On most ordinary days I find at least once or twice reason to intensely dislike my fellow humanity. And it was a day as most ordinary days. The speeding jerk on the highway, the pushy person in line, any news headline. (Oh, that thing from last week about me being more equable? Yeah, it’s a work in progress.)
But as the day sputtered toward bedtime, I watched an episode of Call the Midwife, and I remembered a movie had just seen whose characters stayed with me, and I read a few pages of a book of a conversation between a poet and a scientist, and a story I heard on the radio. I realized that it is story that makes me feel better about humanity. Story, real or imagined, the tellers, paid or published or overheard — are stories are the best of us. They are the roots and vines that connect us in our isolation.
Through story, the stranger becomes familiar, family, if the story invokes in us at least sympathy, at best empathy. Stories invite us to imagine ourselves as others. Even if our final conclusion is that the storyteller other is nothing like us, in that act of imagination, we have connected. We are born alone and die alone and the rest of life is about trying to connect across that isolation.
History is all story. Even a factual list of the dead in a certain battle, or the passenger list of a ship crossing the sea is a story of sorts. We only understand the past through memory and story. Through story we remember and misremember, edit and expand, conflate, repress, and try to make sense of the series of random events that is our life. History and story come from the same root, words meaning inquiry, knowing, to know. An even older word for story is tale from Old Norse roots meaning talk. Few conversations don’t involve at some point telling a tale. Even talking about what to have for dinner might involve my husband saying well, we could have this or that, but remember, last time I made it, it turned out too whatever. The tale of our meals is informing our talk. To talk is to tell, an old word itself, coming to us from the same root, but by way of “to count” or make an account.
Would it be step too far to say making story of history is a way to discern meaning? Can there be said to be meaning in our series of random events?
Everything is fiction, in a sense. The etymology of fiction is from a word meaning form. Through history we form a story of what has happened to us, and we offer it up to each other. Why? I think to try to determine if we are unique — and for some stories we may want to be, or if we are in company — and for some stories, we yearn for the other person to say, yes, I have experienced that too. And we listen to stories for the same reason — to identify our own outlines and to feel out the contours where we fit snug next to the outlines of others. To tell if we can count ourselves not quite so much the lonely sum of one.
I don’t read much fiction anymore. There was a time that I couldn’t imagine not reading fiction. Crazy! But somehow what’s made up has become less compelling to me than what someone has made of their experiences — not just memoir, but science, nature writing. I’ve even read some history now and then, to learn the story someone else has made of other people’s stories. I appreciate the imagination that fiction writers call forth, but I often find the situations contrived, the characters silly and even more tiresome than real people, the structures creative for the purpose of being different but not necessarily serving a good telling of a tale. (Somehow I’m more open to the fiction of a good TV or Netflix series? Hm. That feels blasphemous.) I know I’m being close-minded, and I do venture into fiction now and then, just to make sure I’m not missing anything. But when I go to the library, it’s the poetry, essay, and science writing aisles I’m drawn to first, just to see what’s new, to discover someone new, someone who will help me feel connected.