there is always a story

I stood in front of my middle-school choir teacher, quivering. She had finished telling the class how to prepare for that evening’s concert: get rest and have a good dinner. “And,” she said, “if you have the start of a sore throat, gargle with some warm salt water.”

No one else said a word. To them, it seemed like fine advice. Or maybe they were not listening. She had a nasal drone of a voice and most kids zoned out. 

I raised my hand, shyly at first, then high in the air. 

“Um, do we have to gargle with salt water?” 

She looked at me askance. “No, only if you have a sore throat.” 

“But won’t the hot salt water make your throat more sore?” I whined, a little. 

After a few more questions from me about why we had to do this, my teacher didn’t say anything for a moment. And then she said, as she turned away, “Just gargle with salt water if you have a sore throat.” 

I did have the start of a sore throat. And also, a familiar painful jolting in my guts. But I didn’t gargle with warm salt water before the choir concert that evening. I worried about it. I worried, since my teacher had told me I should. But I didn’t do it. Instead, I deliberated until the last moment, then sat in silence in the back seat of the car as my parents drove me and my brother to school in the evening. I stood on a back riser and only raised my voice half volume, to be sure it didn’t crack against the pain.

I don’t remember what we sang that night. I don’t know any of the kids in that class anymore. I have no idea where my choir teacher is today. 

I might have seemed pretty weird to the other students and my teacher. Me, the meek girl with big glasses, geeky smart and usually following every rule. I wonder if she thought of that years later—how I questioned her several times about why we had to gargle with salt water—or told it as one of her teacher stories sometimes. Maybe that moment in my life became one of her jokes. 

All I do know is that I was terrified of gargling with salt water that evening. It had nothing to do with the salt or the warmth of the water. I knew that if I gargled with warm salt water to soothe my sore throat, my mother might walk into the bathroom. And if she asked me what I was doing and why, she would insist that I get into bed because I was sick. She would fret and worry about me all evening, then wake me up several times through the night to see if I was all right. I would probably have to stay home from school the next day. 

I would miss the choir concert, certainly. Evening school events were one of the few times we were allowed to leave our house after we returned home from school in the afternoon. Usually the door sealed shut on our family of four, left alone to duck and cover through the yelling and for me to negotiate a peace between my parents for a few hours before we went through it again after dinner. 

An evening away from the suffocating routine—even if it was for a sixth-grade choir concert—was worth the risk of breaking the rules.

There’s always a story. 

The first years that Danny and I were married, he would grow irritated at cars that passed him on the freeway too close for his taste or sped down the highway too far above the speed limit. It startled me at first. Why this much anger? The longer I knew him, the more I realized Danny was frightened by the speed, by the feeling that he was being endangered. And when he is frightened, Danny barks. Or, he used to. 

Once I realized the source of his exclamations, I started reminding him. There’s always a story, sweetie. “Hey honey, how do we know that person isn’t racing to the ferry because his wife is in labor? Or she just got news that her husband had a heart attack and she is racing to the hospital to see him? They could be drunk. There could be a fight going on in that car. Or someone is having a hard day, crying, and not paying attention to the speed.” 

I always tried to remind him—even if the driving behavior was bad, we didn’t have to take it personally. 

These days, when Lucy or Desmond grow upset with one another, or annoyed by a friend, or we talk about politics and the news, Danny is the first one to jump in and say, “Kids. There’s always a story. Why do you think that person is behaving that way?” 

Lucy has started saying it to me, if she sees me grow irate about something in the news or what’s going on elsewhere. “Mama, maybe that person at work is lonely. Or scared. There’s always a story.” 

There is always a story. 

And these days, I feel we need to consider each other’s stories even more than before.

I find myself less and less able to spend time on Twitter these days. Or Facebook. Or even reading the news, to be honest. 

The COVID-19 crisis we are enduring, which is growing more and more ominous every day, is making people sick. I don’t just mean people catching the virus. I mean that everyone’s childhood traumas or unhealthy coping mechanisms are looming larger, along with the death numbers. 

Have you seen it? People are shouting at each other over masks—both that people are wearing masks and that people are not wearing masks. A clutch of loud people gather in front of state capitol buildings to chant that they should be able to get haircuts in the middle of the pandemic. And loudly, on social media, other groups of people make fun of those protestors. There are barbs and easy statements and people form groups on either side, ready to throw virtual rocks. 

I wish we lived in a culture that remembered: there is always a story. 

I cannot claim to agree with the people who are protesting a pandemic. My greatest wish is that COVID-19 could be treated like the epidemiological crisis it is, instead of yet another partisan political battle. How can you take sides in a global crisis killing thousands of people a day? 

I think it’s because we live in a culture that takes sides on everything. 

I’m so tired of taking sides. 

For the past nine weeks, I have been feeling my way through it, along with everyone else. I’ve had my down days, my frustrated days, my tired days.

There are no easy days anymore. 

But, after all the hard work I have done to understand my life, I feel like I’ve been focused on finding my way through it without needing to understand where it is going.

I have come to make peace with uncertainty now.

I know there will be terrible loss, probably far more than what we are enduring now. Slowly, my understanding is widening— this will last far longer than we want to admit. There’s really no predicting what happens in the next few years. 

After reading epidemiologists and other scientists, I know this is going to change everything. 

But I also know there is a story to explain why some people are acting so badly in these times. 

If you have never been taught how to think critically, then you accept everything that is given to you by the people with whom you feel affinity. We all need our people. 

You don’t have to go to college to be a thoughtful person who considers the voices of experts and your feelings at the same time. But when you live in a country that widened the gap between college-educated people and those who finished high school and no more, then you might start to resent the people who went to college. 

When I began teaching high school, more than 25 years ago now, my school had a great vocational program. The students had access to a full auto mechanic bay, a jewelry-making class, woodworking, welding, iron working, cooking, and landscape gardening. The students who took all the vocational classes they could? They were some of my favorite kids. Most of them still live on Vashon now, with kids the same age as mine. We are friends. They are our plumbers and electricians and the people we call when the septic goes out. Their lives matter. 

But now, that same high school has zero vocational classes. ZERO. Everything seems geared to AP classes, prepping for the SAT, and getting the highest GPA possible to get into the best colleges. 

As a culture, we are sending a clear message: you are only good enough if you get into a good college. Your entire childhood is supposed to build toward it. 

I call bullshit. 

Now, with all the testing and prepping and grooming, there is less time left in the classroom for digging deep into history, for thoughtful conversations about current events, for creative thinking. And especially, for the long hard slog of teaching kids, every year, to have empathy for people who are different from their family. That requires discussion about great works of literature, profiles of people from around the world, history of every culture, and a good course in how to understand statistics and how they can be used to lie to the masses. Every student needs to learn how to take the devil’s advocate position and to listen. 

I feel that learning how to truly listen to other people’s point of view is more important than any test score.

America has become a hyperventilating reality show, desperate for higher and higher ratings. 

We would do better to aim for PBS instead. Or maybe smart sitcoms.

I’d like to point your way to two stories about this. 

Jerry Saltz, who is the senior art critic for New York Magazine, got a lot of attention, for a tweet he put out about his coffee. He wrote that he was still able to get coffee the way he liked it, even during the lockdown. 

“In normal times, every few nights I buy six large black deli coffees; three caffeinated and three decafs. I put them in the fridge. Each morning, I combine the two into a 7-Eleven Double Gulp cup, add ice, Lactaid, and stevia. I drink two a day, which I tell myself equals one big cup of coffee. We bought a dozen 7-Eleven cups and tops in 2017; we wash and reuse them; ditto four metal straws.” 

I remember when he posted this. People lost their minds. They called him weird. They called him other names. They wondered at his sanity. They called his taste into question. There were lots of jokes and lots of snide comments. 

I refrained. Certainly it’s not how I like my coffee. But my goodness, I also think the way people have grown precious and snooty about coffee is kind of weird too. 

There’s always a story for everyone. 

Last night, I read this essay by Jerry Saltz, who began writing it after all the hullabaloo. Read it. You’re not prepared. It’s one of the most vulnerable, devastating essays I have ever read. It will stay with me forever. 

We really don’t know other people’s stories, unless they decide to share. I’m so glad he did. 

When I wrote to him on Twitter today, to tell him how much the essay moved me, he wrote back: “Thank you very much Shauna. I think that this is all of our stories – only with different demons and details. Ours is only to write our letters to the world in the simplest ways, claiming nothing for our traumas except saying them out loud.” 

We have to share our stories. How else will we know each other? 

The second essay is written by a former student of mine, an incredible woman I adore. She published this essay about the difficult and yet nourishing relationship she shared with her grandmother. Amy was raised in a difficult house and her grandmother was one of her few sustained connections. Amy is also gay and became very liberal from her teenage years on. Her grandmother was definitively conservative and anti-immigrant. How could they have a relationship? 

You can read about it in Amy’s essay. 

It might take decades sometimes, but learning each other’s stories? It matters. 

Look, I wish that people could understand that protesting and going back into public life before it is safe is endangering many other people’s lives. 

But take it from me, the anxious girl who was frightened to gargle with salt water because she might miss the choir concert that evening? 

I understand their fears. I really do. 

Share this

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest

You might also like

This essay was first published on my newsletter, ENOUGH.

Through that newsletter and the community created there, I hope that together we can work to find our joy in enough, right now. And work together to ensure that others have enough as well.

How? These are the letters I send out to subscribers of the newsletter.