I get paid to crawl inside people’s heads. I know, it sounds messy and invasive, but it’s true. I’m not a therapist I am a storyteller, a personal-story harvester. My job is to help people discover the meaningful moments of their lives and guide them as they craft those moments into stories they can share. The goal is not necessarily publication. What these individuals do with the results of our time together is totally up to them. Our purpose is to excavate their memories, memories of life’s moments that have influenced the people they have become. Our quest is to craft the memory into something usable, something they can share. How they choose to share is up to them. The sharing may be done in the most intimate of settings, or it may be simply a personal exercise of reflection, or it may evolve into a performance piece. As their story guide I stand ready to walk beside them on the path they have chosen. I may lead them to the path, but they take me into the wood. Every encounter leaves me changed and enlightened. Long after our time together has passed their stories linger with me, their memories still whisper in my head. Their moments have become my moments. I am one person and yet the memories of many swirl within me.
* * *
Maria was fourteen, her memory was more than fresh, it was current.
“I want to talk about the day I became invisible. Have you ever been invisible? It sneaks up on you, at least it snuck up on me. You’d think I’d be more noticed than ever, nope, I’m invisible. I always had tons of friends and was always invited to every party. Most boys love me, but some girls hate me, because I can steal their boyfriends so easily. Then I got pregnant. I kept it secret for a long time. But some secrets don’t stay hidden, they just pop out for all the world see. At first everyone thought I was getting fat, but they could still see me. Fat people aren’t invisible, but pregnant girls are. It started with the boys first. They’d laugh and flirt like they always had then they’d see me rest my hand on my stomach or pull my jacket over my bump and they’d go stone cold silent. Some of them even walked away mid conversation. I’d be like, “Word – wassup?” They’d just keep on walking. The girls weren’t far behind. At first they were all full of advice for me. Telling me how to get rid of it, telling me how to keep it from my parents, telling me it served me right…yeah, they had all sorts of advice. But when they found out I was keeping it, well, it freaked them out I guess. So, they stopped talking to me. They stopped inviting me to parties. They stopped saving me a seat at lunch. It’s like I have a contagious disease. The teachers, yeah, they don’t know what to do with me either. They tried sending me to counseling at first, but they didn’t like my plan. They were real interested when they thought it was my dad’s or some older guys, but once they believed me about who the father was, they stopped wanting to know more. They talked about me dropping out and coming back after the baby was born. It would be ‘easier’ for everyone. I can finish 9th grade before the kid comes. That’s what’s easiest for me. Then I’ll have the summer to play ‘mom’ and come back in the Fall. Now, I’m just invisible. They don’t call on me. I got kicked off the soccer team. They never ask how I feel or how I am. Yeah, I messed up, I know that, but invisible? That’s just cold. I wonder if that will ever change, I wonder if they’ll ever see me again. Or am I trapped in some weird gray space where no one else knows how to deal? Gray and cold and empty - that’s what it feels like to be invisible.”
* * *
Joe was an old man, his face covered with the kind of wrinkles you get from hard living in the out of doors. He never did tell me his age, but his story provided some clues.
“I remember a blanket I used to sleep under when I was a kid. It was patchwork. Some squares had military insignias and bars. Some squares had pockets. Some were white and some were navy and some were olive green. It was real heavy and sort of scratchy. I don’t know whatever happened to that old quilt. I wish I had it now. My mother used to tuck me and my three brothers in bed every night under that one quilt. It seemed like the nights we were always cold when I was a boy. It seemed like the wind would always blow. Wind and dust, that’s what I remember the most, it was enough to drive you crazy, the wind blew all the dirt away so the crops wouldn’t grow. The wind blew my father away too, when the crops failed he had to go look for work somewhere. He never came back either. Checks would come in the mail sometimes, but we never saw him again. My mother used to sing about good times coming back someday when she’d tuck us in. Her voice was clear and sweet, like her blue eyes. But those eyes always welled up with tears when she’d tuck us in. Her fingers would run over the patches and pockets and stripes on our quilts as she’d tell us about Johnny, and Richard, and Ray, and Frank. They were her brothers, they’d run off to fight in the Great War. The ‘war to end all wars,’ she’d call it. None of them ever came home, just telegrams followed by boxes of worn uniforms and random trinkets. She made the quilt from their uniforms. I guess she got in a lot of trouble for cutting up those uniforms at first. But times were hard and the fabric was warm and it’s not like anyone was getting any use out of the uniforms. Turns out her parents ended up leaving it out so everyone could see it. There was something special about that old quilt. She said she could just about hear the voices of her brothers when she slipped under that quilt. It’s just about the only thing she took with her when she got married. She told us her brothers would watch over us, just like the quilt kept us warm. Her voice would get all misty when she’d talk about them. I sure wish I could remember those stories. I sure wish I still had that old quilt.
* * *
Thomas was seventy-five, but the memory of that summer day hung powerfully before his eyes.
“We were just boys, just silly carefree boys. It was a classic Maryland summer; you know the kind, when it’s hot and humid to the core. The kind of heat that clings to you, it drips off ya’, ya’ know? It threatens to melt you into mud. I guess it was clear back in the 50’s some time. Yeah, I couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12. My friends and I went down to the canal to swim. We were just going to jump in and cool off, but there was this old man sitting on the bank right where we wanted to get in. He was all dark and shriveled up like a raisin. He wore thick metal braces on his twisted legs. He must have had the polio. Times were different back then. Sure, we’d been taught to respect our elders, but this was a black man. We should have known better but boys seem to soak up the attitudes of their time, ya’ know? This was back in the day when we still had separate drinking fountains, separate entrances, and separate bus seats. Why couldn’t we have separate canal spots too? He was in our favorite spot and that just wouldn’t do. It was our spot, not his, he shouldn’t have been there. So we started scooping up mud clods and throwing them at him. Have you ever seen Maryland mud? It’s rust red and stains your hands and knees. It’s real thick and holds tight to whatever it touches. The mud clods stuck firm around his braces and naked back. When I close my eyes I can still hear the sticky clumps slapping up against his flesh. Truth be told, it haunts me still. In no time at all he was covered. He never said a word, just looked at us with deep set, sad, brown eyes. The weight of that sorrow slumped down from his eyes and across his cheeks, pulling his skin down with it. Everything sagged like mud, his eyes, his cheeks, his timid smile. He pulled and pushed at the mud, smearing it more than removing it. When he stood up and tried to wipe off the mud, we stopped throwing the clods, but not our words.
“Go away old man, we don’t want your kind here.”
“Sure hope you’re not here when I come back with my pa. He’ll teach you a lesson, sure.”
He nodded at us as his started to turn away. Then I guess he didn’t like the way the mud felt all twisted around his braces so he waded into the canal. The shallows gave way real fast and he was in over his head in no time. That’s when we realized he was in trouble. It must have been the weight of his braces that pulled him down. His arms seemed strong enough, but they started to flail as his head slipped under the water. Water running red with mud, water so thick you couldn’t see through it. His head came up once, twice, three times and then he was gone, just gone. We stood there with red stained hands waiting and waiting for him to rise back up, but he never did.
It drove our mama’s crazy, the way we came home wet and dripping with mud and water. They bemoaned how hard it would be to get us clean. We striped off our overalls before we ever came in the kitchen. We scrubbed and scrubbed at those red stains, but they wouldn’t come out. I guess there’s just some stains that never come out.”
* * *
Memories are powerful and they have an incredibly long shelf life. Most of the people I work with end up focusing on thoughts and images they had not considered for a very long time. Something happens during our time together to trigger the recollection. Frequently the renewed memory opens them up to a deeper understanding about themselves and how they view the world.
Many cultures suggest you cannot find peace with a person until you know their story. I have found you cannot dislike someone once you know his or her story. In deed, knowing the stories of those who surround us opens our hearts to forgiveness and tolerance. We become more compassionate through the sharing of personal story. We become more sure of who we are and the values that support us. We become more grounded in seeing the good in this world.
So, the next time you feel frustration rising up within you towards another, take a moment to listen to their story!