Tag Archives: life stories

Learning to listen

miner and moustacheI haven’t been writing lately. I’ve been reading the Internet too much again and I’m not sure why, but for the last few months my brain has not been processing the data I’ve been inputting effectively enough to produce any writeable trains of thought. I think I may be suffering from Toffler’s ‘infoxication’, or information overload. Someone may need to invent a new idiom to cover this state of affairs because I bet I’m not the only one experiencing it. How about: Too many opinions spoil your convictions…?

Ok, that’s embarrassingly lame, but it’s a start.

Anyway, while I have been unable to settle on any firm opinion about anything, and have also been wondering what the hell I want to do with my last 30 odd years on the planet, I have been working relentlessly on my other blog. This blog involves me walking around Cornwall with a camera permanently glued to my hand and a notebook and pen in my back pocket, accosting innocent passers-by and forcing them to talk to me.¬† As I’ve relaxed into the process of approaching a stranger, explaining what I’m doing and then asking their permission to photograph them, I have become more and more addicted to the whole thing. Only a few people say no, and these people usually have a very good reason to want to remain private, although the occasional older Cornish person still has a fear of the Internet based on not quite understanding how it works. One man today explained carefully to his wife, that if he had his photo on the blog, it would be seen by millions of people all over the world. If only that were so.

A serious and elegant lady I met in Falmouth this week

But what is so compelling about the whole thing is learning firsthand how almost everyone has something interesting to say if I can relax them enough to talk to me, and how moving even the most seemingly ordinary lives actually are. Although I tend to approach people who stand out to me in some way, often those who are more discreet in their appearance are just as interesting as the more noticeable ones, and on more than one occasion they have been much more interesting. I have always been someone who has faith in people, but doing this project confirms every single day that human beings are fascinating, funny and innovative. I met a man who is building a replica in his garden of one of the first planes to ever fly successfully, a homeless man who writes jokes on William Hill betting slips and keeps them in his rucksack, a woman whose husband accidentally asphyxiated himself on the back of a door and a man whose job it was to clean up drowned animals from Cornwall’s beaches. To name a few.

The home-made Penny Whistle of a busker in Penzance
The home-made Penny Whistle of a busker in Penzance

But I realised today that although I have been listening to the stories people have been telling me, I maybe haven’t been really listening. I mean listening in the sense of actually drawing things from these stories that could teach me, or remind me of, things of importance. I’m not the sort of person to start getting all I-Ching or anything, but it struck me today that I could draw things from what people are telling me. Last night, for example, I couldn’t sleep until very late because my brain was exploding with thoughts about what I want to do with my life. I have some business ideas that seem very difficult and out of reach, and I haven’t really focused my brain on making them into something real. So I (like everyone else probably) am feeling trapped and frustrated creatively which is making me lethargic. I woke this morning, tired and confused and went out to do some food shopping for the family. As usual, I had my blogging kit with me and ended up talking to two people. The first was a lady who told me about how her grandmother brought up four children all on her own while running her own small business and ended up owning three houses through sheer determination and hard work. The second was a man who talked about the ways he had come to terms with life in a Czech prison.

Now, if I WAS a New Age type or spiritual person, I could start thinking some sort of higher power is trying to tell me to get off my arse and grab life by its testicles. Or at least its handlebars. I’m not one of those, though – but what I do think is that if we listen – really listen – to things people are saying to us, our brains can focus in on bits and pieces that we need to hear.

So I’m off out tomorrow with my camera and notebook. I wonder what the people of Cornwall have to teach me next.

Magnetized moments

In Peter Shaffer’s play, Equus, a psychiatrist tries to piece together the reasons why his patient, a teenage boy, has stabbed out the eyes of six horses with a hoof pick. The play is Freudian in what seems now an old-fashioned way, but it still asks interesting questions about what makes us what we are. The boy, Alan, has constructed a secret god – Equus – that he worships in his own private way and who brings meaning to a life he finds drab, limiting and devoid of passion. The first act shows the psychiatrist gradually unpicking the features that have led Alan to his mode of worship and to carry out the horrific deed.


Daniel Radcliffe in the recent production of Equus

Dysart (the psychiatrist) reflects in act two that he can identify the moments in Alan’s life that have contributed to the construction of Equus, but that he can never explain why it was those moments and not others that have had such a particular impact on the boy’s ‘psyche’:

“A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs – it sucks – it strokes its eyes over the whole uncomfortable range. Suddenly one strikes. Why? Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles. Why? I can trace them. I can even, with time, pull them apart again. But why at the start they were ever magnetized at all – just those particular moments of experience and no others – I don’t know. And nor does anyone else.”

Although the moments Dysart describes are not positive – they are a series of minor tragedies, embarrassments and disappointments that all build up to form his inner life – I was struck by the idea that everyone’s life contains such magnetized moments – whether positive or negative. ‘Magnetized moments’ seems an excellent way to describe those memory fragments that stay with you forever – the ones that seem more vivid and precise than the swirl of vague impressions that make up most people’s memory soup.

Humans seem to me to be, above all else, narrative weaving machines. We create stories for ourselves, for our families and our cultures to explain the world. The need for explanatory narratives is, of course, what drives both religion and science, and pretty much everything else we do. My friend H would say that we also create these narratives as part of terror management – to impose order on a world where there’s so much we don’t know, and to control our fear of mortality. As a reader and English teacher, I find this a convincing way to view human existence, and it also explains the universality of stories in all cultures and all historical eras. We connect with other people’s stories not only for excitement and emotional stimulation, but because we learn about ourselves from them; and then we in turn draw on our own magnetized moments to weave narratives to explain our lives. We explain ourselves to ourselves with our stories.

You’re probably all saying “yeah, yeah… we know all that already. So what?” The answer is, “Oh, I dunno. It just seemed sort of interesting.” That weaving together of a narrative to explain my life and identity is what I’m doing with this blog, and probably what other bloggers are doing too. And it doesn’t matter at all that our narratives are not quantifiable truth, does it?

Thought not.