How I Became a Storyteller
To my precious granddaughter, Sydney:
You asked me a question? How did you become a storyteller?
I have pondered your question because I think it is an important one. With all the technology we have today, grandma believes we are losing the enjoyment, comfort, and mystery of sitting and telling stories. The other day I attended a program for teens, which you will become. They asked “Why is it teens are lonely? Why is it they are distressed? They have 100s of Facebook friends. They even sit right next to each other and text.
But dear Sydney, texting is not talking. It is not telling the stories of life, telling the concerns of life. Texting is not listening, empathizing, caring, hugging, and crying together. The words may be there but the human contact is missing. We need to hear and tell our stories. If we don’t tell stories, we begin not to care and are mean to each other.
It is only recently I have thought of myself as a storyteller. As a college teacher I always like to illustrate my lectures with stories of science, of challenges, of epiphanies. But I never thought of them as stories. When I lectured, I like to illustrate an experience and “aha” moment but I never thought of them as stories. I called myself a scientist, a researcher. People thought of me the same.
What changed all this for me was gradual. I began doing a children’s message in our church service. I began to crave ways to connect better the stories of scripture with children and adults. I saw an apprenticeship advertised in Storytelling Magazine. I immediately signed up but soon backed out thinking “What am I doing. You are not a storyteller. I don’t know the teacher.” It was not hard to convince myself that I should not spend my time or money.
But we often say that when we are called to do something it is like the “hound of heaven” keeps after us. And that is just what happened. That “hound” kept after me and the next year I said—“It is time to do something different and began the apprenticeship.” I took a class on Biblical Storytelling as part of the apprenticeship and for the first time scripture came alive to me. I began to understand the experiences of loss, joy, shame when I put myself in the shoes of a bible character such as Mary Magdalene or Joanna. I loved the storytelling and I loved my fellow storytellers. But still I did not consider myself a storyteller.
Everything changed in the year 2000. As a scientist I had studied fire ecology and the influence of fire on the ecosystem for many years. That year the Cerro Grande fire raged across our mountain. Twenty thousand people were evacuated. Cell phones were a rarity. We did not know where our friends and sometimes our family were. Were they in a shelter? Were they with a kind soul who took them in? Were they in a motel? Many lost their homes but everyone was grieving. Everywhere we went we heard the stories of kindness of neighbors and strangers, of loss and of gratitude. It was also my storytelling friends that wrote me and inquired of my safety—all because we had shared our stories.
When we were allowed to return back to Los Alamos, everyone had a story. Everywhere we went, to lunch, in church, in the hallways, stories were told. That is when I realized the importance to storytelling. Children in one school made a quilt and on that quilt were stories of their loss, their anguish, and their realization about life. One child said “I learned it was O.K. to cry.”
My talks changed from pure science to science and story. I realized grief extended beyond the loss of property but also it was about loss of a beloved landscape covered by trees. Those who had not lost homes had survivor’s guilt, but they too were grieving when they looked at the blackened landscape.
I began to take people out to see how nature heals. How nature gives us hope that there is something more than what we expect. I went to other communities to tell our stories of loss, of grief, of hope.
I changed my view of myself. I realized the only way a scientist truly can express their science to the non-scientist is through story. I began to say “I am a storyteller but I am also a scientist.” Science is about the head and story is about the heart.
Today when I give a talk, I no longer just look at only the science, the head part, but try to incorporate our human understanding and give heart to the subject through storytelling. I recently gave a PBS Science Café talk on ravens. Ravens in one part of the globe are considered messengers of death but in another part, the creator. A glimmer of our human understanding of this funny, intelligent bird made them come to life for me. The combination of the science of these wonderful creatures and their perception by humans today and in the past gave them more life and fullness. One small boy went away telling his grandmother “I thought they were just birds.” He came up to me and said “I know another story about ravens.” Now he really appreciates ravens.
I don’t deny that our technology has improved our lives in so many ways, but I hope that through storytelling, I can encourage others to listen and to discover our world in a new and vibrant way.
Today people introduce me as a storyteller, a scientist, an artist, and a writer. I no longer feel uncomfortable when they call me a storyteller first and maybe never even mention my science background. I know where true healing comes from. As a scientist, I know we can solve problems and give answers to many things, but science does not often change the heart—that comes from storytelling. Listening and caring for each other. Experiencing another’s pain, successes, joys, and sorrows these are all universal human experiences.
Elie Wisel said ““Whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story. That is his duty.” Remember when you went to Auschwitz and Birkenau? Mr. Wisel was once a prisoner there. He has written many books and got the Nobel Peace Prize. By telling his story, he hopes there will be no more places like Auschwitz and Berkenau.
You also asked your parents the question “Why are people so mean to each other?”
Sydney, because I see people mean to each other, that is why I am a storyteller. You are traveling the world. You are a wise 9 year old and you may not understand all I have written, but someday your will.
Because of your travels, you will have many stories you can tell. Experiences that are now stored in your little heart. Hopefully, when you and I tell stories, we can help people learn not be mean to each other.