Telling (Our) Stories

On recommendation of someone at UCSF, I’ve been reading Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.’s book, Kitchen Table Wisdom. Dr. Remen, an accomplished physician, survivor of chronic illness, and therapist, began many years ago to think about how best one might work with patients who were facing chronic illness and death.

Stories are powerful instruments — and they’re as common and consistent for us as breathing. Just as the Tales Grimm or the old Parables or the Ananzi or Coyote tales are recognizable as telling us something about how our communities think we ought to live, we have individual/familial stories that we tell ourselves and one another very consistently every minute of every day. We, as literate and verbal culture, are ever immersed in story.

What’s the definition of story? My online dictionary says it can be used as a noun or a verb. I loved multi-layered words like that. Anyway, one definition is “an account or recital of an event or a series of events, either true or fictitious.” Another is “to decorate with scenes representing historical or legendary events; to tell as a story.” (Circularity is always fun — and the dictionary is fraught with it, but that’s another story!)

We, many of us, have been told not to “tell stories” — meaning: don’t lie. So, we learn to tell different stories — ones that, because they make the folks around us more comfortable, are called truth. it’s hard work, once again, to retrain the grooves in our mind to accept the possibility that those early stories can come into the slot called truth.

We are a collection of our stories. the memories we lift out of our pockets to share with friends over dinner, or that we recite for ourselves in the thick of depression or in the bright morning of recovered joy —

Why are we talking about stories? In her book, a collection of anecdotes, stories, musings, recollections, retellings, Dr. Remen spins open the possibility of new knowings, new understandings of self and community and world and humanity. She tells of her own transformations throughout her life, many of these precipitated by truly being present with another person’s stories.

What does all of this have to do with sexual abuse, with trauma — or with sexuality? If we as a culture are immersed in story, then it follows (for me, at least) that we come to know, to understand, ourselves through story. When we allow ourselves to be, it’s possible to be transformed by others’ stories — by others’ ways of knowing the world, seeing the world, seeing possibility — this require vulnerability, a willingness to be open.

We don’t have to take on another’s interpretations of life or experience — but what happens when we are present with other people’s stories is that we can recognize that there exist different ways of looking at the world, looking at ourselves, at pain and struggle, at desire and longing , than we ourselves have yet come across — I notice this happening quite often in the writing workshops, a note of “I had never heard it described quite that way before — it was so surprising!” And there’s a shift, a splitting open, a new openness of our perceptions, and thus ourselves…

and what a way to move in to a new year — or this new moment.

As always, of course, I’d love to know what you think. What’s your relationship to story? If you’re willing, I’d be happy to post your thoughts/responses/ideas/stories here…

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