Thursday, November 23, 2006

Talk Story

One of the themes that my freshman English classes explore is the power of stories. I feel like stories are our humanity. The ability to share details with eachother, the way they intersect, connect, and reflect our collective experience. In Jeanette Winterson's Lighthousekeeping, she illustrates the communal quality of storytelling:

A long time ago, in 1802 or 1892, you name your date, there's most sailors could not read nor write. Their officers read the navy charts, but the sailors had their own way. When they came past Tarbert Ness or Cape Wrath or Bell Rock, they never thought of such places as positions on the map, they knew them as stories. Every lighthouse has a story to it - more than one, and if you sail from here to Amerca, there'll not be a light you pass where the keeper didn't have a story for the seamen.

Empowering the sailors while the officers deal with the esoteric rings of what the internet and technology provide for our students. A chance to share stories, text-based, visual, interactive, with other 'sailors.' Now we can all have our own 'lighthouses.'

In the next paragraph, Winterson points to the love we have for stories and how the penultimate experience in life is to accumulate the most stories. Sharing of stories being the idiomatic icing. How many nights have you had like this?
In those days the seamen came ashore as often as they could, and when they put up at the inn, and they had eaten their chops and lit their pipes and passed the rum, they wanted a story, and it was always the lighthousekeeper who told it, while his Second or his wife stayed with the light. These stories went from man to man, generation to generation, hooped the seabound world and sailed back again, different decked maybe, but the same story. And when the lightkeeper had told his story, the sailors would tell their own, from other lights. A good keeper was one who knew more stories than the sailors. Sometimes there'd be a competition, and a salty dog would shout out 'Lundy' or 'Calf of Man' and you'd have to answer, 'The Flying Dutchman' or 'Twenty Bars of Gold'.

What strikes me most about this passage is that the sailors don't know each other. It's only the stories that create familiarity, such that their consonant love of these stories bonds them instantly and authentically. Last summer I had an experience on a river in Costa Rica like the one Winterson describes. After a typical Tico breakfast of tortillas, eggs, rice, and coffee, My wife and I were loaded into a Toyota van by our river kayak tour guide for the day. Born and raised in the Arenal high-country, he knew how to live symbiotically with his home river and the mosquitoes, crocodiles, and monkeys that also made it their home. Being the only people on the river, we all began exchanging stories, first, about our lives in Hawaii and Costa Rica, then, about the intricacies of family and growing older (he was the same age as us). Having established some of that familiarity that Winterson shows amongst the sailors, he suggested that - he later asked us not to tell anybody associated with the tour company - we accompany him to see his family farm and ailing grandfather. The farm is only reachable by river, surrounded on all sides by water, slowly eroding away the acreage. On the farm, English was not spoken. Still, we spent almost an hour exchanging the stories of Odysseus, Romeo and Juliet, and Don Quixote with a 90-year old Tico (his family thought these stories were the imagination of an old man).

For the rest of the trip down the river, we learned about our tour guide's conflict.
His brother refused to live the farming life, but our tour guide had to work 7 days a week to keep the property, while being schooled by his impoverished poet/biologist friend in an attempt to work his way up the tourguiding hierarchy. The tuition's a cup of coffee.

Costa Rica is not a place for us, it's a light with stories, familiar and new.

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