One of my favorite things is to talk to people who look relatively ordinary and discover that they have a fascinating personal narrative: they have performed in the circus or survived cancer or lived in one of those Eastern European blocs with amorphous names and allegiances. Old people are especially good for this. Upon first glance, they pretty much just look old. However, once you start asking the right questions, you usually get some truly awesome stories.
My sister and I used to visit the nursing home in which my great-grandma lived when we were younger. I would play on the piano the few songs that I had mastered and the religiously inclined would shout "hallelujah!", despite the fact that the only songs I knew were standards filled with dubious double entendres like "In the Mood". A few of the residents thought we were their grandchildren. One woman mistook my sister and I with our summer haircuts as her grandsons, Patrick and Danny.
But once I got over the cringe-worthy humiliation of being an adolescent girl confused as a boy at an age where gender roles are particularly defined, once I stopped noticing the suspect smells and the occasional unfortunate open pajama backflap on an ambulatory patient, I started to listen to stories.
The one I remember vividly was told to me by a woman named Marie. Marie had been a young bride and, without options or education, spent the majority of her life trapped in an unhappy marriage. At some point she embarked on an affair with her mailman, believing herself to be madly in love with him. By the time I met Marie she was widowed and beset by Alzheimer's, a wizened woman in her nineties. She spent every afternoon at the window, waiting for the mailman who had promised to come back for her and take her away.
Now, before you get all teary-eyed and start evoking the trite emotional manipulation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, let me mention that this scenario was actually really depressing. This woman could have been so much happier had she felt that she had more options when she was younger. And there wasn't anyone reading to her the epic story of their romance: the mailman never showed.
The point is this: I would never have known this woman's tragic, fascinating story simply by looking at her. I never would have known it at all had I not been hiding from people mistaking me for their estranged grandsons.
And that's the raw beauty of StoryCorps. StoryCorps is an organization that helps people share and record the stories of their lives. According to the website, "We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, strengthen and build the connections between people, teach the value of listening, and weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that every life matters" (http://storycorps.org). The stories recorded on this website are in turns funny, sweet, heartbreaking, empowering, and hopeful. "All There Is" is a compilation of StoryCorps recordings illustrating the nature of love. A single story will undoubtedly evoke an entire spectrum of emotion.
I am constantly enthralled by that which makes us human. I want to understand how we form connections, how we intertwine our lives and how we impact one another. I want to know everyone's story. I want to be a better listener. I want to learn how to ask meaningful questions.
So read the book. And start talking to old people. They know more than you might think.