So Iff the Water Genie told Haroun about the Ocean of the Streams of Story, and even though he was full of a sense of hopelessness and failure, the magic of the Ocean began to have an affect on Haroun. He looked into the water and saw it was made of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that have ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and to become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead, but alive.
from Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
Years before my Aunt Julie succumbed to a septic infection, I knew that a part of her was dead already.
Julie was, in all senses of the word, a character, and she had many, many stories, which I loved to listen to: how my father saved her from falling overboard on the ship to America, how she got her job at Macy’s and what she needed to do to help organize the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, how she started one of the country’s first peer support groups for women with breast cancer, how she remembered looking into my father’s grave as his coffin was being lowered into it, surprised that she wasn’t the first to go.
She was a model of sorts for me; never married, but decidedly not old maid-like. Julie lived in Greenwich Village, and she always seemed to be entertaining a slew of creatives and intellectuals of various sexual orientations and cultural/religious backgrounds. She wore her hair short and platinum blonde, wore black almost daily, and mixed it with outrageous silver jewelry and elegant silk scarves. Julie made a mean Manhattan, had endless Lincoln Center subscriptions to the opera and dance and classical music (she’d buy the nosebleed seats and sneak down to the orchestra level by intermission, at the latest), and insisted on coffee ice cream each night before bed.
I didn’t want to be exactly like her: I hoped to do Something Big with my life. But she certainly offered the possibility that one could travel and work in different professions and live in the heart of the action and Not Need a Man.
There was a huge part of her that was trapped, and I could sense this from the way she told some stories verbatim, year after year. In particular, I intuited that Julie never found peace with her father’s death. A part of her, I felt, was still 7 — playful and spontaneous, but also deeply traumatized and afraid. In her stories, my grandfather remained perpetually and uniformly Good and Kind. Even 60 years later, she could still not stand the smell or taste of vinegar since it was used to preserve his body in their Brooklyn bathtub; he died on Friday after sundown, and as a religious Jew, could not be buried until after Shabbat.
I became closer to Julie after both of my parents died, and hearing her stories at first made me feel connected to a larger family than I had gotten to know. I wondered how I might carry my grandmother’s harshness and my grandfather’s kindness, for example, what I could learn from the fact that our family ranged from the ultra-Hasidic to the atheistic, and that we too had our share of the addicted and the adulterous, the scientific and the spiritual.
When I started writing in my late 20s, it would take months, years even, to complete a single story. Part of it was that I’d have to let them simmer for long enough that when I went back to them, I could see how I used to see the story, and how it had become. The 15 year old me, for instance, had a certain experience of my mother’s suicide based on my own grief and guilt and anger, for instance, but the 30 year old me had had some time to read and listen to many other stories of Holocaust survivors and could place my story, and my mother’s, in a sea of other stories.
Floating among them, my stories became a sort of mystical replacement for my dead, something I could carry with me throughout my life.
In those early years, people would frequently, ask me if writing true stories was cathartic. No, I would reply, writing them down forces me to relive the story as it’s been replaying in my head, again and again and again.
But as I began to understand what my editing process generated, I would grow deeply grateful for the catharsis that a new insight would bring, often arriving only in the midst of an obsessive revision session, my fingers furiously pounding the keyboard or pushing away from the screen to pace and talk to myself.
For me, as you might have gathered, writing doesn’t just take place in my mind: it’s also a physical act. I’ve learned that my narratives often transform by “doing” them, over and over, if only to tweak with my word choice or add in richer imagery and scenery or expand the historical or cultural or thematic perspective.
Maybe this is true for you too.
The facts of our stories may never change, but how we relate to them — and most importantly, how we live from them — can be changed by many factors: physical movement, perhaps, or new language or a new way of emotionally relating to these stories. We might find that by engaging our sense of curiosity into a story we’ve heard or told a thousand times verbatim, can yield interesting questions, which leads to our reaching out and interviewing a family member or websurfing to learn more about important and previously unseen layer of our story or checking out every book in the library on a certain subject — or going to a more fluid library, as Mr. Rushdie suggests, and swimming in its currents until the 94% of our brains and bodies that are water can flow again, perhaps down a new path, or a familiar one with new appreciation.
Last week, I wrote that I wanted to integrate my hands-on Reiki work with the coaching I’ve done, which helps people become better observers of the stories they tell themselves and others, and in doing so, open up new possible storylines. My teacher uses a technique called Clean Language in many of her Reiki sessions, which can be extremely powerful in transforming an internal story. I am just learning to use this fantastic tool. (Isn’t it cool to reflect that metaphors can get stuck in our bodies and we can find ways of maturing and transforming them?) And, this week I was able to use the coaching techniques I’ve learned in a hands-on Reiki session, which felt natural and pleasurable. In my coaching and yoga teaching this week, I’ve also thought more about the healing energy that we get to bring to others through our lives and the organizations we create.
The magic word “abracadabra” actually comes from the Aramaic words which mean “I will create that which I speak.”
Perhaps your achy neck is trying to tell you something. Perhaps the grumbling in your stomach can only calm down you stop telling yourself a story that was true ten years ago, but has since shifted.
Or perhaps, its time to revisit your legends and lores and write new endings.
In fact, let that be a journaling tip of the week.
(1) Make a list of the top ten most repeated stories in your family.
(2) Pick one.
(3) Take 15 minutes to write it out — only give it a new ending, fantastical or Freudian or fabulously true.
Until next time,