My 30th birthday happened and since then, every day has been #ThrowbackThursday for my mom. She's got a weird new picture of me out of the archives and onto the 'net every time I load Facebook.
Today's was this shot of me inside a suitcase. Its caption reads, "I knew baby Angel would be traveling a lot someday."
It isn't the first time I've seen this picture or heard that anecdote. My crawling into a suitcase probably had less to do with an early affinity for travel and more to do with the possibility that, like cats, toddlers enjoy crawling into things that can snugly enclose them, like a womb. (Go-to places for me included cabinets and crawlspaces, where I'd watch while The Adults searched for me with mounting hysteria. They would later buy me a rainbow-coloured leash.)
But we can't resist weaving threads through random snapshots like string through Chex. I've often worried that by doing this, we do ourselves a disservice: A story made up of unrelated parts takes on a life of its own, hardens into a kind of truth. And the "truth" I wanted to save, the truth getting lost in the anecdote, was, "I never planned to be a breezy globetrotter."
There's nothing really important about this truth. It's just the truth, so it's worth more. Isn't it...?
I think of this reflexive defensiveness against narrative as Big Fish syndrome. In the movie, a tight, super-rational guy battles with his dying father's tendency to pass epics off for truths. Most of the movie juxtaposes these lush legends against the son's efforts to find the small kernels of truth that remain, hidden somewhere in the details.* (I love the Siamese twins!) You know the rest: He can't change his dad, so if he wants to make peace with his death, he'll have to find a way to make peace with that grey area between the quantified "real" and the stories we invent.
But what makes us need to invent them?
In a 1973 interview with William Kennedy of The Atlantic, Gabriel Garcia Marquez was asked about his tendency to embed the surreal into otherwise "realistic" stories and settings. He replied, "In Mexico, surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America."
I loved this idea. As a child of Philippine immigrants, I know what it's like to straddle two worlds: One where reality is understood as what we can see and prove, and another where spirits throw mud at your car, meeting men as tall as an apple could spell death, and witch doctors can proffer cures that good San Francisco doctors can't.
Those two worlds easily become warring tribes. For a long time I embodied the conflict central to Big Fish, except that the father and his yarns were my family, whole traditions, sometimes even myself.
Ironically, what calmed this conflict was becoming an immigrant myself. We lack clarity about the future at the best of times; when you leave everything you knew and create a new reality, you're entering a parallel universe, one where you only resemble the person you left behind. You're naked and everything around you becomes incoherent: Unfamiliar rules, uncertainty about the order of "life steps", and even less visibility about where you're headed. Suddenly, it hits you how little of the future you actually control and how much of you is in the hands of others.
So you tell yourself stories. You start seeing signs in small gestures, patching moments together to produce a narrative about who you are and where you're headed. You revise your past, ever so slightly, and invent a trajectory that, when squinting, might resemble a destiny.
Stories are a survival instinct. They tell us who we are, where we're going. They tell us that, if we can just hold tight to the storyline, we can somehow control — or at least come to grips with — the outcome.
That's everything I thought when I opened Facebook and saw the picture of me in a suitcase, with its fond little caption, at the top of my newsfeed.
I knew baby Angel would be traveling a lot someday.
On the surface it's a loving mother's humblebrag. One level lower, and it's simply a statement about where I am (Paris), and where I was (in a suitcase in San Francisco). Descend again, and it's the hope my parents had for a prettier life for their hypothetical kids, where the possibility of travel, as much for pleasure as for work, would be more of a scheduling issue than a financial one. And at the lowest level, the deepest and the thickest one, it's the rippling of my mother's own story: How could a child of wanderers not wander?
It's so many stories, really. And stories aren't born out of the ether; each is a tiny promise of sanity that encourages you to go on changing, an insane quest to find beauty and reason in unmitigated chaos. Stories are the only means we have to survive the violence of evolution.
Why fight that?
*The "truths", or at least the realities lost in the stories, are very "meh". In the end, nobody cares about them. Did you know that in ancient history the common interpretation of truth in storytelling was completely different? There wasn't this Wikipedia-esque mania for having to recount things "as they truly happened". It was more like, "there's a truth we want to convey. So we're going to tell a story." Everyone accepted these stories for fact, not because the pieces of them were so important, but because the sum was. I learned that in Zealot, so thanks, Reza Aslan.