Sometimes I like to crack myself up by making things talk that don’t normally talk. A while back for example, I wrote a post in which I shared the photo of the little man-faced berry that Husbandio grew in our yard.
I’m telling you, that little man-berry was hysterical, with his high-pitched British accent, just a tad whiny. Like David Sedaris, only British. Nigel Sedaris.
I like to make our cats talk too, especially the compulsive overeater one, in kind of a Samuel L. Jackson way. “Gimme the sandwich, ya dum &!**$#, or Sweetie-kid gets cut.”
Of course, it’s not only cats and man-faced berries that provide me entertainment. Sometimes it’s snapdragons or heirloom tomatoes. Other times, during warm weather when shorts reveal a bit more leg, I like to make the fat on my knees talk. Postpartum belly fat works well, too, for pretend conversations, though I find watching one’s belly fat tell jokes is more sad than funny. And isn’t there already enough sadness in the world?
The best, though, has got to be Cornish game hens, what with their legs that appear to be wearing jodhpurs. If you ever have the good fortune of cooking a Cornish game hen for dinner, save yourself a few extra minutes to have that hen do a little dance, perhaps a brief vaudeville routine. At least very least, have him walk about his cutting board stage and share a few jokes with you and the cats. Have him do the Macarena, perhaps, or the Electric Slide.
Why do I do this? I can only imagine it’s related to my love of writing fiction. I get such a kick out of pumping voice and personality into things that are otherwise lifeless.
Take that little man-faced berry; did he get teased as a kid? Did he consider surgery to remove his . . . face . . . so he’d look more . . . faceless? What about the Cornish game hen? Is it not possible that his whole life he yearned to be on the stage, but instead, he had parents who made him pursue a degree in Economics? And what about belly fat . . . can you imagine the nostalgia of a postpartum belly, longing for the days of yore?
I’m working on a blog post for a writers’ blog, and in doing so, I have been thinking quite a lot about story. Why do we read stories? Why do crazies like me choose to spend years and years penning the stories of people who never lived? What about the stories of others is so interesting, so compelling?
Of course, story provides entertainment and escape. But there’s more to it. I know there is.
Right now, I am reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. And I can’t put it down. Yes, there are parts that are irritating and meandering and, if I may be so bold, may have been cuttable. There are other parts that seem a little “this happened, then this happened, then this happened.”
But the other day I realized it’s precisely that meandering, cuttable detail, that makes the story so deeply satisfying. Through that detail, I see myself in the female character’s story. I also see that the characters who on the surface are not at all like me, have a layered richness that makes me realize we are, in fact, not so far apart. That we all long for the same things (love, acceptance, understanding) and will act both stupidly and, occasionally, wisely, in order to get those things.
What would happen to our planet if we had a better understanding of the stories of others? If we could better understand what makes a person who she is, why a person says the things she does, who a person wanted to become, but for whatever reason, was unable? What could happen to our planet?
It seems to me, when we have a better sense of a stranger’s humanness, we tend to treat that stranger with a little more compassion and a lot less fear. More compassion and less fear? Holy schmokes, can you imagine what that would do for our world?
A few weeks ago, there was a very angry lady ahead of me in line at the drug store. She was already huffing and puffing about how long the line had been, how long she had had to wait, how she was already running late, when she realized she had forgotten something.
“Don’t help her!” she yelled, pointing at me, the next person in line. “I’m late for work!” And she hurried off to find whatever it was she had forgotten.
The cashier and I smiled nervously at each other, waiting, waiting, waiting for the lady to return. Finally, the cashier grimaced. “I guess I can help you . . . do you think she’ll yell at me?”
“Nah,” I said, putting my Preparation H and bottle of Riesling on the conveyor belt. “And if she does, I’ll defend you. I’m a lot tougher than I look. A lot tougher.”
Well. When that angry lady returned with her forgotten item (a purple UW Husky t-shirt), she went absolutely nuts. “I TOLD you not to help anyone else!” she yelled. “I TOLD you I was late for work! Now I’m going to be miss my bus!” Then she pointed at me. “You didn’t have to DO that!”
(A bit about me and my sense of justice: I am usually fairly happy to admit when I am wrong. I am also somewhat happy to be yelled at when I have done something wrong. BUT when I am yelled at because someone else is having a bad day and when a perfectly nice-albeit-timid cashier is yelled at for keeping the line of customers moving? I am not OK with that. Not one bit OK.)
But I had just been to bible study. And going to bible study reminds me that we are all total messes who, for the most part, are just doing the best we can. This angry lady included.
So I went for it.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, getting a little closer to the yelling woman. “It sounds like you are really having a hard day. And now you’re going to be late for work? That’s really stressful.”
That’s what my mouth was saying, but make no mistake, my brain was thinking exactly what most brains would be thinking: if you, lady, were so worried about getting to work, then maybe you shouldn’t have spent all that time picking out a UW t-shirt. And why did you need a UW t-shirt, anyway? I can’t really see why you’d need that ugly t-shirt when you knew—
“You want to hear about stress?” she hollered at me. “My boss is going to yell at me, and I got robbed this week and they took $200 cash and my car won’t start . . .”
I nodded, taking my bag from the cashier. “Jeez, what a terrible week. I’m so sorry.”
I stood there, trying to absorb some of the angry woman’s anger before it hit the cashier. After all my tough girl talk, I had not done a very good job at shielding her from this woman’s wrath.
While the checker rang up her items, she raged on, detailing the other bits of terribleness in her week, something about her cousin being sick or maybe her uncle, and apparently the Seattle police weren’t at all helpful after her burglary. I stood a few yards away, nodding all the while, a look of sympathy on my face. It wasn’t hard to feel sympathy. This woman was a hot mess.
But as she continued, the volume of her anger became lower. As she finally spun herself out (while the cashier bagged up her all-important t-shirt), the yelling woman reminded me, her voice stern, “Still, you shouldn’t have gone in front of me.”
“OK,” I said, biting the inside of my cheeks, hoping to release the juice of kindness and compassion into my words. “I really hope your day gets better!”
As I started my car, I saw her walking in the opposite direction of the bus stop. And something weird happened: I wanted to keep on being nice to her. I wanted to smother her with compassion until she passed out. I wanted to shove kindness into her angry face until she puked up all of her roiling anger.
“Hey!” I called, not thinking. “Can I give you a ride? I’m happy to give you a ride to work.”
She shook her head and kept her eyes on the ground. “I’m fine!” she said. “I just need to work it out on my own.”
No, I wanted to tell her, what you need is some time with my dancing Cornish game hens. THAT, is what you need!
Instead, I waved. “OK. Tomorrow will be a better day!”
And I drove off, relieved that she wouldn’t be in my car (I generally don’t need more Crazy in my car) marveling at the sadness and anger in her story. Feeling overwhelmed with sadness myself.
Certainly, the story about the burglary, about being late for work, about her mean boss, may have been fiction. After all that, she wasn’t even walking toward the bus stop. But the sadness and the anger? That was 100% real.
That’s the thing: there is a lot of sadness and anger in a lot of our stories. Certainly, we may handle it differently than the angry woman did, but we all have sadness and anger in our lives. All of us. Yes, even you, Miss PollyAnna Perfectlife. Even and especially you.
Which brings me back to Story. I think we love and seek stories because our own stories are so important to us. Our stories, past and present, forge our identity, and with our identity, we are grounded in something that feels slightly more stable than life often feels.
We humans need to believe we matter. We need to know our lives have meaning. I think it’s our stories that give our lives meaning. My stories tether me to something bigger than myself, and your stories, when I remind myself to hear them, add a richness to my life, either by what they teach me or by how much less alone I feel after hearing them.
Weeks after that near-scuffle at Rite Aid, I am still thinking about that angry woman, wondering how she’s doing. Wondering if that ugly t-shirt was for her or if she gave it to a loved one. Does a woman that angry even have loved ones? She became real when I absorbed a small part of her story. A little part of her now resides in my head, for better or for worse.
Sharing our stories with others, and even more important, taking the time to listen to the stories of those around us, is the best thing we can do to grow peace and love. Likewise, making inanimate things tell jokes and cuss inappropriately adds humor and laughter (two other key growers of peace and love) to our day.
So come on. You try it, too! Learn someone’s story this week. Coerce someone to share his/her/its story with you, then report back. I’m not kidding about this, people. Inquire of and listen to the stories of others (even if it’s just an heirloom tomato or some knee fat). Just see what happens.
Black and red tree art courtesy of Flickr’s DryIcons.