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Story Telling

I’ve been telling some version of my story for almost eleven years.  Give or take, that’s about a fifth of my life.  It’s been a profession, a part-time career really, speaking to groups of varying size, charities, associations, investment banks, lecture series, insurance companies, hospitals and medical professionals, ladies lunches, country clubs, YMCAs.  You get the idea.

Recently, I sat down to tell my story on a Facebook Live interview with Sheryl Sandberg, (view here) who wrote the book “Option B” after her husband’s sudden death while on vacation.  Sandberg shares her personal story in achingly honest prose. When the veil lifted on the worst of her grief, she was determined to use her experience to explore the ways in which we can build resilience, the concept that it can be strengthened, like a muscle.

The power of Sheryl’s story has given other people permission to talk openly about their journeys; the differing ways we grieve, the many forms of resilience, the numerous shades of loss.  At one point in our interview, something in the telling bubbled up, like hitting an unexpected pothole, and our eyes filled with tears.  We smiled, we each stumbled on, moving past the sorrow with our conversation.

After the interview, I was struck by a thought that has visited me occasionally.  How long will I be able to tell this story?  How long will I want to?  If every telling takes you back to the sorrow, if every time you revisit it a scab is picked open, will I arrive at a place when I no longer have it in me?

I posed this question to a friend of mine recently.  She’s heard more than her share of versions of our tale; injury, recovery, family, healing.

“Think about the best-selling book of all time,” she said, as we discussed the lifespan of a story.

“Harry Potter?”  I asked.

“No silly!  The bible!”

Right.  Bible, Talmud, Koran, Hindu teachings, Grimm’s Fairy Tales.   Generations of folks have returned to those stories over and over.  They contain guidance and messages about community, morality, faith and family.  They are rules to live by, advice and cautionary tales, cloaked in different characters and settings.  The stories connect us to something larger.  They attempt to make sense of the greater world, to parse and interpret the bad things.  It’s precisely their repetition that comforts us.

And while there are moments, (the airport popcorn and gummy fish dinner during another flight delay, TSA’s date rape frisking, missing back to school night for yet another year) when I think, Is it time to stop?

But then as I begin to talk, all of that melts away.  Heads nod, people smile and sniffle, the room begins to knit itself together in some inexplicable magical quilt.  Suddenly it’s not about me, nor the particulars of my story.  It’s about the collective journey.  Storytelling makes something bigger happen.

After I speak, people often give me things; books, prayers, letters, special coins, T-shirts, coffee mugs, crocheted blankets, chocolate gummy bears (I once posted they were my secret vice.)  I get hugs too.  Lots of spontaneous hugs, which feels very lovely and human.

But mostly stories rake up stories.  When I tell mine, people feel compelled to share theirs back.  That’s the connective tissue part of storytelling.  Telling stories simply lightens the load.  We feel less alone, even temporarily.  And that’s something.

I recently gave my last speech before summer vacation.  I stood at that podium, averted my eyes from the introductory video (in which I’m ten years younger and wear too much lipstick) and then began to speak.  About ten minutes in, there it was.  Boom.  A word caught in my throat, my voice cracked, an image surfaced, emotion rose up, even as I wrested it down.

And that is my proof.  The evidence that there’s still a story within me that bears telling. It just might have some juice left in it to help someone else get through the day, or remind them they’re not alone.  And so I’ll keep telling it, because maybe the story is not done with me.

And of course, the hugs and the chocolate covered gummy bears are pretty nice too.