‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,’ said Maya Angelou on my Facebook feed yesterday.
I love Maya Angelou, or at least I love her poetry but this statement made me cross. If containing an untold story is the greatest agony you’ve ever suffered… then wow, you’re extremely lucky. Personally, my insides are bursting with stories I can’t tell but on the other hand, my daughter died. The agony does not compare.
With my indignant response typed, I hesitated before hitting the return key. It was an invitation for a flaming from her many admirers, and I was not feeling robust enough to argue just why losing a child hurts so much. The pause gave me a chance to think about what Maya Angelou had really meant.
Storytelling is an essential part of what it is to be human. Since we’ve had words, we’ve been grouping them to express the trials and joys of our mortality and the stories we tell of our own lives place a stitch in the vast tapestry of human experience.
Juliette’s life is part of my story, and that part is not untold. Being able to write about Juliette and to share her with other people has been a huge and healing part of my grief. In writing, I untangled some of the unwieldy thoughts and feelings about losing her. My words say, ‘Look, she lived once, and she was amazing.’ If what I’ve written shows others you can suffer the worst of life and not just survive but find happiness again, then my tapestry stitch is a big pink one. Juliette loved pink.
So perhaps Maya Angelou is right. How much more would I be hurting if I had not written the book?
I do think we are better for expressing ourselves, especially when we have big stuff to say. I see this time and again in prison. Men join the class convinced they have no story to tell. I start by asking them to list ten beautiful words, then ten ugly words, or make a list of places where they felt happy, frightened, inspired or where they felt loved. It prompts buried memories. As their words flow and others respond, the value of their own story dawns on each one of them. They don’t feel exposed because our group’s stories overlap. They feel listened to, validated, released. They make a stitch on the tapestry.
Perhaps never having had the chance to do this before, is the agony of untold stories to which Maya Angelou refers?