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The Tribe Tells Its Stories

December 15, 2009

The Hmong have a phrase, hais cuaj txub kaumtxub, which means “to speak of all things.” It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point; and that the storyteller is likely to be rather long-winded.
• Anne Fadiman (1997)
, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, pp. 12-13

Stories. I love stories. We’re on the road again, headed for Southern California. On the way, we spent the night in Monterey with my cousin and her husband, reminiscing about the past. As we talk, it’s like a ping pong match, gentle lobs back and forth across the table. Someone says something. It reminds someone else of their story, and so it goes. People are storytellers. Some cultures value their traditions of oral history more than others, but almost all of us share stories daily with our friends and colleagues, telling the tales of our lives to help us understand what happened and why it happened, and to help us understand who we are.

My Wilkins grandparents were storytellers. Grandma used to gather us around for yarns from what she called her old wooden head. Many of her stories featured the adventures of various relatives, and often they were cautionary tales, grandma’s version of a scared straight program, meant to keep us living in guilt-edged fear. I never understood why grandma seemed so afraid of life’s unknowns until my Aunt Mildred began to tell me her stories.

Her mother, my grandma, lost her only son, my Uncle Charlie, before he was a year old, and another daughter, Helen, died very young as well. But it was Aunt Mildred’s story of being kidnapped when she was a pre-schooler, found by some boys who heard her cries from an abandoned house, that really began to explain why grandma was so anxious for all of us to be “safe.” She’d buried two children and almost lost another of her brood of four. Of course she was scared for us.

For my cousin and me, Grandma defined being safe as getting married and settling down. Never mind about college. We wouldn’t need it to be good wives and mothers. You may have people in your life who don’t support your educational aspirations. They may have reasons for their lack of support, sometimes stemming from their own experiences with life or with school or from their vision of what a successful life is. It is difficult to listen to your own voice when others whom you respect and care about speak of another vision.

One way to find your personal vision is to capture stories from your life and think about what they might mean. There are an almost infinite number of things each of us could write about. The trick is finding the significant ones. Here’s one way to begin. The exercise that follows is from Alexandra Johnson’s (2001) book, Leaving a Trace. Johnson suggests that you make three columns. In the first column, list ten years (1966, 1987, 1995, etc.). In the next column, list ten places. Finally, make a column in which you list ten people. Without stopping to think about your choices, go across the columns, circling four items in each category. Make three new columns with four items in each column. Now select one item from each column. In front of you is some code of memory you’ve given yourself to decode. Trust your instincts. Write quickly to begin to understand why these three items won out.

Hate this idea? Capture one of your stories in writing. Any story. Just write it down. Date it. Save it.

Within each of us there is a tribe with a complete cycle of legends and dances, songs to be sung. We were all born into rich mythical lives: we need only claim the stories that are our birthright.
• Sam Keen & Anne Valley-Fox (1973),
Your Mythic Journey

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