Tell Your Story.
As I walked to the stage, I realized I was still tipsy. My pulse thundered in my ears and I could only see the path to the pool of light surrounding the mic. Since the moment the MC read my name, I’d gone blind to the features of all the people around me – most of whom were younger and all of whom had an effortless, artsy cool I’d never quite mastered. My friend had suggested we meet at the restaurant where she moonlighted which ended up meaning unsolicited samples of exotic martini flavors. For a light weight like me, all those sips of jalapeno and chocolate flavored gin added up.
I made it to the microphone. I cleared my throat. We had waited on the sidewalk for nearly an hour to get in. The tiny black box theater was so packed that people had to sit cross-legged on the stage. Every inch of the room, aside from the spotlight in which I stood, was filled with activist, musicians, students, homeless people, and dreamers who had come to hear poetry. So, I opened my mouth and began my first spoken word performance.
I signed up to read because I was in awe of the young people who devoted their Tuesday nights to raising their voices. Here in Los Angeles, we are saturated with stories. The billboards remind us over and over of what heroes ought to look like and who’s tales are worthy telling. Online, we are drowning in the minutia of near strangers’ lives. In the midst of this constant recycled chatter, there are voices daring to speak raw truths. This courage is of utmost importance because stories form the perimeters of our lives. Whether we are aware of it or not, the stories we tell frame our thinking. As Jack Kornfield observes, “sacred traditions have always been carried in great measure by storytelling: we tell and retell to see our own possibilities.”
When I spend time working with children, I notice how deeply our narratives build our world. Children are still learning the stories, still questioning how the outcomes, still believing they can end in a different way. You can clearly see the scaffolding of socialization in kids where it has already be cemented over and accepted by adults. Kids will stare in wonder at my prosthetic leg whereas adults have already learned pity or embarrassment. Kids can still dream about what it might be like to be part robot.
A five year old recently informed me and my girlfriend that she has girlfriends that she doesn’t kiss. We could see her fact checking the world against what she had heard in fairy tales and seen on the Disney Channel. Princesses are supposed to be pretty and wait for princes. Recently, a friend also sent me a touching video where an Italian toddler explains to his mother why he doesn’t want to eat animals. Children show us that most of what we take to be “the way things are” is simply a network of stories. This is the reason so many religions remind us to have the minds of little children – not because children are innocent but because they ask questions. They say why, why, why to everything and are not afraid to add their own embellishment. They haven’t learned yet to be afraid of their own voice.
The Hindi tradition teaches that in the womb infants have one song, “please let me not forget who I am.” Once they are born, the song changes to “Oh, I have already forgotten.” We must find the inquisitiveness of a child to question our stories and the bravery to make new ones. Every major social change began with a person being willing to say: this is how it is for me. Brene Brown, a researcher who explores the importance of vulnerability, reminds us that the original Latin definition of courage is to “tell the story of who you are with your who heart.”
So, do you need to be a writer or poet to make your voice heard? No, there are so many ways to bring our true story to light. Paint it. Journal it. NPR does a beautiful program where they record “ordinary” people talking about their lives. Record tales for your grandchildren to listen to one day. Take time to write or call or chat with loved ones and skip right over the pleasantries. Better yet, ask someone to tell you a true story.
I’m currently in the ridiculously difficult process of attempting to write a memoir chronicling my journey from being diagnosed with cancer at age 15 to surviving a decade of recurrences only to find yoga, become a vegan, get divorced, and come out. In the sheer terror of realizing one day people might read these very vulnerable confessions, I’ve taken to telling stories to my girlfriend’s dog.
It started as a joke at first. I’d sit on the couch and say, “Once upon a time, there was a dog named Coco.” I thought it brought me comfort because it reminded me of how my mom used to read to me and my four brothers every night. We’d all curl up around her after our baths and listen to tales of strange heroes. To this day, I know my strength comes from the books my mom carefully chose about brave girls and soulful outcasts.
Yet, as I continued telling the sweet stray about where she came from, I began to tear up. My girlfriend arrived at the shelter minutes after Coco sunk her teeth into the man trying to adopt her. After a life of abuse, Coco was scared and mistrustful. My girlfriend said she didn’t mind that Coco was broken. At the time, my girlfriend also felt broken and alone in a city far from her family while struggling with all that life had dealt her. The story ends with the broken girl and the broken dog teaching each other slowly that it is okay to love.
I tell this story over and over to the sweet puppy who can’t understand because it is a good story about how even when we feel wrecked and weak we can find healing. It reminds me that even when we feel unlovable and unfixable we still have something to give in this imperfect world.
Whether you whisper it to your sleeping child or turn it into a song, find your own very true “once upon a time.” And listen carefully to all those stories other people are telling you and to the ones on loop in your head. Do the deserve to be there? Or is it time to take the princess out of her tower and into the woods on her own quest? The best kind of tales are the ones that remind us we are both amazingly individual and undeniably connected. Like millions of unlikely heroes all stumbling around on our own dark paths, our lanterns become the pinpricks of light that create constellations. Each voice is needed to tell the story of the whole – the story we forgot at birth about who we really are.