Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Stories We Tell

When I visited my friend Heather in her kitchen to bake for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, we spent two hours talking before we started baking our first batch of cookies. My time in Lina’s kitchen was spent half around the stove and half around the table as we enjoyed some of the food Lina had made. In the kitchens of both Talat and Anca we visited as we waited for curries to bubble and breads to bake. People collect in my kitchen while I’m cooking to chat between slicing onions and slinging pans in the oven. In all of my visits we have talked as much as cooked.

I have come to one universal truth: The kitchen is as much the place for storytelling as the dining room table, sometimes even more so. Personally, I prefer the stories told in the kitchen. Working with someone in their sacred space gives the act of listening a conspiratorial air, as though the dining room table is the public forum and the kitchen is the place of secrets.

Instinct compels us to repeat our stories. Our survival depends on the stories we tell - from the information we pass to the next generation, to the legacy we pass on about our very identities, to the act of keeping our minds sharp through the act of recounting our memories. We are programmed to spin a good yarn, and God gives us as children the eagerness to listen.

In Heather’s kitchen I heard the stories of relatives who survived or fell victim to the Holocaust. She pulled out an heirloom family history book to share family trees and the family lore collected by a beloved uncle. For me her storytelling hearkened back to her ancestors telling the story of the Torah around a fire long before anyone thought to set the stories to paper. She shared her own experiences, some good, some bad, but all a part of who she is.

Lina transported me, by her cooking and stories, to the Syria of her youth. This was not the Syria ripped by war with seas of refugees fleeing. Instead I looked through the window of her mind to see her as a teenager chewing on seeds and gossiping with her school mates before heading home for dinner, which surely included a delicious and perfectly round loaf of bread.

As Anca prepared the dough and we waited for our loaves to bake, I heard how she came to the United States from Romania in search of a better future for her daughter, who has cerebral palsy. She knew the U.S. could provide better services and opportunities for her only child, and she took a great leap of faith to come as a single mom by moving across the ocean to a new land. I met in her memories the Jewish woman who became her benefactor, a woman who insisted on putting up a Christmas tree for Anca’s daughter because she knew Anca was Greek Orthodox and it was an important tradition for them.

With Talat the stories rose as heavy and rich as the smells drifting up from the curries on the stove. Three women cooked as Talat’s sister and I watched. Talat told of her experience as a Muslim woman from Pakistan making her home here. One friend from India shared of her Hindu faith and traditions while another spoke of being an Indian Baptist worshiping in the United States. Talat’s sister, a beautifully quiet woman, brought yet another perspective as a Pakistani Muslim who lives on the island of Mauritius in the Indian ocean. Theirs are stories of immigration, relocation, finding unlikely friends, and making a home in a new place.

We tell our stories, not only to share who we are with others, but to remind ourselves of who we are and the journey we took to arrive where we are.

For one summer I worked in a Honolulu hospital. I fell in love with a local expression there. I would step into a patient’s room, and he or she would invite me in for a visit. Often he or she would smile at me and say “Let’s talk story”. “Talk story”. This is so much more than the polite “Tell me something about yourself” or “Where are you from”. It’s an invitation to share who you are by telling the stories of your life, not just the things that give those details life and definition. Most small talk in 
America is about a list: Where do you work? Where are you from? We already have started an inventory based on the person's appearance and we want to complete this by certain perfunctory questions. Instead, "Talk story" is an invitation to spend some time together, to actually sit long enough to spin a tale rather than make cursory cocktail conversation.

The willingness and ability to sit and “talk story” with one another is a practice quickly fading from the American landscape. I believe this has contributed to Americans’ alienation from one another. “Just the facts and only the facts” has left us grayed and lifeless, nothing more than demographics and statistics to one another. It feeds the more dysfunctional human impulse to reduce another person to an outline and, therefore, “other” and somehow less human. Think about our labels: black, white, male, female, tall, thin, short, fat, Southern, Northern, Italian, Greek, English, Native, rich, poor, impoverished, under-served, overworked -the list goes on. In it all is a desire to categorize and file each other away in some drawer for ease-of-use.

We invite one another into our homes less and less, whether figuratively or literally, and we refuse to open our busy schedules to accommodate more time to “talk story”.

But those stories are the birthplace of relationships, compassion, care, concern, and kinship. They hold within them the keys to unlocking the gates of the barriers that divide us, including the ones we build for ourselves. If you’ve ever managed to lock your child in the car while the car is running while simultaneously locking yourself out of your house, you’ll understand how precious keys can be. Yet we fail to recognize the most valuable keys at our disposal, ones that will make our lives richer than ever be imagined: the stories of those around us, both known and unknown.

God forgive us for not stopping to ask, to listen, to tell, and to share, thus squandering a most precious gift.

Some of the amazing people we've stopped to "talk story" with so far:

My dear God-brother, Alan, in DC. 

Our cousins in Arkansas.

Celebrating Ramadan with Talat and family.

Rangers in Chickamauga.

Ralph in Independence.

Dear friends Tar and Jim with new friend Bob in Nebraska.

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