19 September 2013

Hanging On to Yourself: The Personal Story

A recent episode of the popular radio series This American Life, entitled "How I Got Into College," tells the story of Emir Kamenica who came to America as a child refugee from war torn Bosnia and, assisted by the generous gestures of a substitute high school teacher, went on to study at Harvard and embark on an illustrious career. With Mr. Kamenica's consent, the TAL team located the substitute teacher, who Mr. Kamenica had not seen or talked to in decades, and brought the two together for a conversation about their shared past.

The teacher's version of the story conflicted with Mr. Kamenica's at several critical points but Mr. Kamenica refused to abandon his version. In the poignant closing of the broadcast the reporter speculated about the reasons Mr. Kamenica (and people generally) cling so tenaciously to certain pivotal life stories.

Our/my investment in our/my stories is pegged to and sustained by many things, including the response a story elicits from other people:  respect, pity, fascination, attraction. Sometimes identity, our sense of who we are in the World, is reinforced each time the story is told. We are still sexy, smart, needed, courageous, pious in our own eyes and retelling the story helps to sustain that image.

Coincidentally, the assignment for the Holly Springs Writers Circle this time was:

Try this approach next time you need an idea for a memoir or personal essay: Pretend you’re standing before a packed stadium, spotlight directed on you. You have one chance and five minutes to share your personal story. What is the story you would most want to tell? What is the story you would never want to tell? Write both.

Not surprisingly, as it combines writing and performance--two of my most favorite activities, I was inspired by the assignment. My colleagues, not so much. As I wrote, I thought about Mr. Kamenica and his commitment to telling and retelling his not-quite-accurate personal story. I tried to imagine what someone
in my family, for instance, or a friend who's known me for a few years would say if they read my "personal story". Where would they beg to differ? What aspect of self-image am I bulking up by telling this story?

And I thought about the resistance or intimidation my colleagues in the Writers Circle felt toward the assignment. Is it that, unlike me and Mr. Kamenica, they don't have a personal story? Or is it that they are resistant to putting their story on paper? Or...

Writers Circle meets tonight. For me, at least, this will be the last meeting. My departure is not a criticism of the other people in the Circle. It's an acknowledgement, at last, that I'm in the "wrong room." What does it matter, standing in a room filled with beautiful bolts of silk, when you're trying to fix the brakes on your car?

I wish everyone all the best. Here's the "personal story" I will share.

Like you, I don’t remember the details of how my life began. Something crucial may have happened at the moment of my conception. It could be the pivotal event of my life, the one that determined the direction, velocity and distance of my path, occurred within 60 seconds of my first breath.
But there is no record and my memories do not extend that far back and so…
What I can tell you is this:  I am just like you and I am one of a kind. I love music and color and bright ideas. I hate stupidity, willful ignorance, and violence borne of greed. I want with all my heart to be fully visible to you and I want to be an honoring witness to the breadth and height and depth of your life. And I know that we are both terrified of what will happen once we are completely visible to each other.
My obsessions are truth-speaking and deep conversation. I constantly crave the fullness of being:  to taste the bitter the sweet the salty.; to feel the hot the cold the rough the smooth; to hear the cries and whispers, the lullabies and the full-throated screams of the human experience. I want it all. As much as I can hold.
I learned only last year that my parents married to legitimize my birth. It was and is a stunning revelation. I spent the first 11 years of my life guided by two God-fearing, aspiring, American Negroes who did not love each other. And I believe that experience, in the words of Robert Frost, “has made all the difference.” It taught me that piety and social approval are tangential to joy. It taught me that Love cannot be borrowed, faked, stolen or won. I don’t know what my parents learned from the experience. They did the best they could.
I am intelligent. I watch and listen, sniff and taste and “figure it out.” Mind and Intuition are my most cherished and reliable survival tools. I am most attracted to people who are mentally courageous, curious and agile. I am not fully relaxed until my mind is at rest; I am not fully energized until my mind is engaged.
I don’t know what will happen after I die. If there is an After Life, I don’t know if there is any connection between it and the life I am living now. For me, Heaven and Hell are states of consciousness experienced while we live and breathe. It seems naive arrogance to believe that the fragile bundle of psychology and personality that is me will persist in some way after my body expires.  I believe memories endure and strive to live in a way that makes remembering as painless as possible for those who survive me.
My lifelong wish has been to find “my tribe”. My Tribe is a fantasy circle of people, many of them living in close geographic proximity, who are committed to becoming good people and to supporting each other in our work toward that end. We take responsibility for our own feelings and blame no one for our choices. We care for each other. Our interactions start always from a place of acceptance and curiosity. Honesty, unselfishness and respect are our watchwords and the development of these traits is our communal mission. We fall short of these goals and apologize when we do. I have not found “my tribe” but I am grateful to have met a few of its members over the years.
Though I am frequently described as intimidating, I am only dangerous as a tireless advocate and defender of freedom, fearless creativity and unconditional love.
Thanks for listening. Tribe members are sincerely invited to introduce themselves to me after the show.