By AARON ROSE, writer and ceremonialist based in Chicago. Aaron is writing her first novel, “Lawndale,” about the relationship between a Jewish family and an African-American family through their shared history in a Chicago neighborhood.
This post was written as an assignment for professor Cindy Shearer’s CIA 7091: MFA Interdisciplinary Arts Workshop. As part of a community of artists working across art perspectives, students in this course get the chance to teach each other about their art form(s), practice, lineage and influences, and are challenged to inquire into the interdisciplinary arts as well as forms new to them.
There is nothing I would rather do at any given time, morning, noon or night, than listen to or tell a story. So, during a recent Creative Inquiry workshop, when visiting poet Traci Brimhall asked us to write about stories we were told as children, I was surprised to discover that nothing came to mind. I was read to more or less regularly – “Ferdinand the Bull” was my hands-down favorite – but I struggled to remember any stories that were told to me. Then I did remember one. I was four years old, spending the night in my maternal grandparents’ house and Bubie, my grandmother, was putting me to bed. I asked for a story. She told me a story about three sisters – one had one eye, in the middle of her forehead, one had two eyes, one had three. My grandmother, I understand now, carried a version of the Grimm’s fairy tale with her from Lithuania when she left in 1919 at the age of 11. In Dbrova, where she was born, it was a story told to her, and it came to mind at my request. But, at that moment, it seemed something terrible happened to me – a child entertained by the Do Bees and Don’t Bees on Romper Room and Captain Kangaroo. I was stunned by the sinister tale of jealously and retribution – not to mention the eyes! I struggled to understand why she was telling me something so scary, and felt a sense of danger and dislocation.
Ultimately, Traci’s exercise blew wide open a space inside me that felt empty and deeply disappointed; a space where memories of reaching for the magic and joy of creative expression was met with a patchwork of casual responses by a family trying assiduously to assimilate and succeed in the promised land of 20th century America – so I stopped reaching.
In the weeks that followed, I’ve thought more about the importance of stories…
As children, we love, and need, to hear and tell stories: it is how we learn about the world and how we gain mastery in life. Stories told to us by our parents and grandparents teach us where we come from, and in that telling give us a sense of possibility for where we might go, and prepare us for what we might find on our journey. Storytelling also creates bonds of understanding and intimacy, as the teller chooses to reveal something they value, in their own words, in their own way. How else, except through storytelling, do we know that we are not alone in what we see and experience, that we are more than a collection of rocks piled up on the shore of life?
The advent of television and relentless proliferation of stories valorizing the lives of celebrities has created a culture that obscures and diminishes the importance of individual’s lives, whose teachings are passed on from generation to generation through stories.
As artists and writers, we have the opportunity, and responsibility, to invite and empower audiences and readers to recognize, value, and share their stories through the stories we tell. Today, I understand that my assignment is to piece together my own wisdom teachings, including fragments of a family lineage I unearth, to write and tell the stories I once longed to hear.