Can you revelate?
In an article that appeared in the Rocky Mount Telegram one month after we opened our bakery, Alimentaire Wholesome Breads, in Tarboro NC—and another written more recently—Franca spoke of the reasons we found this to be the right community for which to uproot our lives. The downtown had charm, it had character, purpose. It seemed to serve a function. Also, the people were friendly and just so happened to like her baked goods, a lot. There remains, however, a great deal more to the story than just why and where we were going. Missing was where had we been.
How to convey a life lived in one meaningful statement
But that is the bigger challenge, isn’t it? The telling of history to strangers in a way that doesn’t leave some important component out, some critical context with the faculty to impart upon the receiver the heft of all those years, the sheer gravity of each and every situation, every consequential decision. It’s like being introduced at your new job by your buddy as the guy who once took a dump in a McDonald’s bag in the back of a rented Chevy Tahoe. The backstory matters.
How even to chose though which parts of the story to share? Do you focus mainly on the conflicts, those moments of delirious anxiousness that seemed at the time monumental to our successful pursuit of happiness. Or periods of peace and enlightenment? And what of the smaller things, the family meetings, the dinners, the books read, devoured, loved, then shared?
What of the words never spoken, or heard?
When Franca and I agreed to spend our lives together we did what most people do, we folded the stories of our past lives into one and accepted the other’s history without condition or benefit of having witnessed it. Bit by bit, fueled by time, patience and desire, a more complete picture of our truest selves took shape. Who we had been. Where we had come from, the trials we each had endured, as well as the many pleasures. It takes years though, decades, for the prologue to reveal itself.
So then back to the question: How do you share history with a stranger, or even should you? Consider this from the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson:
We tell you, tapping on our brows,
The story as it should be,—
As if the story of a house
Were told, or ever could be;
Eros Turannos, by Edwin Arlington Robinson
So maybe the answer is you don’t. You may try to explain it anyway, and that’s okay too, but history, with all its rose petals and baggage carts, is a lot like a clown at a carnival: Sometimes they’re funny, but most often they’re not—quite the horrifying opposite really—and they’re not very reliable at predicting what the hell will happen next. Instead, perhaps, we should aim to invest our timely differently in building relationship and understanding one another.
The Zen of a Projectionist
Think of a movie theater, where we go now to watch other people engage in real life while we sit back eating handfuls of popcorn. Decades ago, before the digital age, movies would play on large 35 millimeter reels that had to be operated by a projectionist. A single, full length movie might have as many as three reels to it. So in order for the story to play out uninterrupted, there had to be a certain degree of distance between the projectionist, the movie, and the movie-goer. If not, if the projectionist got caught up in the story or what was happening in the theater, they would likely miss the tiny cue marks that appeared on the screen to know that a reel change was necessary. If that happened, the movie would stop as would life for the movie-goers. It was a necessary emotional distance for the show to go on.
Which seems to me a pretty good metaphor for life. Some distance from the story is okay, even warranted. We don’t have to know everything all at once about a person to know if we like them or are willing to support them. All we have to know is what are they doing right now, at this very moment, to ensure that the story, of which we are now a part of, continues. Instead, we watch for tiny cues, things we might miss otherwise if we’re busy looking for markers in their past, reasons to love or hate them.