There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.~ Mark Twain
When I was in high school, I lived in a very small town – less than 700 people. One summer, my church youth group decided to undertake an outreach project where we would go out in teams of two, and talk to some of the older people in the community who didn’t get out much. Just spend time with them, that’s all. Talk to them. Listen to what they had to say.
I’ll admit, I wasn’t thrilled with the idea. I’d never been comfortable around old people, for reasons I never could pin down. But being nothing if not dependable, I found myself on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in the dim living room of a nondescript clapboard house, facing an old lady – the grandma of the family – who sagged into her lounge chair and looked at us with watery, vacant eyes. I had no idea what to say to her.
Luckily, my partner Teresa was kinder than I was. She set her chair directly in front of the older woman, leaning forward so they both were on the same level, and gently started asking questions, about family, home, interests. Most of the answers came as single words, as though answering a questionnaire; the old woman was not engaged. But then Teresa asked, “When did you come to Iowa?” The answer was not what we expected.
“Came here in a covered wagon.” It took us a moment to digest that, but then, when we both showed amazement, it was like a barrier fell. While her sentences were still somewhat slow and measured, the stories started to unfold. She had indeed crossed the country in a covered wagon, and settled with her family to start a farm. They lived in a sod house, with a dirt floor and no windows. Her mother taught her how to read from the Bible, as there were no teachers, no school. And there was the story of watching her baby sister sitting on the floor of that house, teething on what was first thought to be an old belt, but turned out to be a garter snake! By this point, the old lady was laughing softly and her eyes were sparkling. You could feel the memories welling up inside of her, spilling out.
Think of it! Here was a woman who had actually lived what we had read in our history books, so far removed from our young experience! She had watched her father breaking ground with a single blade plow drawn by the one horse left from their journey, huddled in that dirt house as the storms blew across the prairie. This was not just dry pages in a book – this was a flesh and blood woman, with now snapping eyes, and a family, and a life. Someone who just moments before had been a frail, sagging body in a worn chair, was now vibrant in her experiences.
I have come to realize over the years, since sitting in that nondescript living room, that every person in this world has somewhere in their life an extraordinary story. It may be in things they’ve done, or experiences they’ve had, places they’ve been or people they’ve met. It may be events they’ve lived through or the ways that they embrace life (or shut it out), it may be things they could control or things they could not, but everyone – every single person – has some story that is worth telling. Some lives would fill novels, others better suited to a short story, a vignette, but something sets them apart, validates their lives, makes them extraordinary.
Take my mother: a pastor’s wife in rural Iowa, salt of the earth, loved for her open, compassionate heart. Very few people know that she is the daughter of a Philadelphia trial lawyer and a concert pianist. While she is well known for singing in the choir of every parish that my father was assigned to, almost no one knows that in her youth she auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera and was offered an internship, but turned it down to go to college in the Midwest. Even fewer know that one of her childhood friends was the daughter a DuPont inventor, and that as a young woman she recorded a phonograph in his studio (I heard it – she sang “Just My Bill” from the musical Showboat for my father because his name is Bill). And even I didn’t realize until last year that, with all her talk of accompanying her father to ball games in old Connie Mack stadium and of how she loved running up and down the aisles when the stadium was empty as though it was a huge playground, that she was there because her backyard across-the-alley neighbor was Mr. Mack himself.
Or my father: a big-hearted, rural pastor. He came from a family of nine kids, dirt poor, sorghum and butter on homemade bread for dinner. His father, who had quit school in 3rd grade but could build a mechanized washing machine from scratch or a motorized bicycle before either became familiar, was tough on all of them; his mother, who deferred to her husband, left school in the 4th grade. But Dad not only finished high school, he managed to make it to college on a football scholarship. Back then, football was brutal, and my father had his two front teeth knocked out in one game, which directly led to the first face guard being added to the leather caps that passed for helmets in those days. It was while at college that he met the daughter of a Philadelphia lawyer (who had only come to that college because all the boys had just gotten home from the war and under the GI Bill had filled up the East Coast schools), and they fell in love. She gave up her socialite lifestyle to be with him as he fulfilled his calling to work in the Lord’s service.
Yet they are just another elderly couple sitting in a booth at the local Tom Thumb on a Saturday afternoon, eating sandwiches, with my mother drinking coffee.
Then there’s my husband. He eschews attention. As a lighting designer in the theater, he would much rather be behind the lights than in front of them. When he recently won an Ivey award (the Minneapolis theater community’s equivalent of an Oscar), he had to be tricked into attending the ceremony because he isn’t one who enjoys “all that fuss and bother”. But this is a man who has traveled the world lighting dancers and actors. He once played basketball with Prince at Paisley Park while working on the musician’s Ulysses project (during which Prince would drop his name for a symbol, and become, for a while, “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”; in fact, my husband was one of the first to be entrusted with that symbol). But he also was the kid who, at age 16, piled into his parent’s car with three friends and drove cross country (in their first journey away from their tiny Wisconsin town) to see Pink Floyd perform “The Wall” in New York City.
You’d never know it looking at him standing in line at the Home Depot with his scruffy hair, worn jeans and tee shirt. He’d never stand out as anything other than ordinary. But that’s the point. There is. No. Ordinary. There are only lives lived, and each one, somewhere, has something extraordinary about them.
Now that I am getting on in years, hitting “that certain age”, I look back, as many of us do, and get a bit sorrowful about how small of a life I’ve lived. How little difference I’ve made in my time here. I wonder, as many of us do, why I’ve been put in this world, what my purpose has been, and I will admit to having a healthy dose of melancholia as I realize that many opportunities I had now have slipped away, and what do I have to show for it? What do I have to show for all those days struggling and working and slogging it out? My life seems so pitiful, so small in retrospect.
And then I stop, and really think about my life. I think about experiences I’ve had that could not be described in any other terms than extraordinary. Of sleeping in a tent on the Athabasca Glacier, and being awakened by in the night by elk brushing up against the canvas, watching their faint shadows as they passed by in the moonlight. Of traveling to India, and being treated like a rock star at the open market at Charimar for simply being American, in the midst of people who struggled every day far more than I would in my entire life, and yet smiled widely as they reached out to shake my hand, or give me a high five, or to nod and say hello while looking me in the eye, reveling in my acknowledgement. Of having a son lost within the school bus system in the inner city on his very first day of school, and living a parent’s nightmare for three hours (thankfully only three hours!), and knowing abject fear within those hours. Of traveling to Moscow when it was still part of the USSR, and staying in the same hotel as the national delegates as they were voting to dissolve the Soviet Union. And of also being in that hotel (there were only two in all of Moscow!) when the members of Pink Floyd walked in (yes, the same band that held in thrall the 16 year old who would later become my husband), talking to them, partying with them, sitting at the tech table at one of their concerts and later, learning of Tiananmen Square from a ham radio on the back of their tour bus. Yet you see me walking my dog along a city lake and you wouldn’t think about me twice.
But I really have had an extraordinary life. Which is why I get upset when I see or hear folks make fun of people that seem dull, unattractive, unremarkable. Because you just don’t know. The person in line with you at Target, with her greasy hair and sloppy clothes, may have once consorted with royalty. The young man standing aloof at the bus stop with the tattered coat and downcast eyes may have overcome hostile borders just to be there at that moment. The waiter whose attention you might not be able to flag might have been up the night before writing what will turn out to be the next Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The young child coming out of the convenience store with the runny nose, with a bag of Cheetos in one hand and grasping her mother’s coat with the other may have already known more heartbreak than you ever will. And that young mother, with her acrylic nails and her loud attitude, may just be the person who will stand up to the obstacles in her life in order to change her world.
And the old lady sitting vacantly in her shabby lounge chair may have remarkable stories to tell, if only someone were to come along and ask to hear them. So ask. You may just stumble on something extraordinary.