Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Five Lessons from My Mentor

Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Five Lessons from My Mentor

Article excerpt

Life stories express our sense of self: who we are and how we got that way.

-Charlotte Linde, Life Stories 3

(Why) Stories Matter, Part 1

The appreciation of stories reaches within and beyond the walls of academe (Boch- ner, Ellis, and Tillmann-Healy; Coles; Sandelowski; Worth). Stories are connected to our sense of ourselves, our relationships with others (Adams, "Missing Each Other" and "Seeking Father"; Bochner, Ellis, and Tillmann-Healy), our histories (Boylorn; Goodall), our memories (Herrmann, "Losing Things Was Nothing New"; Poulos), and our everyday lives. Stories are inherent to experience and emerge through the inevitable utterances that happen during brief and modest exchanges with strangers, as well as during intentional conversations with intimate others. We tell and listen to stories as a way of "knowing" and making sense of ourselves in the context of other lives and experiences.

In this article, I use my personal experiences of reconciling death and loss to reflect on why storytelling is an important part of remembering our loved ones. My goal is to better understand the nuances and intentionality in storying our lives as evidence that we have lived. I also contend that storying others is a way of keeping them alive in the stories we tell.

Our stories are not our own, and we constantly negotiate entrances and exits in the stories of others and in the delicate balance between our public and private lives. Our life stories often mimic the way our lives are lived: layered, complicated, interconnected, with blurred lines of distinction. Bochner, Ellis and Tillmann-Healy state: "Life and narrative are inextricably and dialectically connected. Life both anticipates telling and draws meaning from it. Narrative is both about living and part of it" (312). I argue that narratives remain significant after death and serve as memories and eulogies to lost loved ones.

I tell stories to make meaning. I also tell stories to resurrect memories. In the following passages, I reflect on my personal relationships with people who are no longer here. I endeavor to honor the legacy of Bud Goodall, my mentor, by explaining the importance of narrative, offering examples of what narrative writing looks and sounds like and, finally, by linking lessons to stories to illustrate how ubiquitous and necessary storytelling is in our everyday lives and to our storied legacies.

My First White Friend

As a child, my personal experiences with white men were scarce. They lived in the television screen, dewy skinned, broad shouldered, and beautiful, but beyond my reach or comprehension. The only real-life white man I knew up close was Robert, the insurance man, who I would later learn was gay and dying of AIDS. His nonheterosexuality and diagnosis with a disease that in the 1980s carried stigma and shame made him more like us (the black folk in our community) than his counterparts. Maybe that is why he was so at home in our house, settling back in the couch instead of sitting on the edge, tasting my grandmother's food, staying for a while instead of just doing the business of collecting the weekly installment. Robert was one of few white folks I encountered on a regular basis growing up (before I went to school) and one of the few that I know my maternal grandmother trusted outright. I missed Robert when he passed away, and his successors never cradled our family like he did. They were there for business, and he, it seemed, was there to visit, to love, to get to know, to stay a while.

When reflecting on my relationship to my mentor, I immediately think of Robert the insurance man and the feeling of complete and utter acceptance, allowance, and love I felt as a result of his presence, attention, and time. I would greet him at the door with a hug and walk him to his car when he got ready to leave, where he would pass me a stick of Big Red gum before going to the next house next door. I was too naïve to understand racial politics as a child, but I believe I knew it was extraordinary that this white man showed any interest in me, especially when he was the sole white person who visited our house on a regular basis (others included salesmen trying to convince my mother to buy World Book Encyclopedias or overpriced vacuum cleaners). …

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