What's your story? It's all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.
Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller's art, and then a way of traveling from here to there. What is it like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the person you've only read about, or the one next to you in bed?
We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment. Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we've been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck; sometimes change arrives like an ambulance or a supply drop. Not a few stories are sinking ships, and many of us go down with these ships even when the lifeboats are bobbing all around us.
In The Thousand and One Nights, known in English as The Arabian Nights, Scheherazade tells stories in order to keep the sultan in suspense from night to night so he will not kill her. The backstory is that the sultan caught his queen in the embrace of a slave and decided to sleep with a virgin every night and slay her every morning so that he could not be cuckolded again. Scheherazade volunteered to try to end the massacre and did so by telling him stories that carried over from one night to the next for nights that stretched into years.
She spun stories around him that kept him in a cocoon of anticipation from which he eventually emerged a less murderous man. In the course of all this telling she bore three sons and delivered a labyrinth of stories within stories, stories of desire and deception and magic, of transformation and testing, stories in which the action in one freezes as another storyteller opens his mouth, pregnant stories, stories to stop death.
We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller. Those ex‑virgins who died were inside the sultan's story; Scheherazade, like a working-class hero, seized control of the means of production and talked her way out.
Sometimes the key arrives long before the lock. Sometimes a story falls in your lap. Once about a hundred pounds of apricots fell into mine. They came in three big boxes, and to keep them from crushing one another under their weight or from rotting in close quarters, I spread them out on a sheet on the plank floor of my bedroom. There they presided for some days, a story waiting to be told, a riddle to be solved, and a harvest to be processed. They were an impressive sight, a mountain of apricots in every stage from hard and green to soft and browning, though most of them were that range of shades we call apricot: pale orange with blushes of rose and yellow-gold zones, upholstered in a fine velvet, not as fuzzy as peaches, not as smooth as plums. The ripe ones had the faint sweet perfume particular to that fruit.
I had expected them to look like abundance itself and they looked instead like anxiety, because every time I came back there was another rotten one or two or three or dozen to cull, and so I fell to inspecting the pile every time I passed by instead of admiring it. The reasons why I came to have a heap of apricots on my bedroom floor are complicated. They came from my mother's tree, from the home she no longer lived in, in the summer when a new round of trouble began.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. Copyright 2013 by Rebecca Solnit.