In the past month I’ve spent a week in Spain with a group of eight people on a The Stories We Tell course, and a week in the Northwest Highlands with a friend I’ve known for 45 years. At the end of both trips, one of my first ports of call has been the care home where my 89-year-old mother has lived for the last five years.
In each case I’ve been struck by the extent to which we define ourselves by the stories we tell about our lives. In Spain this was the theme of the week. We opened our workshop with a quote from Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings: ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’
Over the next six days, as the sunshine and the magic of the place took hold and people started to relax with one another, we witnessed time and again the remarkable effects that the sharing of simple human stories can have.
The opportunity to tell even a quite trivial story about people or events in one’s life, and have it heard and witnessed by another or others, can be an enormously liberating experience. And when it is a story that has perhaps never before been told, the sense of release can be overwhelming – because, as Maya Angelou knew from bitter personal experience, these locked-away stories can bind you powerfully and painfully.
Nor is the benefit only for the storyteller. Something happens to the listener too. When we hear a story told authentically, from the heart, an empathetic bond is forged; we naturally suspend judgment and our hearts are opened by what we hear. So we are enriched by the reminder of our common humanity, and if the story is one that in any way echoes our own personal experience, we can even feel some of the same release as the storyteller.
Back in Scotland the agenda was a different one. I met Pramod when I first went to London in 1971. In recent years we’ve spent several holidays together in India. This was an opportunity for Sarah and me to return the favour and show him and his partner Malavika a little of Scotland. During the car journeys and over dinner in the evenings we reminisced – for the pleasure of it, and in celebration of a long friendship.
These shared memories, of how and where we met, of times together in London in the early 1970s, of people and places we both knew, are the framework on which our relationship is built. They bind us in a positive way, and the repetition of them continues to reinforce and define our friendship. Each time, the telling of these stories seems to bridge the recent absence and bring us closer again.
For my mother, it’s a different tale again. Alzheimer’s has robbed her of the impulse to tell stories, at least to other people. But I know she still tells stories to herself on whatever wandering journeys her mind takes her. I know because there is still a strong light in her eyes, a light that says ‘for all my age and infirmity I know who I am’. It’s my belief that the day she stops telling them, that light will go out.
Without our stories we are nothing.
Our next The Stories We Tell weekend is 12/13 August in Birnam. There are still places available. http://www.thestorieswetell.org.uk
Hilary Mantel in her first Reith Lecture pointed out that we don’t relate the past but a recreation of the past. Yet we are still the authors of our own story, and we can shape it wihin the bounds of what others “remember”. But Mantel claims that “As soon as we die, we enter into fiction.” as we can no longer speak for ourselves and, therefore, are interpreted by others (does that happen to people with Alzheimer’s before they die?).
Sometimes the teller deliberately creates the story they want (eg Don Roberto, the Gaucho), their own fiction, in which “The facts have less traction, less influence on what we are and what we do, than the self-built fictions.”(Mantel), but does that invalidate the story or just personalise it?
Mantel also said that “Nations are also built on wishful versions of their origins (eg the Magna Carta Myth): stories in which our forefathers were giants, of one kind or another.”
The stories nations tell about themselves define them, and increasingly within the UK, Scotland and England are telling different (competing?) stories, stories which divide rather than unite; the old myths of Union not fitting comfortably with either country.
Thanks for an interesting read and the inspiration to question.