Our Stories Make Us Who We Are

Ted and I watched the fantasy movie A Boy Called Christmas last week. It’s a fun, forgettable piece of entertainment, but one line from the film stayed with us.

The elderly babysitter, played by Maggie Smith, says, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” It’s her attempt to counter the resistance of her young charges when she announces she’s going to tell them a story. The quote does its job: It silences the children. They sit down and listen.

The quote had the same effect on us.

After the movie, I googled the line to be sure I quoted it correctly; I knew I wanted to write about it. I was surprised to discover that it was not original to the movie. It is the creation of the Jewish poet, feminist and leftist political activist Muriel Rukeyser in her 1968 poem The Speed of Darkness. (I’m not sure how the writers of the screenplay got away with using it unattributed.) So radically committed was Rukeyser to speaking up for the oppressed that she was dubbed a “spokespoet” for her generation.

A part of our DNA

On further research, I found that Rukeyser’s line is memorialized on a plaque in the New York City Library’s Library Way along 41st Street between Park and Fifth Avenue—where it is, happily, attributed to its original author. It is also depicted brilliantly in the plaque’s clever graphic, where open books are the atoms, the building blocks in a molecular diagram.

Rukeyser’s poem is fierce and strange, complex and beautiful, a far cry from the movie’s sugary storyline. But the quote’s message is the same: Our stories are as important as our chemical composition, a part of our DNA, the vantage point from which we see the world around us. The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. phrases the idea more academically: “Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response.”

Our pride, our heritage

Having recently completed writing a book that tells the story of Ted’s and my nearly 50 years together, I have a new appreciation for the importance of stories. No matter how serious or silly, our stories define us. Whether the stories involve a cat that catches its tail on fire at a candlelit dinner party, the heartache caused by the loss of a friend, a mother’s initially vicious response to the news that her son is gay, or the healing embrace of a welcoming church, I’m proud of all of them. I want them told.

And increasingly, I find that it’s often not a story’s punch line that’s important, but the context, the setting, the characters involved. The surrounding details often convey what I want my book’s ultimate message to be: We’ve lived good lives. We’ve survived tough challenges. We are loved. We are happy.

I see in Rukeyser’s quote a warning, too—a warning of the dangers that come when stories are silenced. Crimes like slavery and the Holocaust were crimes of subjugation, brutality, murder, yes, but also crimes of silencing voices, erasing histories of millions of blacks, Jews, homosexuals and other “others.” Their loss can never be regained, nor their stories recovered.

Tell them now

What we must do, the spokespoet tells us, is get our stories out while we can. Put them down on paper and computer and send them out into the world where they can’t be “disappeared” by those who want us hushed, or simply forgotten with the passage of time. As Rukeyser writes in the conclusion of her powerful poem:

My night awake

staring at the broad rough jewel

the copper roof across the way

thinking of the poet

yet unborn in this dark

who will be the throat of these hours.

No.   Of those hours.

Who will speak these days,

if not I,

if not you?

2022 is on its way. As we approach a new year, a new start, what stories do you want to tell?

2 thoughts on “Our Stories Make Us Who We Are

  1. Love this, Mike! It inspires me to start writing my own story, even if it’s only for me.

    Happy New Year to you and Ted. Hope to visit again with you soon!




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