Stories are powerful things! Stories were an important part of my first curriculum. And, “No!” I am not speaking of the Dr. Seuss or Dick and Jane kind of storybook curriculum. I am speaking of something even better. Let me explain.
My sister and I spent most of our early childhood in the quiet village of Matura in Trinidad on my grandparents cocoa estate. This was where my father would leave us for a day or days while he went off to work. “Ma” was a disciplinarian who took her job of caring for two motherless girls dutifully. And yet, as she busied herself with making cassava bread and grating the cocoa balls to make chocolate tea, or as she fed us lunch, or made poultices to treat the ever present boils that erupted on our skin from rough and tumble exploring in the estate, she still managed to remain distant from us. Oh, but at nights! At nights, her stoic love underwent a remarkable transformation!
When the moon cast its soft light on the Spanish styled verandah, and stars winked at us from above, we sat on long wooden benches as Ma told us Anansi stories and Trinidad folktales. These were fanciful tales where animals talked, Cricket and Spider were friends, Anansi tricked the other animals with his craftiness, and an ugly chick named Gyo Phelon went off in search of his fortune. How we enjoyed those tales! There was no need for television. Actually, even if she had one, it would not work; Ma had no electricity. But, as cicadas trumpeted their shrill cries through the air, and owls hooted, we were transported to the world of the imagination where folktale characters roamed the night to work mischief. Then we would huddle against Ma’s form as she hugged us close—our bodies silhouetted against the dim glow of gas lamps in the windows.
These stories were comforting! They were therapeutic! This was the occasion in our day in which her love for us was personified and our hungry hearts were fed. And more than entertainment, and more than vain imaginings, they were preparing us for life outside of the sleepy village of Matura. We learned that good manners are still valuable, friendships are to be cultivated, and fortune waits for those courageous enough to venture out.
My early experiences sitting on that bench next to Ma as part of our nightly ritual have forever cemented in my mind the power of story. Perhaps, it was destiny that I would feel this yearning to write, to share creative stories and eventually weave my scholarship with narrative inquiry in the co-authored book Collaborative Autoethnography. And yet, I am convinced that the capacity to craft stories is an innate human gift. Each of us has been blessed with the gift of story and the power it possesses.
The Power of the Personal: First, we must recognize our life for the valuable drama that it is and the power we possess to craft the story line. In the book, The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck begins with the memorable line:”Life is difficult.” However, I prefer to say that “Life is challenging.” And we can view those challenges as difficulties OR opportunities to grow–as gifts to write life stories. We can create a surprise ending as Maya Angelou did. Born in St. Louis in 1928, she was raped at the age of 8 by her mother’s boyfriend and became mute for several years in the wake of this tragedy. Yet, she crafted these elements of her life into an inspiring story of strength and courage, and she will be forever remembered as one of the foremost icons of African American poetry, prose and thought. The truth is that our life story becomes richer not so much by what happens to us, but by how we choose to respond to these happenings. A truth that my sister-in-love writes of in her book Built to Last.
The Power of the Authentic: Secondly, to arrest the power of story, we must learn to tell our stories honestly and authentically. Beware of the unstory! The unstory is a sanitized and palatable version of our life that allows us to fit in with the dominant narrative of those around us—and yet is a mere facade of who we are and where we have been. It is analogous to the selfie that has been taken and retaken and photo-shopped ad infinitum. Oh, I can recognize the “unstory”! You see, in a younger life, I had learned to tell it well. Now, to be fair, an authentic story needs the right audience.. So perhaps, it is good to have two stories. The unstory is for those interested in the mass-market paperback version that often sells so well—but is weak in substance. The real power of story is best harnessed in the honest, open, telling and retelling of our life experiences to the receptive listener. Then we can let go of the pretense, and we can share with a fellow traveler the similarities in our human experiences– how we failed, how we triumphed, how we tried again, how we got over, and what we learned.
The Power of the Legacy: Stories have no life outside of their telling. My grandmother did not speak much to us in our day to day existence as was the way in Trinidad culture. Yet, we came to know and experience a depth of love in the stories she told. And now that she is gone, her stories live on in me and in my children. These stories are now part of our family legacy and are more valuable to me than words can express. If she had not told them, my childhood would not have been as rich. If she had not told them, this blog would probably not have been birthed. If she had not told them, the love for storytelling and reading would perhaps not have been nurtured in my own daughters. Stories are given life as we tell them, and then they are free to take on a life of their own.
The Power of the Transformation: Our stories have the power to transform. In valuing my experiences as gifts, they have become agents of transformation in my own life . But what is even more remarkable than this is that my life story is not meant just for me. Our stories also have the capacity to transform others, to connect them to a past way of life that they will never experience, and to teach them valuable lessons for the future. So I tell my daughters, Alyssa and Amya about walking two miles to school every day, about buying two coconut biscuits from the parlor for a cent. I teach them the games that my father taught me, “Pincher, pincher, fly away”, and I tell them of the time when all I had was one pair of shoes for church. These stories I hope, socialize them into a simpler way of life and cultivate in them an appreciation for their heritage.
And so, on some nights, I still choose to pull my daughters close to me, and we sit in their rooms with the lights off. Then in my best imitation of Ma’s voice, I begin to weave a Trinidad folktale: “A long time ago, before my time, before your time, when animals talked and lived like people, there lived a….. “ And I watch their eyes open wide as they wait expectantly for my next words…. And in those moments I am able to connect them to their great grandmother, and their grandfather, to the place of my birth and a time all of which are foreign to them. And in those moments, I am amazed and in awe of the power of story to connect the past and the present and to offer an open link to the future.
There is power in story!