Unfortunately, I don’t think it will fly for this semester’s projects. But I enjoyed writing it for Nancy’s class last semester and didn’t want to see it “go to waste.”
There’s a story my mother likes to tell us. By us I mean my sister and me. And by story I don’t mean so much an account of factual incidents as a rendering of isolated historical events and permeating ideas strung together, over time and through much retelling, to resemble a tale so solidified that its events very well could have happened all in one day. It goes something like this:
As a child, when my sister wanted to learn to swim, she dove right in. She didn’t know how to swim, of course, so she just flopped around for a while, struggling and working, frustrated and tired, until she finally figured it out. When I wanted to learn to swim, I stayed by the side of the pool. I waited and I watched, for so long in fact that my parents thought I may never actually jump in. I shrugged off any attempts of the older and wiser people around me to teach me what to do, contemptuously, in fact, as though offended by their offers and their lack of faith. But eventually, after much observation and contemplation, I jumped in, when no one was looking, and swam straight to the other side of the pool.
The story itself isn’t so important, as the context in which I retell it to myself, and the fact that it’s taken on such mythological meaning. Perhaps I shouldn’t put so much faith in the perceptions of others, but I can so clearly remember my own accounts of the life that’s come afterwards where, looking back on this story, for all of its flaws and exaggerations (was it really a pool or the ocean?), it seems perfectly analogous, almost prophetic.
My family collects stories the way most collect photographs or certificates of achievement. But, like all artifacts of the past, it is the stories themselves that become the memories, and telling them reminds us of who we think we are. I often observe my own actions in the present tense and wonder how I will talk about them once they are in the past, as though just living them isn’t enough. Whether this is indicative of some grandiose literary perception of my own life or just some leftover childhood paranoia – the notion that your life doesn’t really exist unless it’s being observed, an idea exacerbated even more by our current personal media landscape – I’m not really sure. But perhaps it really is just the retelling of events that breathes life into them, and if you’re lucky, someone will be there to listen.
But this isn’t the only story of my life, and it certainly isn’t one that I retell often. Maybe to my sister now and then, when we look to each other for advice or feel the need for reassurance in the different ways we live our lives. But over the years I’ve consulted my family’s myths as their own literary form, and I’ve taken some comfort in the fact that the stories I use to describe myself don’t need to be factual, so much as true to who I am. More than the events retold, it’s the telling of the story – the cadence, the peaks and the pitfalls, the lessons learned, the context of it in our daily lives – that really matters.