March 30, 2010

Small Town Punk

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Story telling is representation and augmentation; it is reality and something beyond that. “Punk” Lawrence House stood in front of a group of about one hundred familiar faces on Mar. 22 to share his stories about a small town in Maine: his town, and my town. In an atypical start to my spring break, I sat in the basement of the Turner Public Library, among an audience in which I was the youngest, to listen to this man recount the history of our town in a series of personal stories.

“Punk,” now retired, used to run a corner store owned first by his father and his grandfather before that. His narratives weaved in and out of this small establishment, as did, I began to imagine, the many people who frequented his store. It seemed many of his former customers were even in the audience. “Punk, remind me where you got your nickname,” someone called out shortly into his talk, which quickly turned into an enumeration of all the town appellations: Tink, Peaches, Orange Blossom.

It seemed that his store was the center of town (perhaps an implicit prejudice of the person speaking) and that it was the place where gossip was told and made. Punk said he kept a nickel nailed to the floor of his store so that people would lean down and try to pick it up. But as time, currency and the frugality of his customers changed he had to nail down a quarter to make his practical joke worth the while.

In listening to Punk recount the past, I was drawn in to the romanticism of his stories, nostalgic images of a time which had seemingly gone by. They reminded me of some of the stories my grandfather would tell me on his farm which had housed the Leavitt family for three generations, or of when my sister and I would trudge through snow up to our ten year old chests just to get some hot chocolate at our neighbor’s house. No, these moments did not make up my childhood, which (if they had) would seem to have occurred in the 1950’s. Yet they evoked a coherent set of memories from my own experience — a kind of idealized version of my life which was linked by an unconscious understanding of the idea Punk was communicating.

But, since it had only been two days since I left the ivory tower and returned home to Maine, his stories also made me cognizant of a contrast that I had only sensed before.  The smell of molasses, the warmth of a wood stove and the virtue of a family owned farm stand — all of which I would call, though not necessarily my experience, my culture — feels incongruent with my experience at Cornell. Convinced of the moral decadence of an age plagued by facebook, we, at the university and in the present in general, too often forget that we also can tell stories, that our lives too might be romantic or idealized. We cannot be sure that our parents or grandparents’ experiences were as grand as their recounting of them is now, but it is precisely in the telling that they become so.

Yet, our academic concern with reality too often makes us wary of stories which we assume are mere rhetoric and creation. We assume that, even if an event occurred, the telling of it does not represent the event itself. However, one can imagine Punk, whose customers came into the store expecting not just groceries, but stories, played his coin trick while thinking precisely of the story he could tell afterwards. In this way, the foreknowledge of story-telling changes the event itself. A walk through the plantations, a late night at the library or even a frat party can take on a new meaning if only we think of the stories they could become.

One can only know with certainty what stories spark our own consciousnesses. I doubt that Punk’s anecdotes would have ignited the idealized imagination for everyone in the same way they did mine. And precisely because of this, this article (though it could have) does not mean to preach the moral superiority of some sort of simple, rural life. Rather I want to communicate that, even in our academic education, it is important to value the knowledge and the power of imagination. Intellectual realism does not need to be separate from stories and idealization that, if good, are precisely based in reality. And perhaps it is in the fusion of these two things that we can reach the highest forms of knowledge. For if not in the experience, at least in the telling — if not in the moment, at least in the nostalgic moments that follow — there is the opportunity to reach beyond experience into our pasts, our desires and ourselves.

Original Author: Caiden Leavitt