Rad Dad: Storytelling

It always starts with a story.

My grandma, worried that her three-year-old son had not spoken a word yet, had him chase down a grasshopper. Diligently, without complaint, the boy did and returned with a smile. "Open," she said; confused but with hesitation, he opened wide. Wide. She shoved it in and closed his mouth, "Hablas, mijo, hablas." He spit it out crying. Crying and yelling. He has not stopped either since she says and smiles, thinking of her then 50-year-old son talking his time away in a New Mexican state penitentiary.

This is my father. He has been out of jail for a year now. He smiles when he tells this story now to my children on a snowy day in his trailer on the outskirts of town. My kids look to me for guidance. Do we believe? I can only smile. Teasing, my father says, "What, mija? You don't believe me? Come here I'll tell you more."

I realize they are so central to my parenting. Stories. But I did not know this when I became a father. I didn't know those afternoons or early mornings when my partner had to leave to culinary school—and I had to discover what to do for the next eight hours—that I was talking to both my newborn son and myself. I was showing both of us the way. I was imagining the path home. Telling myself, telling my son that success is possible, that despite my fear, my ignorance, my loneliness—this path was traversable. It's the stories that we tell each other that create connections, that foster empathy, that teach.

But we aren't the only ones telling tales. I see now how storytelling works on a cultural, social level as well; how myths of capitalism, Christianity, and patriarchy are told over and over and over until our kids tell them back to each other while at play, to their teachers in their homework, to us if we listen during those tucking-ins at bedtime, or in the quiet hours when we wake up together in our bed. This is linguistic terrorism. I have also come to see how it's our cultural stories that impact our kids more than any one thing can—more than parents, more than teachers.

My daughter, combing her hair in the morning, sulks away from the mirror saying her hair is ugly. Who taught her that beauty standard because no amount of "Oh no it doesn't, honey" is going to change her view in that moment? And then my other daughter informing her sister as they play in the car that if she ever lives with a boy, then she has to have sex with him. "Really? Why?" my partner asks her. "Because." As if that explains it. We need stories to counter these. We need heroes, legends, rituals that offer other narratives, other examples of how to look, how to live, what should be valued, what holds meaning, what it means to be alive. Because that shit works.

The other day my son, who was a vegetarian for the last five years (on his own accord) but now laughs at that Super Size Me film not because of what it's saying but that it took the guy twenty whole minutes to eat his meal and then he puked. "Hella stoopid. I'd eat two in ten minutes," my son brags. As if it's something to be proud of. My son whose biggest dream right now is to own a scraper to cruise through south Berkeley bumpin' base because it looks tight. Yes that's my son, but so is this. He takes his three-year-old cousin by the hand for a walk in the backyard, and she picks up a worm. He asks her if she has ever heard the story about Ella who ate a big ol' worm when she was a baby, thinking it was a Cheeto. "Ever since then," he says to his cousin, "Ella is a little an animal lover. I think it's the worm inside her." They laugh and laugh.

I can only smile. I don't know what it means, what the moral is, but I know my son is gonna make it. In his own way, on his own terms. But he's gonna survive all the lies that are forced on him and so many others like him. All the bullshit he's asked to believe or buy into.

What are the stories you need to tell? What do you share with your child, your lovers, your family and friends?

Our strongest weapons are our stories, the stories we tell our children, the ones we whisper to each other in beds of our own making, the myths that fill our imaginations shared among conspirators at bars or over campfires or sitting in jail cells. It is those weapons we must employ over and over to create the world we want. I have realized that of all the things that give my life meaning, it has been the spoken visions of the future or the shared memories of the past that sustain me in the present, that nurture my growth, my will, my determination. In stories, truth doesn't matter, facts become fictitious, desire and purpose mold the outcome. If I need to hear stories of survival, if I need to find inspiration, if I need to laugh and laugh and laugh, I need only open my mouth, need only to sit with someone close and say, "Tell me a story." Here is one of my favorites to tell my kids when they ask why I do what I do. And I swear it is all true.

At 20, a few months before the birth of my son, I hitchhiked from Las Vegas, New Mexico down the highway to the State Penitentiary just outside of Santa Fe to see my father face to face. To try to find some answers, to perhaps find guidance. He tells me he fucked up. He should be out there with me, working with me, living life with me. "Because," he says, "I realized I'm a slave in here. And now I can only fight against other slaves. But if I was out there with you, when I realized I was a slave, I coulda done something. I coulda fought back at least. Somehow, in here, it's just fucked up. All you can do is write and fight."

My father explained that in jail, pencils are like daggers; you can write and you can stab. "Mira," he points to his hand, "here are the pencil tips that I cannot get out."

column added on 2006-02-18 :: ::

>> columns listing