Reflections on Storytelling
by Roy Lincoln Karp
“Let me tell you a story.” There is something so simple and elegant about this modest plea, usually made by one friend to another. We are storytellers and each of us has a deeply held desire to share our stories, to hear the stories of others, to find those threads that connect us and give meaning to our lives. Storytelling, that act of pausing and being present with one another, is an essential part of being human.
Let me tell you a story about the time I fell into the Hudson River. I was about four years old. My older sister Jane had been invited to a sleepover by a friend from P.S. 87, our local elementary school. The friend lived on a house boat in the 79th Street Boat Basin. On my last visit to New York, my mother mentioned that the boat basin had recently closed and, perhaps for this reason, the story has gained renewed importance, another marker of things that have been lost to time. We frequently walked by this floating community on the Hudson River on our way to the playground on the lower level of Riverside Park. The house boats and the people who lived on them were a source of great fascination to me.
The morning after the sleepover, my mother, father, and I walked down to the boat basin to pick up my sister. Once passed the locked gate, through which I had never passed, we walked down a steep wooden gangplank onto a network of docks that connected all the boats. My sister’s friend’s family took us for a tour of their little neighborhood on the water. While walking along the narrow docks, a large dog came right up to me, no doubt to sniff me and add me to his database or odors. The dog was much bigger than me and it frightened me. I started walking away, but it following me. I picked up my pace, but it kept following me. In trying to escape the dog, I ran right off the edge of the dock and plunged into the choppy, frigid water of the Hudson. Though not yet able to swim, I was wearing a puffy winter coat, which gave me some extra buoyancy.
For many years after this incident, I had a distinct memory of what happened in the next few seconds. I was fully submerged in the water when a hand reached down, grabbed me by the arm, and yanked me out of the water. The man who pulled me up was not my father, or anyone else in our party, but a stranger who happened to see me fall in and came to my rescue. In our family photo album, there is a snapshot of me, back on the houseboat, wrapped up in blankets but still looking wet and shivery.
During childhood and early adolescence, I must have told that story dozens of times. It was a formative event and one that stuck with me for years. But then the memory faded, as did its personal significance, and I stopped sharing it. Recently, the memory came back to me and I wrote it down in my black writing notebook. During the last five years, I have filled up almost seven of these books. I find this notable because I had never been good at keeping a journal. I often started new journals with great aspirations, only to abandon them, overwhelmed by a feeling that my writing was not sufficiently interesting, original, or literary.
I still hear that inner critic at times, but I try my best to tell it to shut up. I try not to look at my notebooks as something precious, to become paralyzed by fear that my writing must always be beautiful or even fully thought out. I just try to get the thoughts in my head onto paper, for better or for worse. I use my notebooks for a multitude of purposes. I use them to write down personal stories, often based on childhood memories, as well as fiction and poetry. I also use them as a sort of Commonplace Book, a place to write down and reflect on some lines from a book or a poem I’ve just read that I find particularly poignant.
From this rambling, freewheeling writing process, I have begun to identify images, patterns, and metaphors, some of which have become deeply meaningful to me. One of these, which I can conjure in my mind’s eye, is the image of the Hudson River. As far back as I can remember, the river was always there. I could see it from my bedroom window as soon as I was tall enough to peek over the sill. It was down below in the distance, a narrow sliver of water in ceaseless motion seen through a valley of buildings built of bricks and steel. I didn’t just observe the river from a distance. We frequently walked on the wide promenade along the river’s edge as we travelled to and from our favorite playground in Riverside Park.
For many years, I wondered about the direction in which the river flowed. At times it seemed to flow from right to left, which would have been the logical direction from the Palisades towards New York Harbor and beyond that the Atlantic Ocean. But at other times, it seemed to flow from left to right, defying the natural order of things. At some point during adolescence, I received an answer to this puzzle, though by whom I cannot recall. The three rivers surrounding the island of Manhattan – the Hudson, East and Harlem Rivers – are tidal waters in which the salty sea water of the Atlantic forms swirling eddies as it swishes together with fresh water from the mountains. The river flows in both directions depending on the tide.
With this knowledge, the river is transformed into a metaphor. It is the salt water of experience swirling together with the fresh water of innocence. It is reading and writing, the wisdom of past ages found in books mixing with new ideas that emerge from my mind and I hope I can get down in my notebook. Where do your ideas, experiences, and stories end and mine begin? There is a mesmerizing beauty in the ceaseless mixing and sharing, as we listen to and learn from one another.
Tidal water has taken hold of my imagination. It has the power to transport me back to childhood, a distant land that exists in my memory, a time and place in which my father is still alive. Fresh water and salter water, life and death, innocence and experience, father and son, swirling together ceaselessly, a dance with neither beginning nor end. I think of several lines from The Tempest, Shakespeare’s final and deeply philosophical play:
Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
I don’t believe it is coincidental that I began to write the year I became a father. Full fathom five my father lies, but now I am a father and the tidal water continues to flow. I am drifting out to sea at low tide, but I know the tide will rise again and swirl together with the fresh mountain water of childhood, of imagination, of story-telling not yet stifled by self-criticism, of stories not yet told.
I often sit in awe and wonder as I listen to my five-year-old daughter’s stories. Lucy loves to tell her versions of children’s books in which her “imagination friends,” as she calls them, replace the characters in the book. An only child, she is not content with just one imagination friend. She has a full cast of characters with whom you may be familiar if you spend any time with her. There is Billy, Bobby, and Lulu, Lou the Dog, Waggy the Cat, Sam the Lamb, and Daddpy the Dragon, all of whom live in the new house on Bakery Street in the Town of Bakery, where children live and adults sometimes visit, although never mom and dad.
Lucy’s stories often involve trips to the doctor’s office or hospital, places where Lucy is no stranger. Her friends often have boo boos; they need shots and x-rays; they have their vital signs taken. Lucy has a complex medical history and has spent more time in the hospital and doctor’s offices than most kids. While we sometimes wish her imagination friends would spend less time in the hospital, we also know she is using storytelling as a way to process her experiences, including some traumatic ones that occurred during her first few years of life.
Lucy’s friends seem to be spending less time in the hospital these days, but she still uses stories to process her experiences. After going for a walk in the Arnold Arboretum, Billy and Bobby decide to go for a hike in the woods. After we bought our Christmas tree and hung our holiday decorations, she told us a story about how her friends had decorated the new house. “Now I tell my version,” she still says after we finish reading a favorite children’s book, and her version often strays from the original in creative and humorous ways. The Mr. Lazy book my wife saved from her childhood becomes a story about Mr. Love and the myriad ways he cares for his friends.
“Let me tell you a story.” These six words are an invitation to stop by and share a cup of tea, to put away our cell phones, and share our stories. This seemingly simple act of listening to and learning from one another’s stories is also a radical act of defiance in an age of creeping fascism, when Orwellian lies get circulated ad nauseum and become truth, a maddening civic sphere in which black is white and up is down.
In the second reading, we heard an excerpt from an essay by Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish philosopher and literary critic who committed suicide in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis. In this essay and others, Benjamin lamented the demise of storytelling in an age of mechanical reproduction. He believed that losing the art of storytelling in favor of the mere transmission of information had provided the fertile ground in which fascism was able to take root and flourish. This fear is eerily prescient today.
We need to keep telling our stories, to not lose sight of our own humanity amidst a barrage of horrifying news, with its ceaseless repetition of lies and distortions of reality. In doing so, we are taking some measure of control in a world getting out of control. As Walter Benjamin understood, stories are not mere information. They are not soundbites or memes, text messages or Tweets. They are the means by which we make sense of the world, find meaning in our lives, and connect with one another. Storytelling is the essence of being human.