Earlier this year, I became engrossed in the idea of storytelling, questioning the ritual act of recounting or creating events, and weaving people or places together through the power of words. Why do we tell stories? My thoughts were inspired by the Oscar-nominated documentary “Pina,” directed by Wim Wenders. It is a film depicting the life and influence of Pina Bausch, German choreographer, who saw the role of dance as a mode of storytelling- to inspire love, fear, longing, belonging, and community in viewers. Without stories and people to tell them to us, I deduced, we would all be lost in this world.
And I am brought to the drawing board again today, this time inspired by a piece of literature by local Portland writer Brian Doyle: a novel entitled Mink River. Published recently in 2010, it paints the landscape of a small coastal Oregon town (the fictional Neawanaka), a place dotted with characters who laugh and cry and swim and fish and tinker and run and feel deep pain and feel their hearts bursting with love. It is a place that seems so magical, so extraordinary, presented to us readers under the veil of shimmering words and descriptions. We are caught up in the narrative of character- in the flowing hair of No Horses, in the wings of Moses as he glides over the town, in the rock of the waves with Declan, the clink of glasses with Grace, the tender love making of Timmy and Rachel, the soaring voice of Puccini through Michael, the scattered, brilliant mind of Worried Man, the meticulous rituals of the doctor, and the fluttering life of the old nun as she dies.
After reading Mink River, I am left with this town, in its breathing, living, and striving. I smell the salty, coastal air and feel the drizzle of rain dripping down my collar. Though Neawanaka seems so beautifully removed from reality, the beautiful images of the characters are teaching us that they are really ordinary people, living in an ordinary place. This story leaves me craving the lush, green summer of Neawanaka, but I realize that I have the same here! And so, I think, stories help us see our ordinary place as extraordinary. As we are caught up in the swirl and swing of words depicting a place not far from our own, we begin to question ourselves: is my place this beautiful? And if we slowly turn our heads from side to side, as we begin to train our eyes on the ordinary, it suddenly starts to sparkle. Yes, our own places are this wonderful.
Cedar and Worried Man, the staff of two at the Neawanaka Department of Public Works, embark on a project to record oral histories of their town for Worried Man’s grandson Daniel with the multicolored hair. They see their town as one long, continuous story, the threads of the past intertwining with the present and reaching their tendrils to the future. People who have died still hover in the air or are present in the cells of a maple leaf. They and their stories linger in the wind. And we experience the same. We live out our lives, sometimes telling people about events, sometimes holding our experiences close to our hearts. Either way, our lives are stories and the people we read about in books are really us. As we go through our lives, we brush fates with so many and their stories, the lives they have lived thusfar, become part of our own. We are stories, ourselves, infinite stories:
“There are so many stories, all changing by the minute, all swirling and braiding and weaving and spinning and stitching themselves one to another […] you could listen patiently for a hundred years and never hardly catch more than shards and shreds of the incalculable oceans of stories just in this one town.” (Mink River by Brian Doyle, page 13)
Stories also give voice to those that cannot speak. For years, I have been enraptured by the folktales of the Northwest region, stories of people turning into mountains, animal tricksters, and trees befriending the smallest creatures. If trees could speak, what would they say? If we asked the mountains, what lessons could they teach us about the mistakes of humans past? Native American tales are woven throughout Mink River as well, and are used to explain the town’s origins or to wonder at the actions of a magnificent animal. Maple Head, a teacher and historian in the town, hikes to the top of a large hill to discover the source of the Mink River and to see if its origin story holds true. To her, the stories that helped shape her town are still alive. Stories can help us wrap our minds around big, beautiful things like mountains and rivers and bears and salmon that we are inspired by but who we cannot converse with. Only through stories, can the land come alive and speak to us, teach us, and remind us of how we came to be.
And stories are builders of community. They bring people together. They help us identify with our brethren. They help us find others who think similarly to ourselves. In Lake Oswego, OR, community members chose to read Mink River together as a city. And as a city, they decided to create their own audio book version (as there had been one recorded yet). Joining together, they read the book, recorded the book, and listened to the book, finding their own stories within their town by identifying with the stories in Neawanaka.
But in the end, why the heck do we tell the same stories over and over again? These stories of love, of war, of joy, and of pain that cycle from culture to culture? Why do our hearts crave this entertainment, instruction, and advice through words? In 2011, I worked on an unforgettable storytelling project with Dave Eggers’ nonprofit, 826 Valencia in San Francisco. Each year, 826 Valencia partners with a San Francisco public high school and works with a teacher and his or her class to publish a book on a topic. The year I helped produce the book, the theme was myth and storytelling. Students plumbed the depths of their creativity to discover what storytelling meant to them. In the introduction to the final product entitled Beyond: Stolen Flames, Forbidden Fruit, and Telephone Booths, author Khaled Hosseini questions the very thing I have been exploring here. And he concludes that, in the end, we tell stories because in the end, they “come with human faces on them. […] Most of us connect to myths because we hear them in the echo of something that is arrestingly familiar and human” (Hosseini in Beyond, page xiii). We see ourselves walking the very lives of those we read about. Yes, they may seem superhuman, experiencing things more beautiful or more painful than us. But this is not the case. We write and tell these stories because they are so real. They are human like us.