For your ears only

I belong to the kind of obnoxious large family who believes we are both more interesting and more hilarious than all other people. We are so invested in this belief that we hardly take notice of newcomers.

Our conversations are composed of long strings of inside jokes, vulgar sarcasm, and pointed but unserious interrogations. God have mercy on a stranger at the dinner table. It is best to just buckle up and go along for the ride. My long-suffering husband and brother-in-law are accustomed to our merry brand of family solipsism by now, but they will often excuse themselves to “run errands” (code for “get a beer and decompress about how exhausting Farsons are”).

I felt immediately aligned with David Sedaris when I heard him read from his essay “Now We Are Five,” in which he says “though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else.”

Because our stories are so cryptic and laced with interpersonal signs and symbols, we are not the most hospitable storytellers. We find each other deeply amusing. Dropping a single reference (that time Dad made Aunt B a bikini out of an old curtain, that time Kelsey said she was “proud to be an American” on the block at the swim meet) elicits instant laughter and applause. Our method of discourse is, naturally, highly enjoyable to us, but I admit that this is not the practice of the gifted storyteller.

Gifted storytellers are, by instinct and by nature, welcoming. They can swiftly adapt a narrative to an audience. They can manage the references and edit the metaphors at will, customizing a story for maximum comprehension. They fine-tune the doses of insider information depending on the crowd.

Storytellers must be skilled in this kind of narrative shape-shifting, being both willing and eager to look up from the table and beyond to reach listeners they may not know intimately. They know when to turn the volume up or down on a particular character or plot detail, depending on who is listening. For different people in different rooms, the shape of the story can change dramatically. I admire this flexibility and wisdom in storytellers, this capacity for empathetic telling — even as I confess my long-formed love of a tall tale told only for blood relatives.

(Adapted from this week’s issue of Story Matters.)

. . .

Guion has instituted a new Sunday tradition: croquet in the park with friends. Every Sunday afternoon, we have been gathering for a few games while the babies and kids roll around on picnic blankets and we try to have a few snippets of conversation. It has been a spirit-lifting tradition in a time otherwise marked by seclusion and anxiety.

. . .

“For the vast majority of human beings, religion is the only path leading to a spiritual life and an ethical conscience. Without religions there would be no such thing as human coexistence or respect for the law or any of the essential covenants that sustain civilized life. One very great mistake, repeated many times over in the course of history, has been the belief that knowledge, science and culture would eventually liberate man from the ‘superstitions’ of religion, until progress made religion obsolete. Secularization has not replaced our gods with the ideas, knowledge, or convictions that might have taken their place. It has left a spiritual void that human beings fill as best they can, sometimes with grotesque substitutes or multiple forms of neurosis or by heeding the call of those sects which, precisely because of their welcoming and tight-knit nature and their meticulous plan for all the instants of physical and spiritual life, offer balance and order to those who feel confused, lonely, or lost in today’s world.”

— Notes on the Death of Culture, Mario Vargas Llosa

. . .

Currently Reading

  • Weather, Jenny Offill
  • Cross-Cultural Design, Senongo Akpem
  • Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, David Shipler
  • The Undying, Anne Boyer
  • A Book of Common Prayer, Joan Didion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s