Thursday, October 7, 2010

Telling Stories


Tell me a story, Mommy, puhleeeeeezzzzzzzzzzzzze!!!!

It's a win-win situation.  There's a human being who wants to listen to you talk, who will give you her undivided attention, and who really doesn't mind if you repeat yourself.  In fact, she'd probably rather that you repeat yourself, if only to catch you when you leave out a word.  In that moment, there is comfort and ease and a sense of peace unlike any other I know.  It's ritualistic in a good way.  And it's been going on forever.

I know very little about my grandparents' lives, but I have some stories.  Bubba and the sailor ... my grandmother in London... there's a picture of the times as well as the women that emerges from these tales.  They are, as I think of it, both stories of sea voyages, just like the Aeneid

What?? you say.  My family lore ranks with the story of the founding of Rome?  How dare I make such a comparison.  Well, denizens, allow me to share the lesson I learned this morning in class.

I'd never considered the fact that there is more than 1000 years between Homer's creation of the Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid.  I think I'd defaulted to they are all old and never thought any more about it.  They were legends, tales of the past, oral histories that amused the ancients around their hearth fires. Then I went to class.

Today I saw clearly how the telling and retelling of Rome's origins through the Aeneid was part and parcel of the fabric of the Empire.  Who were the Romans, after the decline of the democracy, the death of Caesar and the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra?  The Aeneid was their leitmotif, the thread running through their society, the link that bound them together.  It is a story of love and loss and death and rebirth.  Woven into the epic events are the underpinnings of what it meant to be Roman, of how a Roman viewed the world.

The same can be said of my grandmothers' stories, I think.  What did it mean to be a member of my family?  What were our values, our strengths, our touchstones?  "Not taking no for an answer" is certainly at or near the top.  If you want something, you go about getting it, and obstacles are merely minor impediments to attaining your goal.  Please don't tell my 10 year old grandmother that she is staying in London; she's on her way to NYC before you can turn your head.  The details of the story are funny, but the underlying message takes on an importance I'd never realized until this morning.  My grandmothers lived for nearly 200 years all told, and from all those years these stories of survival on their own terms are the ones that were told to me. 

There had to be a reason, even if it was not obvious to anyone at the time.  Like the Aeneid, they resonated with the teller and his audience, striking familiar chords that helped them define themselves in place and time.  The stories are places of refuge; you can get lost in the rhythm and forget the content, or you can ride the wave of the narrative and revel in the certainty of the outcome.  In a time of confusion, of creating a new self, a new nation, a new way of looking at the world, the old stories serve a real and valuable purpose.  In their steadfast adherence to truths, they provide the audience with a  beginning point. 

Concur, reject, disagree, delight - do what ever you will with the information provided..... just remember that everyone else started from the same place, hearing the same stories, and taking them where individual differences might lie.  If our American story includes the Boston Tea Party, then perhaps we all ought to remember that Sam Adams and his pals were ruffians, rabble-rousers, fans of the dramatic gesture.  They were not the thoughtful pragmatists meeting in Philadelphia.  They were taking action and taking it now.   Fast-forward 200+ years and we have a new Tea Party.  Are they ne'er do wells, looking for a fight?  Are they so angry that they can't take it any more?  Should those who agree with their aims denounce their tactics? I don't know that there are right or wrong answers, but I do know that no matter what you decide you are hearing the same leitmotif. 

Remember how we felt on September 12, 2001?  We were all Americans then.  Our story had a new chapter and we told it, over and over and over again, as we used it to make sense of the world around us.  Some things never change, I guess.

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