Last night, I sat around a bonfire with friends.
A man there held his baby son, and a dog ran around the fire, sniffing at the food at people’s plates.
The man with the child said to the host, “Did you tell the dog that my tribe eats puppies?” he said with a mischievous smile, jiggling his bouncing, gurgling son on his lap.
“Yes, we should tell him!” She replied, laughing and smiling, and went over to join the children who were busily working on cracking nuts open.
The man turned to me, “Its true, there are times in my tribe where a puppy will be eaten, but the puppy must volunteer to be eaten” the man continued. He mentioned earlier that he speaks Lakota to his son, so I assumed he is a Lakota man, and was referring to them.
“How would a puppy volunteer to be eaten?” I asked, my curiosity piqued at the idea of a dog volunteering to sacrifice itself.
“I have no idea!” the man said, with a small laugh, “I’ve never seen it happen, but..” he gazed into the fire, and glanced up at us “There is a story, do you want to hear the story?”
Sure, we agreed. I sat next to a new friend I had just met, and we listened to the story, which went something like this:
Once there was a great drought, which greatly distressed the people. Because there was no water, all of the animals left, and the people were very hungry. The people hunted elk and buffalo, but because of the great drought, all the animals were dying or were just gone. The only animals who stayed were the dogs. The loyal dogs stayed with the people, stayed by their side even though the drought was very bad. The people were very hungry and did not know what to do.
Then Creator came and said, “If a puppy volunteers to be eaten, then you must eat him.”
There was a buffalo skin with hot stones underneath, and water in it, and the water was boiling. Suddenly, a puppy jumped into the boiling water.
Then the people ate the puppy. Then the rain and the water came back, and the animals returned.
“To this day, sometimes the people will still have puppy soup, but only if it volunteers to be eaten” said the man.
“Wait, a dog, or a puppy?” I asked.
“A puppy” he said, “In my family, we tell a lot of stories. The way we tell the stories is that the parents or grandparents will tell stories to the children, and every now and then, they will ask the children to tell a story, to see if they remember it.” the man said “Its great for long car rides!” he added.
“Yea that sounds great for kids on a long car ride” I replied “I know a lot of good songs to sing in the car for kids”
“Yea, but stories teach them lessons” He said, and at this point, his baby son was wiggling so much that he had to get up and walk the baby around.
As he left, his comment lingered, and I was thinking how its true that stories teach lessons to children. I imagined this man and his family, and the vast repertoire of stories he must know, going back to his childhood, and at any moment, he will tell the story. And his older daughter will tell stories to the young son, and the tradition he learned as a child will be passed on to his children.
I recently heard a woman say that today the modern culture is one which is divorced from its stories. We have everything else imaginable: technology, cars, food, everything to survive, but we will not survive as a species without stories. We are a culture living divorced from myths and legends that past peoples lived in the midst of. We must bring these stories back, if we are to surmount the fantastically difficult challenges we face right now.
I heard this woman say this earlier in the week, and then last night I met the Lakota man with his baby, who shared that story with me. At the end of the story, as he walked away, I was left with a wanting feeling: I want to know more stories.
I have consumed stories my entire life, ever since I learned how to read, which was pretty early. In fact, all my siblings are very literate, very articulate, huge vocabularies, super well read. Our home was rich with books. I consumed them almost like I was breathing them in. All the Roald Dahl books: Matilda, the BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate factory, Danny the Champion of the World: these are all books that I read over and over. The whole Harry potter series, again I read each book over and over. The babysitters club a series where there is a cool group of teenage girls who are all friends and who babysit kids in their neighborhood.
I can’t tell you how many hours I spent in the library reading books.
So, yes, I have certainly consumed a huge amount of books and stories in my life, but how many stories have I told other people? How many stories was I told as a child?
I’m certain that stories were read to me, from books, but not too many were told just from memory.
The stories that were told out loud to me from memory were family stories: logistical things about the lives of my parents and grandparents. “Your grandfather started a business, the business made parts for airplanes, it was very successful.”
“Your other grandfather taught art at one point, and took his kids around the world visiting and traveling to different places, sometimes on a sailboat”
Here’s one from my mom: “I remember as a kid going to Tahoe with all my brothers and sisters in the backseat of a big station wagon. My dad was such a serious driver he didn’t want to stop for anything. Someone got sick, and had to vomit out of the window, and he just kept driving.”
Yep, thats a true one, courtesy of my dear mother. Well, it certainly tells me something about the character of my grandfather, who I never met because he died when I was one. Certainly there are other stories about him, yet this was one that my mom told me, and its stuck with me.
So there exists a disconnect between the stories I was told, about real lives and real events that happened, and my need for fictional, mythological stories.
I am drawn very strongly to stories, I want more and more of them, and I constantly have multiple books checked out from the library. Yes, I am a voracious reader.
But how many of those stories, by literary authors, would I be able to tell my 3-year-old niece? How many of those stories would I actually want to tell her?
As much as I enjoyed reading those stories, sometimes over and over, how many of those stories are truly mine?
I read so voraciously because I am responding to a void inside of myself, which demands that I figure out who I am and where I came from, and how I relate to and am connected to the people, places, animals and whole world around me.
I think its true that people need stories just as much as they need food and water.
Whether its the political stories they follow on the news, the family stories they learned and create everyday, the books, magazines and articles they encounter, the never ending Facebook feed in which people tell tidbits of their lives to each other, or the stories they tell themselves about who they are and what their dreams are.
My tendency throughout my whole life has been to seek out and consume, almost inhale stories and books, like I am breathing them in. I have a very well worked muscle in my brain which allows me to go through books with ease, encountering ideas, places, people, characters. To journey through the book and enjoy a quite, gently simmering, humming pleasure throughout it, which is calming, relaxing, and is entirely comfortable, because its a coping reflex I have developed and often turn to for comfort.
But this inhalation and consumption has a limit. I cannot exist as only an intellectual being.
If I have been consuming so many words, maybe its time to learn how to exhale. To learn how to share stories, write stories, tell them out loud.
Its not something I learned as a kid: I never had an elder look at me and say, “Ok, your turn” like the Lakota man did.
I also cannot steal stories from others, and pretend they are mine. That would be rude.
I think I remember Isabelle Allende speaking about her writing process: she said that stories simply arrive to her, and then she goes ahead and writes them.
Dear stories out there, you are invited over to my place! I live over here, next to a big ocean on the other side of some hills. When you come, I’m not sure I will recognize you or know exactly how you want to be told, but I will do my best. I don’t want to hurt anyone in the process of writing you, I don’t want to steal you from somebody else. I will do my best to listen to you honestly and openly, and not try to fill you with too much bullshit or crappiness or force you to come out before you are ready, that would be super rude. So like I said, you are all invited over to come and hang out. Can’t wait to meet you all and get to know you better!
Alright… we’ll see how this goes!