Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What Does Heaven Look Like?

     I was waiting in the checkout line in our local supermarket, a neighbourhood No Frills, just before xmas.  The neighbourhood is a colourful combination of gentrified Victorian homes and city housing projects.  The supermarket was packed and the lineups were long.  A pair of men were conversing in Spanish when one of them said to me in English, "Is this the end of the line?"
     I nodded and said, "Now how would you say 'end of the line' in Spanish?"
     "Al final de la línea," he said, "the end of the line."
     That's just like in French, said the woman in line ahead of me.  "La fin de la ligne."
     "Конец строки," said a boy falling in behind the two men.  "Russian," he added.
     A woman with groceries and two children in her shopping cart joined the line saying,
"ي نهاية السطر  -- the end of the line, Arabic."
     "Lots of different languages," I said.
     "That's what heaven will be like," said the woman ahead of me.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Are Stories Necessary?

The stories that move us, touch us, and change us are necessary.  It may not even be character, plot, or setting that makes a story necessary, but the telling of it, the shape of the narrative, the voice of the teller, the way an idea or feeling from a story starts to dwell in the reader inspiring more ideas and feelings.

Stories give shape and detail to memory.  And, when we lose our memories, we still need stories, maybe more than ever.

In the early stages of her dementia, my mother-in-law became obsessed with her watch.  When we visited, she'd hold her watch up and peer at it from different angles.  Then she'd shake it, insist it was broken, and ask the time.  I'd tell her the time.  She'd be quiet for 30 seconds and then begin to look at her watch again and fret over it and demand to know the time.

"What time is it?  It's broken?  Do you see the time?

 1:15.  1:18.  1:20...

My husband and her caregiver were frustrated and impatient.  They wanted to distract her, to take the watch away, to do something else, but it only agitated her more, so we sat.

1:22.  1:23.  1:26.

"What time is it?  It's broken?  Do you see the time?


"Oh," she said.  "Now's the hard part."

"What do you mean?"

"It has to climb up the other side."

As her life became increasingly reduced - she still needed stories.  She saw in the youth of the hour, the early minutes, the big hand skipped easily down the right side of the watch face.  Life was good.  But then came the climb up through the 6, 7, and 8 of the hour, as if they were the later decades of life, the hard part.  I understood her story - an ancient one.  The wheel of fortune turns. 

Stories are necessary.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Why Do I Have More to Say To Some People Than To Others?

Have you noticed how with some people you can talk and talk?  They talk, you talk, they add something, you seque onto another topic.  You laugh, they laugh, and with them you are funnier, smarter, deeper, and more interesting.  In fact they build on your joke and reincorporate it into other jokes until it's unrecognizable to anyone else as a joke -- but the two of you can't stop laughing.  Life is good.  The time is up and you are still talking and hope to see each other again soon.

Then there are others.  And you want to get closer, but they talk, you talk, and then maybe there's nothing more to say.  You laugh, they laugh, and then there's nothing more to laugh at.  The joke doesn't grow into a private joke.  Everyone gets it.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon -- shared history, the intelligence of the speakers, your respective knowledge and interests, their love for you, your love for them, sufficient time for conversation and giggling, and a motivation to be in the conversation.  And yet with some people all those things might exist and the conversation still seems to falter and stumble into the weather, dinner, health, concrete problems with and without solutions.  What's with that?

I've come to believe that the quality of each party's listening is the determining factor in whether we have more or less to say to one another.  Can this magical listening be taught?  Is it a question of different minds organizing themselves differently or is it an inate capacity of some minds -- to ask the next question, to care about the answer?