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Read Me a Bedtime Story or…

February 27, 2013

Book and MartiniUnfortunately, my parents never read me bedtime stories when I was growing up. It just wasn’t their thing. But, they were big readers. I always remember dad with a book in one hand, and a martini in the other (if it was after six). When I found my mom dead in her favorite chair a few years ago, the table next to her held her daily crossword puzzle, mostly completed, and a book cracked open to somewhere about three fourths of the way through. Too bad she never got to finish it. The worst part was not finding her dead, however. It was the fact that I’m pretty sure she died watching Bill O’Reilly. A long-time Democrat who thought Kennedy should be canonized, she said his show was the only one she could hear. It’s true, she was mostly deaf by then, and there is all that yelling going on. That probably goes along way in explaining the demographics of Fox “News.”

RockerTelling stories at the dinner table was where it all happened for my siblings and me. Fortunately, we had a lot of really strange relatives so there was an inexhaustible supply of anecdotes. And, we lived in Chicago where you use humor to show how much you care for someone, or not. My dad was the consummate storyteller. His poker face never gave away whether we were hearing truth, fiction, or something in between. I particularly loved hearing the story of my two great aunts who lived together in their golden years. He said one day a neighbor came to check on them and found one of the aunts in her rocking chair, and very much dead, and had been for quite some time. When the other aunt was asked why she hadn’t called the morgue, she replied that she couldn’t bare to be apart from her sister, she would be so lonely without her. I guess having a dead sister in your parlor is better than no sister at all. Dad told this “tale” with much detail and backstory, drawn out to last the entire dinner.

Chevy Bel AirMy mom liked funny stories, but could never finish one without laughing before the funniest parts. That would be so contagious we all would be laughing by the time it was actually time to laugh. The source of my mom’s best stories was my dad’s side of the family. They were none too flattering either. For years she told us about Aunt Dora’s pantries and closets that held empty cereal boxes, empty but not cleaned peanut butter jars, and other hoarding horrors. Sure enough, when aunty died, there were the cereal boxes, the dirty peanut butter jars, and shoe boxes filled with gum wrappers and, oddly, smoking pipes (I still have one of those pipes). Her death was cause for celebration as far as our cache of storytelling goes (it’s okay, she was ancient when she died), because before she left the world, she moved all her furniture to the second level of her house/mansion on the golf course–who knows how?–and locked herself in her bedroom with her rifle, and then expired. Another great story! It was my aunt’s mint-condition 1955 Chevy Bel Air that I inherited as my first car at sixteen. It was so big, it was like a condo on wheels. Oh, how I miss that car and all the trouble I found while tooling it around Chicago.

These stories bring me to the point of today’s post: the art of oral storytelling. It’s sorely absent from people’s repertoires these days. When’s the last time you heard anyone tell a really good story that had a beginning, a climax, and a satisfying denouement? Not in a long time, I bet. We spit out our thoughts in 140-character tweets. What a pity.

hitchens_spotlightThat’s why I’m in love with the Peabody winning show The Moth. It’s the brainchild of writer George Dawes Green who started the non-prof in NYC in 1997. Dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling, you can find it in many cities now. It’s also a radio show, is on Youtube, and is, thankfully, a podcast. Once a week I crawl into bed with my iPod loaded with the latest installment and fall asleep listening to someone–maybe famous, maybe not–tell me a true story, live, without notes, and just under 15 minutes long.  Last night, I listened to the late Christopher Hitchens tell a story about how he almost lost his life traveling through Sri Lanka. One of my favorites is Andy Christie’s story of his mid-life crisis, which makes me laugh every time I listen to it. Yes, I listen to the stories more than once. I suppose it’s like the child at bedtime who wants to hear his favorite story just one more time before he nods off.  Finally, I have the bedtime stories I never got as a kid.

Moth4

Photo by Daniel Ellis

A couple of weeks ago, Oregon Literary Arts brought The Moth to Portland for the third time in as many years. It was sold out as usual. The theme of the night was Heart of Darkness and around two thousand of us heard stories from six great storytellers including host Ophira Eisenberg, who was fantastic. Detroit native, Satori Shakoor, told a story about looking for a job when she was down to her last dollar, which was funny and heartbreaking. Author Jillian Lauren told about her foray into prostitution with the Sultan of Brunei and his brother, which was shocking and amazing. And, Dori Samadzai Bonner told what I thought was the most riveting story of the evening about her struggles and eventual escape from Afghanistan. She brought the house down.

Check out The Moth–you won’t be sorry. It’s amazing!

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9 Comments
  1. Jean permalink

    Love this!

  2. Aside from your convincing me that I need to start listening to The Moth–which you’ve done!–you’ve also written a rhetorically perfect introduction. All at once your opening engages, entertains, explains, previews, and models your central topic. Brilliant writing.

  3. Cindy, you make me want to jump up and down.

  4. What a moving blog post, Diane. Such lovely and vivid family memories. Thank you for writing this. And for telling us about The Moth.

  5. I was fortunate to also have a story hour during and after dinner. Both my parents were good storytellers–my father especially liked historical ramblings and jokes. But my mother had us hanging on every word as we slowly ate our food. Her expressiveness was superb; her laughter unrestrained and her tears, as well. And we got our chance to share, too. Now people are in such a rush that once a story is begun one fears one is boring them or keeping them from their phone distractions. Thanks for a great post. I know of The Moth but missed it!

    • Thanks for your lovely comments, Cynthia. I know what you mean about boring folks when telling a story that is longer than a minute. You can see their eyes glaze over. Thankfully there are a few of us out there who still appreciate the medium. So happy to get your comment.

  6. John McNeese permalink

    Loved your introduction to this piece. I had a 55 Chev, exactly like yours!!! Wish I still had it.

  7. The simple truth: stories are what we live by and, as you remind us here, there’s such power in the ‘telling’ of them. We are a storying species, after all, and the oral tradition of passing down stories was with us long before we began writing them.

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