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.

The Facebook Birthday Wish-Frenzy

I rarely step out of bed in the morning feeling grouchy, but today it’s happening. The Facebook birthday wish frenzy is getting ridiculous. I’m one known to chipperly get my kids up on dreary mornings, turn on music, light candles, make us breakfast and exclaim encouraging words. I look for the sunrise to bless and announce another day of opportunities. And that’s normal for during the week around here. But today that’s just ruined and so not happening. I’m feeling annoyed. That’s my status, if you should care.

It’s 7am, the sun is not shining despite the forecast, and I have just realized I came late to my mother’s Facebook birthday wish bash.

I hardly ever think of Facebook as a burden, or dumb, although I do occasionally say it is a potential downright waste of time. I admit this by now antiquated blue and white social networking website has become my default choice of down-time, rather than, say, TV for example. I’ve even been dubbed by some similarly aged friends who couldn’t be bothered as a total Facebooker-hooker with my frequent turning of tricks. But the ease and dare I say pressure of wishing everyone and their cousin (fine, mine, too) “Happy Birthday” on Facebook is getting to me.

FB-Notifications

Aside from reminding me I am a mormon for having forgotten it’s my mother’s birthday until the I see the 9 million other people having posted greetings before me on her timeline, (never mind the 6 hr time-lag; she’s in Norway and I’m in the US; I’m her daughter!), I am feeling the accumulated pressure of all the friends’ birthdays I chose to ignore by not clicking my way onto their timelines, helping them feel like the center of the universe for a few precious cyber space nano-seconds. Whatever that is.

The solution here is simple, and I know it: stop checking Facebook before I get out of bed in the morning (the horror!); and when I do go on at the two designated times during the day I will allot myself (to wean me from behaving like an addicted lab-rat running back and forth to the divinely but arbitrarily drug laden food dish 600 times an hour looking for “the” stimulus), simply notice all the reminders of birthday wishes, be happy for them and for all the posting friends, and then step away from the car, eh, I mean screen. How zen.

Just like I know I should floss daily, eat less, exercise more and drink water.

Only water.

Incidentally, as I type these last words, the sun is rising in the horizon and I’m thinking my mom’s feeling happy being remembered by people who care from all over the world on her birthday, Facebook and all.

And I haven’t even stepped out of bed yet.

Facebook Birthdays