Our lives unfold in stories, whether we are conscious and unconscious of what they are and how we create them. How many times do you catch yourself agitating, spinning your own story around a comment made to you, about you or someone else and by the time the day has ended you have written at least a short story if not an entire novel around it? Did you include all the what ifs, and the should haves or could haves?
Have you considered reviewing how your life is shaped by how we tell, remember and share these stories? What if you engaged in the active process of examining the stories you tell from different perspectives?
I’ll use Richard Wagamese’s words to respond to these questions.
“All that we are is story. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship – we change the world, one story at a time…”
(Richard Wagamese was an Ojibway author and journalist from the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations, now known as Northwestern Ontario)
This is a beautiful description of personal legacy - not the material possessions we might leave behind or pass on, but who we are, what we stand for and how we interact with the world around us, both in our small and intimate circles and the larger circles around us.
So how do we go about creating the best possible story we can while we are here? It has to begin with ourselves - it’s an inside job, so to speak.
Let’s think of an example. Perhaps you remember a story from your past where something happened that made you feel anxious, frustrated or angry. Over time, the emotions might have diminished but the question remains whether you still hang on to the same interpretation of this story? Can you think of an instant where, after some time of wrestling with that experience, you managed to derive a different meaning from the same story?
Since stories need to be shared, I'm offering you here a simple story from my younger days:
Thirty-one twelve to thirteen year-olds waiting in class for their teacher to arrive. The room is bursting with giggles, loud bits of conversation, idle chit chat and incoherent waves of emotional turmoil only young teens can create.
From the doorway, I hear “Salve” in a sonorous baritone voice. Oh no, not him! Instant silence falls over us. We scurry to our seats and freeze there, barely breathing. Without any preamble, he commands us to conjugate verbs and decline nouns in Latin - and he begins with “laborare” - to work! He points to me while I am sliding under my desk. Oh, what would I give to be invisible now! Tongue-tied, and with a raspy voice, afraid of this man with mottled grey hair, an impressive stature, and a stoic face that never shows a smile, I keep my eyes down and stutter my answer. My hands are clammy and shaky, desperately holding on to my desk.
I sneak a glance to the ever so slowly moving hands on the clock above the door, pretty certain I’m not the only one. When the bell finally rings, my shoulders drop and I can hear my own breath of relief echoing in my classmates around me.
We were afraid of this man and for the next five years we spent a lot of time feeling anxious about him filling in for our regular Latin teacher. We also knew he was the only senior Latin teacher, which led some of us to the decision to discontinue with Latin in our senior years. We worried about what the experience might be like and developed dozens of stories around why he didn’t like us and why he apparently tried to make our lives difficult. How could he be so cold-hearted? Why didn’t he care? Those are some of the questions I remember.
Now picture this:
A classroom full of 21 seventeen to eighteen year old girls, laughing, chatting, gossiping and perhaps not quite living up to their own ideal expectations as the seniors in the school.
A tallish gentleman walks in–mottled grey hair, stout, but not of really broad stature, shoulders slightly stooped, deep wrinkles cut into his stern forehead and cheeks. We all settle into our chairs and silence sweeps the room clear and clean before he even reaches the desk by the window next to the black board. He asks the first question, and at least ten hands shoot up in the air. His face softens a bit as the corners of his lips move upward just a touch. Discussion and conversation flow unencumbered throughout the hour.
I don’t recall ever checking the time in this class, nor do I believe any of us ever wished for the class to end. We laugh and smile, sometimes even cry a little - and all of that during Latin class.
It’s hard to imagine how much my story about this incredible man changed over the course of my senior years but even more so in the last 25 years when I started the intentional process of re-storying my life. In re-examining my life from various angles, especially through writing and storytelling, I have come to realize the many threads this man offered to his students through his teaching and living his own best story to weave into whatever tapestry we chose to create.
He helped us recognize and appreciate the significance and interconnectedness of history, sociology, ethics, philosophy, politics, geography and current events. One single paragraph of reading and translating a text by the Roman historian and politician Tacitus, for instance, could take us from Rome, via a detour through ancient Greece and maybe the Middle East, right through the Enlightenment to the 1930s and beyond.
Gradually we also gained glimpses into how this extraordinary mans’s personal history was tied into the fabric of his presence and teachings. After all, he was one of the approximately 10 000 “Spätheimkehrer” who were only released between 1953 and 1955 from the hard labour gulags in Siberia. While he never talked about those years directly, it became clear to us, even as teenagers, how we marinated in his personal experiences, wisdom and zest for living fully and in his unique ability to break down the complexity of life, lived experience, history and ideas. His guidance and wisdom felt at once exciting and comforting.
I now wonder who I would have become without Herr Kammerer. Would I have studied languages and literatures if it hadn’t been for him? How would my view of 20th century history differ? Would I have begun, as a teen, to gain insight into the interdependence of religion, politics, history, economy and so much more that impact and infuse every aspect of our lives?
What I am sure about, though, is this: Herr Kammerer created the best possible story in his life and shared it with us. Herr Kammerer’s legacy continues to live through me and I hope and trust it will continue beyond me as well.
Once again, I invite you to share your story here or with me directly. I'd also appreciate it if you left a comment on my story.