Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Digesting History

This is the week of American Thanksgiving, which starts off the holiday season in the US. When Thanksgiving is over, Jewish holidays kick in, then Christmas is in less than a month.

I've been re-reading Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, our Read and Write book for this quarter, a novel in pairing with her memoir we just finished, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? I ran into these passages about history and stories and felt them strongly related to memoir and also the holiday season, super full of both family and national history, stories and food:
Of course that is not the whole story, but that is the way with stories; we make them what we will. It’s a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained, it’s a way of keeping it all alive, not boxing it into time. Everyone who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us that everybody sees it differently. Some people say there are true things to be found, some people say all kinds of things can be proved. I don’t believe them. The only thing for certain is how complicated it all is, like string full of knots. It’s all there but hard to find the beginning and impossible to fathom the end. The best you can do is admire the cat’s cradle, and maybe knot it up a bit more. History should be a hammock for swinging and a game for playing, the way cats play. Claw it, chew it, rearrange it and at bedtime it’s still a ball of string full of knots. Nobody should mind. Some people make a lot of money out of it. Publishers do well, children, when bright, can come top. It’s an all-purpose rainy day pursuit, this reducing of stories called history.
When the Pilgrim Fathers set sail it was not without the opinion of many that they were crazy. History has now decided otherwise. Curious people who are explorers must bring back more than a memory or a story, they must bring home potatoes or tobacco or, best of all, gold. But happiness is not a potato. 
And when I look at a history book and think of the imaginative effort it has taken to squeeze this oozing world between two boards and typeset, I am astonished. Perhaps the event has an unassailable truth. God saw it. God knows. But I am not God. And so when someone tells me what they heard or saw, I believe them, and I believe their friend who also saw, but not in the same way, seamless wonder but a sandwich laced with mustard of my own.  
The salt beef of civilisation rumbling round in the gut. Constipation was a great problem after the Second World War. Not enough roughage in the diet, too much refined food. If you always eat out you can never be sure what’s going in, and received information is nobody’s exercise. Rotten and rotting. 
Here is some advice. If you want to keep your own teeth, make your own sandwiches . . . 
There's a lot for us to digest - both on the level of our own stories and the cultural contexts around us. Be gentle with yourself during the holiday season - regardless of what you do or don't celebrate. Everyone is tender, trying their best to figure out how to get through this. Stay gentle and kind and open, and note that these stories are not solid. None of them are.

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