Talk Story


n.. Story, tale, myth, history, tradition, literature, legend, journal, log, yarn, fable, essay, chronicle, record, article; minutes, as of a meeting. 

Na Puke wehewehe Olelo Hawaii

Transitioning from one year to another, and this year from one decade to another, traditionally signals a time of taking stock of where we are and making resolutions for how we want to continue – a personal inventory of sorts as one calendar year fades into another. I suppose we can start with the perennial promises like losing weight, lightening up on caffeine or alcohol, getting fit, or making time for self-care. But having broken so many of these types of promises in the past, I gave up on New Year’s resolutions a long time ago. And somehow, the new year starts off rather bland when compared to all the Christmas activity that preceded it. So this year, instead of taking the self-help route to prosperity, I have decided to look at this annual transition from a different perspective and I’d like to propose that what adds quality to our lives are our stories. And sharing our stories not only re-enforces our individual self-worth, but also brings us together in our smaller family or extended family groups; or even in larger work, faith or cultural communities.

Hula ‘uli ‘uli, collection of family stories compiled by cousin, Sally-Jo Bowman, Celtic Cross, Scottish Thistle teacup from the Walsh family, poi pounder – objects of family stories

My mother Kanoelani was a pro at “talk-story”. In Hawaii, whenever two or more are gathered together, there is talk story. It’s a form of conversation that seems to start when something in the present triggers a memory. The memory is shared and the sharing encourages a response from the listener. But more than that, it helps bond together the people who are talking. Prior to 1820, Hawaiians relied on oral language and memory to transmit culture from one generation to the next. And even with the arrival of a written Hawaiian language, “talk-story” never fell out of usage. There is something life-affirming in talk-story that raises it above quotidian conversation. As a child sitting on the periphery of adult gatherings the stories that were exchanged in this manner took on a magical quality that brought past, present, and future together and created memories for me of people and events that happened long before my time.

These stories transmitted knowledge of family, history, culture, and language that were not included in my K-12 educational experience where the attack on Pearl Harbor was pretty much the only reference to Hawaiian history offered to me as a student. My education relied on the casual gatherings of family and transplanted Hawaiians whose stories filled in huge gaps in my knowledge and reinforced a sense of belonging to a larger community.

My father was orphaned as a child and our history on the Irish side of family is lost. My husband’s family has their own tradition of talk-story that keeps the family informed of our Scottish and Irish heritage. Stories of poverty, opportunity, migration, and faith. My children grew up with these stories and feel connected to grandparents and great-grandparents they never knew because of them.

I think one of the noblest acts we can do is listen to another’s story. The single-voiced narratives we grew up with in school exclude so many stories that add texture and truth we will miss is we don’t stop and listen. I saw this when I brought school friends home to meet my grandmother. I have been told over and over again how special she was to them. My mother once invited my whole class to the house where she prepared a meal and danced hula. My grandmother prayed over the meal in Hawaiian. They were spell-bound. That is the power of sharing stories. I remember the first Hanukkah celebration I was invited to as a child, the first Inuit stories I heard as a university student in Canada, and as a docent at the Old Dutch Church, I am immersed in the stories of Dutch colonial life and early America. Listening to the stories of others lets me integrate their lessons into my own story. It binds us together, past, present, and future.

As I ponder the stories in my family – stories that include lessons in morality, journeys from addiction to recovery and incarceration to freedom, stories of loss and alienation, of faith and perseverance, and stories of love and war, I am grateful for the people in my life who have trusted me with their stories. And maybe that’s a good way to start a new year.

‘A‘ohe pau ka ‘ike i ka hālau ho‘okahi.
All knowledge is not taught in the same school. (One can learn from many sources.)

Olelo no’eau #203, Mary Kawena Pukui

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