The Middle Distance 4.1.11: Songs of Innocence & Experience

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photo by Sean Cayton

The older I get, the more I understand that the personal stories I tell are factually true only in part, and that how I choose to tell them says a lot about who I am on this journey, this solo adventure, this one-shot gig on Planet Earth.

I’m not talking about deliberate lies, though they are part of the truth-telling equation as well. I’m talking about what we omit in our representations of ourselves to others, and what we embellish with loving detail.

In the final tally of our life experience, which truths really count?

Here’s an exercise I always do with my nonfiction writing students. First, I tell them, think of the story you always tell, the way something happened, a story you tell over and over at family gatherings, around the dinner table, or to your friends.

Now, I say, tell it the way it really happened.

You might, for example, tell your prom story, one you’ve told many times, about how you were asked out by the handsome guy from chemistry class, and how that much anticipated date turned out to be a real bomb. You didn’t have anything to talk about, he was a bore, and you wanted to be with your friends instead of with him. You might have edited this story over the years, adding details with each telling: blond hair, arm muscles, bushy eyebrows, a striking intellect, a mysterious air about him. Or you might have given him tics to heighten your unhappiness at the dance: bad breath, sexist attitude, sweaty palms.

But what about the way it really happened? His growing boredom throughout the evening, and the aggressive groping in the car when he took you home, borderline date rape, though that wasn’t a term you were familiar with back in 1970, and how that sent you running into the house disheveled, disillusioned, ashamed and confused.

One of the stories I’ve revisited many times is how I was a tomboy in junior high school, living on the edge of a new town in West Tennessee, where I hung out with the boys in my grade, swimming in the muddy waters of Wolf Creek in the summer, smoking cigarettes and sneaking into motel swimming pools on the highway with my buddies Harry and James. I listened to their romantic woes, and their complaints about the girls they courted, a fly on the wall of their burgeoning manhood. The story I haven’t told, an important part of how it really happened, was about how terrifying it was to be a girl, a hopeful girl with social ambitions, in that time and place, with an absent father and a distracted mother, in a town where older boys liked to take their pick of younger girls, virgins on the verge, and play with them ravenously, dangerously, in fast cars, in darkened houses, in forests on the outskirts of town with secret parties and illegal beer kegs. The girl I most admired, a girl my age, a free spirit, the girl I wanted to be, died while still a teenager, riding on the back hood of one of those boys’ cars, likely drunk, thrown off, her head bashed on the curb, her beauty extinguished.

Songs of innocence; songs of experience.

What if I told you I was married at 20 to my high school sweetheart, in a garden at his college, a magical place with tall trees where fairies might live, and that among the guests at our wedding were all the little girls from the Memphis ghetto where I worked, dressed in stiff Sunday finery, and kids on their bikes who just happened to be riding by? And that for our reception, we threw all the furniture out of the Kappa Sigma fraternity house and scoured the floors and served cake off of card tables? What would you think?

But what if I told you this: that my father refused to come to my wedding because his new wife, my mother’s lifelong friend, wasn’t invited, and that my mother was a basket case from her recent divorce and I had to figure out how to get a piano to the garden so there could be music, and that I cried the night before to my best friend, up from Mobile, Alabama, and how my fiancé had called me from his bachelor party, begging me to come pick him up and take him home? What would you think then?

Both stories are equally true, and in the final accounting, they add up to a bigger truth, an unexpected life, a story worth telling.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


15 Responses to The Middle Distance, 4/1/11: Songs of Innocence & Experience

  1. Rose Enyeart says:

    Sometimes the truth is something that needs to be cleaned up so that it can be shown to company. I so got the point.

  2. Liz says:

    I agree with Rose, and I also think that the “truth” comes from the person experiencing it. Each person brings a different history to an event or a lived experience, and that history tints the experience with the color of their lives and past – making it theirs. Someone else may have a whole different take on the same event because they see it through their own experiential filter. It is still “true” for both people.
    You’re a wonderful story-teller, Kathryn!

  3. Sarah says:

    Truth and filters. I learned about truths a bit in high school when I was taking my History Higher (sort of like an English A-Level, but Scottish). We would read accounts of events in different books and they never matched. Information was filtered depending on the agenda of the author. Then again about 10 years ago, a former school friend got very drunk and killed a family in front of their husband/father. I read every article I could find and again, the stories differed, sometimes very dramatically.
    One of my favourite stories I used to tell before I came to the U.S. and found that few people thought it appropriate at all to tell, was that I got the scars on my knees from falling off the back of a slow moving tractor while inebriated. I did ride on a slow moving tractor that day, but got squiffy later and ran down a hill and tripped over my own feet.
    Kathryn, I love your wedding story particularly, today. It sounds like it was magical. My dad didn’t come to my wedding either.

  4. Paula says:

    I’d know that walk anywhere, Ted and Grandad walked just alike. When I got married at 19, dad didn’t come either, I was going against his wishes. The saga continues.

  5. Sarah says:

    That is a sublimely beautiful photography, by the way!

  6. Tiffany says:

    I’m currently deep into the idea of ‘solo adventure’. We each do truly walk our path individually. No other person on this planet will ever think the same thoughts, see the same details, or tell the same stories in the exact same way that we do. There are infinite versions of truth.

  7. Tracy Mobley-Martinez says:

    I’ve come to question what truth really is. AS Liz suggested, my truth, my judgement is so limited. I’ve realized that I’ve made so many assumptions based on … what? … on my own observations combined with my own baggage, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any kind of truth.

  8. Elise says:

    I also find it fascinating to see how the story changes as I look back from farther and farther away – my perspective is so different from here.
    In Anonymous fellowships it’s awe-inspiring to hear folks laugh together over horrific events that wouldn’t be funny to anyone outside those rooms – since we all relate to the events and are on the other side of them, our formerly shameful experiences become hilarious and a source of hope.

  9. Isabel says:

    What a wonderful story teller you are. I remember many long years ago going downtown with my mother-in-law. On our return she told about something we had seen and I had absolutley no idea what she was talking about! We had never left each other, but she saw an event totally different than I.

  10. Lynn Young says:

    It’s “up” for the telling, isn’t it? Ripe for the picking, too. I find it tremendously freeing to remember and realize with full consciousness (or, fuller by the day) that I get to choose the telling. I get to choose the story. I get to choose the meaning. And there as many entrees/lenses to that story as stars in the sky. There’s so much power and freedom in that. Like Tiffany and Liz said—we each have our own. Good for you, Kathryn, for opening the door. To claiming more. Allowing it all. And we walk in. We look. We look again, seeing differently. Telling more boldly. First ourselves. And possibly the world. I honor your journey. I love the invitation this is for all of us—to re-enter. To see anew. And begin to tell the story that needs to be told. That wants to be told. That both we and the world long to hear. I’m blessed today by your words.

  11. BarbiCoast says:

    Thank you for the very personal & familiar stories about the woods & cars & absentee Dads; Spin the bottle in the woods, the Drive In, the Parties, sneaking into pools at night, farmer’s wine, football games…memories of High School now edited by time. Our past does form our perception of truth. We were so innocent! How much fun we had & how much we have learned since then!
    I was lucky my MoM & Dad were there for me when I married at 21. They were gone 3 yrs later.

  12. Marsha Benell Adams says:

    I was at this wedding with my then husband Spike and our son Brett who was about 21 months. I thought it was beautiful and I loved it al fresco. We had not met you and had only seen Ted once at that point. I am Paula’s sister and I lived in Pearland for 18 years and went back to Memphis in 2004-2006. I tried to work there so I could be near my son Brett but I just could not do it. I have loved Galveston for many years. Your path and mine, geographically anyway, have crossed. I lost my ex-husband Spike in January of this year. He lived in Nashville. I went to the funeral and unexpectedly got upset.Glad I finally wrote you. Marsha Adams

  13. Libby says:

    Always insightful, thought-provoking, and beautifully written, Kathryn! As a journalist aiming for “objectivity”, I early nevertheless was reminded that I chose my leads. Now writing my 25-year memoir, I can contribute that when an individual deliberately and consistently is lied to, denied the factual truths of her own “life”, she is left to struggle to piece together clear memories and fumble through a fog of painful perceptions, as onlookers refuse even acknowledgment, but freely and incessantly present conditions, “choices”, expectations, and consequences and merely urge, “Move on!”

  14. Lisa says:

    It’s hard to say if the mythology of youth is less ‘true’ than the truth of our 50’s. When I was young I subscribed to the Aussie wisdom to “…never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” I can still be creative when telling an my tales, but from this age I see everything differently. My middle aged eyes seem to see the past more fearlessly, with a willingness to expose my own vulnerability. It’s much less romantic, sometimes not nearly as funny, and often contains personal pain. But I find a raw beauty in the new versions of my stories. It’s almost cleansing. It’s also a great gift and incredibly brave when someone you love tells an old tale, newly stripped and authentic. Thanks Kathryn, for reaching out to all of us with your beautifully raw and open heart.

  15. Nancy Kensinger says:

    Well said kathy


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