I long to hear the story of your life

I like the idea that I am a story which I am still writing. After all, there seems to be a rambling kind of direction to it, and if pressed, I could likely invent a plot. Of course, until the final page, nobody -not even me- really knows how it’s going to turn out, but that’s the beauty of it. The intrigue of it -a story in which we’re kept guessing until the very end.

I suppose, though, any story admits of a certain amount of literary licence, and a life story is definitely no exception -just look at many social media postings where fact and fiction intermingle like roots from a pot-bound plant. It’s hard to know what to do with stories like that; by constructing them the way they have, does that still make them stories of who the narrators actually are? By altering the way we tell our tales, does that also alter us?

Because our memories are imperfect reproductions of what actually happened, and because the way we sift through them may favour -or reject- the more remarkable ones, do we have a story at all? Could our lives be nothing but random hodgepodges of remembered events on flash-cards we hold up when asked to tell someone about ourselves? And, even when organized in some semblance of sequential chronology, is it a story, or a fantasy?

Sometimes the only thing that stitches the narrative together is the fact that it all seems to have happened to that fraying thread of continuity we identify as ourselves. And yet, an old black and white photograph of me as a child seems not to be the same ‘me’ as the one I feel I am now. I have to believe the writing on the back that identifies it as me, and yet… and yet I do not remember it being taken. That child is not me anymore -there are so many gaps I cannot fill. So how do I construct a narrative that includes him? Am I his story, or is he mine?

I had almost forgotten about the idea of Homo narrans when I happened upon a counter-argument in an essay by Galen Strawson, a British analytic philosopher from the University of Texas at Austin: https://aeon.co/essays/let-s-ditch-the-dangerous-idea-that-life-is-a-story

After reciting a few examples of sundry philosophers and savants who subscribe to the narrative approach, Strawson writes, ‘I think it’s false – false that everyone stories themselves, and false that it’s always a good thing.’ I have to say that it spurred me to read on; I wondered how he would attempt to assail the now-conventional wisdom of the narrativists.

He firmly rejects this thesis. ‘It’s not just that the deliverances of memory are, for us, hopelessly piecemeal and disordered, even when we’re trying to remember a temporally extended sequence of events. The point is more general. It concerns all parts of life, life’s ‘great shambles’, in the American novelist Henry James’s expression. This seems a much better characterisation of the large-scale structure of human existence as we find it. Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us.’

Strawson seems to feel that identity through narrative is an almost desperate attempt to seize control of the course one’s life: to develop an autobiographical narrative to act as a lens through which we experience the world. He quotes McAdams, a leading narrativist among social psychologists: ‘Beginning in late adolescence and young adulthood, we construct integrative narratives of the self that selectively recall the past and wishfully anticipate the future to provide our lives with some semblance of unity, purpose, and identity.’

And then, before we decide that describes our ‘story’, Strawson counters with a quote from the British author W Somerset Maugham: ‘I recognise that I am made up of several persons and that the person that at the moment has the upper hand will inevitably give place to another. But which is the real one? All of them or none?’ I suspect this was an attempt to muddy the water, but I pressed on.

I get the impression that Strawson identifies most with the 16th century philosopher and writer Michel de Montaigne who is mainly remembered for his prodigious output of essays. Montaigne, was also known for his memory lapses, and so it is no surprise that ‘‘I can find hardly a trace of [memory] in myself,’ he writes in his essay ‘Of Liars’ (1580). ‘I doubt if there is any other memory in the world as grotesquely faulty as mine is!’ And why is that important for Strawson?

Because ‘Poor memory protects him [Montaigne] from a disagreeable form of ambition, stops him babbling, and forces him to think through things for himself because he can’t remember what others have said… To this we can add the point that poor memory and a non-Narrative disposition aren’t hindrances when it comes to autobiography in the literal sense – actually writing things down about one’s own life. Montaigne is the proof of this, for he is perhaps the greatest autobiographer, the greatest human self-recorder… Montaigne writes the unstoried life – the only life that matters… He knows his memory is hopelessly untrustworthy, and he concludes that the fundamental lesson of self-knowledge is knowledge of self-ignorance.’

Not to make too great a point of a faulty memory being a helpful argument against the narrative of life, though, Strawson borrows from a comment on a book by the American novelist James Salter: ‘Salter strips out the narrative transitions and explanations and contextualisations, the novelistic linkages that don’t exist in our actual memories, to leave us with a set of remembered fragments, some bright, some ugly, some bafflingly trivial, that don’t easily connect and can’t be put together as a whole, except in the sense of chronology, and in the sense that they are all that remains.’ In other words, I suppose, self-knowledge comes mostly in bits and pieces that we fit together as best we can.

I still feel that life is a narrative, though -a series of events, however cobbled together, however rambling, that tell a story. Like an archeologist sifting through fragments from a midden, we piece together seemingly disparate items and random shards until we have a chronology that makes sense to us, an idea about what was happening and when. Our lives are not so much describable in accurately numbered episodes, as they are in contextually sorted potsherds found in the dust we have been walking through for years; we’ve organized them in a way that makes sense to us. So, our lives are only as colourful as the fragments we have stooped to gather.

Shouldn’t that tell us something…?

Unregarded Age in Corners Thrown

I worry too much; I didn’t used to, but it kind of crept up on me along with my aches and pains over the years. Age is something that has always been fraught with tensions as we stumble through the calendar first wanting more, then less and then, I suppose, trying to forget about it altogether -ignore it when it clearly needs to be addressed. Demands recognition.

Age –especially old age- is one of those concepts that is very much contextually driven. Age-driven, in fact: where one sits on the spectrum very much influences age perception. An elder would live many fewer years if it is a teenager, rather than a senior who is canvassed.

But a good case can be made that age is not a mono-dimensional concept. Chronology does not come in one flavour; not all eighty year olds, say, are tied to the same constraints. Age might better be considered as a quartet with the other members consisting of Biological –we all age differently, Psychological –some aged people retain their faculties better than others, and Social –some elderly people, whether by fiat, or necessity, no longer work outside their homes and are no longer as connected to social networks. Indeed, in times past, ‘old’ might well have been related to usefulness rather than chronology.

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34465190

So there we have it: usefulness. Purpose! Self-worth. All contingent concepts to be sure. And retirement, despite the positive connotations that Society has tried to foist upon it, is still a denouement –however it is rationalized. However many cosmetics are applied. Wallpaper may fool strangers, but it is still wallpaper…

So, you see why I worry. It is not that there might not be new opportunities available in retirement -new venues- but simply the realization that it is a final chapter of a thoroughly read book. An epilogue.

But I digress. It is something of a fool’s errand to attempt to encapsulate Retirement under one banner. It is a chapter as yet unprinted, and at best only sketchily conceived. There are also portions of it written, even if unwittingly, by someone else.

There is a store I visit every so often to buy dog food. It is a large and perhaps corporately criticized chain, but my dog is fussy and became addicted when she was only a puppy to a brand only they seem to offer. To tell the truth, I enjoy the store; I enjoy wandering the aisles and feeling -what? – pride at resisting things I do not need and casting a cold eye on those I do not want. It is a juvenile thing, I suppose, but maybe that’s the point: a recapitulation of past temptations seen through different eyes. Different years…

But on my way in, I saw a face that seemed familiar. It wore the uniform of the store and yet it seemed out of place somehow. A bush growing in a patch of vegetables –or more aptly, perhaps, a tree standing all alone in the middle of a field of wheat. Staid and stolid, watching, bemused, the tender stalks waving frenetically around her feet.

It was not so much her age that separated her from those around her as her composure, her calmness in the Storm of Store. In the eye of the hurricane of shoppers intent on their own missions, her smile was like a shrine erected at the doorway, a refuge offered, but seldom taken. Seldom noticed: the store was not a temple –just another place to visit when the need arose, a series of shelves to inspect. There were no sacred places here, no altars, no need to reflect on the meaning of it all. The store fulfilled a function, not a curb-side meditation.

I have to admit, the face was so unexpected, so completely out of context that I passed it by with barely a thought, although I did stop halfway down a nameless aisle and wonder why. And it was there that it –she– caught up with me.

“Doctor?” she asked tentatively, clearly uncertain from behind at least, that it was me. And when I turned to face the voice I remembered somewhat shakily from the past, she smiled broadly. I could see it was all she could do to refrain from hugging me; instead, she proffered a bony hand, its skin replete with veins and the brown patches of age.

“Doris!” I somehow managed to retrieve the name from a long closed memory drawer -although not without an awkward pause because it was not the Doris I remembered, but an older, frailer model. Doris had been well into her seventies when I had last seen her in consultation but this face, this figure, was a worn and crumpled copy of that older woman I had once filed away.

Her smile looked painful it was so wide and welcoming, but it was her eyes that immediately captivated me. Like delicate pale blue figurines trapped behind the glass of an old cabinet, they begged for release, and when she opened their cages they flew to my face and rested there. “It’s so nice to see you again, doctor,” she said with her joy so evident I was almost taken aback.

Her frailty dissolved as I watched, and the younger Doris emerged as if it had been hiding all the while. I remembered her now as the vibrant woman who had quoted poetry to me when I was trying to take her history. Who had dismissed the referral from her GP as ‘misguided over-concern’ from a young doctor uncomfortable in dealing with a patient older than his grandmother. And as a result she had brokered the compromise of seeing an older specialist. When I also agreed that she really had no cause for concern, she’d bonded with me and even showed up at the office the next week with flowers. I suppose we all like our judgements to be validated.

But on that occasion it had led to a discussion of age, and whether or not to succumb. Whether, as Dylan Thomas had written, to go gentle into that good night. Or to… Rage against the dying of the light. She most emphatically was with Thomas, whereas I, in an uncharacteristic disclosure, had expressed uncertainty as to whether with identity obscured and purpose thwarted, I would be forced to go gentle into whatever the good night hid in retirement.

“Nonsense!” I still remembered her saying that, her face fierce, her eyes locked on mine. “Is ‘Doctor’ your last name? Age and function do not change who you are –just what you do…” Then her expression softened and her eyes unlocked from me and twinkled when they had returned to her face. She got up from her chair with an enigmatic smile and turned to me as she was walking out of the room. “Do not become what Shakespeare called Unregarded age in corners thrown. I would be very disappointed.”

I took a long hard look at her, standing in the aisle with her uniform proudly displayed and I smiled. “You’ve certainly taken your own advice, Doris. Not too many people your age would have chosen your path. You look happy.”

“Have you ever read any Robert Frost?” she asked after observing me quietly for a moment.

I nodded, suspecting what was to come.

She closed her eyes and a beatific expression emerged as if she were about to pray.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

There are forks in every road. Maybe she was praying -praying for me…