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…

22 thoughts on “Of Storytelling and Escaping

  1. Hi Marian!! I love the Sacred Text podcast. It’s been awhile since I’ve listened, but perhaps it’s time
    I look it up again. I find their voices to be very soothing.

    I’ve been reading books – mostly trashy novels – and watching Atypical on Netflix along with another show on Hulu about the Royal Family.

    And spending way to much time on social media. And local news sites telling about how many new cases we have everyday. It seems so counterproductive since everyone is reaching out on their tech, but I feel like I need a social media break.

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    1. Hi Kate 🙂 . HPST is close to wrapping up the sixth book, and I’ll be so sad when they’re completely done the series. It’s only been the rare episode in which I haven’t laughed, or cried (because I felt validated), or felt enlightened about something.

      I’ll take a look at Atypical. We’re desperately needing a new series here! And I hear you on the trashy novels—this is exactly the time we need easy escapes.

      I subscribed to Cal Newport’s newsletter shortly after reading Digital Minimalism, and he recently said that now more than ever, it’s a good idea to monitor how social media is making you feel. It’s such a fine line between wanting to connect with people—which is so important—and needing to protect your mental health.

      Stay well, Kate.
      xo Marian

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  2. I love this post, and I can’t wait to check out the resources you’ve linked to. I’m doing a tedious painting project, which I can only get through by having something to listen to. I’ve been listening to an audiobook, but it’s not a great one.

    Your story about the two fathers sounds like a wonderful premise for a children’s book, the stories told in alternating chapters. What’s happening now is frightening and unsettling–it’s so hard (psychologically) to realize how swiftly the things we count on as givens in our lives can disappear–but when I think of what others have lived through, the losses they have endured, I can feel only grateful that I’ve lived this long without any such event. I remind myself daily that I’m in my home, with food and heat, and that all my beloveds are safe and healthy.

    For what it’s worth, I highly second Kate’s recommendation of Atypical. I love that show. I’m going to try Maniac, as I need a new series, too. We’ve been watching HGTV series (it’s hard to find something both Cane and I like) and I’m flipping sick of them.

    Please keep writing! Don’t be a word hoarder! 🙂

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    1. Thank you for this, Rita. I love that you might find value in these links.

      A side-by-side comparison of the two father’s experiences is an interesting idea. Sadly, I don’t have many details of my own father’s story. When I was growing up, I caught only small hints of some of the things he went through as a boy and as a young man. I think he kept diaries, and he probably still has them, but he likely wrote them in German. He now has dementia, so my only option to learn more would be to ask my stepmother to send me those diaries and then get them translated, or to reach out to my aunt, who is younger than my dad; however, I have to admit that editing my father-in-law’s story did bring up some bitter feelings and I’m not sure I want to go there again with my father’s story. I will say that there is a really crappy silver lining to intergenerational trauma: my childhood did prepare me really well for stoicism—despite my anxiety, I am scarily capable of quickly coming to the same kind of hard-hearted perspective that I often see in older generations.

      Yes, there is only so much HGTV a person can take! If you watch Maniac, you’ll need to prepare yourself for some really bizarre stuff 🙂 . (Much of which comes clear if you watch it all over again, as I did.)

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  3. I know that stoicism. My family did not endure the same kind of trauma at all, but on both sides I had great-grandparents who immigrated here, and I think there is always trauma in that. I was definitely raised to expect things to be hard and to just do whatever it is that has to be done. And we didn’t talk about it, much, either. Certainly not about our feelings about it.

    I still think there could be a great story there. Fiction doesn’t have to be based in actual fact to tell important truths. But I certainly understand your feelings. Perhaps you want to get those diaries anyway, so they aren’t lost?

    And thanks for the Maniac recommendation/suggestions. Definitely going to try it out.

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    1. I absolutely agree—immigration did involve trauma. I sometimes think about the not knowing that was involved in all that. People simply left, and sometimes they would never see family or friends ever again. You might hear from them, but mail could take weeks or months; if you go back even farther, there wasn’t even mail. (This is something I try to remind myself of when I’m impatiently waiting for an answer to an email 😉 .) And yes, absolute agreement as well with the older generations not talking about feelings. After all, feelings just got in the way of what needed to be done…

      I’ll have to give some more thought to getting those diaries. For many reasons, it’s complicated, but that’s a post in and of itself.

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      1. Yes, the not knowing. I’m struggling now with not seeing my parents, even though I just saw them a few weeks ago, mostly because I know I can’t right now and I don’t know when I can. It’s the not knowing. A year ago this week I was in Croatia, in the village my great-grandmother grew up in, and I understood the enormity of what she lost (with no choice; she wasn’t a child, but she wasn’t an adult, either, when her family left). She didn’t return until she was in her 70s. Just the taste of not knowing that I’ve had the past week helps me understand that history in a different way again.

        Now I have thoughts brewing for a post, too…

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      2. I think perhaps that sense of loss is greater when you don’t have any control over the decision to leave. And of course, in your great-grandmother’s time, returning to visit the homeland would have been completely untenable for most people. They had no choice but to be stoic, didn’t they? Even though Canada is where I was born, I can understand that feeling that comes with loss of place—that’s something I’ve felt each time I’ve visited The Netherlands.

        I love that this has sparked thoughts for your own post 🙂 .

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

    Hi Marian! Our day ( Me and my Yorkie) started at 4 am… calm water, drifted to fog, saw the dolphins, the sun came out around noon, saw a 12″ sea turtle here for the first time, and the day seemed long waiting… I kept reminding myself that the universe would make the decision…
    I tried to think of this as an “escape”, but there is no escape from which your post refers to from my tiny perspective.

    I did not have the energy to comment earlier more in depth. But now at the end of my very long day 11:45pm (Ha!), I can say that I’ve the seller of the house that I placed an offer on a few days ago agreed to my terms. So I now now have a contract on a tiny cottage! As I waited today, I focused on the Corpus Christi Bay from my balcony and kept reminding myself “to allow the universe to take me in whatever direction with acceptance”. I stayed away from personal hopes or prayer, but wanted the universe to further my personal journey.

    At the latest, end of today, I’m past options period and I’m now in contact to close on April 7th on a very old, old house or cottage and the property.

    So, to answer you… I suppose that I have been soaking in nature (escaping or recharging; but mostly healing my broken heart and broken soul)

    I love that I’m able to connect to others about truths of daily life and human challenges. And I believe that what I found with your connection is authentic!

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    1. Congratulations on the cottage, TD! May you and your yorkie be content living there.
      I love what you’ve shared here. It’s reminding me of this quotation from Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I would expand the definition of “room” to include nature, because it seems to me that soaking in nature—simply allowing yourself to quietly be in it—is another thing we humans often have trouble doing. We want to conquer nature, or collect it, or catalogue it, but rarely do we just sit there quietly with only our own thoughts for company. It seems to me it takes bravery to do that. As for taking direction from the universe, I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the last few months thinking about whether the universe talks to us. An extremely logical friend told me last fall that he thought the universe was taking care of him; tbh, this statement kind of floored me, and then it set my thoughts spinning around what I believe about the universe. Although I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the “taking care” part of his statement, I did end up feeling slightly better about the fact that I do tend to dwell on coincidences. I’d love to believe the universe is speaking to us using coincidences, but even though I’m not sure I can convince myself of that, it does make for a fascinating thought exercise, which is kind of a nice escape 🙂 .

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      1. Very interesting, Marian! I don’t think that I hear the universe speaking to me or caring for me either. Yet somewhere in my mid thirties, I must have been influenced by a variety of inspirational speakers that actually made sense to me as I adopted some of those philosophies and it was during those years that I became aware or an awakening of my emotional connection with nature. I find sitting in the quiet of nature very peaceful and beautiful as I allow myself to take in all within my soul through the human sensory experience. I personally don’t think of my ease in nature to be brave or courageous, but more spiritual.

        Yes! Coincidences! Aren’t they fascinating!!

        I too have similar thoughts of pondering if the universe is trying to teach me something that I need to know by using coincidences!! Ha! Very interesting to hear your thoughts…

        And thank you on the contract for the little cottage. We will see in time if the universe will have me travel through to closing. With all the Covid19, it is a minute by minute constant change of unknowns how these will all be able to play out or be derailed…

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      2. In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport talks about the fact that nowadays we could—if we wanted to—move through entire days without ever being alone with our thoughts. I’m now seeing all this as a continuum: from never being comfortable with being alone with your thoughts, to being comfortable being alone with your thoughts but having those thoughts hurt you, to being alone with your thoughts without having them hurt you—in other words, to simply be able to be in the moment (in nature or not) and to focus on the sensory or the spiritual. I admit I have difficulties being in the moment—even when I’m in nature—so I admire that you’re able to do that.

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  5. I do understand what you are saying here, Marian.

    At least the end of my day light yesterday, I thought about the different sea birds that have arrived this week as spring blossoms. Quite enjoyable! And now that I’m living in this apartment on the bay front (not on the island anymore, though only 20 minutes away), I noticed that I have not seen any Rosy Spoonbills. They are rare in our area, but the nesting population has grown to a small amount over the past 20 years. I went to sleep wondering if Rosy Spoonbills ever nestled around the bay front.

    This morning, my coffee time out on the balcony waiting for the sunrise, I saw a trio of the Rosy Spoonbills gliding by flying smoothly in harmony towards the east heading towards the Island! COINCIDENCE? Universe coincidence? Made me smile and then giggle thinking of our conversation and I thought THAT was wild! I just had to tell you 🙂

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  6. Strange time indeed Marian. So sorry to have taken so long to comment, I know you’ll understand that I’m finding the incoming waves of social communications hard to keep up with.
    One of the things I’m really enjoying is listening to podcasts (as opposed to the radio news etc) – some of my favourites are The Moth (from US), Reasons to Be Cheerful (UK), and lots of the BBC radio podcasts – not sure whether or not they are freely available overseas, but if they are, there are some great drama and dramatisations available (including the latest Hilary Mantel book – I’m saving that one).
    Take care, and I hope you’re having a good weekend. Deborah

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    1. Many thanks, Deborah, for these recommendations. (Reasons to Be Cheerful looks especially good!) I’ve been wanting to check out BBC radio for quite some time, and this is something my youngest son would probably enjoy as well. I’ve looked, and radio does seem to be freely available for download around the world; thank goodness for the Internet…

      And no need for an apology; I completely understand.
      I hope your weekend has been good as well.
      xo Marian

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  7. Hi Marian, I was reading some ‘visible mending’ posts, so here I am. Your blog is like the treat of a fat, handwritten letter on the doormat. All the interesting links in your posts to send me off down other rabbit holes.I think I could never be bored around you!
    Thank you to the world wide web for sending a tendril my way.
    Nicola

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