"It was a quiet week in Lake Wobegon." If you are a fan of Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion, you are familiar with those words. Those words are a signal to sit down and get comfortable, for you are about to hear a story. Maybe it has a point, but maybe not or at least not one that is readily apparent. It really doesn't make a difference, for the important thing is that someone, in this case a master storyteller, is about to tell you a story.
Saturday, July 4th, my husband and I went to the outdoor performance of Prairie Home Companion on the grounds of Macalester College. We brought our lawn chairs and joined the crowd, many wearing red, white, and blue. The spaces on the grounds filled as the evening's performers treated us to pre-show bonus numbers. Right before the start of the show Garrison led us in patriotic songs, ending, as we all stood, with the singing of The Star Spangled Banner.
It felt good to be there. A good way to celebrate the birthday of our nation. We reminisced about many other times we have been to the show, especially in the early years when you could call for tickets at the last minute or just show up. And tickets were free. I have such good memories of fixing breakfast and listening to Garrison and his sidekicks on Minnesota Public Radio every morning or being in the car on a Saturday evening and not wanting to arrive at our destination till the show ended. Prairie Home Companion is part of our Minnesota tradition, one we have been proud to share with the rest of the country.
The July 4th show included the Macalester College Pipe Band and Jearlyn and Jervetta Steele singing Aretha Franklin, and a Scandinavian style-string band, and banjo playing, and firecrackers from sound effects man Tim Russell. We chuckled through a Lives of the Cowboys skit and of course, the weekly conversation between an overbearing mother desperate for grandchildren and her grown bachelor and not very successful son. As the show progressed pleasantly, many in the audience stood up to take pictures or stretch or to walk the fussy toddler or to get another beer or a brat. There was a feeling of summer ease and the informality of a giant picnic or family reunion.
And then Garrison said the magic words, "It was a quiet week in Lake Wobegon," and that all changed. All conversations stopped. No one stirred or headed to one of the food trucks or beer stands. Instead, we became children who had asked our parent or grandparent, "Tell me a story." We hushed ourselves and recalled the feeling of grabbing our blankies, putting our thumbs in our mouths and leaning into one who treasured us.
Who doesn't love being told a story? Christina Baldwin http://peerspirit.com in her book Storycatcher, Making Sense of Our Lives Through the Power and Practice of Story says, "We require story in order to link our lives with each other. Story couples our experiences, mind to mind and heart to heart. Story is the electromagnetic conductor that brings us close enough together to make the leap of association and identification, to see that another person is a variation of ourselves."
Garirison shared a 4th of July story about a family picnic and a clandestine attempt to set off a rocket. Of course, it didn't go quite as planned. The mother in the story had suggested sparklers as a good alternative to illegal firecrackers, but what fun would that have been? This story told in front of thousands of people made me think about lighting sparklers at our family cabin and even earlier, going to an aunt and uncle's farm one 4th of July when I was a little girl and attending a small town fireworks display. In my memory it remains one of the best. In my mind I watch the fireworks at one of the Minneapolis lakes when our son Geof was still in the sitting on my lap stage, and every boom made him shake. I covered him with a blanket and held him close and we got through it. One memory after another flooded my head and my heart.
Story telling is about making a connection. We are invited into someone else's version of truth and are given an opportunity to discover or re-discover our own stories, our own experiences. Every time we share one of the old family stories, "Remember when…..?" or "That reminds me of the time when…." we connect past and present and strengthen our steps into the future. When a new member enters a family or an acquaintance transitions into a friend, stories need to be shared. This is who we are, where we came from, and whom we have become. We need stories. We need to tell them and listen to them, even if we have heard them over and over.
My husband's mother died right before we were married and his father chose to separate from us. We were not often with his siblings. Bruce has been forced to listen to the repetition of my family stories more times than are acceptable and more importantly, has not had the same opportunities to remember and share his own family stories. One summer, however, his siblings gathered at our home in Madison and over wine and beer while relaxing on the front porch, stories were told. "I didn't remember that," one would say or another would tell the same story, but remembering it in a totally different way. They finally had their chance, and it was good. Very good.
As we age, our stories may become even more important to us as a way to trace the pilgrimage we have been on. We can tell ourselves the stories that most matter to us.
You may in the privacy of the heart take out the albums
of your own life and search them for the people and places
you have loved and learned from…and for those moments
in the past--many of them half-forgotten--through which
you glimpsed, however dimly and fleetingly, the sacredness
of your own journey.
We listened, as we do many Saturday nights to Garrison's story. We may not have had a Lake Wobegon life, but still we imagine ourselves in his stories and we reach deeper into the stories of our own lives. That's the power of story.
If your summer includes time with family and friends, make space for storytelling and honor the stories that follow the generations. What did you learn you didn't know before? And what stories are most important for you to tell? I would love to know.