Life as an Extreme Sport

the stories we tell

Who someone is or was can only be said if we know his or her story.
-Hannah Arendt

I took off my earrings before my nap today, and ended up just sitting in the chair looking at them for a while. Gold is soft, so I’m always afraid I’ll bend the delicate loops and wires that hold the pink pearls, blue crystals and light green beads in place.

They were a gift, these earrings. I bought them for myself, to go along with a dress for graduation last year. A splurge, completely over the top and more than I could afford, but a perfect match for my light blue dress, and occasionally you just have to do those things. But more than just the memory of the splurge is that of the store, a pretty little boutique in Seattle. I remember the sales woman spending quite a while helping me try on dresses, giving me feedback, complimenting me, simply talking to me. I can still see the layout of the store in my mind’s eye, the face of the woman who helped me, the funky curtained dressing room, and the pretty little odds and ends scattered through-out.

I could tell you any number of stories, starting with these earrings and the connections they tie me to, through the store and items in it, not to mention the greater area and stories associated with it. They’re a gateway, linking times and places together.

Laurie and I were talking yesterday, and I realized that it’s been eight years since the last “open” presidential race, when McCain ran and seemed like such a viable candidate. And I realized this not by counting where we were in the election cycle, but by figuring out what I was doing then, what my history was, what the story was. Of remembering sitting around a table debating with other people in my district, of feeling like an active participant in the government for the first time. I connected to my past through the stories I formed…

Eight years.

Did you know that every cell in our body has been replaced in seven years time? That we are quite literally not the same physical body of a person we were then? And what other changes are there – many, I’m sure.

Paul Ricoeur talks about time and narrative, saying that narrative is what preserves that worth remembering. I think that’s right, but a little narrow – I think that narratives, telling stories, gives us a way to stay connected with ourselves, especially in the shape of such rapid change. It is that which helps us define who we are, and who we believe we are. We tell stories to ground ourselves, to define ourselves, to position ourselves in place and time. To paraphrase Ricoeur, our identity is in the stories we tell one another.

I think this is why I don’t mind it when people repeat stories. By repeating something, they are emphasizing its importance to them, and I think are also giving way to define themselves and the context to their life. When someone tells me something they already have, I seldom will say anything; although the story is the same, the situation might be different, and being used to tell a different story than was starting out.

And besides, telling that story? It’s communicating, it’s connecting, building intimacy and trust. Sharing our narratives ends up wrapping the other person into a newer narrative, and so it goes.

2 comments

  1. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…”–Joan Didion, and probably one of my favorite quotes

    Paul Ricoeur needs to read my thesis–too bad I can barely understand him sometimes…

  2. That’s a lovely quote by Didion.

    I’m sad – I wrote a response to an essay she wrote about living in New York City, after my first trip, and it was actually quite a publishable piece. And I appear to have lost it. Grrr…

    Unfortunately, I think you’ll have a problem getting a dead guy to read your thesis, but I wish you the best of luck there. 😉 (I, however, need to read your thesis, when you’re done with it!)

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