Monday, June 18, 2007

The Narrative of History and Knot-Making

I love talking nonfiction, which is a good thing since that is my work. What I love most is confronting people who believe in an essential truth, those people who believe "history" is indisputable fact. In these types of discussions, I encourage them to review U.S. history books from the last ten years and notice all the changes. It could be an easier task than that, I tell them. Just look at the back cover to see the "Newly Included Voices" and then make note of whose voices and stories have been removed. History is not a line with an arrow pointing backwards. We cannot run up and down it with a series of dates plotting our way. I would argue that time is not even real, but that's for another discussion.

I know that my sister died more than ten years ago, but sometimes in my dreams she is still living. In some ways, I must admit, my sense of time is determined by her death. Was that before or after she died? Did I start dating him while she was still alive or was that a year after? And so I confront time in this way, but the history of her is constantly in flux. It is a narrative I am constantly shaping in my head. Yes, she drove up to get me from the bus station in Canada when I could not live on the commune a day longer. Sometimes it was a six-hour drive she made for me. Sometimes it was longer. And then I made her dinner and her husband hated it. That part of the story never changes. He never liked my cooking. Sometimes she did it because she was bored and lonely. Sometimes she did it because she was so good. Sometimes she did it because she loved me. Sometimes at the end of it she tells me I told you so. It depends on the arc of the retelling that day. It depends on the context in which I am telling it.

"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 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 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" (Jeanette Winterson).

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