What’s Your Story?

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N and the Forever Young

“I don’t have a story,” that’s what he said when we first started talking, when I asked if I could talk to him sometime, hear his story. Everyone always says that. No one thinks they have a story.

Like I said in a recent post, I’ve been doing a lot of photography in one particular place—the dock and town landing of a nearby town. I’m lucky I live in a beautiful, photogenic place. The coast of Maine. “Vacationland,” the license plates say it all. It’s a five-minute drive to the picturesque spot where I go to take photos, where about a thousand boats are moored. A small community, that’s the way the Harbormaster describes it. And every boat, every boat’s owner has a story. That’s what I think. That’s what I’m after with my photos—the stories.

A few minutes earlier, “N” (the lobsterman) had made his way up the ramp from the lower dock. It was a misty morning, and I was taking pictures of blue boats in the mist, of a man loading a red bag into a small rowboat, of dark birds against a gray sky—of anything that stood out, of anything that I could actually see in a picture.

N stopped at the top of the ramp and leaned against the dock railing, squinted out over the water. I’ve been going to the landing enough days this summer that people recognize me. I think N must have.

“If you’d been here half an hour ago, you’d have been caught in a downpour,” he said.

I nodded.

We stood next to each other at the end of the long dock, N leaned comfortably against the dock railing. We watched the man with the red bag row out in the rowboat. A kayaker went by, and I snapped a photo of him over N’s shoulder.

“It’s not really a fog, but you couldn’t call it rain either,” N said.

“Definitely not,” I agreed.

“Do you ever come here in the winter?” He asked.

I lied and said yes. Well, it wasn’t a total lie. I’d been there once or twice but not regular-like, like N meant.

“Lots of people don’t see the beauty,” N said. “They just come here and never see.”

N had a story; I could see it in his eyes. I could see it in the way he wouldn’t look me in the eyes.

“How long have you been lobstering?”

“My whole life,” he said. “That’s my boat.” He pointed down to the end of the dock at a clean and tidy—a beautiful—lobster boat.

I didn’t see a name on the boat, often it’s on the hull. “What’s her name?” I expected a woman’s name. Many boats are named after a wife, a sweetheart, a mother. Linda Kate. Nicole Marie. Skinny Girl.

“Forever Young.” He turned and looked at me. His blue eyes clear under white raised eyebrows. We smiled. “I’m seventy-one,” he said.

“You were born here?”

“Yup. Grew up on Diamond Island.” He turned and looked back over the water.

I nodded. No story.

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Another day, the Nicole Marie

“My father was at Fort McKinley during World War II—have you seen the concrete batteries that are still out on the island? He was part of the Maine Artillery, met my mother when she was seventeen, bicycling through town. He left for Hawaii less than a year later…right after that I was born…”

Definitely no story.

N and I chatted a few minutes more, much of what he told me too personal to share in this blog—or anywhere. But it certainly won’t leave my mind, and when I got back to my car I jotted a few quick notes in a notebook I always carry.

I probably have two or three conversations like this each week. I take some photos, I ask some questions, and I hear amazing stories of other peoples’ lives. I love hearing the stories unfold, especially when whomever I’m talking to thinks they have no story to tell. It makes me want to write, too. Not necessarily a specific story I hear but just write. The more I hear, the more I think about life. The stories make me think about my own life, help me make sense of it all. And the more I think about life, the more I want to write…about life…about the interconnections and intersections and relationships of life, and about how we all fit together.

N and I chatted for a few more minutes—he wanting to tell as much as I wanted to hear. I wanted to ask if we could go out for coffee, so I could hear more of his story, but I didn’t. Instead, after just enough to whet my curiosity, I said good-bye and walked down the long dock to the small parking area. As I got in my car, I looked back and watched as N stepped onto the Forever Young.

I know where to find him when I want to hear more of his story…and when he wants someone to listen.

Where do you get your stories? Are you like me that you like to talk to people you meet about theirs? Do you have a story to share? I’d love to hear it.

 

Comments

  1. I volunteer at our little community’s even littler library about three times a summer (it’s only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day). Last Thursday an elderly man (I later found out he is 88) stepped into the library, and he hasn’t left my mind since. He pointed at a painting on the wall, done in the late 1920’s and told me his family’s first cottage was there, and that he knew the painter (who passed away in the 1960’s). That little story might have evoked a friendly smile and nod from some, but I immediately started prodding for more. And, boy-oh-boy, was I rewarded for my prodding. He proceeded to regale me with a detailed history of the area, including how he’d known and interacted with several famous (locally, anyway) people. He’d even worked for the folks who first brought blue-berries to our area – now a staple crop so entrenched you’d think they were native to the area.

    He is so sharp, his memories such a treasure trove. I hope to see him again before he heads back to his year-round home (the local home is a summer cottage, built by his father in the mid-30’s). Twice as we spoke, he wondered aloud if this would be his last trip to his beloved Lake Michigan shoreline. I certainly hope not.

    Keep gathering those stories, Julia! Thanks for sharing their importance!

    • Wow, I love that story so much Vaughn. I seriously got a little shiver as I read it. I love gathering the stories and love that your guy’s story is now outloud and won’t be forgotten. He sounds amazing. (I even wonder if you could write a bit and stick it to the back of the painting as a provenance?) I’ll stay optimistic with you that he’ll be back, though. Thanks for your comment, Vaughn.

  2. This is so beautiful, Julia. In high school, my journalism teacher used to tell me that everyone has a story. Even when you don’t think they do, or they don’t think they do. All you need are the right questions, an open mind and curiosity and a willingness to listen.

    I thought of her often when I used to do more journalism work because every time I’d do an interview, I’d start out thinking I was writing one story, and always, that other story would emerge. And it was beautiful getting to know people like that, realizing that they want to open up because we all just want to be heard. I’m sure N appreciated having someone like you to listen.

    • I had a college journalism professor that sounds a lot like your high school journalism teacher. And boy did I learn that big time when I used to have the “city hall beat” in my journalism classes. I absolutely love what you say here: “every time I’d do an interview, I’d start out thinking I was writing one story, and always, that other story would emerge. ” SOO many times I’ve had that same experience. Yes, N appreciated it, I know he did, and I will hear more. Thanks for your kind comments, Natalia!

  3. Julia — this is a beautiful, beautiful post. “No story,” indeed! I hope the notes you took once you got back to the car will weave themselves into future work. I’d eat it up with a spoon!

  4. I can picture you out there with your camera, chatting with one of the lobstermen. Such a beautiful and poignant way to communicate an essential truth: we all have a story. Thanks, Julia!

  5. Cynthia Robertson says:

    What a beautiful post, Julia. I could feel N, as you describe him. It’s true: everyone does have a story, if we take the time to slow down and visit with them. I’m sure some of what he told you will end up in your writing – these things have a way of sticking.

  6. Nina says:

    I absolutely loved hearing about this corner of the world where you’re spending your time. How cool to be able to “collect” these stories. And I too believe we all have stories to share. It’s beautiful that you’re there to listen. I think the joy of the blogging world, personally, is participating in this storytelling we do.

    • That’s such an excellent point, Nina — I never thought of it that way, but you’re so right that blogging makes the storytelling (and hearing) so much more accessible. Thank you for your comment!

  7. This is a story in itself! I think it’s really cool that you have a specific place that you go back to over and over. I’m not so good at engaging strangers; I’m much more of an eavesdropper myself. :) But it’s a good thing you do, because it sounds like you get some amazing inspiration from it.

    • Thanks, Annie… and don’t worry I’m an eavesdropper too. I think the reason I’m a whole lot more talkative these days with strangers is that I’m often asking permission if I can take their (or their boat’s) pictures. I do find the conversations pretty inspiring.

  8. Yes, everyone does have a story. I love that it’s our jobs as writers to immortalize these stories. At the heart of each story is the universal truth of the human condition that we shed a bit of light on. Do you think that N will make it into one of your stories one day, in some small way? I’m amazed at how people show up in my fiction. Sometimes it’s a whisper of the person — something they said or a gesture they make — but I know who it is.

    Terrific post, Julia!

    • You said it so well, Jackie! “At the heart of each story is the universal truth of the human condition that we shed a bit of light on.” It’s what I love about writing. I’m amazed how people show up too (and in what ways), sometimes only in a feeling they impart. The funny thing about N is an almost identical character was in a previous book I wrote (and is now in the drawer), maybe one of the reasons I was so interested in hearing more of his story…

  9. I recently read somewhere that if you strike up conversation with at least two strangers a day — that is an indication of well being. It makes us feel connected and in community when we might previously felt alone. That is nice about small towns. People don’t think it odd to strike up conversations with strangers. I’ve tried to do it in Atlanta and usually the people a run away freaked out. Post more of your pics. Such tranquil beauty.

    • Thank you so much, Jamie (for the pics request) and also for the information — that makes so much sense about connection to community. I have a feeling that the two of us loose on the (small) town might talk nonstop to anyone and everyone who would talk/listen :)

  10. This story so naturally unfolds, Julia. Simply lovely. My first time here and I will definitely return. As a native New Englander (Vermonter) I have found most interesting the rich, raw ramblings from unassuming folks living in the (vast ) cubbyhole culture of a rural setting.

    Listening to relatives, neighbors, friends and clients share the intimate details from the story line of their lives, has interested me forever. As a writer, my curiosity is piqued regarding “N”. As a photographer, I am always anxious to see how others use the lens to tell picture stories. . .looking forward to more of yours.