While waiting for the New Jersey Transit Train to arrive at Penn Station in Manhattan, I sat on a bench to think about the sudden death of a friend, to take in how mysterious life is, and how to accept the unexpected with grace. I thought about how I too could have an unexpected heart attack at any time, or be a random victim of violence. My thoughts, however, were distracted by a well dressed man carrying a transparent Smoothie drink. The color was a near violent red. It seemed undrinkable. As I stared at the cup it began shaking. I watched it fall; spilling onto the floor. Then the man grabbed his coat by his heart and tumbled toward the ground. A young soldier in army fatigues passing by dropped his large carry bag and caught the man as if they were in a well rehearsed slow motion ballet. As he helped him to the floor, another man in a hoodie rushed over, unwound a thick scarf from his neck and set it under the man’s head for comfort within moments. It was so beautifully occuring like a natural choreographic event. A woman stepped over the man’s shaking body and said out loud, “I am a nurse.” An elderly man shouted, “I am calling 911.” I stood for a while watching, both frightened for the man and in a state of awe. What I saw was both tragedy and living prayer. I caught my train just in time.
I thought—when I had a moment to catch my breath—that if I had an emergency, I would wish for such compassionate strangers. such immediate care in an unexpected place. I have no idea what happened to the man or his guardian angels in the subway. But the episode was a reminder of our basic kindness and connection.
It made me think of ancient Indian stories where an event in the present is related and the events leading up to that moment from previous lifetimes are revealed. The beggar on the street who was a King who in a fit of jealousy killed his blind and beautiful wife, who was reborn as an insect and then a lion, an elephant, a saint, and then the beggar who would become a King again . . . and all the related events, seemingly random, that led up to it. What appeared unrelted in these tales had an entire history – a compassionate back story – that storytellers told.
If we are able to see our lives as a story, makes the difference between opening into a sense of awe and appreciation of sudden change, impermanence and miracles with intelligence; rather than closing us down in anger, revenge or despair. But even if we do not know the story, there is a sense of invisible mystery that seems to be at work in the unfolding.
I worked in Austria. My job was to help uncover stories from immigrant women who were living in a “transitional” house outside of Vienna. The “house” was supposed to be temporary, not longer than three months residence. However, there were people who had lived there for more than thirty-five years. Each woman had a remarkable tale of their culture, their escape or displacement and the challenges of their new life. Each evening for a week I met with Afghan, Iranian, and Iraqi women. One evening, they introduced a
woman from Chechnya. The other women were beautifully dressed, coifed and adorned. They were learning English and skills to have jobs to support their families. Their stories were difficult, victorious, and complex. The Chechen woman sat in silence for a long time. She was dressed in baggy dissheveled clothes. Her hair was pulled back too tightly under a black scarf. She wore no make up or jewelry.
The women encouraged her to tell me her story. I offered to listen without asking any questions. She nodded in agreement. Her story was translated by an Afghan woman who spoke five languages. “The roof of my house tore off when we were bombed. I was nine months pregnant. My husband pushed me down the steps into the cellar for shelter as my contractions began. I lay on the floor as bullets riddled the ceiling above me and gave birth.” She lifted her shawl and showed us scars where shrapnel was embedded under her skin. She was tense as she spoke; angry. Over and over she repeated that she remains unhappy. Just then the door of the room opened. A young girl, wearing a scarf lightly tied with her cascading brown hair around her face, walked in. She was followed by a group of other young girls, chatting. She wore a short skirt with a red jacket. She was smiling.
I asked the Afghan woman who it was.She said, “It is the daughter of the woman telling the story.” “Is that the baby she gave birth to in the cellar?” I inquired. “Yes,” said my friend.
Our time came to an end. I asked the women to bring their friend the next night. I longed to see if we could retell or reframe her story – not as a tale of a suffering victim alone, but as a victory as well; giving birth in extreme danger to the most beautiful child. The courage and nature of a woman overcoming the horrors of war and death.
The woman did not return. The others went to her apartment to invite her again, and each time they came back and said she was ill.
How we tell our stories is how we shape our lives. How will the man if he survived tell the story of his emergency? Whether we find the medicine, the transformation, the secret message or liberation in our tale, can renew us and provide courage. The retelling of the story, rendering narrative from memory, accesses a life giving source of energy within beyond survival – a path to live without ignoring the pain or sorrow, but not surrendering to that as the only conclusion.
Our imaginations give us an option to try out other endings and to imagine other ways of seeing. I longed to tell her back her story. To ask a few questions. To see if we could open into the anger and disappointment into her fierceness and mother love. Perhaps she could have seen herself as heroine. It is possible to uncover within ourselves a resource of unlimited goodness. We can transform our stories, (not the facts), but the perception of a memory so it feeds us mercifully into the rest of our lives.