We write to kill time, someone once said, blurring the meaning between pastime and the way we fix an incident in time, seal it so that we have a chance to consider it at our leisure, polish it until it shines with our reflection. We show it to others; our stories become our facebook status, our answer to “What’s up?” Our stories are also our only meager way of understanding what we’re doing in our lives.
There’s a poem about the stories we make up after a moment has passed, the ways in which we appropriate what we know of the moment in whatever ways we need. How we make the moment a story, and forget that it’s ever been otherwise. In this poem, for example, there’s a dead animal, and men with knives, working quickly. It’s dark, and the poet isn’t in his own country. He’s a foreigner – that’s the word he uses: “foreigner” – with other foreigners. It seems they’ve struck an animal with their car, the impact of the car’s metal against the soft body of the animal left to the imagination. Soon the animal, and the men, are gone. “And then,” the poet writes, “the moment becomes a story, cut open as completely as the boar had been,/all of us making use of it/in whatever ways we need/ until our lives and the names/we were given never to let go of,/go.”
The past few weeks have been full of stories, breathed into being by countless moments. They’ve come from Egypt, from Libya, from Bahrain. They’ve come from Wisconsin, from Ohio, from Washington DC. But the moments that are taking place in Japan threaten to tear a hole in the fragile web of rationality that we base our stories in. The scale of destruction, and the potential for ever greater disaster, is like those men with knives coming quickly in the night, speaking words we don’t understand. The only thing we have is our stories, stories we tell ourselves as soon as the moment has passed. The moment becomes a story, confirming for each one of us, in our own private hearts, what we’ve come to believe is true.
One friend writes: The island is slowly imploding, and still we say things are safe. She says, Nobody is safe, and we need to live that way. Another tells me that governments always lie; they say they will protect, but they are entrenched with corporate interests that bear no allegiance to the individual citizens in the wake of the damage they have caused, however inadvertently. (My friend doesn’t believe any damage is inadvertent, however.) A third friend is isolated in her shame. She has left her family in Japan to accept a job here, but lays awake wondering how it might have been different, if she had been there. If she had been able to protect. If she could be helping. She remembers the earthquakes of her childhood. Gentle friends who have spent their lives protesting wars and economies fueled by the violence of nuclear power feel vindicated, saddened, unsurprised. Others believe that the disaster is a calling to amend our ways according to one fierce doctrine or another; others tell us that the planet is suffering, and our actions are both cause and result; still others insist that there is a cosmic realignment going on, a global adjustment, stretching and cracking. Using these new elements, we tell ourselves the stories we’ve always told, using what we can see in the dark. All of us making use of it, in whatever ways we think we need, to reaffirm what we already believe.
We forget that the stories we tell ourselves are only loosely tethered to the world, to what is, or was. We look around at the world, and the world confirms, daily, what we’ve come to expect. We’re only a handful of foreigners in the night, and later we will tell and retell the story of that night, long after any physical evidence remains. Until even our names, the poet tells us, are gone, along with our bewilderment, along with our laughter and even our fears.