I Love All the Stories

The Lake District, 2013

The Lake District, 2013

28 August 2013
9:29 pm
Edinburgh

T. —

I keep getting the date wrong. No matter how I try to keep up, I’m always at least a day or two behind.

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A new TED talk curated list: The Artist is In. What a great place to go, to visit. To stop and stay a while.

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A few years ago, I went to Chicago to see Gabe in Mary Zimmerman’s production of “The Arabian Nights” with the Lookingglass Theatre Company. It was the world premiere. I fell in love with that play. It is the tale of Scheherazade and the Thousand and One nights, and her stories are interwoven seamlessly into the narrative, so it is a play of many tales.

There is a scene about Sympathy the Learned, a woman who claims to be more learned than any of the King’s wise sages. She is questioned by them all, and replies with incredibly insightful answers, like these:

FIRST SAGE:
Tell me, how do you know that there is a God?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
By reason.

FIRST SAGE:
And where is the seat of reason?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
In the heart, from whence inspiration rises.

FIRST SAGE:
What is the aim of prayer?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
To lift my soul toward the calm places.

FIRST SAGE:
Ya Allah! That is an excellent reply. What is the value of prayer?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
It sustains faith.

Sympathy the Learned is finally questioned by the king himself. And this dialogue went on so simply for so long between the two of them, with all questions measured, and all responses genuine that I started crying. I went to see the play three times. Each night, I cried many times.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
What is sweeter than honey?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
The love of children.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
What is sharper than a sword?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
The tongue.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
What is the joy of a moment?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
The joy of love.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
What is the joy of a week?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
The joy of marriage.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
What is the debt which even the wicked cannot escape paying?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
Death.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
What is the desolation of life?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
Poverty.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
What is the most precious thing after health?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
Friendship.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
What is the strength of the heart?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
Joy.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
What is the strength of the mind?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
Truth.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
What is the strength of the body?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
Submission.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
What is desire?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
Poison.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
Charm?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
An empty room.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
Madness?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
A road we have forgotten.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
What comes to all of us in the end?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
Happiness.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
What makes kings?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
Words.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
What makes the world?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
Words.

HARUN AL-RASHID:
What can destroy an empire?

SYMPATHY THE LEARNED:
Words.

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I thought of this all today because I have discovered more books by Rebecca Solnit. I first discovered her in the Golden Hare bookshop with A Field Guide to Getting Lost. And then I think I told you about the book my aunt brought me earlier this summer that Solnit wrote about San Francisco: Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. I was just looking at it today. But now I realize… she has so many more books. So hugely many more books. Books on stories and movement and walking and place and identity.

I was struggling today to remember who I am and what I’m good at. I said to Andrew, I don’t feel like I’m good at writing poetry because I’m not doing it right now. He said, don’t judge the worth of your skills by whether or not you use them. I replied, No. I mean. I sit to write. I have all the tools ready, the time, the space… and then nothing comes. And I think ‘what else am I missing? What are the other necessary components to writing a poem that are seemingly still absent?’ Sometimes I think I have nothing else to say.’ It makes me think about what your sister said to you a few days ago. Sometimes I stop writing, not because I despair at how well others write in comparison to my own work, but because I am struck down in awe. I want to kneel and settle and sit at the feet of these words. I want to listen to them, to tell their stories for them, to direct the attention of the world towards them. I stop writing sometimes because I love other people’s stories too much, and I want to spend ten lifetimes devoted to them. Maybe I should teach literature instead of writing. Maybe I should write more critical work right now instead.

Maybe one day, some young student will feel this way about my work. All it takes is one person, one reaction like this, and you can be assured that your work has been heard, has fed dreams, will continue on after you.

I listened to a poetry reading today. Doug Goetsch said, The real meaning of “to publish” is to make public. I don’t know if any of my workshop students will submit to journals. But they are publishing, in my living room, when they share their work with us.

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What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.

Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there. What is it like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the person you’ve only read about, or the one next to you in bed?

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment. Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we’ve been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck; sometimes change arrives like an ambulance or a supply drop. Not a few stories are sinking ships, and many of us go down with these ships even when the lifeboats are bobbing all around us.

In The Thousand and One Nights, known in English as The Arabian Nights, Scheherazade tells stories in order to keep the sultan in suspense from night to night so he will not kill her.

She spun stories around him that kept him in a cocoon of anticipation from which he eventually emerged a less murderous man. In the course of all this telling she bore three sons and delivered a labyrinth of stories within stories, stories of desire and deception and magic, of transformation and testing, stories in which the action in one freezes as another storyteller opens his mouth, pregnant stories, stories to stop death.

We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.

— from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

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I got a letter in the mail today from an old friend I have recently reconnected with. She asked me about my tastes in music and named two bands I have listened to over and over on repeat for years: The Head and the Heart, and The Staves. It’s funny, how the fingers of various lines of stories reach out to each other within our lives, interweaving.

Goodnight,
M

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One thought on “I Love All the Stories

  1. Every time I post, the quote that comes up.. It’s so perfect.

    “Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.”
    Isaac Asimov

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