Sunday, May 29, 2016

BUS STORY # 499 (“You Can’t Make Stuff Like This Up”)

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Disclosure: This week’s Bus Story isn’t really a bus story. Over the years, friends have asked me about particular riders’ stories, and if I thought the rider was telling me the truth. Stories that come to mind are David’s Story and Sarah, parts one and two. The question got me to thinking about truth, but also about stories -- what they are, where they come from, what they do, and so forth. Here are my thoughts.

I have a good friend, a history buff, who sends me a lot of small, obscure, and immensely fascinating stories from the various biographies and histories he’s been reading. He’s fond of closing each story with the comment, “You can’t make stuff like this up.”

His comment is a commonplace used by a lot of folks to express the conventional wisdom that “truth is stranger than fiction.”

The assumption, of course, is that truth is different from fiction.

The problem, of course, is that “truth” is different from “fact,” and the two words are indiscriminately interchanged, one for the other.

Despite having numerous opportunities to learn this lesson (the best opportunity being my biblical studies), it wasn’t until I was in my 40s when this lesson became perfectly, permanently clear.

I’d grown up hearing my mother’s stories about her and my father’s families, and it never occurred to me that these were anything other than the way it was.

Then, a year before she died, my maternal grandmother came out to Albuquerque for a visit. She spent three days in my home, and during those three days, she told me her life story.

She’d rise early. I’d put on a pot of coffee and join her at the dining room table, and she’d begin remembering. We never went anywhere. In fact, she never changed out of her pajamas, slippers, and dressing gown. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

In retrospect, I’ve concluded she had some sense that her time was short, and that awareness triggered her need to tell her story -- the whole story.

I’d seen this phenomenon before, and I’ve seen it since. And I’ve come to think of it as, among other things, a dress rehearsal for the interview at the Pearly Gates. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to my grandmother’s visit.

I learned a few stories I’d never heard before, all of them interesting not just for their newness, but for the way they added to and made more complex -- you might say made more fully human -- the family members I knew from my mother’s stories.

But the real eye-opener was hearing my grandmother tell the same stories I already knew from my mother. In my grandmother’s telling, something had changed. It wasn’t the characters or the timelines. What changed was what each story was telling me about the family members in the stories, and about the tellers of the stories themselves.

What changed was the truth.

My first attempt at understanding what was happening here was to try to figure out which version of a given story -- my mother’s or my grandmother’s -- was the true one. I hadn’t quite gotten the lesson yet.

The lesson became clearer a few years later.

My maternal aunt was living in Los Angeles when I learned she had metastatic breast cancer. I’d always liked my aunt because, as I knew from my mother’s stories and from my growing-up memories of visits, she was both independent and tough-minded, and a loyal and generous friend.

I flew out to LA a few times to visit with her, and to satisfy an adult desire to get to know her better. During those visits, I heard yet again the same stories I’d heard from my mother and my grandmother -- and which in her telling became yet another set of unique versions of the same stories.

These stories had been two-dimensional before. And each version had lain one next to the other like two competing translations of a biblical text, only one of which could be the true. My aunt’s retelling made all of them three-dimensional, each with its own texture and depth and coloring and shading and nuance. And now, each version mediated the other two, so that, when all was said and done, I ended up synthesizing my own understanding of each set of their stories, and my own understanding of these more fully-realized women. I now had my own versions of these stories.

Imagine this: You’ve spent your life looking into a room through a window in the west wall. You know where the table is, what the upholstery of the couch looks like, the color and pattern of the wallpaper. You know exactly what this room looks like. Then one day, someone takes you to a window in the north wall of the very same room. Except now, it doesn’t look exactly like the same room. The west wall turns out to be plastered in pink, which changes the lighting. And the door to the hallway is slightly out of plumb. And you hadn’t seen that teddy bear siting askew on the throw. Teddy bear? And then you find a window in the east wall...

Or, if you will, consider the synoptic Gospels.

That is how I came to understand my mother and my grandmother and my aunt, each of them, was telling me the truth.

Years later, my daughter married a man who performed monologues in a series he called “All Stories Are Fiction.” The monologues were autobiographical, but what made them unique is that they weren’t memorized pieces. Rather, each performance was recreated extemporaneously. One of my sons described the process as telling stories every night that were “the same — but different.”

I came to understand that, on any given night, I was hearing the story that was true at the moment of its telling. The implications were that the stories I’d heard from my grandmother and aunt were also unique versions of their own stories told at a particular time to a particular audience: me, but also to themselves.

But what if the story being told is fabricated? What if the facts of the story turn out to be untrue?

We now know that, in fact, George Washington did not chop down the cherry tree, Davy Crockett did not kill him a b’ar when he was only three, and our own Billy the Kid did not kill 21 men before his 21st birthday.

But how many of us would think of challenging the truth told by each story -- that George Washington was an honest man, that Davy Crockett was a formidable (if not precocious) hunter, that Billy the Kid was an adept shootist?

One conclusion seems pretty obvious: “truth” and “fact” are not just different from one another, but sometimes get in one another’s way.

Truth doesn’t need facts so much as it needs a story.

Over the span of Bus Stories, I’ve been privileged to hear several remarkable stories. It has always been in the back of my mind that any of these stories could have been fabricated -- whether on the spot, as some kind of wondrous improvisation, or as some pathological construct habitually told, or as simply an artful elaboration on bare bones -- the storyteller’s own, or someone else’s.

In which case, fiction could surely be construed as much, much stranger than fact.

Even if this were the case, I’d argue the fiction being told is a personal expression of the teller’s truth. All the story would need is decoding, much as I tried doing with my troubled co-rider's story in No Good Samaritan.

Why do we tell stories anyway?

Essentially, we tell stories to make sense of our experiences.

These experiences are a bewildering maelstrom of perceptions and thoughts and memories and emotions. They’re made all the more bewildering because they’re occurring simultaneously in two different worlds: the one we know and understand, and the other, bigger one.

We tell our stories to impose order on such chaos, to sort out what is happening to us, inside and out, and make it meaningful. And meaningful in a way we can live with.

We tell our stories to others primarily for validation. This is how it is. This is who we are. This is what we did and why. And this what they did and why. And that’s the truth. Believe me.

It takes an enormous amount of creativity to tell a story that accommodates all this!

And so we construct our personal histories, our family histories, our national histories. And we change them -- sometimes consciously, but mostly unconsciously, I think -- when they quit serving the need to provide meaning and comfort. When they quit working for us. When they quit being true.

As for the facts? They endure.


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