Sunday, April 17, 2011

Stories for the Journey

I am not the world's biggest fan of flying.

It's not so much that I am afraid as that I find it uncomfortable. My hip to knee length exceeds the seat-to-seat length of economy seats (and the cost of business class seating exceeds my budget). The smell of jet fuel can turn me nauseous in about five seconds. The droning of engines grates on my ears after a while.

On the other hand, I don't know that I will ever lose a sense of wonder that a schoolbus filled with people and heavy luggage can lift from the ground. Every single time I fly, I'm astonished. And, I love the exciting rush of takeoff - complete with its risks and dangers. I love feeling myself pushed to the back of my seat, feeling the plane strain beneath me and then the sharp angle of miraculous flight.

After that, it gets a little tedious.

In January, I flew to Florida and back. It was on the return flight, when I was more than eager to see my husband and sons, that I happened to glance up the aisle, somewhere over Kentucky, at all the people nestled like embryos in a womb.

What struck me was the fact that the vast majority of my fellow passengers were passing the time reading novels and newspapers. If there had been an inflight movie, those who were sleeping or playing electronic games might have opted for that.

I suspect that to some people my business as a storyteller may seem a bit impractical, even odd, compared with the practical dry goods of accounting or medicine or marketing. And yet, stories weave around us everywhere, helping us to pass time with pleasure instead of pain. It made me proud of being a writer, made me feel that what I do matters to people.

A month before my flight, I met Canadian humourist Stuart McLean when he signed books at our local bookstore. I stood in line and listened as person after person told him about circumstances in which they had read his writing. The woman just in front of me had read his stories aloud to her dying grandmother. McLean nodded: he had heard this before.

Stories accompany us on our journeys.

I think there's light at the end of the tunnel of unfortunate events that has been my life for the past two months, but I have felt especially weary of the struggle this week. Distract yourself, my mother says: go shopping.

But I don't. Well, I do, but it has little effect. What I do instead is go to stories. In the last four days, I have gone to one play and two films.

Today's film was 100 Days - a story of a motley group of young people who built a raft and sailed it down the Yukon River in the summer of 2005. As I walked out of the theatre - the only person there in a skirt, I think - I wondered what the stories I've watched had in common, and what they say to me. Because they've been an unusual combination.

On Thursday, I attended a student matinee of the play The Lark, a retelling of the trial of Joan of Arc. Yesterday, Dave and I went to another matinee of the remake of the movie Arthur. And today, 100 Days.

At a very basic level, my mother is right: everyone needs to escape for a little while from the challenges of their life. Good stories do that well. I laughed during every story I watched.

But stories do more than that. As the narrator of 100 Days said of a rafting journey, "There's a lot of middle. There's a beginning and an end but there's a lot of middle." Stories shape the middle from muddle. The Lark almost ends with the death of Joan, but then those enacting her story remember what's important is her moment of victory and so they re-make a mere series of events into a history that is truer than facts. At one point in Arthur, the title character's nanny confronts Arthur's mother who has called her son weak: "He's a lot stronger than you think."

And this is how stories strengthen us. I think of The Lord of the Rings and how Sam encouraged Frodo: "It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn't want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it's only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it'll shine out the clearer."

We climb on a plane and buckle ourselves in willingly, though few of us have any idea how planes overcome gravity, and in this liminal space we read stories that tell us more of who we are and even who we might be. And so, too, we climb into the sometimes turbulent seats of our lives and we are accompanied by stories that strengthen us for the journey, that shape our understanding of ourselves and who we might be when we arrive in the foreign land that is each new day.

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