Of Storytelling and Escaping

“No good sittin’ worryin’ abou’ it,” [Hagrid] said. “What’s comin’ will come, an’ we’ll meet it when it does.” — J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The other night, my husband uploaded his father’s ghostwritten memoir to a self-publishing website and hit order.

This was the culmination of weeks and weeks of work. Some of the work was done by my husband, who learned how to use Adobe InDesign so he could format the memoir into a book, but most of the work was done by me. I’ve spent the last several months editing, fact-checking, and re-writing, trying to hone my father-in-law’s story so that his grandchildren might actually read it (as opposed to saying, Oh, cool, Grandpa’s written his memoir! and then simply shelving it). But although my work on my father-in-law’s story was mostly enjoyable, it also caused a roller coaster of emotions and a merry-go-round of philosophizing.

My father-in-law, now 82, was born on a farm in Poland in 1937 to Austrian parents. In 1945, at the tail end of World War II, the family was warned that the Russian army was heading their way, so they abandoned their farm and hit the road to find safety. Coincidentally, my own father was also born in 1937. He, too, was of Germanic heritage and living on a farm in a place that was going to be overrun by an army at the tail end of the war. But while my father-in-law’s family heeded the warnings to leave, my father’s family did not. The result was that one seven-year-old boy escaped and had—in his own words—an adventure, while another seven-year-old boy was trucked to an internment camp.

Although some of the thoughts that ran through my mind as I worked on my father-in-law’s memoir revolved around questions of chance, strength, perseverance, and consequences, most of my thoughts seemed to centre around storytelling: why we tell stories, who gets to tell stories, which stories help us, and which stories hurt us.

A few months ago, I would have tried to hammer all of these thoughts into something that had structure and purpose—some sort of hall of mirrors where reflections and perceptions were stretched—but let’s face it, these are strange days in which we’re living. They’re days of making do and getting by, days in which you’re scared to go to the grocery store for fear of what you might pick up, but you’re also scared not to go to the grocery store for fear of what you might not be able to pick up.

Because it seems wrong to engage in any type of hoarding—even if the only thing you’re hoarding is an insane number of drafts that could be turned into completely inconsequential posts, ones that may or may not help your fellow merry-go-rounders momentarily pause the ride—I’ve got a small list of things to share:

  1. This two-part documentary from the CBC radio show Ideas on why humans are storytellers: Vestigial Tale Part 1 and Vestigial Tale Part 2. (I’m hoping CBC Radio is available regardless of location.)
  2. This long article from Vox on hopepunk, a term that was coined a few years ago to describe storytelling that’s used to weaponize optimism.
  3. The podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. Harry Potter is my literary comfort food, and this podcast, which takes listeners chapter by chapter through each book, can be summed up as English class meets humanism meets therapy.
  4. The podcast Ologies. My daughter routinely sends me episodes she thinks I’ll enjoy, such as fearology, volitional psychology (aka procrastination), and personality psychology. (The other day I listened to virology, which was very fitting, hugely instructive, and somewhat comforting.)
  5. The limited series Maniac on Netflix, which is completely bizarre and  occasionally violent and tragic, but also (IMO) incredibly mind-bending.

If you’d like to return the favour, I’d love to hear about the things that are helping you to momentarily escape…

Small Things for Big Problems

Lina lived in Quillium Square, over the yarn shop run by her grandmother. . . . [The] shop had once been a tidy place, where each ball of yarn and spool of thread had its spot in the cubbyholes that lined the walls. All the yarn and thread came from old clothes that had gotten too shabby to be worn. Granny unraveled sweaters and picked apart dresses and jackets and pants; she wound the yarn into balls and the thread onto spools, and people bought them to use in making new clothes. — Jeanne DuPrau, The City of Ember

About 16 years ago, I stood in our kitchen in Minnesota, a set of thin knitting needles and a ball of sock yarn on the counter. At my feet—scattered everywhere on the linoleum and on the carpet behind me—were beads. My two children were extremely fond of making beaded snakes—of giving them names and homes, and constructing stories about their families and having them visit each other—but they were also extremely fond of dumping the beads everywhere and then using toy construction vehicles such as backhoes, bulldozers, and dump trucks to scoop them and push them and cart them around.

I can still remember how I felt as I stood there, a knitting needle in my right hand, the yarn looped around my left thumb and pinky, beads at my feet, children’s voices tugging at me. My husband was probably travelling yet again for work, and I was experiencing the quiet desperation that often came with having unrelieved days on end of just me and my children in the house. Those stitches that I was casting on to that thin needle felt like a lifeline—each stitch was purposeful and orderly, and it was a useful and creative thing I was attempting to do—and I remember thinking that if I could focus on those stitches, I might just be able to succeed at my one goal in life: being a decent mother who didn’t lose her shit and irrevocably damage her children.

This post has taken several sharp turns over the past week. It began as an ode to small things. Then, it morphed into yet-another treatise on handiwork as meditation. Four days ago, it became a rant about women’s work. Three days ago, I dumped everything but the quotation and wrote about reinvention. Two days ago, I yelled at the radio and then vented here about the need to retain a sense of perspective and to keep calm.

Clearly, I have been just as scattered as that box of beads.

I spent yesterday dusting, sweeping, darning, and knitting. While I knit, I watched our prime minister, who is in self-isolation because his wife has tested positive for COVID-19, give a press conference. And as the other news came in—closures and cancellations and directives on social distancing—I kept knitting, and as I did so, I felt my anxiety ebbing away.

We live in a world that uses big measures to quantify success, and because of that, anything small is easy to dismiss. And yet it’s often the small things that end up mattering the most—the small things that build until they collectively break us, or the small things that hold us together when we’re close to falling apart.

The photos, from the top: Darning my older son’s wool socks; knitting socks for my younger son; and—like Lina’s granny—unravelling a pair of hand-knit socks, ones that shrunk in the wash, so I can reuse the yarn. My youngest son needs a scarf, and I think it’s going to be a modification of this one, made from scrap yarn.

How about you? Are small things holding you together too?