Recently, I decided to take a chance and participate in a free memoir class offered by the Aroha Philanthropies. In an earlier blog, I wrote about my first class in memoir writing, taught by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew.
This day, I was impressed once again by the power of memoir to unearth what is deep, universal and good in all of us. This time, however, I was able to make a clear linkage between storytelling, trust and empathy, and why it may well be an important and overlooked precursor to effective collaboration in our public lives. After this powerful class, I decided that I would incorporate short memoir writing exercises into the work I do with civic leaders. Here’s why.
I had never met any of the 6 other people in the class before I walked through the door and sat down. It turned out that we all had come from different backgrounds, communities, and professions. All of us were 55 or over, and ready to reflect on our lives thus far. Interestingly and remarkably, after just two hours of writing and sharing our stories with one another, I felt that I had an interesting insight into the lives of, and had developed a basic emotional bond with, this eclectic group of people.
Our First Storytelling Exercise
The first exercise of the afternoon had us talking about our childhood homes and what made them unique or meaningful to us. We could think about the house in general terms, or focus in on a part of the house, such as a specific room. The stories were simple and touching.
One man told of his childhood home in Hibbing, MN. As a 5-year old boy, he stood transfixed as his father put their house on jacks, and then, with the aid of his mother, dug a deep basement under the building using a broken-down truck, with a modified wheelbarrow chained to the back. With his mother driving the truck and his father guiding the wheelbarrow (ingeniously repurposed as a huge garden trowel), the dirt and gravel underneath the house were painstakingly gouged out and dragged to the surface. This difficult, physical work was done with little complaint, with the simple hope of ensuring that his mother would finally be warm during the long, winter months.
One of the women in the class shared a remarkable story about a special cedar closet her father had built in her childhood home. In the closet one day, where she had been sent to do an errand, an old photograph of a girl, who looked exactly like her sister, seemed to magically float down from a high shelf, like a heaven-sent gift, right into the hands of this young child. The photograph, it turned out, was of her birth mother. Unbeknownst to the storyteller, her mother had died soon after her own birth. Her father had quickly remarried, never telling his young children that the woman they thought was their mother was actually their step-mother.
Another colorful story was told about the rag man that would travel up and down the alleyways in Chicago during the 1940’s, using a horse and cart to pick up scrap linens and rags from homemakers.
After each story was told, we all sat in silence for a bit, each of us feeling an appreciation for having been transported to a different time and place. But mostly, I think we all felt gratitude that our fellow storytellers were willing to share a moment of deep vulnerability by telling these simple, sacred tales.
More Stories, Going Deeper
In the second exercise, we were each given a total of 20 minutes to free-write about someone who was influential during our childhood. Afterwards, we were asked to share our informal, messy and imperfect stories with one another. No editing was allowed. One might expect that under such a time constraint, the resulting stories would be unintelligible, rambling remembrances without much structure or coherence. In fact, they were nothing of the kind.
These stories were even more moving, touching, and soulful than the first. Each storyteller acknowledged, with deep appreciation, and unchecked emotion, what this someone had meant to them. One classmate, who had come from an unhappy and abusive home, reflected on the kindness of a man he met as an 11-year old. Much to his surprise, this gruff, towering figure had a heart of gold, took him under his wing and offered him a job unloading ice cream from a delivery truck once a week. In a short amount of time, the delivery man had managed to make a deep and lasting impression on this young boy, giving him a sense that he mattered, that he was cared for, and that he was “enough”, just the way he was. As my classmate read this story to us, emotions welled up from deep within him. And he allowed us to better understand just how much this one individual had touched this little boy so profoundly, so many years before.
What moved me most was that we, as a group of strangers, were willing to crack open our armor for a few short minutes and share a small part of our lives — even the things that were not always very flattering, controlled or perfect about ourselves or our families. Each story was a window into our collective souls, mirroring our humanity. Because of the simple intimacy of these stories and the depth of feeling they had conveyed, I was much less interested in or willing to try to label or judge these folks in some way. They were like me, warts and all.
As I left class that day, I thought about how sad it was that so few of us know our neighbor’s stories – the ones that might explain why they or their families immigrated to this country, what struggles and joys they have experienced, what they think about when it comes to the important issues of the day or why they wish they could be heard. When you strip people down to their basics, without caring about what political party they come from, what neighborhood they live in, what titles they like to attach themselves to, we can see clearly that we are more alike than we are different. It all comes down to what we choose to focus on, and how much we choose to see the things that unite us instead of divide us.
Finding common ground and common denominators among us is the first step to understanding and building trusting relationships. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by listening deeply to each other and reveling in what we all share in the deepest, most profound and soulful ways.