I always had a very active imagination growing up. Every Sunday I would perform for my mom-whether it was dance, singing or telling stories. I even won third place in a story telling contest when I was young. As a result of that effort, I won this amazingly beautiful copy of Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities. It was actually quite prophetic as I would grow up to be divided between two worlds: the rarefied boarding school elite world and that world of the not-so-elite South Bronx. I was always the cultural broker explaining the other world to the other side. I became a storyteller for life-always explaining, always demystifying. Even in my professional work life I am a storyteller. I go out and do presentations where I tell the Latino story, the science story (I demystify science at a community level), the community based organization story. I always embed a personal story in all my presentations because I know people in the audience feel a need to connect or else they disconnect from the information being presented. Never underestimate the value of that personal, gut connection. Making someone laugh in a presentation can be akin to breaking bread with them.
For a while, my written “storytelling” got a bit stale as I concentrated on academic journal writing-playing the game of getting an article accepted by “peer” reviewers for journals that maybe 1000 people read. Whoopdeedoo! Seriously, I don’t even know if that can be considered writing anymore. Those articles sometimes feel like you are just plugging in numbers to fit certain pro-forma templates that appear to have been created centuries ago. Actually, I take that back. Centuries ago, writing was much more eloquent and took great pride in telling a story. Now, academics tend to care about their tenure standing and becoming a rock star in a small pond. Yes, I am back on that rant again. Myself, as a scientist, I understand that information needs to be disseminated in a particular way that is clear and conveys the importance of whatever important finding the data analysis has unearthed. But if you look at some academics’ authorship list, they seem to have tons and tons of articles on the same topic and probably from the same dataset. Talk about data mining something to death. How does that even advance scientific knowledge and eventual improvements in human life? Anyway, all this to say that the art of storytelling seems somewhat long dead. Although, recent technological advancements have led to authors being able to self-publish and have allowed for a new form of storytelling to emerge and flourish-that of the blog. Blogging in some respects reminds me of the essayists from yore-Mark Twain and such.
This all leads me to a sense of nostalgia for when my mother was alive. My mother, solidly grounded in folklore, mythology and Puerto Rican superstitions, always had 100 stories to share with us at any given moment. If only I could have written them all down and blogged them for her back then. Every telephone call with my mother was a lesson in patience and listening intently. Somewhere in all the meandering was a compelling story with perhaps even a life lesson.
During the last conversation I had with my mom she told me of how her cell phone went missing due to the nursing home’s resident kleptomaniac who tended to roam the halls like a ghost. I didn’t quite follow the rationale but it ended with me promising to get her a new cell phone. I never got a chance to. Till this day I don’t quite remember why the kleptomaniac was obsessed with my mother’s phone. But the life lesson may have been never leave your phone unattended. Work with me, people!
I was watching an episode of Perception the other night, where a former student of the schizophrenic professor (lead character) gets shot in the eye with an arrow and when the police come to investigate the supposed murder, the body is gone. Was there ever a body or was that all a figment of the professor’s wild imagination? At times, I held similar conversations with my mother where she would describe the wildest things that had apparently occurred.
Over dinner, at one point, my mother started talking about how one night she encountered an FBI agent in her backyard in Puerto Rico. You see, the washing machine was giving her some trouble so she went out to the backyard even though it was dark, to fix it. Going out into the yard at night was a big no-no for her because of the possible spirits out there (also because there was criminal activity afoot). She went out holding a frying pan in case she needed some type of weapon. At which point, she came face-to-face with an FBI agent dressed in black (that’s how she knew he was an agent) who immediately signaled for her to keep quiet. Although he was trying to be stealthy and not rouse attention, my mother was able to get out of him a whole long story as to why he was there. Apparently, the agent was looking into possible drug activities over the hill and had decided to camp out in her backyard. The main trafficker had a girlfriend who would help pass the drugs onto others in the network through her doll collection –which is why they had such a foothold in the neighboring school. It was quite an intricate plan and set of transactions that the local cops just could not get a handle on. Or that was the dinnertime story my mom decided to share with us. While camping out in her yard, the agent apparently ate some of the very tasty mangos and avocados from her trees: Which was a good thing because my mother could not get rid of those fruits fast enough as they apparently grew like weeds. Since she didn’t really cook, those fruits would go to waste and there are unfortunately many hungry kids that could use this if only she could get them out to them. There was no further resolution to the story. And before you suggest that she had Alzheimer’s or some other cognitive/developmental issue: she did not. What she had was a flair for storytelling and keeping us guessing. There was some element of truth to that story. She probably was doing laundry and she probably did see someone out in the yard. Probably someone was running from property to property as is what tends to happen in that neighborhood. Was it an FBI agent? Hmm, probably not. But buried deep in that story was the fact that she wanted to help out the neighborhood kids that were hungry and she was actually trying to get us to brainstorm as to how she could do that. We all laughed at the dinner table and knew she was getting a kick out of telling us this outrageous story. It was bonding at a most fundamental level through the use of words and imagination. When was the last time we just told ourselves a good bedtime story as opposed to reading our IPAD or tweeting till our eyes could no longer stay open? Remember, we are never too old to create a whole other world of wild characters that give us respite from the daily grind.