On Repeat

(or the Stories We Tell)

Almost as soon as I hit the “Publish” button on my last post, I started to have writer’s remorse.  I feared that I had not actually said anything new and was merely restating that which I have said many times before on this very blog.  And maybe that’s partly true, and maybe I’m being unduly harsh on myself.  I nearly added an apology at the end of the last post, to say sorry for saying the same things over and over again.  But then I caught myself.  After all, this is a place for me to try to process and make sense of what is going on in my head.  So, yes, sometimes that same diatribe might need to come out in a few different ways before I am able to fully process the narrative.  Maybe I need to write it and say it several times in order to fully believe it and comprehend it and internalize it.  And I don’t think it’s exactly the same thing.  Maybe some of the facts are different, but my understanding and self-awareness shifts each time.  Maybe not by much, but I take baby steps just the same.

What happened with the ex-therapist was a monumental event in my life.  It was an incredibly intense few years with her, and a terrible, brutal ending.  It is going to take time to unpack it all.

When I was a kid, I learned to play the violin using the Suzuki method.  I am still a fan of this approach and believe it’s a great way to teach children to play a musical instrument.  One of the main tenets of Suzuki is repetition.  There is a logical madness to the curriculum, and as a student you are exposed to the same musical components over and over and over again.  Practices are reinforced with listening – once upon a time on a cassette tape (that had likely been dubbed from an original), then on CDs, and I’m sure by now, on demand streaming of the pieces that make up each “book.”  But the idea is that you get the notes and rhythms and musicality deep into your brain and all the way into your fingers, so much so that the music comes easily.  I actually remember never being nervous when performing any piece from the Suzuki curriculum, as it was so ingrained into my consciousness, my very being, that I could play any piece confidently, every time.

This is actually one of my objections to this method.  You can learn to play the violin, but you won’t necessarily learn to be a musician.  I’ve seen many young children flawlessly play complicated concertos, but this was most definitely not “music.”  Suzuki is good at teaching the mechanics of playing an instrument – posture and notes – but less good at instilling musicality – phrasing and tone and interpretation.  But I like that Suzuki makes music accessible to all, outright dismissing the need for “inherent” talent.  As Shinichi Suzuki himself once said:

Musical ability is not an inborn talent but an ability which can be developed. Any child who is properly trained can develop musical ability just as all children develop the ability to speak their mother tongue. The potential of every child is unlimited.

And if it turns out that you do have a musical inclination, I would argue that there are other schools and methods that can carry you beyond the basics.

So I am most definitely in a place where I require a lot of repetition – the Suzuki method of therapy I guess.  I might have to tell my story many, many times, to work it into – or maybe out of – my psyche.

I think I might do this more than I realize.  I’ve had the feeling before, when I’m in the middle of relaying some such story to my therapist, that I’ve told her this story before.  But if she notices, and I suspect that she does, she never lets on.  She never stops me or gives any hint that I’m repeating myself.

On the contrary, I would venture she looks for the elements of that story that have changed since the last time I told it.  What did I add or embellish?  What did I leave out in this telling?  Was it essentially the same story or did the narrative arc shift in a way?  And what might cause such a shift?  Am I seeing things with new eyes or from a different perspective?  Am I simply remembering this differently (which may or may not be accurate, given our species’ questionable track record in the memory department)?

One of my favorite podcasts is the Moth.  When I listen to Moth stories I’m always struck by the way the storyteller can weave simple everyday occurrences into profound life lessons.  But I also know that the best of the Moth performers tell their stories over and over and over again, editing and crafting the narrative until it’s ready to be shared.

My kids tell me that I tell good stories.  I have lots of funny or memorable snippets from my past that I regularly share with them.  But I’m not sure what the overall narrative arc is – other than a collection of things that has happened to me in the course of 4 decades.

At Moth story-slams, you only have 5 minutes to tell your story.  Just 5 short minutes.  How hard can it be?  And yet, you must really know and understand your own story to be able to distill it down into some memorable insight, in just 5 minutes.  You also kind of need to know how the story ends to know how to tell it in the first place.

I remember that my sophomore English teacher would always make us write our 5-paragraph essays backwards, from ending to the middle bits to the beginning.  The logic was that you needed to know where you were going to end up first, and that you could only write an introduction after the rest of the paper was written.  It seems logical to know the conclusion before you begin the rest of the story, but that seldom works for me in this format.  When I start writing, I rarely know where the thoughts will take me.  I am often surprised at the tangents that pop into my brain and the change of direction my writing sometimes takes.  So I just keep writing until it starts making sense, until it forms into a story. And at some point I come up with an “ending” or at least a stopping point.  But it is rarely planned in advance.  I only get there through the very process of writing.

If it was possible to show you what the ideas and thoughts circulating in my mind at any given time look like, it would be a mind-boggling site to behold.  I sometimes imagine it to be more jumbled up and intertwined than even the most complex of “spaghetti-junctions.”  I’ve struggled to write as of late because there are just too many ideas and tangents floating up there right now.  I try to grab at the snippets of ideas and fragments of thoughts, but this has just left me with about 8 blog drafts that I’ve been unable to craft into anything more than loosely assembled sentences.

For me, the whole point of writing this blog is to capture those thoughts and construct them into something that I can convey to someone else, you the reader for example.  If I were to just start posting the thoughts in my head, on their own, it wouldn’t make any sense to anyone else.  It barely makes sense to me most of the time!  So the whole purpose of needing to write all of this down in the first place, is to force me to wrangle those thoughts, and look for the connections and intersections and larger themes – and put it into some kind of narrative that I can then share.  In trying to explain it all to you, I’m actually forced to explain it all to myself first.  Otherwise it’s all just gobbledegook and of no use to anyone!

Sometimes I wonder if the blog posts that don’t materialize are because it’s not where I should be spending my energies – maybe it’s the wrong path or the wrong story, and I shouldn’t try to force it.  This blog – about repetition and memories and story-telling – isn’t one of those “draft” blogs, but rather all new ideas and connections that only just came to me after I wrote the preceding entry – which is a post that had been many weeks in the making before I was able to force it altogether.  And maybe that’s the feeling I was left with after sending it out into the blogosphere – it felt somewhat forced and manipulated, whereas this feels much more natural and free-flowing.  I wonder if the story is different when it comes out so easily?

I recently watched the animated movie Kubo and the Two Strings with my kids, and as per usual, this “kid” movie was filled with adult wisdom.  The movie begins with a little boy who doesn’t know his own story.  His grandfather and aunts are evil spirits and his mother is too ill to tell him about the past.  And so begins a journey to tell a story and find an ending, which may or may not turn out to be happy, but an ending just the same.

Grandfather: Everything you loved is gone! Everything you knew has been taken from you!

Kubo: No! It’s in my memories! The most powerful kind of magic there is! It makes us stronger than you’ll ever be. These are the memories of those we have loved and lost. And if we hold their stories deep in our hearts, then you will never take them away from us.  

One character in the movie is Beetle who has amnesia and therefore no memories, no sense of self.  He has this exchange with a very wise Monkey:

Beetle: I have a feeling this is my destiny. 

Monkey: No, it isn’t! We can’t trust anything you say, because you can’t trust anything you say.

Indeed, how can we trust ourselves to navigate the future if we don’t understand the past?

And so it got me thinking about the transformative power of the stories we tell, which is why I imagine forums like the Moth have such a loyal following.

Maybe that’s the main (only?) benefit of therapy – a place to tell your story, over and over again, uninterrupted, as many times as you need to, until it starts to at least make some sense; a place to edit that narrative as required until it can be remembered and retold with consistency.  And then maybe, just maybe, you can extract some meaning from that story.  Maybe you can just gain a better understanding of your place in this world.  Maybe, ideally, you can discover new insights that set you off on a whole new path.  Or at the very least, avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Because even if you don’t know where you are going, it is imperative that you at least know from where you came.  Stories bridge that gap from past to present.  The untold stories from our ancestral lines follow us into present day and demand to be told too.  This can get tricky, when knowledge of your ancient past is only something that you can feel in your bones and spirit, and you might have little else to explain the phenomenon.

I often have this feeling of suddenly remembered a long-forgotten event in my life.  It usually resurfaces both very visually and emotionally, as if I am back in that moment of time, reliving what happened.  Why am I remembering that event, now?  What am I supposed to take from that past memory and carry it forward?  What is it connected to?  Sometimes I know the answers immediately, other times I have to let those messy pathways in my brain search for the answers as I don’t understand the message.  But I never think it’s a fluke remembrance – there’s always some imperative buried in the stories of the past, especially those of our own.

Another one of my favorite podcasts in This American Life.  The other week they re-ran an old episode from 2013, which included the story of Michael Lewis.  The very short version is that Michael framed his entire personal success story around events that turned out not to be exactly as he remembered.  His teenage-self created a narrative, which made sense to him at the time, but was factually inaccurate.  As an adult, he has to reconcile the facts with the story that he has always told himself and everyone around him.  As the episode unfolds, you get to hear him wrestle with what to make of this new information and how that changes everything he believes and holds dear about his past and his present.  His story evaporates right before his eyes.  He becomes the Beetle from Kubo, challenged by a complete lack of memory of the past.

He ends the episode with these reflections:

These stories we tell about ourselves, they’re almost like our infrastructure, like railroads or highways. We can build them almost any way we want to. But once they’re in place, this whole inner landscape grows up around them. 

So maybe the point here is that you should be careful about how you tell your story, or at least conscious of it. Because once you’ve told it, once you’ve built the highway, it’s just very hard to move it. 

~ Michael Lewis, This American Life Episode 504: How I Got Into College

My kids like hearing the same stories – sometimes they even ask me to re-tell some stories.  But with a friend or acquaintance, you are likely to be cut off and reminded that you’ve already told that story.  So I guess it makes it all the more critical to be able to repeat myself in therapy, and here too, without interruption.  I’m getting the stories into my bones, where I hope the words will settle and stop rattling around in my head.

So bear with me as I work through the draft versions of this narrative.  I’m carefully constructing the dirt road that comes before the highway.  It’s painstakingly repetitive work, but essential.  And it’s most definitely a work in progress, just like me.  Just like all of us.

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