Today, I participated in a discussion of the woman, the latest, who wrote a memoir, that wasn't about her life. What are the ethics around false writing and claims? What is truth? What is a story? One woman, who is in the publishing industry, said that the publishing industry, and note that word industry, is so corrupt that one has to do whatever they can to get published. She doesn't judge the woman.
I respect that, and it sounds to me like the excuses politicians make when they run ads they know are untrue. Where does it stop?
Anyway, all of this led me back to Rachel Naomi Remen's wonderful book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Stories that Heal. I highly recommend this book. I read it over and over again. My copy is inscribed by Rachel with these words "For Cathy, whose daughter-in-law Jan loves her - Blessings from Rachel," and then, there is a little heart. Rachel and I had quite a discussion when she signed it as I hadn't wanted to bother her, and Jan felt it was important. I was in chemo and had no hair. Rachel spoke to me of what a blessing it was to have children so I could have a daughter-in-law who loved me like Jan. It was the end of a long evening for her and for me, and here she was taking time to speak to me of the blessing of children, and to tell me how much she wished she could have had them. Rachel is as beautiful and touching as you would expect her to be from her work and her books.
I open the book and begin to read a wonderful definition of this thing called "story" in her introduction.
One of her chapters is called "Silence." As an adolescent, she had a summer job working as a volunteer companion in a nursing home for the aged. She took a two-week training course on communicating with the elderly. Her first assignment was a ninety-six-year old woman who had not spoken for more than a year. A psychiatrist had diagnosed the woman with senile dementia, but she had not responded to medication. Rachel entered the room, carrying a basket of beads. They were supposed to string beads for an hour. I pause here to interject a plea that I am never considered so old as to have nothing to do but string beads. It is one thing to choose it, and another to have it foisted upon one as a project to fill the time, as though you are a child at camp.
To continue the story, Rachel saw two chairs in the room by the window and the woman was sitting in one, looking out. Rachel sat down in the other chair, with the basket of beads in her lap. She couldn't think what to say. She could only see half of the woman's face as the woman continued to look out. Rachel decided to sit with her in silence, ignoring the beads. She enjoyed the peace.
"The silence was broken at last by the little bell which signified the end of the morning activity. Taking hold of the basket again, I prepared to leave. But I was only fourteen and curiosity overcame me. Turning to the old woman, I asked, "What are you looking at?" I immediately flushed. Prying into the lives of the residents was strictly forbidden. Perhaps she had not heard. But she had. Slowly she turned toward me and I could see her face for the first time. It was radiant. In a voice filled with joy she said, "Why child, I am looking at the Light."
"Many years later, as a pediatrician, I would watch newborns look at light with that same rapt expression, almost as if they were listening for something. Fortunately, I had not been able to find a way to interrupt."
A ninety-six year old woman may stop speaking because arteriosclerosis has damaged her brain, or she has become psychotic and is no longer able to speak. But she may also have withdrawn into a space between the worlds, to contemplate what is next, to spread her sails and patiently wait to catch the light."