Living to Tell the Tale


Last week I received the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.

It was completely unexpected and the moment reminded me of someone puffing up their cheeks to blow on a dandelion weed. The woman who gave the compliment surely didn’t think it was out of the ordinary – she just expelled a tiny puff of air, just a few words – but my thoughts went spinning everywhere like dizzy, uplifted seed pods.

She said that I am an excellent storyteller.

My husband might be sad to know he has little chance of topping this, especially in light of all the wonderful, quirky, little love-filled doughnuts of compliments he’s whipped up to sustain and delight me over the years. But ever since reading Living to Tell the Tale, the autobiography of Gabriel García Márquez, I’ve agreed with Marquez’ idea that the way you remember and recount the story of your life is perhaps more important than how it all went down. So, to me, if someone thinks I tell a good story, they’re also unconsciously reassuring me that I’m living a good life.

For those who would argue that the hard facts matter – imagine me saying that in a Mr. Roboto tone – I would respond: What are our lives, anyway, besides the bare bones of what “actually happened,” fleshed out with the details we happened to hang onto, smoothed over by the skin of our own perspective?

So back to me, after this introduction, blushing with pleasure in front of the eighteen-year-olds I’d been called in to advise. My friend the dandelion-puffer is also a college professor. She had invited me to join her first-year writing class and offer feedback to students composing 100-word essays about moments of great change in their lives. As I met with them in turn, I was amazed at the variety and depth of the events they had already lived through. Climbing mountains. Losing friends. Acting as father figures. But also simpler things: adopting a pet. Quitting a sports team. Each of their stories was a little dandelion seed and I was quietly thrilled I could offer thoughts on flow and syntax that might throw a little sun and water their way; make those 100 words even more powerful.

But, most of all, I was pleased to hear them. And it’s with purpose that I compare their stories – and mine – to a common weed. If stories were exotic orchids we would hoard them jealously, only bringing them out under perfect conditions. But I think it’s the sheer profusion of our tales; the fact that we sow them carelessly until the world is a yard bursting with them; the fact that they are – on the whole – so mundane, that makes them so very beautiful.



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