The Heat Exchange of Stories

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My mother, who lives on the other coast, has memory problems. If I can manage to get her on the phone, there are two ways to communicate because there are two places in which she lives. One is the absolute present. If I ask about her life, she will tell me about the moment in which I find her.

She’ll say, “Well, I’m just sitting here. I’ve been painting a bit. It must be about lunch time. There’s a beautiful old tree just outside the window. I think I’m going to take a walk.”

The other place she lives is the past. If I want to go there, I simply ask a question. “Didn’t you tell me once that your grandmother came to live with you by December 1st because the Nebraska winters were so harsh? And because she had no electricity in her farm house?” In other words, I inaugurate her as the storyteller. Then she’s like a wild horse let out of a barn. She can go on for quite a while and following her is wonderful. I hear how that poor lady sat in a straight-backed chair in the kitchen window, waiting for signs of spring, so she could get out of the city. I ask about her uncle who smoked all the cigars and I hear about how he ran for the state legislature and won. She remembers that it was a big deal when he came to her First Communion and what a good joke teller he was. Most of all, it’s an image that stays with her: The man had a rosary from Italy, with wood beads carved like bumble bees.

Psychologist Carl Jung had something to say about this.

“It is well known that old people live in their memories and love to speak of their former deeds; this “warms” them. Warmth kindles (the listener) and thus the old storyteller gives the first impulse to the (referring to the tribal) dance.”  (Collected Works 8, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche)

I like to think that writers and readers are like that: The shared story warms both teller and listener, but also energizes the whole community.

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