Thursday, March 5, 2009

I Tell Stories

Not always the way I'd someday like to, in nice printed editions, but as a part of my everyday life, I'm a storyteller.

Today in the grocery store I noticed that the cashier had bandages on the fingertips of her right hand. So I asked her if she had been playing the guitar or of she was just so fast on the register keys that her fingers had spontaneously combusted.

She seemed surprised, then looked at the bandages and laughed. She said that her fingers just get dry and cracked and that they never seemed to heal up. So she used some special lotion on them and had to tape them to keep it from getting the register machines greasy. Then she asked about the guitar comment.

Here's where I started to let my imagination go. I could have simply said that I'd seen guitarists like Mark Knopfler wearing bandaids on their fingers to protect them. I even think I remember my Mom either talking about this or doing it herself once.

But I transformed that into a little story about how my Mom had recently taken up the guitar again after many years away from the instrument, and that she hadn't had time to build up the callouses on her fingers yet, so she was taping up her fingertips.

Why did I pick that particular version? Well, unlike me, my Mom can play the guitar. But she doesn't do it much anymore, as far as I know. And this was a middle-aged woman I was talking to, and I wanted to give her the mental image of someone a little like her doing something kind of cool, rather than referencing some rock start. Making a story personal without making it about yourself also seems to draw people in, at least in casual everyday conversation.

As I was bagging my groceries, the cashier asked me about how my Mom got started playing the guitar again. I made a spot assessment: age, hairstyle, the part of the country I live in, and a little necklace with what I thought was a cross on it. The obvious answer became: "She plays every now and then with a group at church." Now, while I'm not a churchgoer, my Mom does go sometimes to a very open-minded church, and she's a friendly, warm person, so I could picture her doing this--though if she picked up the guitar again I suspect she'd be more likely to try to play along to Ottmar Liebert.

Sure enough, the woman's face brightened. "That's great," she said. "I wish I had a more interesting story myself, instead of cracked fingers."

"Everyone's story is interesting," I replied quietly as I bagged up the last of my items, but she had already turned to answer a question from the next customer, so I don't know if she heard me or not.

Then she turned back to me and smiled again. "I'm going to remember that story," she said. "You have a great day."

I wished her the same and left. As I was pushing my cart out the doors, I wondered at this tendency I have to embellish things, to weave together different memories, to shade a tale toward what someone wants to hear. And I have an uncanny ability to remember these little stories when they come up later should I meet someone again.

I don't think of myself as a liar, because when someone asks me what I really think about an issue or event, I do my best to answer truthfully or politely decline. I try to see the different sides of things, but I do have my own views. Most significantly, I try never to pretend that I understand someone else's pain or suffering when I have no real reason to think that I do. And I try very hard to keep promises without being afraid to make promises, which is a hard combination at times.

So I see myself as honest. Yet obviously I make things up, especially little things during chance encounters. I guess I like to share a smile and a laugh with people, to forge that brief connection with strangers, because the empathy and emotion that arises from such moments seems very real to me, even if it arises out of some tenuous blend of fact and fiction.

And there's a sincerity underneath it all. My Mom is a wonderful person; thinking about her makes me smile and fills my heart with pride. That cashier smiling and being pleased at the image of my Mom that she and I had just created seems right to me somehow, because it shares the fundamental truth that thinking about my Mom makes me happy.

That's a rationalization, but it's one I can live with.

1 comment:

Aaron DaMommio said...

I have found myself in the middle of telling an anecdote and realized that much of it was made up. Or realized that I was relating an urban myth. I ascribe most of this to child-related sleep deprivation though.