Significant Human Exchanges
If you’ve heard me talk about the library, you’ll know that I value the photocopier as one of the unsung heroes of human exchange. This past week I was helping a person with something rather poignant and ended up with effusive heartfelt thanks and a hug. A nice happy appropriate feeling moment. But if you think of all the stuff getting photocopied on a daily basis at the library: birth certificates, immigration documents, passports, identification of all sorts, wedding licenses, death certificates, recipes from an aunt’s notebook, homework, invitations to parties, lost dog posters, fundraiser posters, guitar lesson adverts, colouring pages, crossword puzzles, eulogies, T4s, speeches, prescriptions, resumes, lost cat posters, medical documents, I could go on, but you get the gist, it’s no wonder that these exchanges get emotional. Everyone who is photocopying something has a story. And often you will get a fragment of the story, but still, it seems like such a gift.
In What’s the Story by Anne Bogart, one of my favourite books these days, she says, “We are telling stories all of the time. Our body tells a story. Our posture, our smile, our liveliness or fatigue, our stomach, our blank stare, our fitness, all speak, all tell a story. How we walk into a room tells a story. Our actions relate multiple stories. We invest our own energy into stories.”
She also says: “It is not enough to tell stories. There must be someone there to listen.”
At the library, there is no chaise longue. There is the photocopier.
Bogart says that “the most signifcant human exchanges occur through narrative. Even a well-told bedtime story can permanently alter the synaptic pathways of the brain in the listener.” Music to librarians’ ears. But also this:
“The practice of storytelling begins in the day-to-day minutiae of one’s own life. Because we are meaning-making machines, we translate our experiences into potent narratives.”
She also says that telling stories has consequences. It changes us, how we view ourselves. She quotes Jo Carson, a poet and playwright who says, “When you change the way an individual thinks of himself, you change the way he lives in his community and thereby you change the community in some way.” In the act of storytelling, there is the narrator and the listener, and both are transformed.
Bogart has so many interesting things to say about storytelling, and I think you’d enjoy her book. Words and stories are “powerful stimulants of brain activity.” She talks about how when attending to a Powerpoint presentation, our brains effectively shut down to “a small area of function.” But when we hear stories, we engage, our imaginations come alive, we connect with the storyteller or presenter.
So I thought I might get through a blog post without a Springsteen reference, but you should know that’s just who I am now: Springsteen addict, and I hope you can accept that. Maybe it’ll stop someday. Maybe. But I read an interview he did with Dave Marsh in 1981, in the book, Talk About a Dream, and it has stayed with me. Because it’s one of those stories, right?
Here it is from Dave Marsh’s website:
Dave Marsh: You’ve always liked to have a certain mobility, a certain freedom of movement. Can you still walk down the street?
SPRINGSTEEN: Oh sure, sure. It depends where you go. Usually…you can do anything you want to do. The idea that you can’t walk down the street is in people’s minds. You can walk down any street, any time. What you gonna be afraid of, someone coming up to you? In general, it’s not that different than it ever was, except you meet people you ordinarily might not meet – you meet some strangers and you talk to ’em for a little while.
The other night I went out, I went driving, we were in Denver. Got a car and went out, drove all around. Went to the movies by myself, walked in, got my popcorn. This guy comes up to me, real nice guy. He says, “Listen, you want to sit with me and my sister?” I said, “All right.” So we watch the movie (laughs). It was great, too, because it was that Woody Allen movie – [Stardust Memories], the guy’s slammin’ to his fans. And I’m sittin’ there and this poor kid says, “Jesus, I don’t know what to say to ya. Is this the way it is? Is that how you feel?” I said, “No, I don’t feel like that so much.” And he had the amazing courage to come up to me at the end of the movie, and ask if I’d go home and meet his mother and father. I said, “What time is it?” It was 11 o’clock, so I said, “Well OK.”
So I go home with him; he lives out in some suburb. So we get over to the house and here’s his mother and father, laying out on the couch, watching TV and reading the paper. He brings me in and he says, “Hey I got Bruce Springsteen here.” And they don’t believe him. So he pulls me over, and he says, “This is Bruce Springsteen.” “Aw, g’wan,” they say. So he runs in his room and brings out an album and he holds it up to my face. And his mother says (breathlessly) “Ohhh yeah!” She starts yelling “Yeah,” she starts screaming.
And for two hours I was in this kid’s house, talking with these people, they were really nice, they cooked me up all this food, watermelon, and the guy gave me a ride home a few hours later.
I felt so good that night. Because here are these strange people I didn’t know, they take you in their house, treat you fantastic and this kid was real nice, they were real nice. That is something that can happen to me that can’t happen to most people And when it does happen, it’s fantastic. You get somebody’s whole life in three hours. You get their parents, you get their sister, you get their family life, in three hours. And I went back to that hotel and felt really good because I thought, “Wow (almost whispering), what a thing to be able to do. What an experience to be able to have, to be able to step into some stranger’s life.”
I love this story, I guess because it makes me think of the work I do at the library. I mean, people tell you the most amazing things every single day. You get repeat customers, regulars, you know their names, and over the years, you get to know a lot about them. As someone who works in a library, I think that people think we’re safe, you know. I’m sure this happens for most library workers, but people tell me things. Is it because they know we understand and respect stories? I’m often tempted to get a t-shirt that says, tell me a story, but hey, I know what the pitfalls of that would be.
Springsteen, as you can see, is a masterful storyteller. The details stay with me, the popcorn, the watermelon, the way that he “felt so good that night.” The way they hold the album up to his face. I mean, it’s funny and goofy, but it’s grand. And the last bit, “What an experience to be able to have, to be able to step into some stranger’s life.” Which is often how it feels at the library. Really good. Just really good.