21 October 2009

Whose Stories?

Have you ever realized that you were trying to live out someone else's story? Or, have you ever doubted your own because it wasn't like any other you'd heard?

I answer "yes" to both questions. (Why else would I be writing this entry? ) And it's ironic that I should say so today, after a student asked, in a combination of exasperation and resentment, why should she be expected to read ancient Greek writers, The Inferno or any number of other ancient or medieval "classics."

And what did I tell her? "Their stories are our stories. Their characters are people we see every day."

So, you may be wondering, how could I ask the rhetorical questions that opened this entry? Is that a bit of a contradiction?

Now you can accuse me of being cagey and evasive. (Guilty on both counts!) I'm not going to answer that one, at least not yet.

How is my story "different?" Well, I was born--both in the sense that the state recognizes and that which my spirit manifested--in summer. And, I am living my first full season in the autumn. I am feeling nurtured and energized by the blaze of reds and golds from leaves falling and bricks glowing in the autumn sunset.

Aren't we supposed to begin our lives with the spring? Isn't that how it happens in the stories we hear as kids and see in the media?

And when do you ever hear of someone beginning his or her life after passing one of those round-numbered birthdays?

OK. So my story is different from the ones I've heard--at least in some ways. So how can I say that any story "belongs to the human race?"

I advised that student to look carefully at all of those texts they've assigned to her Western Civilization course. "Murder is as old as Cain and Abel," I said. "And the story of Hamlet is the story of Oedipus Rex."

"You know, you're right!"

"'There's nothing new under the sun.' That's in the Book of Ecclesiastes." The funny thing is that when I said that, her face opened with the light of revelation--and she reads the Bible much more than I read it!

People who feel as I do, and who face the same gender identity dilemma as mine, are not new. And any possible response to it comes down to the classic choice: between flight and fight--or to be or not to be.

In other words, what makes Oedipus Rex and Hamlet endure is not merely the story in each. Rather, it has to do with how each play lays bare the questions we face and the choices we make every day. To be or not to be. To give in to the insanity, or to struggle to be be free. In doing so, do you destroy what's come before you--or make some attempt to honor it?

The student with whom I had the conversation is a black Caribbean woman whom I'd guess to be in her mid-30's or thereabouts. She has described some of the bigotry she's experienced, but says she admires me for the way I've handled my situation. Which, of course, is the reason why she came to me with her question.

I suppose that if I'd been a quicker thinker and had been more articulate, I could have told her that all of those works contain our stories, or more precisely, our truths--without sounding as glib as I just did. The stuff you see in the newspapers, on TV and in those awful books and films they force-feed to kids: Those are the stories of other people, most of whom you'll never meet. I mean, where are you going to meet the sorts of people you see on soap operas--or in politics?

They are only stories: the ones with the spouses and houses you're supposed to have--even if the price you pay for them consists of madness and death, whether inflicted by you or someone else. That madness consists of such things as having to live with the feeling that you were born in the wrong place, the wrong time, in the wrong body and with the wrong desires and needs. The only way out is to live as if none of those things were wrong: You have as much right as anyone else to be who you are, where you are, when you are.

You get only one chance to do that. Then, there's one storyline: We all fall, and it's for eternity. Until then, there's only your story. It's been around since ancient times, at least, but only you can live it.

That is one of the few things I've learned with any certainty. And I hope that student understands this: To live your own story, you have to understand the others. That is my advice to her, and myself.