A Many-Stranded Thing

I looked around at my fellow passengers on a plane recently and thought, as I often have, “Everyone has a story.”  Each person there was in the middle of something—preparing for an interview, traveling to visit a dying parent, fundraising for a non-profit, taking kids to Disneyland, honeymooning, celebrating retirement.  The events that got them to that flight that day unfolded in the context of complicated lives full of turnings and decision points, disappointments and completions and new beginnings.  Each of them could have told not one story, but many.  

Life is not a novel or a five-act drama with rising and falling action, climax and denouement and resolution.  No matter what disasters have befallen, it’s not a tragedy.  It’s not a comedy, either.  All our literary forms offer us ways of re-imagining and telling our stories, and each of those stories represents a thread in a rich weave whose patterns we don’t, while we are in the thick of them, have the perspective to see whole.  That will come when “our revels are ended.”  

In the meantime, which is where we live, we find ways to tell our stories to ourselves, to one another, to our children, and to God, and those stories change, depending on what moves us to tell them.  This past week, after learning that a member of my family had been diagnosed with cancer, close friends quietly emerged to tell their stories of cancer, treatment, and recovery as offerings of hope.  They don’t, any of them, invest their whole identity in being “cancer survivors,” but their stories of survival are a bright thread in the complex weave of the variegated lives they continue to live.  Young mothers tell each other stories of motherhood, braiding a rope they can cling to when they find themselves at the end of their own.  Soldiers tell war stories—those who have not been shocked into prolonged silence by witnessing what no humans should have to see.  Their stories are, as I understand from a few veterans, carefully edited; there are things they are willing to speak only to others who were there in the foxholes or hiding in bombed-out buildings or holding one end of a stretcher where a best friend lay dying.  Parents tell stories that have been passed down like family treasures, if they’re lucky enough to receive and hold them in trust for a time.  I know people adopted as infants who, though grateful for the lives and families they got, live with a quiet chronic sorrow for the loss of stories they’ll never have.

Stories matter immensely, but no one story tells it all.  Our stories shift a little in each telling.  As one poet put it, “The past keeps changing.”  It is good to follow a thread, stringing particular events together and seeing what may be revealed in the pattern that emerges, but it is not good to enshrine one particular version of any human story as inviolable “whole” truth.  We never tell the whole truth, because we don’t have access to it.  If we speak with integrity we tell what we believe and see to be true from where we stand, faithful to the facts as we know them, trying to clarify our motives for telling, to modify our claims appropriately, and to imagine what in our own stories might be of service to those who hear or read them.  

I’ve always been interested in why biographers (and some autobiographers) write a second or third (or in Lincoln’s case fifteen thousandth) version of a life story.  Frederick Douglass wrote and published three very different versions of his life story, the first, in 1845, focused on his escape from slavery.  The second, in 1855, focuses more on his life as a free man, though incorporating events from his life as a slave.  The third, written in 1882, includes a long post-war period of celebrity and new dimensions of the struggle for freedom, whose very definition had become far more complicated.   For any of us there is more to tell as life gets longer, but there is also more to tell because what we have already told has assumed new meaning, or perhaps less significance relative to subsequent defining events.  

Conversion narratives offer a good example of how a defining event rearranges everything else into “before” and “after.” Over the centuries since St. Augustine wrote one of the earliest and most celebrated in that genre they have become conventionalized as exemplary or instructive tales or spiritual legacies or testimonies to God’s grace or chronicles of repeated temptation, fall, repentance and return.  Twelve-step programs offer similar templates for examining and accounting for one’s own life that clarify particular steps in the long process of recovery after a life-changing moment of reckoning.  Each story told in those settings provides its own kind of guidance up that steep path.

As I prepare to teach a short course on approaches to spiritual autobiography for New College, Berkeley this spring, I find myself newly aware of the huge and growing body of personal history we have to draw on.  We need the work of professional historians to give us informed perspectives on wars and peacemaking, nation-building and exploration, scientific discovery and imperial failure.  But just as much, we need the stories of the unsung—people who have found their way through depression or poverty, people who have learned something about how to make the daily round of suburban errands redemptive, people who have learned how to pray.

Over the years since writing my first book, A Healing Art, about autobiographies written to emerge from shattering life crises, I have taught a number of courses on the art of autobiography, each time learning something new.  One assignment I have given repeatedly in those courses is this three-part exercise:  1) Write a short version of your story (in bullet points if you like) as a story of loss.  2)  Rewrite it as a story about discoveries or achievements.  3)  Write it again as a story about grace.  

Everyone, it turns out, can string together losses, and may find as they do how losses have led them to turning points or brought them to terms with life in new ways, how losses have reshaped their self-understanding or led them to see how sorrow itself may be, for a time, a vocation:  some are called to be among those blessed who mourn.  Tracking moments of discovery or achievement can also be surprising and revealing—never just a steady record of progress (whatever that is) but a path through thickets and into clearings, occasionally leading to clearings with wide vistas.  And life as a story of grace can become an empowering statement of faith as one recalls how gifts, unexpected and sometimes unrecognized until much later, have been given all along the way:  the right person has shown up in a moment of need, or just the right amount of money, or a job we didn’t even apply for, or an illness or unplanned pregnancy that yielded, albeit at great cost, blessing that might not have come in any other way. 

Spiritual autobiography includes classics called “confessions” and collections of vignettes like those Blessed Julian of Norwich called “showings”—moments of direct revelation.  It includes harrowing stories of escape by the grace of God like Mary Rowlandson’s “capitivity narrative,” or of long pursuit by the “hound of heaven,” as Francis Thompson puts it in his long poem about the “tremendous lover” whose right hand holds us even if we fly to the “uttermost parts of the sea.”  Spiritual autobiography includes humble accounts of how menial tasks have taught the “practice of the presence of God” like those we have from Brother Lawrence or St. Thérèse of Lisieux.  

I think often of how people’s stories, so various and beautiful and complex, repetitive and innovative and quirky and predictable and surprising, provide evidence again and again of the consoling fact Christian Wiman explores in his playful, profound poem, “Every Riven Thing.”  It starts with lines one might pause over for some time before going further on the winding path the poem traces:  “God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made / sing his being simply by being / the thing it is . . .”  We are those riven things.  We bear the scars no adult is without; sometimes they are deep fissures or caverns thick with shadows.  But simply by being, we bring our energies, our “song,” into the world because while we are on this journey, as Richard Wilbur put it, “Love calls us to the things of this world.”  We are called forth by name and our stories unfold before us our own in a sense, but not our inventions: rather we discover them as they unfold, witnessed and held in God’s gaze.  

In the later years of her long life I asked my mother now and then whether she had thought about writing her story.  She had told me many stories about what seemed to me a rich and interesting life as a young child of an aged pioneer father in the California desert, a young womanhood as a missionary working at a school for orphans in India, a midlife spent teaching school and caring for family in a three-generation household with little money and lots of conversation, as a faithful deacon, a visitor of the sick, a mentor to numerous friends, a mother, foster mother and grandmother whose open heart included many other people’s children.  I was quite surprised when on one of those occasions she responded, “Oh, honey, I don’t really have much of a story to tell.”  God had been faithful, life had been good, difficulties had been surmounted by prayer and grace and good humor.  That, for her, about summed it up.

She felt no need to leave a record, though I still hope to cobble one together, because she did, indeed, have a story to tell, and I want it for my children and grandchildren.  Still, the humility with which she lived a largely hidden life of faithful service and good-humored hospitality has come back to me forcibly whenever I have had occasion to remember, as I often have, the beautiful final paragraph of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch.  Writing about the unforgettable protagonist, Dorothea, the narrator concludes the long tale of a life faithfully lived with these words:  “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”  

Every one of those strangers making their way to window seats or shoving their backpacks into overhead bins has stories to tell.  They are all in the middle of something.  And every one of those stories, full of unhistoric acts, might be told, with a little encouragement, as a story about grace. 

Marilyn C. McEntyre, Ph.D., a prolific writer and excellent teacher, is NCB adjunct faculty in Christianity and Literature. Her most recent books include Make a List, What’s in a Phrase, and Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.