Monday, June 22, 2009

The Power of Stories

For 40 years or so, I've been interested in family history. Like most people, I started out collecting names and dates and places, births and deaths and marriages. After a while, those long "laundry" lists started losing their meaning to me. They started becoming simple facts, generally quite dry, that told me very little about the people who actually experienced those births and deaths and marriages, who chose to stay put or move across an ocean, who worked and loved and hated and tried to get by in the world in the best way they could.

So, about 10 years ago, I started becoming much more interested in learning the stories of my relatives. What challenges had they faced and how had they overcome them? What were their strengths and weaknesses? their hobbies and interests? their proudest moments? their biggest regrets? What were their personalities like?

It's actually amazingly hard to collect stories like this. Many folks assume that you just want "the dirt" on people when you ask for stories about them, but that wasn't my wish at all. I wanted to get a feel for my ancestors and relatives as real people, wanted to get to know them in the same ways I might have known them had I lived near them in time and space. I wanted, too, to learn what they could teach me about myself, my ways of coping with stress, my responses to happiness and sorrow.

I was a little unsure how to explain to others what I was searching for, even a little unsure myself about what, exactly, I wanted to know. So my family story collecting has been spotty, meeting with limited success, and I haven't pursued it actively for several years.

Enter Kitchen Table Wisdom, by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. I was aware of this book when it came out over 10 years ago and it sounded interesting, but I never picked it up. Soon it morphed in my mind into a sort-of companion to the Chicken Soup series, which I also never found compelling enough to actually pick up and read. Then, a few months ago, 2 good friends (with whom I try to get together on a weekly basis to discuss books...and children and husbands and pets and housecleaning and careers...and the meaning of life) both enthusiastically said that I had missed a gem by not reading this book. They recommended that I not only read it as soon as possible, but that I also read its actual companion book, My Grandfather's Blessings.

So I picked up both and have now read Kitchen Table Wisdom. It is truly wonderful. Remen is a physician, trained as a pediatrician, who has spent the last several decades counseling patients who are dealing with cancer. Obviously many of them are dealing with the prospect of their mortality. She has also dealt personally with a chronic, debilitating illness that, at times, has left her feeling hopeless and despairing. This book, then, is a collection of real stories that she is either telling from her own experiences or from the lives of patients she has counselled. Each of these stories has helped her enrich her own life, helped her begin to discover life's meaning, or has helped others in their own searches for happiness, contentment, or meaning.

This book is also a testament to the power of stories, real stories of things that have happened to real people, and the ability of such stories to help each one of us know who we are, why we are here, and why we matter.

As I read this book, it became obvious to me why I wanted to know these same sorts of real stories about my ancestors and relatives - they can help me learn to see the patterns and meaning in my own life, and hopefully they can help those who come after me to see their place and value in the world a little more clearly too.

As Remen writes in the preface to the 10th anniversary edition of this book, "I have discovered the power of story to change people. I have seen a story heal shame and free people from fear, ease suffering and restore a lost sense of worth. I have learned that the ways we can befriend and strengthen the life in one another are very simple and very old. Stories have not lost their power to heal over generations. Stories need no footnotes.
"Since Kitchen Table Wisdom was published, I have learned that the things that divide us are far less important than those that connect us."

Read this book. I can almost guarantee that you'll be glad you did.

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