Friday, November 29, 2013

Stories & Time

When I discovered that the author of A Lesson Before Dying was an African-American author from Louisiana who grew up on a plantation, I instantly began scanning the Google results for biographies and interviews, sources to give more details, the grit on his life.

What was is like for Ernest J. Gaines to grow up on a plantation in a small Southern town with deep racial divides? Was he mistreated? Does he talk about the landowners? Is he still connected to the family there? I assumed there were juicy details (doesn't every life have some juicy details?), and I wanted to know them all right then and there.

But I couldn't find much.

I learned of his parents' absence in his childhood, his relocation to California as a teenager and the name of his hometown. I know that a new world seemed to open up to him when, for the first time in his life, he had access to books through the public libraries there in California.

He went on to teach, write books and return to Louisiana, settling down there on part of the very land where the plantation of his childhood stood, building a home of his own.

The basics, the highlight reel. But no juicy details.

He tells us in an interview that the aunt who raised him, teachers who taught him and the versions of himself that could have been, show up in some form in his stories.

To get more of Ernest J. Gaines, I have to do the time.

I've got to read those books.

I've been known skip the small talk. What starts as a "hello" at the drink table of the New Year's Eve party may turn into a 2-hour conversation about your last heartbreak which may turn into a song by midnight.

While I generally like this about myself, I've learned in recent years that, in certain circumstances, there are questions best left unasked, stories left unknown, until time has passed, life has been lived and permission has been granted into the parts of a life that are opened by the stories we tell each other.

I cringe at some of the invasive, personal questions I've asked before enough trust was established. The advice I gave to the person sitting on the couch across from me because I was, perhaps, more anxious to fix than to love.

Now, I know I have to do the time: cook the meals that make the space that give the freedom for the stories to spill out over the kitchen, ready to be heard at just the right time, usually when I least expect it. 

As I write this, there is impatience being stilled in me, the desire to get quick to the finish is subsiding. Because there is no quick to the finish.

There is only the long, slow reading of the stories and living of lives, weaving together histories, making new stories along the way.