Finding Meaning on Peary Street

This is the first of four posts using stories from Peary Street to explain the twelve ways that storytelling defines creativity in the way we talk to each other, a process that I call symmentropy.

First rule of nonlinear storytelling

Storytelling promotes understanding and meaning

Life is messy. Storytelling is our intellectual clean up crew.

Before adding some Peary Street stories to illustrate this point, I have one current story as an example.

Christmas morning treats were half eaten as Rachel sat watching her mother doubling over, laughing holding a red handled Microplane grater in her hand. Rachel had the look of one who has missed the inside joke without any hope of joining in the merriment. Intimate relationships are built on little things that endear spouses to each other as their joined stories are retold amplifying the endearing qualities but puzzling to the observer. Her delight that her Christmas stocking contained a shiny new grater with a red handle was boisterous. So why is that so funny?

A foundation of her marriage was the joy the couple shared mixing, blending, roasting and toasting in the kitchen. Each of them had their own particular style of cooking and favorite recipes. He had a fondness for fresh ginger that he always stored in the freezer to make it easier for hand grating. He used one grater for ginger only to keep it sharp for the zesty but gnarled ginger root. Each time she picked up that grater for Parmesan or any purpose not ginger, kitchen dancing slowed a little while he bit his tongue. She knew his preference for keeping that one grater pure but liked it so much for other things, after all, it did work really well. He knew he was being jealously protective but could not escape the grated nerves that accompanied the cheese.

Both of them could have ignored such a small issue, but they both knew the stories the other told about favorite tools and tastes when cooking. By listening and remaining sensitive to the other's stories, simple solutions can be found. So in the weeks before Christmas, both went in search of little things that would fill a stocking hung with care. After the coffee, cinnamon buns, fruit and mimosas, they started to empty those stocking stuffers onto the table. She talked about how much it meant to her to have a stocking filled by someone else after decades of doing her own and could not fully understand his silly grin when the Microplane grater with purple handle hit the table. She explained that she wanted him to have one to keep for ginger. He kept his secret and thanked her. She started pulling things out of her stocking until she found the red handled grater he had purchased for her. Affectionate laughter followed by gasping belly laughs intermingled with marginally coherent attempts at explanation did nothing to help Rachel enjoy the joke. The whole story had to come out before she understood that their stories were the source of the laughter, not the graters or the ginger, it was the shared story and sharing it with her. The back story explained many things about a relationship, including how they listen to each others stories with an eye on writing new chapters to smooth the rough spots.

Every event, every little detail of our lives presents us the opportunity to create some meaning to help us understand, accept or enjoy ourselves. When we tell the story later we use phrases like “the important part is” or “the impact is” or “the kicker is” to point out the meaning that we make, not of the event but the story that we share with others. When our stories are told, both the teller and the listener have less confusion about both what happened but also how someone responded to it. Telling the story gives us an audience for editorial comment and critical evaluation. This is the treasure of storytelling. It is a group activity that promotes shared knowledge and awareness of others.

In this simple example there are numerous opportunities for entirely different outcomes. Consider what would have happened if only one new grater had been purchased. Would feelings have been hurt if the perceived message was “keep hour hands off my stuff” or “get over yourself and use this one for ginger”? Mixed messages are not always a result of the current story or latest version because memories of past interactions leave scars and sweet spots in our collected stories. Consider the difference in this gift exchange if she had been offended that someone had invaded her territory of stuffing the stockings instead of relief that someone had considered her wants. Each story in our lives has the potential for many different results and can change its meaning and significance as more layers of stories are added to memory. The strongest memory may be the grater or the fact that she found a stocking already filled for her on Christmas morning. It will depend on the additional stories that are told.

The first rule of nonlinear storytelling is that we have the ability to manage the amount of knowledge that exists in our relationships by the way we tell our stories. People who carefully consider the stories they hear and the stories they tell are making an effort to build relationships. After this example of how storytelling helps create understanding, we will return to Peary Street for examples of stories that were not told or were told to create confusion. This first story illustrates how stories help promote shared understanding, but too many Peary Street stories show people hording stories to prevent shared experience and prevent cooperation.

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