Several people I know dislike pithy sayings. They believe that aphorisms reduce complex situations to trite simplicities. They are right, from a certain point of view. For example, how helpful is it for someone to say "It is what it is" when he or she is faced with a situation out of his or her control?
Well, it can be pretty darn helpful, depending on how you interpret the saying, what history you have with it, how it helps you contextualize your situation so you see a way to cope. If you're not ready to accept what's going on yet, "it is what it is" isn't helpful at all and merely highlights how much you're losing the fight to control your destiny.
(For the record, that's a fight we all lose. Repeatedly. But I digress.)
Long-time readers of Questioning my Intelligence know I enjoy pithy sayings, quotations, and aphorisms, not for how they reduce life but for how they act like writing prompts for my thinking brain. A good saying or quotation can spark all sorts of interesting thoughts, and those of us with writerly, hyperactive brains can cook up entire nourishing meals from the fruits of those thoughts.
The following saying struck me particularly this morning because of events yesterday...a context that made me say omygoshYES when I saw it.
The physical universe is made of tiny particles, but the parallel universe of human experience--the universe that thinks about and processes our lives--is made up of tiny stories. Some of these stories we tell over and over, and others we keep buried, silent, in our hearts.
Our string of tiny stories--and how we interpret them--generates our self-identity, our sense of who we are in relation to the world. It's important that we read those stories well.
Some stories have many possible meanings, it just depends on how we look at them. We all know people who see themselves as victims of other people's meanness. (I used to be one of them, actually.) In many cases, the victims are absolutely right. Other people have been mean to them. The tiny stories they tell prove that.
But if getting an advanced degree in literature taught me anything, it is that the meaning of a story depends on the point of view from which you read it. There are lots of different ways to read any story, and each way produces a different interpretation of the exact same words.
Words are not nearly as concrete and specific as we pretend they are. I could write a book on that subject, but it would likely bore you as much as Jacques Derrida's book Of Grammatology bored me. (Full confession...that boredom was so intense I only read to page four and learned the rest of what I know about Derrida's literary theory from summaries. Short ones. But I digress. Again.)
Back to my main point, all the tiny stories that make up the universe have meanings we can use, if we read them right.
Yesterday, a tiny story happened to me, my family, a dog named JW, and JW's owner. It began as a comedy.
As I drove into our neighborhood after picking up Jack at school, I saw a golden retriever playing by the pond. No person was around. I stopped, got out of my car, and called the dog to me. He came bounding up like a typical friendly golden retriever. He was wet and a little muddy, and thrilled to make a new friend. He sat when told and wiggled in joy as I tried to find a tag on his collar, eventually collapsing and rolling onto his back in enthusiastic submission.
Nothing helpful on the tag.
But I remembered about a month ago, a neighbor named Steve posted on our community Facebook page that he'd found a golden and returned him to his owner. I supposed this might be the same golden escape artist and had an avenue to begin reuniting this friendly dog with his owner. I opened the back of my Mazda SUV, and he hopped right in, settling down as if he frequently rode in a car.
After securing him in our garage (he was so, so sad, howling and barking when alone!), I hit the computer to message Steve. He wrote back that the dog was probably JW, and his owner was a man named Norm who lived in the neighborhood next to ours. He gave me Norm's phone number, and I called and left a message.
Meanwhile, George, Nick, and I checked on JW frequently, feeding him treats and making sure he had fresh water. I gave him one of Daisy's nyla-bones to chew, and I thought he'd wag his tail off in appreciation. He took the bone over to a large rag George used for cleaning his bike, buried the bone in the rag, picked up the whole package, and brought it to me, wagging enthusiastically the whole time.
His backside looked scraggly and bare, so I didn't want him mingling with Daisy in case he had some sort of skin condition. This freaked Daisy out and made her sniff and lick all of us humans vigorously. She kept pawing me as if to say, "Do you hear that!?!? There's a DOG. In our GARAGE. I must sniff his BUTT! Why is this happening??? Love me. I'm insecure. There's a DOG. In our GARAGE. Do you understand? Can't you HEAR him whining?!?"
Daisy is amusing.
When Norm came to retrieve his retriever, he told us about JW and what a great hunting dog he was, especially for ducks. JW is nine years old and frequently goes to work with Norm, who is a builder. On one job, JW kept disappearing every day and then reappearing with a new tennis ball in his mouth. Norm couldn't figure out where the balls were coming from. Turns out one the neighbors left his garage open about a foot, and JW snuck in to raid a stash of balls in a basket next to a ball-throwing machine.
That's a golden for you.
Then, Norm told us that JW has a tumor. It had grown alarmingly in just a few days on the inside of his back leg. That's why his backside looked so ratty...it was shaved for the biopsy and muddy from the pond.
George and I talked with Norm a while longer, and then he and JW left. George's first words to me when Norm drove away were, "I didn't need to know about the cancer."
This tiny story turned from a comedy into a tragedy with one sentence of dialog from Norm.
If you've read this blog for a while, you know all about our golden retriever named Hoover. JW's story brought Hoover's story back full force, all the memories and sadness. Here was a good dog named JW with the same whitening fur on his face that Hoover had, with the same terminal diagnosis.
I reunited JW with his owner...a tiny story with a happy ending. But the story goes on without us. And that story of a dog who will be put down with cancer breaks my heart.
It's part of our story now, too.
As sad as it is, though, I'm glad to be a part of it. Dogs don't live long enough, even when they die natural deaths. JW's tiny story--so like Hoover's--reminds us that we need to live in the time we have. I never would have guessed that JW is suffering. He is simply joyful, embracing life and making new friends and going for swims and burying bones and retrieving balls because he can.
He's living just like Hoover lived. His tiny story has a moral we can all use: we all have a little time and need to make that time the best we can...just because we can.
That's how I read it, anyway.
How do you read the tiny stories of your life? How do you put them together to create meaning? What morals do you find in your stories? Are they healthy ones? How could you read them differently to give you strength and joy like JW?