The Stories We Tell

I believe we can’t survive without telling stories. Stories sustain us! Think about it: historically, homo sapiens have defined, known and perpetuated their families, clans, tribes and eventually nations through story telling. Let me repeat: people’s survival has traditionally depended on story telling. Stories not only feed our internal lives, but help give meaning to our external lives. And they connect us.

But no other time in human history have families and friends lived in more physically disconnected ways than we do today. We are scattered, and even when we live in the same town, Sue is over here in her little kitchen and her mom, sister or friend is over there, in her little (or huge) kitchen. We don’t meet over the fire anymore. The men don’t go hunting together anymore. They don’t even go to the market together. We pass each other in parking lots, send a tweet or a chat, Skype if we’re lucky. I’m on WhatsApp with my family and friends trying to tell them my story and the story of my sons’ lives…

The industrial and technological revolutions, prosperity and progress – all things we welcome and enjoy – are among the phenomena that have allowed us to build (sometimes grand but usually smaller) forts for ourselves, inside which we exist, generally, in isolation.

“Technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories,” Laurie Anderson has said. I can’t tell you how much time I spend around my campfire, but it’s cold and grey with only a dim light, and it doesn’t smell smokey and awesome. I do, however, feel connected when I share my stories around that campfire, although it’s a sad replacement for peeling veggies next to my loved ones sharing stories, or learning to pluck chickens or knead dough next to someone who will share insights into lives lived and memorable incidents near and far, while feathers fly or flour rises above our heads in clouds.

We may wonder less why we have what has been called a “memoir craze,” and why we are raising a generation of what Hamilton calls “robotic insta-memoirists”? I for one certainly get it.

I recently overheard a man of a certain age complain about how even in cookbooks today, there are multi-paragraph personal stories attached to or intermingled with the recipe-lists and how-to descriptions. He waxed nostalgic over “the way cookbooks used to be in the old days. Straightforward.” That’s when I had to chime in and add my humble insight as to why I think we – as a culture – are basking in this seemingly self-absorbent genre of telling stories where we desperately seek to implicate ourselves into some meaning that extends beyond the walls of our fort. In isolation our existence looses its meaning.

The Zulu philosophy Ubuntu comes to mind here, and it teaches this concept: I am because of you.

There is a growing market for personal essays, which can be seen, in effect, as attempts at letting the other know about you. We find personal essays in literary magazines, newspapers, popular magazines, trade and professional journals, thematic anthologies with writings by selected authors and book-length collections by individual authors. Often, publishers of fiction will ask their authors to publish a personal story or essay in order to boost the sales of the novel. Imagine that. Because readers care about the story of the real person behind the imagined story. Who is this creator, this imaginative being? Tell me something about you.

“This experience of being constantly exposed to other people’s life stories is matched only by the inexhaustible eagerness of people to tell their life stories—and not just on the phone,” notes Daniel Mendelsohn in “But Enough About Me” (The New Yorker, January 2010). I have a friend who survived Auschwitz and she is now in her 90s. You can’t get through to her on the phone, because she spends much of her day eagerly telling her story to family and friends who live near and far. I am sure she has repeated it many times to the same people, and they ask to hear about it again. She is passing on her family saga, in all its tragedy of destruction and glory of survival.

In his essay “The Problem With the Problem With the Memoir” (The Rumpus 2013), Stephen Elliot notes that critics of memoir and the personal essay claim that most people’s lives are not that interesting: “In other words, your life is not interesting enough for a memoir. I would dispute that,” Elliot says, “Most people’s lives are very interesting but most people don’t look at their lives in an interesting way. The unexamined life is never interesting.”

So the sharing mechanisms of the personal narrative are evolving in all their imaginable – and available to us – permutations. Phone, email, Skype, Snapchat, Instagram, Tweet, and not to mention Facebook. Anything to share our story, even in tiny snippets and fragments.

Does a “status update” really tell a story? What does it mean when Annie is “feeling anxious” or John is “feeling happy.” Do I really care, and does it matter? Well, if it’s about your friend and you have an imagination, it very well might. To you. Since you are because of the other. Ubuntu.

Around the dinner table last week, in Maine, I sat across from an Indian woman who told me, “We used to sit around and tell stories. That’s what we did. I’d go to my grandma’s house and all they did was to tell stories.” I send my aunt links to my writings, and she sends me long-form emails about her going ons. We do our best. And occasionally we get together in Norway at her summer house around lots of candles and the midnight sun, and there, to the glow and warmth of what I like to imagine is our existential campfire, we sustain if only for a night, a deeper sense of what being a family and being alive means to us.

On Prostituting Myself

…in the doctor’s office.

Today, I was wearing a hospital gown and having my body minutely examined by a melanoma expert when I held her hostage making her listen to a reading from my blog. Not exactly a literary environment; there were digital pictures of my body splayed on a big computer screen and a medical assistant clicking her way through all 83 of them in conjunction with the doc checking each one with a loupe. All I could think of was how much she would enjoy my blog about my ex-husband’s underwear.

Standing there naked on a platform in front of her and her assistant is one of those truthful moments when you just can’t care about anything anymore; apparently I (or any of us high-riskers) can have malignant moles in our pubis, our mouth cavity and our scalp. So you get it? Anyone who has given birth really would get it. No barriers. Just let it go.

But I wanted her to enjoy my humorous blog while we were at it.

We have fun during these bi-annual examinations; we laugh and exchange brief pleasantries about life and love. Since I have been this cutting edge melanoma expert’s patient for some 20 years, she asks about my kids. my divorce, my career, my writing. She’s got it down pat; she’s smooth. She admits to being slightly OCD and the pace in the office is…how shall I put it… high volume and high energy. Before she enters the room, I hear her draw a deep breath outside the door to my examination room. She’s on a roll and she’s a leader. She doesn’t have a minute to waste. I wonder what it’s like to be her and I feel slightly overwhealmed.

Six months ago her hair was a distinguished salt and pepper. I’m guessing she’s in her late fifties-early sixties; slender, quick moving, wearing horned rimmed glasses and now a headband with a neat dark dyed bob. Gone are the sexy grays of last summer, but her daughter gave her ultimatum, she told me. No gray. So the gray is gone.

Last time I was here – disrobed, examined –  I gave them both my blog-card. A colorful, creative thick stock business card announcing something creative and, I hope, curious. A never ending pusher of my writing, I take any opportunity I can get to promote my blog.  “Oh, I remember that,” said the assistant, “I have the card on my desk, next to my computer.” Ok. But have you looked at my blog? Have you read any of my pieces? Are you a follower? Have I amused you, entertained you, puzzled you for just a minute of your day? 

Because that is what I yearn to do. Affect someone’s day in a minute way. Someone’s moment. Momentarily.

So I told them I’d read them my blog about my ex-husband’s underwear while they were finishing up scrutinizing my skin and it’s clumps of malanin. I fished the blog up on my iPhone and, seated at the edge of the examination table, I inhaled deeply and thought I might read it all in one long emphatic breath.

They were supposed to continue their examination; but oh, how I loved it when the doc stopped in her tracks and just froze in front of me, a gleeful look on her face while I rapidly read the blog like a kid reciting a poem too quickly in front of the principal at a timed and graded school event. At just the right moments I thought I heard them sigh, “hm” in affirmation and giggle at my verbal twists and turns; my observations about life, love, hurt, and…laundry.

It ended before it had even begun. My impromptu reading and performance was done before I could say ‘boo” and the doc matter-of-faclty asked me to lift up my foot. She checked between my toes for mysterious moles.”You write well” she added in passing while swiftly making observational notes to the assistant, relevant to my body, not my blog.

Then she left the room with a smile and some check-marks on the billing sheet, reminding me to make another appointment in 6-months time. My four minutes of what felt like redemption and release was over. It was, I realized this before it even began, a quickie in all senses of the word.

The situation I put myself in to have an audience…To have my writing heard. My words listened to. Really? I told her it exhilarated me as much as it shamed me, because it was as if I held my doctor and her assistant hostage in the examining room so that they would listen to me read my own blog. “Just tell them you had a situation in the room,” I said as I decided to do the reading and fumbled with my phone. I thought I saw them nodding eagerly.

I shared my writing with two more people today. But I think I paid them, so maybe I wasn’t the prostitute after all? Life can be confusing.

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To Share in the Shearing

A good friend of mine has cancer.  She recently asked me to take her to the hairdresser to have her hair shaved off, or what remained of it. After weeks of chemo treatment, and as the poison is hard at work in the fight, she seems to take the many side effects in stride. The pragmatist that she is –  both down to earth and far from vain –  the hair loss thing is the least of her troubles. “I cover my head now mostly for other people’s sake,” she said with a smiling but tired face the first time I saw her wearing a colorful knit hat, made by a friend, enveloping her balding head. She was sprawled on the couch under a cozy blanket, pellet stove going, with yet another friend visiting. She doesn’t have to say it. We all know she has bad days, followed by awful days, and then a few decent days; maybe even a good afternoon here and there.

The day of the scheduled “shearing” I know she rallies to find the energy, since she told me the night had been restless and spent partially on the loo – her body telling her the new anti-nausea drug did not go over as well as hoped. Comfortably installed in the barber’s chair, the clippers turned on to make that familiar buzzing sound (I have three boys, I know this sound but with such other associations), the hairdresser is herself a cancer survivor and handles the situation with such grace I feel I am observing an angel at work. Her hands running swiftly and gently over my friend’s head, she speaks candidly and quietly about her own ordeal from hair diva to hairless warrior. Just quietly enough for it to be a private conversation, but loud enough to include me, as I sit in a chair on the side watching the remaining thin locks gently fall from my brave friend’s now well defined round fuzzy head and down to the floor. They agree it feels better like this. Bald. Honest.

Bald is beautiful

It just so happens that there is a wig store next door, five feet away. “Will you get a wig?” the hairdresser asks after telling the newly hairless warrior her new ‘do is on the house. “I wasn’t planning on it,” my friend replies, looking at her, then me, seeming perfectly open to any and all suggestions. “Your insurances covers a chunk, so why not see if you find one you like?” the pro offers, adding that she herself found it had come in handy on what might have been called “bad hair days” other times, but now were just days when it would be ok with some hair. Sure enough, after a brief visit next door and some fun modeling of every style from “your husband might like this long blonde one”(coming from me), to “absolutely not,” and “no, no, no, this one makes me look like so and so”(coming from her), the perfect fit finally found its new owner and we stepped out into the warm spring afternoon, mission completed. She even got some colorful bandana head wraps for balmy summer days, thanks to the owner of the wig-salon’s deft insurance knowledge and helpfulness; another lovely spirit so obviously sensitive to the her clientele’s situation.

Wigs

Thinking all this shearing sharing and wig-sampling might have exhausted the now hairy warrior, I ask if she feels like some lunch or if she is totally pooped after our successful hit on hairdo-row. “They fill me up on drugs to counter the horrible feelings caused by the chemo, but some times even these ‘good’ drugs make me feel terrible,” she offers with a sigh. “But today, I think some soup would be good. I feel like Thai.” I pull away from the curb and gladly head toward my favorite Thai place a few blocks down, and we start to compare notes on different Thai restaurants in town, getting our shared foodie palates into an excitable mode. Smacking our lips, we decide to hold off with the pedicures until next week.

One day at a time, of counting the blessings of such simple things as being able to enjoy a hot bowl of soup, of perhaps sleeping comfortably through the night, and feeling the longed for warmth of the spring sun while sharing a laugh or two with a good friend. Of course, I too count those blessings with my friend, being privileged to have shared such a meaningful afternoon, otherwise just a regular spring day.

Thai soup