Intergenerational Storytelling

The Graveyard Book

“I want to see life. I want to hold it in my hands. I want to leave a footprint on the sand of a desert island. I want to play football with people. I want,” he said, and then he paused and he thought. “I want everything.” (Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book)

I could go on and on (and on and on and on) about this book. There are so many themes to be explored: the family we choose, the safety of home, the importance of stepping out of our comfort zone, the need to protect and nurture a child while they’re young so they can be strong enough to face the big bad world when their time comes, what parenthood means, the fact that we cannot outrun our fears, the importance of making our peace with the past, being an outsider, learning from different peoples and cultures, knowing when to blend in and when to get involved… But I’ll choose learning from stories – and pasts.

In BECOMING HUMAN, Vanier fantasizes about a world where everyone loves at least _one_ person who is challengingly different from themselves and is open enough to learn from them. “It means making an effort not to speak of others from the place of our inner wounds and fears, thus devaluing and judging them. It means not avoiding those who are different, but rater approaching them with a listening heart. […] This is a constant struggle, something we will always do imperfectly.”

We talk about how algorithms eschew us towards like-mindedness. Ideas of diversity and otherness are bandied about, but I’ve been increasingly aware that the “bubble” of interaction is even more restrictive than I used to think.

I challenged my students (long story) to engage with someone who was “other” than them. I didn’t care how they defined “other” and they varied: political views, big city vs. small town, only child vs. many siblings, home schooled vs. public school, introvert vs. extrovert, optimist vs. realist… It was fascinating (to me) to read their essays. The one theme I hadn’t expected (and maybe should have) was that a significant number chose to engage and interact with elders as their case study. What fascinated me was that every one of these essays began with them saying that they had NO contact with elders in their day to day life.

As a pediatrician, I grew used to hearing new moms and dads exclaim that theirs was the first baby they’d held, first diaper they’d changed, and first child they’d really interacted with. I came to expect it. I was almost surprised when a parent would come along with “previous experience”.

I hadn’t considered the opposite side of the spectrum. How insulated we’ve become! Modern life seems to preclude so much. We’re becoming disengaged from our collective past. Those who hold the stories don’t always have an audience to tell them to.

I love stories.

I mean… anyone who follows me knows that I love books. I call them friends – as in, “So many of my best friends are dead…”

Stories have taught me. If we are an amalgam of books we’ve read, people we’ve loved – and have loved us, and places we’ve been… they don’t all contribute in the same percentage. My library (not the actual physical books in my house or any given brick and mortar library, I mean the words I’ve read throughout my life) has been one of the biggest influences in shaping me.

This morning, as I walked to my new friend’s home for our Friday morning tea, I considered the importance of inter-generational storytelling and it hit me that part of why I identify with Bod is that he speaks to dead people. I read their words. He hung out with them. He was shaped by multiple centuries, eras, and stories. He gained perspective and a broader scope of the world. Then, when he was ready… he lived.

“Bod shrugged. “So?” he said. “It’s only death. I mean, all of my best friends are dead.”
“Yes.” Silas hesitated. “They are. And they are, for the most part, done with the world. You are not. You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you’re dead, it’s gone. Over. You’ve made what you’ve made, dreamed your dream, written your name. You may be buried here, you may even walk. But that potential is finished.”

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