What is Pleasant to Live Through …

… seldom makes a good story. I was reminded of this as I searched for something interesting to say in an e-mail to a friend. I wanted to stay in touch and to hear from him, but my sane, steady, enjoyable life provided little material. Hello. I’m happy. My students are great this semester. My yoga classes are going well. I’m reading good books and I’m writing. In conversation, a lot could flow from any of this, but in writing, not much.

A few years ago, I was talking with a new acquaintance at a faculty holiday party, and he mentioned that he was reading The Lord of The Rings for the first time. I had read it my freshman year in high school. Yet, when he mentioned the passage that stood out most strongly for him, it was one that I’d often thought of in the decades since reading it. Tolkien sums up the passage a long and pleasant time for the travelers in his story in one or two lines, then adds that things that are agreeable to live through are often dull to tell about, but things that are hard or even terrible to live through make marvelous tales. Authors tend to feel affection for their characters, and yet to make good stories, we have to put them through challenges. No life would remain pleasant if it didn’t require us to do something difficult. And that’s where the story is—growth through pain or danger.

At the last meeting of my book club, each us got the others caught up on her summer. One person was getting divorced, another had seen a friend through a major crisis, and another had taken her peace studies students to Hiroshima, a place that literally went through hell to become what it now is, a city dedicated to peace. And I … had been on vacation. Needless to say, the most compelling narrative wasn’t mine.

I had tons of fun, but my friends had more questions about a medical weirdness that took place shortly before I left for New Mexico. Because what makes a better story? “I went on vacation and it was great,” or “I had a posterior vitreal detachment?” They were fascinated by the phenomenon of having the gel in my eyeball partially detach and getting flashes of light and a giant floater in one eye. “How big is it? Like, the size of blueberry? Is it always there? Do you have to have surgery?” (Smaller than a blueberry, in case you care, and no, and no.) Ah, we humans. We love icky, scary stuff, and you can’t get much ickier than eyeballs.

I thought the divorce story was amazing, a much better story. Not for the conflict but for the grace. The couple who are parting ways took a long-planned backpacking trip together even though they had decided they would end their marriage. I’ve talked to each of them about it and they’re glad they had this final adventure together. backpacking_bechler_canyon_18430518468It’s their story, so I won’t tell any more of it here, but I can see in it the qualities that make the best stories. In a way, it ties in with the peace studies story and the helping-a-friend-in-crisis story. It had value and purpose, and took strength and courage. It made them grow and change. And in its difficulty shines its beauty.

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