By Richard Louv
In the end, all we have are stories. Not money, not possessions. None of that counts. Only stories count. Writer Muriel Rukeyser once said, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” The trick is to tell them.
I remember a weekend, a while back, long before the 2020 pandemic (and even more relevant now) when my family escaped to a rented mountain cabin in Idyllwild, California. No TV. No radio. No electronics of any kind — except the pocket Gameboy that one of the boys had smuggled into the van.
The weather was perfect; it forced us indoors. The air was brittle with cold. Through our cabin’s front windows, we watched the slate clouds race across the San Jacinto range to embrace Tahquitz peak. On the upper slope of that mountain is a jutting rock with its own story, of a chief named Tahquitz who, after death, turned monstrous and still perches — right there — waiting.
When night fell, my older son and I walked up to a little store, the kind with grit on the floor and snow chains for sale. We bought canned food to heat up in the cabin’s little microwave and, walking back to the cabin, we watched our breath rise and listened to the stillness of the pines. Felt like snow coming.
After we ate, we began to tell stories. Family stories. This was not expected or arranged.
As we told these tales, I realized how long it had been since we had really talked about much of anything except the chores of life: work, school, looking for colleges, all that. And now the conversation moved into unexplored territory. We told stories about the worst things we had done, as kids. The boys’ records were relatively clean, but they were shocked — and pleased — to hear of their father’s checkered past.
It seems to me that family storytelling is something of a lost art. So, over the years, I’ve been collecting ways that a family can tell more stories.
One obvious stimulant is to turn off the TV. Can’t do it? Head for the hills; pick a cabin as close to 19th-century conditions as possible — excepting, of course, the microwave oven.
Hard-pressed to think of a family story? Expert storytellers suggest that good tales can be found hovering around the family heirlooms — artifacts passed through the generations. San Diegan Colleen M. O’Connor, a history professor, recommends starting with an old family photo. “Imagine, or remember the stories that might belong to the time or place or people in the photograph.” And tell the story.
Dig deeper. Interview an older member of your family. Vera Rosenblut, author of “Keeping Family Stories Alive,” remembers how her father would wake up every Saturday morning and make a pot of chicken soup. After he died, Rosenblut’s mother gave her the pot, with all its dents (each representing a subplot) and told her daughter to keep it — and to tell her children the story of Saturday soup.
Charley Kempthorne, founder of LifeStory Magazine, who teaches people how to become family historians, tells students in his workshops to take advantage of holidays. Use them as an excuse to ask family members to remember, say, their favorite Thanksgiving. Their wettest camping trip. The bear and Uncle Alvin. And he advises people to think of their lives not as books but as movies. Somehow, that makes the storytelling easier.
Tall tales are allowed. In an opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News, writer and mom Clair Carlton suggests telling your kids “how you got that scar on your knee, or the real reason Aunt Blanche won’t eat broccoli. Still can’t think of anything? Make one up.”
And finally, tell the tales of your mistakes.
The boys’ eyes widened when I told them about one of mine. (OK, so it wasn’t the worst thing I’ve done.) Let’s just say it involved breaking and entering (my buddy and I figured there must be some Playboys stashed in that truck-weighing station down near the river), a tripped alarm, a policeman who looked like Barney Fife waving his revolver, and an afternoon spent in the Wyandotte County jail.
“Your father wasn’t an angel,” I said. “That’s why I’m over-suspicious and over-protective. As a kid, been there, done that.”
They looked relieved. Their shoulders seemed to lighten. Permission granted for imperfection, I guess.
The boys wanted to stay up much later for more storytelling about our wicked pasts. But their mother was drifting into sleep. So I tucked them in. That night, I woke with a headache, probably from the altitude, and slipped outside to the van to find some aspirin. Snow was falling. Tahquitz peak and its ghost rock would be covered by morning.
I looked up and felt the snow sting my face and thought: This night is good. It’s a story.
Updated, March, 2020
Richard Louv’s newest book, OUR WILD CALLING: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs, includes scores of stories that people tell about animal encounters and relationships that have changed their lives. VITAMIN N, offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life in urban, suburban and rural communities. His other books include: LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age. He is co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network. Follow Richard Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter.
Photos by R.L.: San Jacinto Mountains, Kathy and Jason