I am, I’ve been told, a good storyteller. I’ve been told this enough that I’ve come to accept it as true.
One should be careful about what one accepts as true.
Last week I took off a couple of days to spend some time at the beach with friends. One night a number of us gathered at a local barbecue place for supper, sat outside at a long weathered picnic table, let the wood smoke settle into our clothes and hair and forgot about the world on the other end of the causeway. The food and atmosphere were good, the conversation better.
When we’d finished off the barbecue and potato salad and fried Oreos, our bodies tired from a long day in the sun and our brains just about empty of things like deadlines and to-do lists, we adjourned from the barbecue joint and reconvened a few blocks away at my friends’ family beach house — a remodeled ranch with just enough bunk beds to hold all the grandchildren. The collection of four girls had ice cream cones and chased the dog around the backyard and then came inside just about the time the grown-ups sat down to continue the conversations that, somehow, you just never get around to having at home.
And that’s when the stories started. Something reminded somebody of something and we laughed and that reminded me of something else and I said, "Remember when?" and, the next thing I knew, Katie Anne, the youngest of the four assorted girls, was on the arm of my chair, her face locked on mine, mimicking my expressions, smiling and scowling at all the right moments, laughing on cue.
"Tell us another story," she said. And I gladly did.
Eventually it was time to break up the party, but I promised Katie Anne that I had more stories, one really good story, in fact, and that I would share it the next day at the pool where we’d all agreed we would see each other again.
I looked forward to telling Katie Anne the story. It’s a good story. Everybody I’ve ever told this story liked it. Katie Anne would like it, too. I was sure of it.
I shouldn’t have been.
The next day, as the other girls squealed and splashed in the pool, chased each other and the sole boy cousin who had come along, Katie Anne sat at the end of the lounge chair where I had spread out an appropriately garish beach towel and listened to the story. Except this time her face didn’t stay locked on mine, she didn’t mimic my expression, she scowled a good bit more than she smiled, and she — most obviously — did not laugh.
When I got to the end, she stood up and walked over to the ladder at the deep end of the pool. "So, Katie Anne, did you like the story?" I called.
"It was long," she offered and jumped into the water.
Her mother, who was sitting nearby, and I now did the laughing. So much for being a good storyteller.
She was right though. The story was long. And long is not what Katie Anne had wanted, expected or needed when a pool full of children was right there within reach. Life can be like that. When what you get isn’t what you want, expect or need it can seem nothing short of long.
Notice, though, that Katie Anne didn’t say the story was too long. She didn’t offer that it was longer than necessary, desirable or right. It was simply long. And it is in that differentiation that I found the real point of her declaration.
Life — in its entirety or on any given day — isn’t too anything. It simply is. Long or short. Exhilarating or exhausting. Confusing or enlightening. The same goes for one’s work, relationships, dreams. None of them is more than or less than necessary, desirable or right. Attaching adverbs like too and very and overly to people and experiences is disrespectful at best and dangerous at worst. We steal from ourselves when we choose to do so.
My story was long. Just long. I’m still a good storyteller, and I will tell that story again. Just not to Katie Anne.