What we learn from listening with intention
When I visited Mexico decades ago while in college, I listened carefully to the stories of my relatives.
I chronicled everything I could as best as I knew how, knowing that not everything was consequential to my writing—the food poisoning I experienced, the routine bus rides I took from one colonia to another for work, the tedious process to set up camera equipment to film a documentary. Not everything is meant to be used as the material for the plot of a story, but anecdotes may prove useful like my cousin’s recounting of his missionary work in the Yucatan peninsula. He talked about the small villages where he’d visit to bring the gift of the gospel.
It’s really something, he said, to be so close to the forces of evil. Even the animals are influenced by that presence. Cats fight like mad over rooftops, goats butt their heads against each other with fuerzas that make windows rattle in their frames. And the vultures. Those strut in the streets like marauders, flapping their wings like brutes, dismembering trees. Straw huts have been destroyed by those gusts.
These were lives that needed to be contextualized and my burden was to give them significance to my life and those who read my writings. I don’t know if these storytellers have the slightest idea of what I write. They seem to know I write and may suspect it is a fitting vocation for me since I’m introverted and timid, the only child of my mother’s. Yet some family and friends have expressed interest in what I do only to tell me that they know someone whose life would make a great story. I’m offered anecdotes about a life in another country, the scope of circumstances that brought these out of their birth country and into another one for reasons only they can understand. I don’t own their stories, despite my self-imposed expectation to steward over them.
Now, I’ve written stories that hinge on the movements of female storytellers whose footsteps transcend beyond desperate decisions. Illegitimate children surface from the shadows of absent fathers like buoyed boats, anchored like beacons of light made opaque in the fog. Because these shots are fragments of longer stories, the full picture is left to be known. Sometimes when I take stock of these pieces I wonder if they will ever be completed by me, or by another hand that will take ownership of its parts. How far will I go with all that I’ve been given? If I were to ever decide to quit, will it be due to exhaustion?