Tell me your life story in 4 minutes. This is a question I have been asking my friends and family. Their first reaction is stunned silence, a deer in headlights. Then slowly, the wheels begin to turn and they speak, measured and careful words, maneuvering around covered landmines. The years roll away and they become 10 years old again, and they never seem to get to their children or marriage or faith or career.
I asked by brother-in-law if he remembered where he was 50 years ago when Neil Armstrong did his thing on the moon. He was 10 years old, listening to a Phillies game. Richie Allen is batting for the Phillies against the Cardinals. Allen strokes a moonshot into the outfield and in the middle of Bill Campbell description of a possible home run, a news announcer breaks in. When the broadcast of the game was rejoined, the Cardinals were throttling the Phillies, and he never found out whether Richie Allen’s batted ball left the park.
Since I’m a writer, I check my sources. The Phillies and Cardinals did not play on July 20, 1969. The Phillies played the Cubs in a doubleheader on the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Which makes me wonder about my own childhood recollections and how well I remember. And I think of Anne Lamott who wrote about her childhood as being pretzelized…
Mom and Dad were in such tense, quiet, polite distress. My parents should have literally raised orchids instead of children. But they loved us, they were progressives and very avant garde and marchers for peace and civil rights…they just couldn’t stand each other and it pretzelized us all…it just twisted us and we all have struggled with healing and mental health and believing that we are safe because I didn’t feel safe as a child, and I held my breath and walked on eggshells and tried to be my father’s wife because my parents didn’t like one another and he needed some reason to come home, something or someone to come home to…and I felt this way as a six year old.
When I was a child, I completely compared my insides to everyone else’s outsides. It was an illusion. I saw families that seemed to be happy, successful, beautiful. But, it was all a storefront. And they went on skiing vacations and that to me was the picture of family bliss, skiing vacations. But I only really knew a few families who were functional and happy and the husband and wife were truly equals and I’m happy for them, I was glad for their bliss, but I never wanted to sit with them at dinner because, well, what would we talk about?
Nobody has come close to telling their life story in 4 minutes. But here is what I found out. I have yet to find a ski vacation family. The stories have all been about the twisted and the pretzelized and we realize it’s midnight and 4 minutes has turned into 4 hours.
Susan Orlean writes in The Library Book, “In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes made of our experiences and emotions; each individuals consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside of us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it…with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited…it takes on a life of its own.”
I’ve found that those who have shared their stories have been deeply complex and thoughtful and beautiful and remarkably broken. And the most astounding thing I have discovered through listening to these stories? We enter a world unbound by the metered measures of time and a four minute story becomes eternal.