Brand building through storytelling

There’s no such thing as a boring life

Every summer around this time, my friend Elaine gathers her girlfriends for a raucous dinner party in her garden. As night falls and the wine makes its third or fourth circuit around the table (not that anyone is counting), our hostess clinks her glass with her fork. It’s time for the Great Question she’s been honing—the one we’ll have to answer one by one, standing up the way we did to give oral reports back in primary school.

The GQ’s precise wording changes from year to year. But we always know one thing for sure: unlike questions posed by Mrs. So-and-so, Elaine’s questions can’t be answered with a tidy recitation of facts. We’re going to have to tell a story about how our lives have changed since last summer. “I don’t have much to tell,” some women protest. “My life is pretty boring.”

I’ve always believed there is no such thing as a boring life. As a journalist, I’ve had countless opportunities to test that hypothesis. For the most part, I’ve interviewed people who’d been all but invisible to the world at large until I came along with my spiral notebook. My attention both touched and embarrassed them. “Are you sure anyone’s going to care about this?” they would ask.

I always gave the same answer: “I care. And if I care, my readers will, too.”

Women learn early to bite their tongues and let other people have the floor. We’re so well trained in solicitude that we often need permission to speak. That’s what Elaine’s party provides every summer. There’s nothing like the rapt attention of 20, 30 or (this year) 40 women to prove that one year in an ordinary life holds a story worth telling— story that gains power and resonance from similar stories told around the table, or remembered from the previous year, because they make a fitting answer to any of Elaine’s GQs.

I found a job I love so much, it doesn’t even feel like work. I lost my job and now it seems I don’t have a place in the world. I’ve met the most wonderful man. I’ve just broken up with the world’s biggest cad. My youngest is off to university and I’m discovering how freedom feels. My kids have moved back home and to be honest, they’re cramping my style.

This year’s GQ was, “What was the best thing that’s happened to you since last summer, and what was the worst?” For me the two were linked, like the right hand and the left hand holding a thorny bouquet. Last September I published my first book and thought as I turned the pages, “Hey, I’m a better writer than I thought I was, and this is the best work I’ve ever produced, of any kind.”

Among those who turned out for the launch party was my best friend, who had read some early chapters and assured me I was onto something. Wishing me well on my upcoming book tour, she looked a good 10 years younger than her age. No one would have guessed that she had an aggressive, still-undiagnosed cancer–or that four months later she would die.

She was not the first of my friends to die prematurely, but the earlier deaths had seemed freakish to me. “This won’t happen again for a long, long time,” I would tell myself, redrawing the circle of invincibility around myself and the people I loved. When Val died, this reassuring magic failed me. I had reached the stage of life in which death becomes shockingly frequent. I lost another friend within months of losing Val. This is how it’s going to be from now on. I know that, but I can’t accept it.

At Elaine’s first girlfriends party 20 years ago, death played a walk-on role in the proceedings. We were mostly about 40 then, still young enough to hope that rigorous workouts and heaping portions of leafy greens could give us a shot at immortality. Things look different now. That last moonlit evening, woman after woman told of losing someone, a parent or a friend.

I turned to my seatmate, a handsome and vigorous woman whose hair was as white as her swoosh of a sundress, “If you could live forever, would you want to?”

She said, “Yes, of course, if I could keep my health.”

I told her I’d have said the same thing a year ago. But why be immortal if everyone I love can’t be immortal too? Besides, if I thought I had forever to take bold steps, I’d keep deferring them all until “someday.” I’d still be nursing a grudge against my sister. I’d never have written my book for fear that it might disappoing me.

As I write this, Elaine and 16 of her friends are climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. At the summit they’ll celebrate her 60th birthday. No “someday” for this group–and no showers, beds or toilets for eight days, either. Just thinking of what they’re giving up makes my scalp crawl and my bones ache. I’d rather wish them well from afar, and wait for the stories they’ll be sharing in the garden.


Posted by Rona

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