that strawberry pattern all over her kitchen," said Dorothy. She was obviously transported to another time and place, reunited with a special person from her North Carolina past. Remembering does that, brings people back to us. Dorothyís words connected me with that grandmother and more closely to Dorothy. Sharing does that, binds people together.
Soon the owner was telling us her story. Well, it was facts about that barn and the house next door, but it was her story all right. Mrs. LaMotte explained that the barn and house were 150 years old, built before the Civil War, before Lincoln was president, as she likes to tell her grandkids. She inherited the barn, the saltbox house, and acres of rolling hills and forest. A relative had surprised her in his will. Mrs. LaMotte and her husband had "always" lived just down the road (like several of their kin) and "naturally" helped the former owners for years, as they became elderly and infirm. The LaMottes didnít expect to be left anything. "Oh, maybe a tractor," she said. But instead, they were bequeathed that property, complete with a giant virgin red oak in the woods behind the field. Mrs. LaMotte and her husband recently had the house renovated, clad in vinyl from top to bottom. She chose the cheerful turquoise roof and shutters and the salmon colored exterior, colors more common in Florida than in North Country. They added rails along the back porch, to protect the grandkids, mostly. They "didnít want the kids to fall or to get a head stuck through the slats." Grandma figured her fists were about the right size, so she put them together and used them as a measuring device, far more personal than a tape measure. Her husband came behind her and hammered.
Another 150 years from now, I hope that family will know that in the late l990ís, " olden times," those slats were lovingly added by grandpa and spaced by grandmaís hands. They will know only if someone passes on the story. Grandma is certainly doing her part, telling anyone who will listen.
We listened willingly, eagerly, appreciating the delight and the old-fashioned community spirit reflected in the strangerís stories. "If Iím baking and run out of eggs, I donít think of running to the store," Mrs. LaMotte says, "I just go borrow a half dozen from one of the neighbors. They are all kin folk. Next time, theyíll come get something from me." The LaMottes plan to create a local museum in the barn, reflecting older farm life, preserving history, bringing their family, their community, their unique time and place on this earth to life. This woman seems to know, instinctively, that life stories are worth saving, worth sharing.
The moments we lingered to listen connected us with that life, that community. We took a little time to hear her stories, and we learned something about another way of living. Having a passion for building and nurturing community, I filtered her words through that interest. Someone else might have filtered it through their love of Vermont history or Franco American culture or even farm technologies. Selective perception is a communication basic. The listener is never just a "receiver." One of my favorite Chinese proverbs says this well: "We see the world, not as it is, but as we are." We hear everything from the perspective of who we are, what we want and need. Yet we need to listen.
We need to hear other peopleís experiences, reflect on our own life experiences, and share our life stories with others, present and future. Aristotle told us, "The unexamined life is not worth living." 2500 years later, that is no less true. The past is always present, whether we recognize it or not. By remembering our experiences, retracing our steps, recalling special people, places, and events, we come to better understand ourselves and the people who have impacted and shaped our lives. Such scrutiny may uncover connections between this behavior or that, may reveal patterns. "Mine Your Memoriesô" uncovers gems within, treasures that are ours for the taking. Rummage through your past to discover wisdom you didnít know was there. Through life review and story gathering, you will find both amusement and therapeutic benefit. You will find yourself, seen fresh. We are our storiesÖ
Through stories we connect more deeply with other human beings, people who seem much like us, and people who seem different from us. People of different ages, ethnic background or heritage, different socio-economic status, different backgrounds, different lifestyles. My "Unity in Diversity/human relations" work like a "CommUNITY Dialoguesô" process helps people use their own experiences, their stories, to build bridges of humanity. Strong bridges. Bridges sturdy enough to hold real relationships.
Remote native tribes in Africa and New Guinea have something in common with the LaMottes living in that little family compound on Grand Isle, Vermont . Unlike most of us, people who spend their lives in extremely small, tight communities just naturally share their lives with the same people, day by day, year by year, through all the births, illnesses, milestones, celebrations, shames, family turmoil, trials, tribulations, and triumphs. Together they celebrate milestones, deal with calamities, and mourn deaths. Persons living in such close, consistent communities have a pretty good handle on each otherís stories. And yet some such cultures make an extra effort to preserve the stories, to pass them on. The tribal storyteller in Ghana is a revered position, recognized as important. In some cultures it is routine to share the nightís dreams each morning with breakfast.
And in North Hero, Vt., a woman spontaneously talks with strangers at a barn sale, tells her grandchildren about the house built before Lincoln was born, about the unexpected reward of her good deeds, about her hands as measuring tools, about a museum that will share the stories more widely. Values are preserved and passed on as stories are preserved and passed on.
In contrast, too many Americans have ignored their ancestors and family history and not bothered to examine their own life stories, much less share them with others. They too rarely share much of their past lives with friends, or pass them on to their progeny. And yet we desperately need to do all that. Why? We must share life stories in order to learn about ourselves. In order to learn about other people. In order to understand the times, cultures, events, and people, the roots, genealogy, family history that made us who we are and the times, cultures, events, and people who have made others what they are.
Too often today we get more stories from television, movies, and books than from other human beings. We know the fabricated characters on TV better than we may know our real friends and neighbors or even family members. TV and now the Internet have nurtured in us a flickering attention span. The image will shift or blink momentarily. Keep the action going! Teachers know how difficult it is to keep a bunch of kids enthralled these days. People have lost the ability to listen, to have patience enough to take in and process a long string of words. Is TV boring you? The remote control makes escape ever so easy. Click. Turn it off. Click. Turn that channel. Click. Jump to another. Unfortunately, we ourselves are too often mere fragmented images to one another. Mobility, transience, and the complexity of modern lives conspire to compartmentalize us into pieces rarely seen whole.
Letís use me as an example. My family and friends in my hometown of Bogalusa, LA know mainly the Dolly Adams me--perhaps an arty, creative child and determined youth or maybe just Mac and Elaineís oldest daughter of many. Click. Southeastern La. College Undergraduate, Hammond, La. Classmates and others may recall a student newspaper editor or a daily newspaper writer and editor. Click. Some folks from Oak Ridge, TN. may recall a memorable teacher of English, journalism, or black studies and student newspaper adviser during the turbulent late sixties. To in-laws I am primarily Ronís wife; to Destinís teachers, simply his Mom. Fragments. In Turkey Ron and I were friendly Americans, enthusiastic young explorers of a foreign culture. Fast forward 25 years and we are not so young transplanted Southerners exploring North Country.
Powerful threads connect all the pieces, tie the child in Bogalusa to the freelance writer in Turkey and Europe to the professor at Loyola U. to the communication consultant and workshop leader, art lover, and mad antiques collector, community activist in Pensacola, FL. The woman who was mostly Destinís mother to his teachers and peers, is linked to the young woman traveling the world, the graduate student and Bicentennial book publisher in Knoxville, the older woman writing life stories in view of (alternatively) Bayou Texas and Lake Champlain. As that woman, all of that woman, and the one to come, I benefit from tracing those threads, understanding how they weave together in the rich tapestry of my life.
In a complex, mobile society like ours, lifeís tapestry gets shredded. The continuity of our lives is ripped by transience and fragmentation. Community is fragile, torn, scattered. Our need to examine and to share our stories is vital--for our own mental health, for our relationships and our cohesiveness in community, and for the good of a future that can learn from our past. Sharing the stories orally or interpersonally has immediate value. Writing the stories extends the value.
Dallying that day in rural Vermont, my friend and I ran late and missed the home tours to which weíd been headed. And we bought no antiques. But we took home some unexpected gifts--new memories, human connections, rich experience. Itís worth ambling down some old roads to find lost treasures. Itís worth sharing those treasures with other people. You are worth it. And they are too