Category: Life truths

Tell Me a Story

My husband Gary is a man of many stories. He’s served in the Army, worked as a teacher, a school administrator, a firefighter, and as a business manager at a university. He’s traveled extensively, and never met a person he didn’t enjoy talking to. Thus he has collected many anecdotes which he enjoys recounting. He often doesn’t recall the exact details, but it never stops him from telling the tale. Not so long ago, we watched an old movie that prompted him to tell me a story about an incident that happened years before I knew him.

Gary was on a plane seated next to a woman who “used to be really famous,” he said. Because he is almost completely devoid of interest in popular culture or bygone celebrities, he didn’t recognize her. She introduced herself and explained that she was flying to Michigan to be honored at an event, and that she had retired and made only limited public appearances. They chatted, and at the end of the flight she gave him her autograph. He tucked it in his pocket, forgot about it, and at some point lost it or threw it away. He had remembered the story because the female lead in the movie we were watching, Loretta Young, was the woman he’d met on the plane. 

Impressed, because I’m a fan of old movies, I grabbed his arm and said, “You sat next to Loretta Young?!”

He hesitated for just a fraction of a second before saying yes. But it was long enough for me to flash on other confidently told Gary stories that have a fact-based core, but often dubious supporting details. Upon repeated questioning he gradually acknowledged that it might not have been Loretta Young, it may not have been on a flight to Michigan, but it was definitely someone famous. That I believe. But whether it was Loretta Young, Loretta Lynn, or Coretta Scott King, is lost to the ages.

I’m not sure why this page from Gary’s Book of True (Mostly) Stories popped into my head today. Maybe because of two conversations I recently had with two different friends, during which I learned some previously unknown things about each of them. I’ve had a number of good, in-depth conversations with both women in the past. But somehow the tragic story in the case of one friend–her mother’s loss of multiple family members in a tornado, and in the case of my other friend, the happy story of her interviewing a favorite writer of mine, Robert Parker, had never come up before.

That in turn reminded me of something my first editor told me. I was whining about an assignment to do a feature story on an elderly woman’s doll collection. It wasn’t exactly the cutting-edge journalism I’d signed on for. But I’ve never forgotten what my boss said in response. “Everybody has a story. If you listen well, you’ll find it.”

This week I’m going to listen for a new story. I hope you do, too.

If it talks like a duck …

Quite often we have a gathering of ducks on the lawn in our backyard. Once they make their ungainly trek up from the edge of the river, they settle themselves in small clusters on the grass. They seem equally content on both sunny and cloudy days to sleep, groom themselves, and get up for an occasional waddle across the lawn or a periodic reentry into the water.

It’s quite peaceful to watch them blissing out in the sun, and nice to think of them each pursuing their separate needs—sleep, food, feather fluffing—while remaining part of a companionable group.

But inevitably one of the group will begin posturing, quacking, and making menacing head-lowering moves at a fellow mallard, for no obvious reason. Sometimes, the surprised duck under attack will take a stand and quack back, darting into the aggressor’s space, but he rarely gets any help from the crowd. 

Instead, the other ducks either stay neutral or they join the bully duck in chasing the hapless victim away. The alpha duck then beats his wings in the air and struts back to his place on the grass, while the neutrals return to grooming and sleeping. Until the next bully picks on a new victim.

I’m thinking of that today because I’ve been spending a bit more time on social media than I usually do, and I’ve noticed how often a seemingly innocuous or well-intentioned post or Tweet is met by the human equivalent of a madly quacking flock of ducks. If the poster attempts to explain the comment, or parry the thrust, it only intensifies the incensed quacking. Eventually the poster retreats to the margins to lick his or her wounds. It’s disheartening to see.

I get that we’re never going to always agree about everything, or even ever agree about some things. But we’re never going to get anywhere randomly squawking at others like deranged ducks, which seems to be the state of much of our online discourse these days.

And I’m not excluding myself from the problem. While I’m not prone to joining flocks or herds or social media mobs—as a committed introvert, I rarely join anything—I can be quite insistent on promoting my own point of view, both “in real life” and on social media. Which in turn means that I can also be quite resistant to ideas that conflict with it—and sometimes loudly enough to drown out information that doesn’t support my position.

Certainly staying off social media is an option—though it comes with the cost of less, or even losing, contact with people not in my immediate circle. Sticking only to “safe topics” is another, but sometimes we have to speak out. After all, there is that whole the-only-thing-necessary-for-the-triumph-of-evil-is-that-good-men-do-nothing thing to consider.

Instead, I think I’ll try making an effort to refrain from throwing stones in my particular glass house—and to avoid the online feeds of (and the real-life contact) with—people who substitute personal invective for persuasive evidence. If I falter, and an exchange of views has devolved to the point where I’m about say, “You are a moron,” I will substitute “Quack, quack,” spoken at a very low volume, as a reminder to myself to step away from the crazy. Wish me luck.

The Only Constant

field of daisy flowers

Not long ago I saw one of those posts that periodically make their way around social media, asking you to cite your favorite song, or TV show, or book. This one asked for a favorite quote.

Now, one of the things I like best about reading is the way you can suddenly come upon a sentence that makes you pause and say, “This. I feel exactly like this.” The books I own are rife with highlights, underlines, notes in the margins, and circled page numbers indicating I found a treasure there. So, I was ready to jump in. But I don’t actually have one favorite quotation. Instead I keep a collection of them on my laptop in a folder marked “I love this.”

When I looked through the file, I came across a quotation I hadn’t thought about in a long time. It’s from The French Lieutenant’s Woman. A character in the story is strolling through a meadow not far from the sea. His senses are awakened by the sight and scent of a colorful profusion of flowers, the melodious songs of birds, the blue sky above, and by the sunlight playing on the water in the distance. He feels a thrill at the lovely moment, but at the same time he also feels a wave of melancholy. The author describes the sensation this way:

“His statement to himself should have been ‘I possess this now, therefore I am happy,’ instead of what it so Victorianly was: ‘I cannot possess this forever, therefore I am sad.’ ” 

And that is me in a nutshell. I have lots of reasons to be happy, and I am, but that happiness is almost always tempered by the knowledge of and the resistance to the inevitable passing of the moment.

One of my sisters and I had a conversation about whether or not we would take a test that could definitively determine whether or not a person will develop Alzheimer’s disease, knowing that there is no cure at present.

My sister said yes without hesitation—that if she knew Alzheimer’s was inevitable, she’d spend all her money traveling and enjoying life before it was too late. I’d like to think that would be my response as well. But I’m pretty sure that instead of packing my bags, grabbing my passport, and heading for adventures unknown, I would be busy crushing the life out of any joyful experiences under the weight of my knowledge of what was to come. Sadly, I’m pretty much back in the meadow with the Victorian guy in the quote.

Still, I continue to strive to accept that the only constant in life is change. And that it’s not a bad thing, in fact, it’s a necessary thing. That’s why I chose this Chinese proverb as my favorite quote of the moment.

“When the wind of change blows, some build walls, others build windmills.” traditional Netherlands Holland dutch scenery with one typical windmill and tulips, Netherlands countryside

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