It’s nothing but a story, this life. Sometimes I think. Good times—when the sun leaves a fiery blush upon my roof and coffee and cream smell the way coffee and cream should. In other times, darkness is closing in so vividly I wish to vanish. There for a brief moment does not seem to be any alternatives.
But if it is—this life—a story, alternatives are essential to keep readers, whoever they are, read on. For a character in a novel to have no alternatives is for her to be written off. For a person to have no alternatives is to have thoughts about disappearing from the world, like rushing through an emergency exit.
If life is a story and things are made up and we are all characters acting along and the novel writes itself, is it one big novel written cohesively, with each of our tiny pieces eventually contributing to a grand theme, or has it always been a collection of isolated, broken little pieces from beginning to end? I am sure the same story can be told and retold from many angles, each time it is narrated the view shifts ever so slightly, and eventually a long string of shifts weave together every story that ever happened in this world into a large, messy, web. At that point the real difference between one living experience to another, is how much of the web you see. In all kinds of healing there involves some change of perspective, removing yourself from your own, local, personal piece of story to gain a larger, heightened sight of the whole web.
A second question with life being a story is: who gets to tell it? A success story: everyone who thinks they are part of the success tells it. A failure story: people that are not directly responsible for the failure tell it. It is distinctly so in the startup world. If you pay attention, every victorious story contains “we” and the contrary “they”. I was reading Bad Blood and thought that maybe the whole point of being somewhat successful is so that we get to tell the story ourselves.
A love story: the innocent, the victim, the wronged party tells it; the one who rightly holds resentment, never the evildoers. But the problem is both sides can equally and righteously think of themselves as victimized, a story hence has different versions. Across all the versions they each, in turns, get to be the protagonist, take the high road, make the heroic move, deliver that fortissimo line. Ultimately the different stories average out and each role has played their fair share of eminence to reach a peaceable harmony. What about when neither side tells it? Maybe it is the case when both think they are in the wrong, and the cost to confront it or to arbitrate is too high.
Yet a third question, is how do you tell it? The facts of a story only provide a foundation, as a storyteller you get to put whatever spin you feel like on it. To tell it heavy is seeking for attention. To tell it light is wishing for respect.
A recent Moth storytelling event left me with aspirations. A recent family visit across the country sunk me into a mire of melancholy. I brought back from that trip chocolates worth traversing 3000 miles for, only to forget whom I can share them with. Stories told by Grandma filled me with lots of tears, family stories, as well as my own. I was crying for my dad as a 14 year-old boy, deep in poverty, deprived of chances to continue school and had to earn a living as an apprentice bamboo weaving craftsman, away from home, scolded by the master on his birthday. I was crying for my aunt when she stated “I cannot choose my child” when a teacher refused to take in her autistic son, who later became the smartest, most loving and caring child of all. I cried but also laughed uncontrollably when Amy Schumer said in her comedy special: “… once he was diagnosed, it dawned on me how funny it was, because all of the characteristics that make it clear that he’s on the spectrum are all of the reasons that I fell madly in love with him.”
For all the sympathy in the world, I was crying as much for others as I was for myself.
Grandma looked relieved seeing my tears shed for my dad, like I am a wayward bird turning around. I could see she was relieved at the idea of having instilled some sympathy in me on my dad which sparked a hope of understanding after all these years. In revealing the uneasy life, the suffering he had unfairly endured, she was trying to soften the estrangement between us.
But what she doesn’t know, what I couldn’t say, is that I had already reached that understanding long ago. I hold no more vengeance, or misunderstanding, or perverseness. I had only held a distance to cure myself.
In a way I’ve given up writing in Chinese for that same reason. A distance is what I need to be able to express. A language that’s associated with too many struggles is one that we do not want to face. Same as those stories we never tell.
Untold stories are like unsent letters. They carry a kind of cruelty. Cruel is the way how they started as a space shared by at least two people, but by not telling it, it is a decision of exclusion purely performed by one.
My grandpa is the quiet, smiling person in a group conversation, who usually delivers the best line. My favorite from this time, is when he said “The key to raising good kids is to play with them.” while he pondered proudly the 4 children and 9 grandchildren he helped raise, all of whom he regards with the most affectionate air.
I am lucky to have been the first grandchild raised by Grandpa who gave me a sense of living life as telling stories from early on. A story about me they are fond of telling is how they would take me to the roof on summer nights, draw an invisible square around me and push an invisible button, and announce: “The TV is on!” And I’d start acting, singing, storytelling immediately.
I realize the story of being raised by grandpa through playing primes all my later stories. I perhaps believed in displaying emotions from early on, even a lot of times it is ultimately to my disadvantage.
In my story I am said to be loving, giving and considerate. But just as happiness and bleakness go hand in hand in the emotional space, I’m the same amount selfish, possessive, calculating and demanding. That’s why in my story I refuse to be reasoned with. I only want be moved.
A recent story of mine to this point has been a page scratched, scuffed, with too much written, crossed out and written over, and too little left legible. It is neither a tragedy or a comedy. Worst of all, it is something stuck in between and gone awry—a melodrama. It is the worst because a tragedy makes you weep out of compassion and a comedy makes you laugh out of appreciation, but a melodrama discomfits, and is ultimately not worth telling.
But who am I kidding? Neither will I or could I, for all the tea in China, stop feeling, or trying until it is something worth telling. For that is my only survival tactic, my only alternative.