Sunday, March 17, 2013

Talk Story

There was a story in the newspaper recently about a group of Harvard students volunteering to spend time with elderly people with Alzheimers to listen to their stories of life long ago. This chance to share their unique stories with others has a positive impact on both the elderly and the young participants -- as the older people reach back into the long-term still accessible parts of their memories and the students learn about some fascinating lives rich with history and courage.

This reminded me of the Hawaiian concept of talking story -- which can mean telling the stories of oral history or one's life or simply one's day to a group or even to just one other friend  -- and the therapeutic value of sharing with each other.

My friend Kim and I have started a tradition of talking story every now and then at our local McDonald's where we sip iced tea for hours -- always in the lull between lunch and dinner -- and catch up -- with fun and touching stories from our past and our present.  We cover a lot of territory. Kim even brought a hastily scrawled agenda on a post-it note so she wouldn't forget what she most wanted to tell me at our "talk story" session last week. We laughed a lot. And we both headed home -- three hours later -- feeling somehow lighter and more cheerful and hopeful.

Whether we "talk story" with friends or family or even with relative strangers, it feels good to share a bit of ourselves, to be known and accepted by another. Agreement isn't a given nor is similarity of life stories. Often another point of view, another life path taken only enriches the exchange.

Kim and I are different in many ways. She's from New England and spent most of her adult life in Minnesota and the Dakotas. She married her college sweetheart and, due to the demands and frequent moves his corporate career required, she never had a sustained career outside the home, though she has enjoyed stints of writing for a newspaper and teaching aerobics and fitness classes, the latter something she still does here. She has two adult daughters and four grandchildren she adores.

I'm from Los Angeles, childless and worked outside the home for 42 years at several different careers -- as a writer, psychotherapist, college admissions representative and actress -- and didn't meet and marry Bob until I was in my thirties.

But yet, there are similarities that bring us together. We have both vowed to eschew panty hose and dressing up for the rest of our lives. We rarely wear makeup and enjoy the freedom to look our ages and to be ourselves. We hate shopping and both of us order our clothing online, strongly favoring Lands End. We were both religious early in life, tend toward agnosticism now with a pull toward spirituality and wanting to do good things for others. So we talk and dish and laugh. And it feels wonderful.

Talking story can be an important, bonding element of friendship. Talking story can turn strangers into friends....and friends into family.

My husband Bob and neighbor Wally enjoy getting together and talking most Wednesdays. (Wednesday with Wally does have a ring to it!). I walked in toward the end of their four hour talkfest the other day just as Wally was describing a wonderful Latino man about his age whom he has befriended in the waiting area of the local kidney dialysis center where both their wives are being treated three times a week. Wally was marveling at this man's amazing life story -- how he built a successful business and thriving ranch, starting with little except others' belief in him and their emotional support and adding a large measure of his own hard work and motivation to succeed. Wally talked about the joy of getting to know -- and learn some life lessons from -- someone he might otherwise never have met.

When I left them, Bob and Wally were reminiscing about their carefree, often unsupervised boyhoods -- Bob in L.A., Wally in Detroit -- and how much fun it was to dig holes, build forts and explore with their childhood friends -- and how different these long-ago days were from those of today's over-scheduled, helicopter-parent supervised youth.  And as those two older men sat talking story, I caught a brief glimpse of the boys they once were.

By listening to others' stories, we can begin to understand who they are and why they make the choices they do.

By listening to others' stories, we find sadness to share, experiences in common, humor in life's ups and downs, reassurance that we're not alone in our struggles and triumphs and challenges.

By sharing with others, we take the risk of being known -- and of being close.

A co-worker once told me that she was a very private person -- to the extent of not letting those she worked with know whether she was married or not -- because she didn't want to be known too well. I joked with her that we were cut from the same cloth -- her with her jealously guarded privacy and me with my ongoing office tales of life as I saw it and adventures with my cats. "We're both dealing with the same delusion," I told her. "We're both assuming that anyone around here gives a damn about your private life or my cats."

 Unlike my very private co-worker,  I was always willing to take the risk of being known as a crazy cat lady or worse just to share who I was -- and discover, with greater depth, the characters, life challenges and dreams of some of my co-workers.

However, thanks to this private and cautious co-worker, I learned to be more selective about talking story and more respectful of those who chose to share little if any of their private lives away from work. But sharing stories with co-workers or friends, those whose life stories were similar as well as those who come from other countries, other cultures, other points of view often has been rewarding in so many ways.

The secret, of course, is balance: knowing what to share and what not to share and with whom; listening as well as talking, and talking as well as listening as you experience the joy of knowing another and being known with mutual acceptance and appreciation.

It doesn't get much better than that.


  1. Dearest Kathy
    While reading this I found myself longing to be that friend who joins you for your talking story outings.
    What a beautiful way to spend an afternoon. I wish God had made us neighbors but it seems I will have to just enjoy knowi ng you through this amazing world of blogging.
    I laughed about your being thought of as the crazy cat woman because I fear that is what I wll be known for if I don't get a life soon.
    Another enjoyable read that you wrote for us.
    Love ya

  2. This is so true and wise, Kathy, and applies to blogging as well as to face-to-face conversation. These relationships and the sharing involved are what make us truly human.

  3. Like this post. When I was in high school, I belonged to a service group where each of us adopted a senior citizen from a nursing home who did not get visitors. We would visit once a week, bring a treat special for them be it a magazine, flower or food and celebrated birthdays and holidays with them. It was there I learned to listen. Would love to see more kids do that today. I learned so much.
    Blogging has become a great outlet for "talking story" today.

  4. I love the concept of talk story, and that those students are listening to those with Alzheimer's. I grew up with such a strong oral tradition, and stories and memoirs remain one of my very favorite genres.

    I also enjoyed reading about you and your ultra private co-worker. We are friends with a couple and he says he is Show and Tell, while his wife is Hide and Seek.

    Hope you are feeling better!

  5. When my childhood friends and I got together in 1992 for the first time in about 30 years (since we graduated from high schol in 1960), it was amazing how many 'talk stories' we shared with one another. We talked and talked for about 3-4 days straight and each of us loved it... Even though our lives had been different after we all left home, we still had so many similarities. The best thing was remembering what good childhoods we all four had growing up with Christian parents in that small town... We continued to meet after 1992--but nothing was as magical as that first year..

    Another 'talk story' time for me was in February of 1991 when I took my sweet Mama to Wendy's for lunch. Mama wasn't doing very well --and ultimately died in November that year. BUT--that last trip to Wendy's was totally awesome. First of all, Mama loved Wendy's Frosties.. She was a happy camper that day---and it took her about 2 hours eating a tiny burger and that Frostie. BUT--I let her talk and talk and talk --about old times, and we just had a wonderful time together. That was the last time I was able to see my mother before her death --but that 2 hour lunch in Wendy's was something which will be in my memories FOREVER.

    Talk-Stories are awesome... I love them, and in fact, I'm meeting a friend I haven't seen in a few years for lunch soon so that we can 'catch up'...

    Glad you have experienced these talk stories also.

  6. A very interesting post. I'm an Aussie and am visiting your blog from Perpetua. I am now retired and am finally comfortable 'in my own skin' as it were.

  7. I got to know my Mother a lot more as she digressed.
    When she left this world,she had nothing more upsetting her cause she fixed all her problems.
    At times Alzheimers can be a blessing in disguise.

  8. Dear Kathy, like you I enjoy sharing the stories of my life whether as an on-line memoir or around a restaurant table. I have a young friend now--she's 30--with whom I trade stories and that so helps me stay connected to today, just as my stories introduce her to yesterday.
    Your postings continue to speak to some place deep within me where I've collected all I've learned from many years of living. Thank you. Peace.

  9. Balance is definitely key to sharing ourselves, I think. I have shared too much with the wrong people, or not enough with the right people, and regretted both. But experience is how we acquire wisdom, I guess! An enjoyable read, and a delightful term: 'talk story'.

  10. I cannot tell you how many "memories" I have that are actually the stories of other people's lives. :-)


  11. I loved Kim's agenda - you have made a good match with her for your talking stories - I have never heard that term before! Like it.

  12. Getting together with a friend once a week to just talk story sounds fun. I don't know if it is my age or the people around me that no one seems to be interested in that type of thing. I'm not sure if this is one of the problems or not but people walking around talking on their cell phones or texting other people while they are with someone. It drives me nuts to see people out to dinner and they aren't talking to each other. They are texting other people. Crazy!

  13. Hello Dear Friend
    Thank you for coming by today and leaving me such the sweetest comment. Your right I should ask Christi what she is wanting for Easter instead of asking her what her friend Paul might like. haha
    As you know more than anyone I am over the moon happy that she has met such a dear sweet guy. At least that's her side of the story. I hope he really is. I have prayed so long for her happiness and not growing older alone like her mom.
    I am glad you are having Easter with nearby friends. I will be thinking of you.
    Well the mess from the storm is waiting on me so I guess I am off of here for now.

  14. Talk stories are the best. I love friends who share talk stories. Thanks for sharing yours!

  15. I meet with two writing groups, and a reading group regularly, all of us eager to share. Thank God we are all retired and are not in a rush!

  16. This is a great posting I have read it is very interesting to read thank you

  17. Interestingly, my lastest post is about my friends, aptly titled, "Friends." :) Your post feels like an extension of the basic thoughts I had and I thoroughly enjoyed you expounding on it for me. :)

    What a treasure you have in Kim and that Bob has in Wally. It's good to know that your differences don't hinder your relationships.

    The whole "Talk Story" was a pleasure to read!

  18. Sometimes I think you live inside my head! Talking Story is something I've done all my life -- it just never had a name! I suspect that you and I share a number of similarities (apart from the cats!) and one is that we're pretty open. Good grief, we blog and we share our stories there, too. But the real richness comes in learning the stories of others, including those of the people in your personal orbit. Bob sounds like a great man. And it's interesting -- It seems as though when women are together casually, they immediately talk story, share problems, share joys. I asked Rick if he and his bicycle gang did that and he said, "No, we talk about the bikes." I'll have to work on that...!

  19. Kathy, I found you on Shelly's LA TEJANA blog comment section. What you said was quite wise and I made a note of finding your blog. Now that I have read "Talk Story" I am sure to visit you again. I was born and raised in Hawaii (left at age 16) and I know what "talk story" means. You describe it perfectly. Alas, talking story requires two people who are able to open up and go into detail. Wally's accidental meeting with the Latino man required that element of luck: they both are talkers. All of this now is a remarkable coincident with a post I wrote last evening about telling too much on the Internet in a blog. It is something I struggle with daily.

    Oh-- I am writing from Los Angeles (San Fernando Valley), am 69, retired, and widowed, with no children.