When I was a child, I’d spend a week of the summer at my grandparents. Early to bed, there, on a green-and-gold, foldout sofa in the living room; early to rise, with juice and toast, crumbs wiped up as soon as I’d finished–and a lukewarm bath in a scant few inches of water. Waste not, want not, my grandmother would say, spreading out damp paper towels by the sink to dry.
They lived in an apartment in Akron, Ohio, and there was an outdoor pool in their complex. We’d swim in the chemically blue water, pinning a tag on my suit that identified me as the guest of a resident, but we’d never broach the deep end of the pool. My grandmother swam daily, but a near drowning incident in her teens left her fearful of my swimming in water over my head.
They’d take me to a movie and out to a restaurant where I twirled spaghetti on a fork and learned to love ginger ale. My grandfather, who walked regularly, took me along–but that’s when the trouble began.
He’d steer me to the sidewalk in front of the golf course, and he’d stuff stray balls into his pocket. He’d suggest that I enjoy watching the tiny rabbits, their noses twitching, and he’d comment on the clearness of the sky. But, he was just postponing the inevitable. I wanted to walk to the cemetery.
He’d plead and he’d beg, but I stood firm. He’d have an urge to collect more golf balls, but I was having none of it. He’d ask if I was hungry, but I wasn’t falling for that old trick. “I know!” he’d finally say, snapping his fingers, desperation in his eyes. “Your grandmother can take you for another swim!”
I remember the slump of his shoulders–the slouch of resignation when he finally caved. I’d sprint from one worn down gravestone to another, rubbing my fingers over long-ago dates smoothed away by time and weather, fascinated by the biblical names, the large size of the families and the almost gruesome acceptance of death that wafted out from verses carved on the tombs.
I’d share stories with my grandfather, certain that I knew the secrets of those interred in that dirt. “Look over there!” I’d shout with glee. “Benjamin buried three wives before he died – wanna know why?” And, before he could answer, I’d spin out childish tales brimming with mystery, intrigue and woe.
My grandfather invariably treated my melodramas with kindness and respect, and he never interrupted, but when I was deposited home with my parents, he’d shake his head, making this comment. “Kelly . . . well . . . things went great . . . but . . . she has TOO much imagination.”
They’d huddle about then and figure that, eventually, I’d “grow out of it.”
Imagination. It’s seen as a kissing cousin to telling lies, and that’s a shame. There should be a title for those of us with imagination, something we could wear as a badge of honor, but I don’t know quite what. “Imaginators” is the best that I can come up with, and that isn’t very good.
Imaginators, fortunately, are a tough breed, hanging tight under the withering glances of the deprived, and flourishing when together. About twenty of us met at the Firelands Writer Center Retreat in the summer of 1998, held at a private summer home on the beaches of Marblehead. Bob Henry Baber, a poet who earned his Ph.D. in creative writing, led us through a weekend of telling stories, and he encouraged our imagination.
Bob brought a memory jar, and when he tipped it over, out spilled beads, buttons, pins, army men, skeletons, marbles, plastic baby bottles and empty spools of thread. Earrings might be missing their once prized faux pearls and the sequined toy elephant no longer had four legs, but these became blessings, rather than curses, their brokenness simply woven into the fabric of the stories that they inspired.
Each person chose one or more of the memory jar pieces, then created an impromptu story from its parts. The range of these tales was incredible. People, many of whom had never before met, revealed fears and resentments, shared tears, confessed sins, remembered connections and celebrated visions.
For my story, I selected a cameo, along with a round and solid gold circle and some dice. The cameo, with its woman in a bun profile, reminded me of my great-grandmother. She once owned a round, gold pocket watch, similar to the broken piece of jewelry. I then shared the only conversation I recall having with her, one where she lamented the difficult chores that women performed at the turn of the century.
This memory triggered reminiscences of other conversations with women who have resented the impositions and restrictions of traditional female roles. I believe that I chose the dice because of my desire to gamble with nontraditional risks.
Common themes emerged during this weekend retreat. Many of us, myself included, struggle with the issue of approval–society’s approval, family approval, approval from peers. While longing to discard meaningless conventions, we fear too much flaunting.
And, Bob agreed that it’s tough to share truths, especially ones that aren’t sanitized and smelling sweet. “Writers, poets and storytellers, though,” he said, “need to fight political correctness and to make value judgements. When we become reluctant to state our judgements and to reveal our truths, this leads to homogenized stories, ones that taste like plain, white bread.”
He led further dialogue, analyzing components of the stories told. He pointed out telling lines–telling because of succinctness, poignancy or humor, and, while no critiquing took place, people asked questions. How did this object remind you of this story? Why did you tell your story this way? Have you considered telling a second story, by taking this line and expanding upon it? Maybe this is where your true story lies.
Stories ranged from elemental and tactile impressions of an object, to tales that evolved and completed a circle. One writer (one, ironically enough, whose story did not come full circle) shared her enjoyment of the objects in the story jar that were shaped like circles.
Reasons for participating varied. One person was indulging in the sheer pleasure of companionship of like-minded people; another attended the workshop for professional training; and another hoped to gain skills necessary to participate in the vivid and dramatic storytelling occurring at the home of his Italian in-laws.
Intriguing debates arose. Did we choose a memory jar object because we wanted, consciously or subconsciously, to tell a specific story? Or did the object itself inspire the tale? What is truth? If two people attended the same event, then presented a different version, is only one person telling the truth? Or is truth always filtered through the experiences of the teller? What about multiple layers of truth?
Could we have created these same stories without an audience? How important are group dynamics to the birth of our tales? How would the details change if a parent were added to the mix? An enemy? A lover?
If we share the story of another, what moral obligation do we have to obtain his or her permission to tell and/or publish? Can we use the true experiences of another to jumpstart our stories, then add our own conclusions? How strictly must we adhere to exactly-what-happened?
Bob acknowledged that this last issue can be tough to tackle, and he offered this perspective. “It’s okay to stretch the truth, because there’s so little to go around. Storytelling, almost by definition, distills life into super-life, turning it into verbal drunkenness.”
Verbal drunkenness. For those of us who become intoxicated by words, we can occasionally–or not so occasionally–blank out exact details. When, for example, my grandfather and I were at the cemetery, I can picture him veering off to one side, standing at the edge of the grass, watching a train roll by. In my memory, he always did that at the cemetery, but common sense and the variability of train schedules tell me that’s not possible.
Does it matter? I’m with Bob, because I don’t think so. Instead, I hope that someday we can all cherish the stories of our lives, celebrating the joyousness of raw inspiration and declaring freedom from the mundane. And, while my grandfather-of-the-cemetery-visits now rests in one, I’m certain that he is still, somehow, cheering me on, shaking his head and laughing with delight whenever I remember to honor my own imagination.