Ruminations: The Shades of Our Stories

We hear so many stories—and we usually have cameras perched on our shoulders, or microphones in our hands, or we’re standing with the person who holds the keys to the handcuffs—so it would be naive to think we are always hearing something close to the truth.

But one of us observed that when a kid is in detention, when he’s been locked up for a while and he sees his liberty subject to the whims of guards and judges and prosecutors, when his hope begins to fade, he comes to a point when the thought of tinting his stories to resemble a more reasonable truth becomes senseless. Who cares anymore? That’s when you start to see truth.

Our stories—those they share with us, and so like bread become not his, not hers or mine, but ours—often start with posturing or protest. Like a young man (not pictured) I interviewed during Mr. Brett’s craft class yesterday. He complained about how they are treated (though he loved Mr. Brett; they all love Mr. Brett) how infrequently they are allowed to flush their toilets, how they aren’t given enough water to drink, how they have to strip down before they go into their cells. In short, he vented.

And once the venting was done he became quiet, and he worked on his deft rendering of flaming words—literally words written in flame to celebrate Halloween—filling in a heavy orange outline that followed the line of the pre-printed coloring book image. And he shaded it inward, more lightly.

I sat and watched, and the camera ceased to be a platform. We exchanged insignificant words, the sort that construct the bridges in a conversation. And then he spoke of his family, of his mother who raised four siblings, and his brother who had died.

I let him continue shading in silence, uncertain of the sensitivity he might have about the death. And then I went out on a limb.

“How’d it happen.”

“Hospital killed him.”

“Recently?”

“No, he was a year older than me. I was just a baby and he was sick and the hospital gave him the wrong medicine and he died.”

And that was that. In fairness, I know nothing about what really happened with his brother, if it was a negligent death. But I do know he was telling the story as he knew it. He was recounting the lore of his family, the truth that he knew. Because he never knew this brother. He could not remember him. And although he was touched by his death, he was not touched with anger.

It’s an interesting thing, the way a camera fades. It’s remarkable how the truth avails itself when you listen quietly. Especially when you quietly listen to people unaccustomed to having an audience. Have patience and you can learn a lot from these people.

(As a fellow once noted: battered souls, if they persist, become wise souls.)

As he worked on his colored-pencil masterpiece this young man unburdened himself, just a little bit. That’s difficult to do when you spend all of your time around people with a desperate amount of unburdening to do.

He pushed his artwork across the table and observed it at arm’s length, then ran his long, feminine fingers across the colored pencils in his tin, took inventory and frowned.

“Damn,” he said. “Ain’t got no yellow.”

Posted on February 3, 2010 and filed under Ruminations.