121: The Eye Doctor and the Homeless Man

                A few weeks ago, I found myself trying to explain how stories fit into my life and into our lives. Two moments came to mind: a conversation I had with an eye doctor, and a lunch I shared with a homeless man. Here they are.
                The eye doctor showed me a game. Find a friend (or someone else; maybe he’ll be a friend, soon) and tell him to look straight ahead, without moving his eyes. Standing behind him, reach slowly into his peripheral vision until he can see your wiggling fingers. Then take a colored pencil (which you had in your pocket; clever of you, knowing where this game was going) and put it into the edge of his vision.  Ask him if he can see it, and he can. Ask him to tell you what color it is, and he can’t. Humans don’t see color in their peripheral vision. (Our retinas have two types of photoreceptors: rods, which perceive movement even in low light, and cones, which perceive color and fine details. The edge of your vision comes through rods, the center through cones). Right now, the edge of your vision is in black and white. Most of the time your brain fills in the colors that “should” be there, or else doesn’t really mention that you don’t know. (When I do this, people are surprised they can’t name the color). If you showed your friend the pencil, and then held it back in his peripheral vision, it would “look” the color it is. But he’s not seeing that: his brain is painting the world with the color he thinks is there.
                I think we see stories the same way we see colors. Stories tell us what’s valuable, what’s allowable, what it means to be a hero, and then we paint the world to match what we think is there. I grew up in America, so as a child I thought of the man who builds his own log cabin in the wilderness as free. My friend grew up in Vietnam, so she thought of him as lonely–people belonged in communities, with responsibilities and ties. Neither of us decided that; the stories we heard told us to look at the world that way, and then we thought it was obvious. We thought we could see it. We thought it was the just color of the world, but we were seeing through our interpretations. Playing with stories, writing or rewriting or arguing about stories, gives us a chance to step back and think about how we paint the world, and how else it could be painted.
                Years before the colored pencils, I shared a sandwich with a homeless man. Once it became clear that I was listening, he wanted above all to talk. He wanted to tell me who he was, where he’d grown up. He wanted to tell me about all the friends he’d had once. “I’m still here,” he repeated. “They’re the ones who’ve gone.” His story saddened me. It frightened me. It was fractured, with events and timelines never quite fitting.His need to be heard overwhelmed me. His story wasn’t just a way of organizing information, of fitting events into a narrative we call a life. He didn’t tell it just for fun. It was his shell, and the door he opened for me, and the ocean he swam through. Telling it was necessary in some way that I didn’t understand.
                On the one hand, as I listen to one of my high school students define himself by the sport he plays or the career he wants, I see how a story shapes a life. I wonder where he got his story; I wonder if he would write a different one, if he realized that he could. On the other hand, I’ve never understood stories. I’ve loved them. I’ve been terrified by them. I’ve laughed with them. I’ve written them down because they were in my head, and I’ve read them and listened to them. We drink stories like we drink water. We share them like we share the atmosphere. You can diagram nitrogen and oxygen molecules, but that’s not the same as breathing.
                Essays–statements–even anecdotes arranged to tell you something–push us to say this or that. Stories let us walk with what we love and fear through everything that’s in between.

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