I have always been a sucker for a good story. The simplest tale, told in the right way, brings me to tears. It is almost silly how often I have found myself sitting in the movie theater at the end of a great film, or even a mediocre one, and suddenly, some small trigger in the narrative, some small act right at the end, brings a full-on wave of emotion, and I am bawling. Or at least, tears flow freely. The effect is the same with books. Heck, it can happen with a 2-minute YouTube clip, or even a commercial, if it's been really well-made. This happened to me when I read The Kite Runner. I would find myself laying on my bed, engrossed in the story of two young boys whose lives were forever impacted by the wars, conflicts, and tragedies that have befallen Afghanistan, and I would suddenly weep thinking of its enormity. I would literally cry for Afghanistan, big and small. It happened as well in the movie True Grit--which still kind of mystifies even me. I mean in the last sixty seconds, when the little whippersnapper girl, all grown up, visits a ruff and tumble landscape and inquires about her old travel partner, Rooster Cogburn, and it is established that he has since passed away. Their whole story culminated in my mind, and I was overcome, to tears.
I guess this is why, from a young age and with a big imagination, I have always been drawn to good stories, and long wanted to create them myself as well. I adamantly wanted to make movies--write, direct, etc.--that was what I told people in high school. I also wanted to be a journalist. I now have a history degree and want to tell stories in museums, and hopefully in books of my own. These are all careers, ways of storytelling, coming from this same spout of emotion that rests inside me, ready to well up anytime some sort of meaningful conclusion, resolution, decision, gesture, or tragedy has been proffered in a story. And in the grand tradition of learning, we discover more of the world that we just can't begin to fathom; we know that in fact, the more we learn, the less we can really ever know. I claim to know a little bit about a few things, but man, the world is big.
I just finished reading a perfect summer book. I have referenced it several times lately, because it is about a 22-year-old fresh college graduate who takes off for China in 1986, and discovers a lot of things about herself--and many of those things mirrored in stark and hilarious ways insights I had about myself when I traveled to China as well (but in 2007, to a vastly different country). Susan Jane Gilman has gone on to do a lot of awesome things since her mid-eighties escapades, working as a journalist and living abroad now.
But her recounting of the life of a Chinese woman that she met on her memorable trek, and reunited with on a visit in 2005, brought the tears. She writes about how even when they bonded in the '80s, she knew (she assumed) that Lisa, this young woman the same age as her, would have a very linear life, one that had almost none of the potential that her own, Gilman's, could have, because of where she lived in the world. As it turns out, Lisa grew her small restaurant into a series of businesses in Yangshuo, China, and is now referred to as "an institution" in Lonely Planet guidebooks on China. She had coffee with President Clinton when he visited her restaurant and served on a delegation that welcomed him to China in the late nineties. She has gone farther than Gilman ever expected or could have dreamed. But she has still not the opportunities as this visiting American; as of 2005, she still cannot travel independently abroad, say, perhaps to visit her friend Gilman in Switzerland. Her whole story brings me to tears. And what makes me the most emotional, I think, is our own assumptions, the things an American might think or assume about anyone else. Assuming that a 22-year old Chinese woman would be destined to live out her life in servitude to her husband, with one child, cooking pancakes for foreigners and backpackers in Yangshuo with no foreseeable economic or lifestyle opportunities beyond that.
In the whole book, there is so much drama, so many insane travel antics that occur, yet here I am bawling at the very end over a small reunion of two fleeting friends, and over the complicated and sometimes tragic things we assume, learn, and discover about one another in this wide world. The larger plot line of her time in China, actually, has not ended in resolution, and is rather bittersweet. But in this little subplot, here, we can rejoice in the wonder, in the sadness, in the immense emotion that real, raw, and meaningful stories provide us.
I believe they are the lifeblood of our existence as humans, propelling us forward, reminding us to believe that we can be part of incredible things. Incredible stories.
(Even if, sometimes, they are made up inside out brains. Fiction has such enormous ability to transport us. I am jealous of people who can write it.)