There was a loud whoosh as the bank’s vacuum tubes deposited the clear plastic canister outside my car window. “Is there a lollipop?” Pema asked. She and Ada were in the backseat, angling for a treat. I reached my hand out the window and took the can, then opened it in my lap. There were three lollipops, actually, plus a few Tootsie Rolls beside my deposit slip. Ugh, I thought, waving politely to the teller behind the huge glass window. She meant well.
“Is there, Dada?” Pema asked again. She and Ada giggled. I fumbled around, acting like the paper slip was important to me. “Nope, not this time,” I said, closing the canister back up with the candy inside. “Aww…” said Ada, as I deposited the can back in the slot. “Okay,” I said, shifting the car into drive, “now to the post office.” We began to roll forward.
“No, wait Dad! Look!” Pema shouted. Having inched forward, her seat was now advancing directly past the translucent can on her left, plainly revealing the candy inside. I cringed. Pema, bless her heart, thought I had made a mistake. “Yay!” Ada shouted. The car continued rolling. “Wait, Dad!” Pema yelled, as if I had forgotten the brake. “No, we’re not going to have lollipops today,” I finally declared, then turned into the street. “Aww…” said Ada. “But why?” asked Pema. I didn’t answer.
Last Tuesday, the Earth Children, Silke’s outdoor kindergarten, walked back to Bone Canyon. It was our first day of the school year, and while some of the kids, like Pema, were with us last year, it was the first time for many of them. It was also, in some sense, the first time for me.
Last year, I was a part-time volunteer. I began attending simply as a caring father – it was how I spent my time with Pema anyway – but then I fell in love with the kids and the kinds of things we encountered together. We were like a little clan, or family. I believe it’s fair to say the children came to love me too, and, luckily, Silke was keen on having me. I wrote about some of those experiences last year, but I hardly scratched the surface on their inner sweetness. This year, I will be with the school full-time, and I’ll even be getting paid.
Throughout the course of last year, Silke and I also fell in love. Any sane person would step lightly in such territory, mixing work and love life, and I do. But one of the reasons we work together so well is that we hardly talk about it. There is a silent compact of trust between us, and between us and the kids. And yet, the silence is taut with comprehension, like a good story.
Every day after lunch with the Earth Children, we lie in a shady spot and listen to a story. Sometimes Silke tells it, sometimes I do. Sometimes we both tell the story, passing it back and forth like a football. The stories often revolve around activities we encountered during the day, but sometimes they’re just fanciful quests or simple joys. As we listen, the leaves in the trees shuffle and the sunlight shimmers. Or sometimes we hear the rumble of an approaching thunderstorm. In the winter, we huddle close around the fire. This has come to be one of the sweetest moments in the day. Long after I’m old, and all these children have grown into adults, I will recall these moments.
So, I quit my day job.
On the third day of school this year, the kids and I were scattered under a canopy of trees in a dense forest. Having had lunch and rested, Silke and I were nominally packing up while the kids played with whatever was at hand. The girls were busy riding log motorcycles and falling in the leaves, while the boys were lighting fires with sticks. My hat had already been burned to a crisp, as had most of the trees in the surrounding forest.
At first, I just rolled my eyes. Boys, especially in groups, are so plainly aggressive. Girls are too, but they’re usually more subtle about it. Suddenly, one of the girls stood up from her motorbike and got a very, very long stick. Turning to all the boys, she declared provocatively that she had the biggest and longest fire-maker of all. For an instant, we all recognized her boast. Her stick was plainly superior. But then each of the boys began loudly defending their own stick, making increasingly bombastic claims about its violent emissions. Voices were rising, no one was much listening to anyone else, and the game was growing out of control. I was on the edge of jumping in when the other girls, unable to ignore the ruckus, grabbed sticks of their own and added their voices to the hubbub. I remained quiet for a moment and just listened. One girl even grabbed an entire branch that had fallen off a nearby tree, its dry leaves flapping noisily in the air. Everyone was shouting, vying for superiority, or at least inclusion. But no one was actually doing anything.
I’m reading a book entitled On the Origin of Stories. The subject seems plain enough, but the crux of the book is a thorough study of evolution. Why, the author asks, do we tell stories? What is the biological advantage to us as a species? Surely, we crave information, but - and this is the author’s particular focus - why are we so interested in stories that, from the beginning, both speaker and listener know are pure fiction?
I cannot share the full scope of the book, which is richly annotated with citations ranging from biology to anthropology, psychology and literature, and which has a broad impact on social theory. Instead, I wish to highlight only two points: 1) storytelling is a form of cognitive play, which allows us to learn about, and prepare for, uncommon situations, and 2) storytelling is about getting attention.
As I drove away from the bank with the girls in the back seat, I was feeling guilty for lying about the lollipops – why didn’t I just tell the truth? Growing up, the word we had used had always been sucker, and I sure felt like one now. But what was interesting was that Pema and Ada could hardly have cared less. They were perfectly engaged in the backseat, Ada with a small stick that she said was a strawberry lollipop, and Pema with an old drinking straw, which was raspberry. They were amusing themselves in a friendly match of whose lollipop was bigger, or tasted better, or lasted the longest. It was hard to keep up, because the game evolved rapidly, turning down blind corners, then disappearing and showing up elsewhere. It wasn’t long before the lollipops, which were still lollipops, were now also babies who had lollipop mamas who put them to bed. Though considerably more cordial, the game was not unlike the firesticks back in the woods. Each back and forth was a subtle move for dominance, or attention, and with each passing remark the ante went up.
There is one child at school – I’ll call him Peter – who has a habit of ending almost every word he says with, “…right?” As in, “we’re tigers, right?” or “we have to climb up the hill to get the treasure, right?” Other children have similar tactics, but his constant repetition sticks out, first like a nervous expression, then as a lovable trait. In reality, he’s simply attending to the level of attention he commands from his friends and playmates. We all do this, whether speaking to an acquaintance at the grocery store or a harried mother with two wailing children. We watch for subtle clues to see how much others are paying attention to us – the direction of their eyes, the expressions on their faces, the tenor in their voices. The fact is, we are constantly vying for each other’s attention, and we have an array of skills to determine if we have it or not.
In the process of elaborating his theory, Brian Boyd, the author of On the Origin of Stories, refers to Multi-Level Selection Theory. It’s an awkward name, but it gets at the crux of what I’m referring to - the tendency to constantly assess whether we have someone’s attention, or trust. When we think of evolution, we usually think of competition, but for social creatures like you and I it can be quite different. One on one, competition rules in most circumstances – meaning that competing for your own advantage is usually the best strategy. This is how it is for snakes and owls and toads, and humans in most situations. But cooperation within a group, often against another group, is the decisive trait of a social species, and humans above all others. It is what allows us to hunt in groups, to defend ourselves against predators or cheats, and to build cities and governments. But competition within our clan is still vital, as is obvious from all the social climbing, the castes and aristocracies, that pervade nearly every human culture. In other words, from a biological perspective, we are constantly assessing whether we should cooperate or compete with others.
The result, after evolving for millennia, is an impressive ability to read the intentions and expressions of others. No other animal even comes close in this regard. Boyd brings up the point that even the whites of our eyes, called the sclera, evolved for precisely this purpose – so that we can read each other’s lines of sight. Try to follow the line of sight of a dog or a deer. We can follow their faces, but not the small inclinations of their eyes. In contrast, we can determine exactly what our friends, or enemies, are looking at almost instantly. In order to survive, we have become capable of reading the subtlest cues on a person’s face, or in their voice, to determine whether we should trust them or not. Most of us perform these tests in milliseconds.
So - why do we tell stories? We do it, in part, to practice the art of trust. Storytelling gives us not only a chance to play with subjects we could not really play with (fire), but also a platform for us to try out our wares. As a storyteller, I can watch my audience and determine when, if ever, I have them, and when I’ve lost their confidence. As an audience member, I have opportunities to practice and hone my skills of observation. If the story grabs me, I willingly give my attention even though I know the whole thing is a fiction, but if it falls short I look away, yawn, or check my email.
But we don’t just sit in line and wait for our turn to tell a story. Storytelling is competitive, and in order to attract, and then retain, attention one requires a litany of skills. One of the ablest ways to do this is through surprise. Why do the children constantly up the ante, blasting more and more fire onto the forest and each other? To get attention! It’s not enough to burn a tree down if someone else has already done it. The sky must burn too. The whole earth. And when everything is gorged on fire, what draws our attention then? Water. We must put it all out.
A man I respect, whose work focuses around communication within close-knit groups, like corporate boardrooms, once told me something about myself. He said the door to my imagination, and here he swiveled his finger like a swinging cat door, doesn’t close properly. I hate when people tell me things like this (in itself a telling quality), but I immediately resonated with the thrust of what he meant. My stories, even when I know them to be false, are potent for me. It is not hard for me to differentiate between fairy tales and reality, but it is hard for me to parse them apart, especially when I have other people (like children, or Silke) confirming their reality. For example, charged with the care of a particular doll, I will often continue feeding her long after the kids have left and forgotten all about her. I also don’t believe in magic crystals, but if you give me one I will be sure to keep it.
At my worst, this makes me selfish (and a little superstitious), but at my best it makes me an excellent storyteller, precisely because I already believe it myself. I have long recognized that I have a knack for gathering people’s attention. This is most evident in person, when I have the advantage of my eyes and face, my arms and legs, to pull the story into the minds of my audience. I can see it happening, I can feel it - the way we all, including me, are suddenly captivated by the story spewing out of my mouth. But what’s most interesting is that, as the storyteller, I am captive most of all.
That’s why I picked up this book.
I was listening to Pema and Ada recount their lollipop stories in the backseat, feeling guilty about having lied, wondering if I should say something or just let it go. Or, if I were to be really fair, I believe I felt guilty for being caught in a lie. I’d like to say that’s because I’m just such a wonderful and honest father, but I don’t think that’s true. Fact is, if Pema had never seen the lollipops in the canister, I would have driven away and never given it a second thought. No, if I’m to be honest with myself, I believe I felt guilty because my story exploded in my face. “Nope, not this time,” I said, closing the canister back up with the candy inside. As I did, I folded the story over my own two eyes. Not this time. I nearly pulled it off. I almost believed it myself. We were even driving away. But then I was sucker punched by my own daughter.
I have the nascent scent of something. It’s easy to think, when I’m recounting something to adults, that I’m just telling the truth, but storytelling with the kids brings out the poignancy of what storytelling really is. The fact is, I think I’m always telling a story, even when it’s true.
But I'm only on the trail of all this, sniffing it out. My interest is partly in how to tell a good story, but the trail keeps leading me further, deep into my own psyche. I have long known that I simply enjoy the expression of creativity, with or without an audience. I also enjoy the esteem I sometimes receive after I’ve told a good one. But what I’m beginning to discover is something more like this: I tell stories because I want to believe.