Caren Stelson

Caren Stelson

author

PEACE

for all

Finding Your One True Story

“Finding Your One True Story.” That was the title of author Meg Medina’s lec­ture at Hamline University’s MFAC res­i­den­cy this January. I was in the audi­ence, pon­der­ing her words. Finding your “one true sto­ry” implies that we all have one true sto­ry. What was mine?

Last year, 2017, was a big year for Sachiko. I had plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ties to talk about Sachiko’s sto­ry as a Nagasaki atom­ic bomb sur­vivor. But 2018 is a new year and a blank slate or, to update the phrase, a blank com­put­er screen. What is my next big writ­ing project? If I knew my “one true sto­ry,” maybe I could answer that question.

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Author Meg Medina

How do we find our “one true sto­ry”? Meg Medina offered an answer. Listen. Listen to your deep inter­nal rhythms. Meg lis­tened to the “clave” beat of Cuban jazz and the inter­nal thrum of her Cuban roots. Even as a child, that thrum was there, grow­ing loud­er as Meg grew old­er. Out of Meg’s con­scious­ness, inter­sect­ing themes emerged: cul­ture, fam­i­ly, and the lives of girls. These themes became Meg’s per­son­al “clave,” a beat to fol­low for writ­ing and for liv­ing her life. To find her sto­ry, she asks the ques­tions: Who is fright­ened? Who is hurt? Who loves? Who needs love? Why does all this mat­ter? Meg digs into the crevices of her mem­o­ry where remem­ber­ing and for­get­ting are braid­ed togeth­er. In the crevices of mem­o­ry, Meg finds the way into her next story—her next big writ­ing project.

Meg Medina is a nov­el­ist, a fic­tion writer. I bend toward nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion. Where does my “one true sto­ry” lie? Several years ago, I was clean­ing out a base­ment stor­age clos­et and found a box labeled—child­hood. It was my box of for­get­ting and remem­ber­ing. A whiff of mildew spewed out when I opened the box. I sift­ed through school pho­tos, pen­cil sketch­es, note­books of sto­ries and heart­break­ing mid­dle school poet­ry, a tiny Teddy Bear, and a diary with a bro­ken lock.

I opened the diary. A few blank yel­lowed pages fell to the floor. I turned the next pages with more care, smil­ing at my loopy cur­sive writ­ing. How old was I on these pages? About twelve? I read a few entries with dis­ap­point­ment. Most of the entries were lit­tle more than a dai­ly descrip­tion of events. I turned a few more pages and the diary splayed open to May 21, 1964.

“Tonight at 9:00, Mom, Dad, Bill [my old­er broth­er] and I went to Temple to hear Martin Luther King speak … He is the min­is­ter that speaks on Civil Rights. I asked Mom if he had ever talked with President Kennedy … She said yes, many times … Dr. King talked about ‘sleep­ing through a rev­o­lu­tion like Rip Van Winkle.’”

At twelve, I caught the line about “sleep­ing through a rev­o­lu­tion like Rip Van Winkle”? Astonishing! I tore the page out of the diary and framed it to remind me of my twelve-year-old self. The framed diary page has been on my book­case ever since. I’ve won­dered how much of my mem­o­ry of Martin Luther King, Jr., res­onat­ed when Sachiko Yasui told me about her own mem­o­ries of King—how King’s words of love, jus­tice, and peace, so like the words of Sachiko’s father and Mahatma Gandhi, nev­er left her mind. During each vis­it with Sachiko, she would empha­size how dis­crim­i­na­tion, racism, and hate are the sparks that ignite war. Each time Sachiko spoke of dis­crim­i­na­tion, my mind traced back to my child­hood days of being the only Jewish kid in my ele­men­tary school. The anti-Semitic taunts still live in my inner ear. My father’s night­mare screams from fight­ing through Nazi Germany still send chills through me. The more I think about writ­ing Sachiko, the more I know I was touch­ing my “one true sto­ry,” too.

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“Sleeping through a rev­o­lu­tion like Rip Van Winkle.” I’ve won­dered about that line from my diary for a long time. Why did that line end up in my child­hood diary and in my mem­o­ry? While research­ing Sachiko, I read near­ly all of Martin Luther King’s speech­es. When I came across the Rip Van Winkle quote, I smiled. Good for my twelve-year-old self, I had got­ten the quote right. Not long after I framed the Martin Luther King diary page, I found anoth­er quote on an old cal­en­dar: “The won­der we had as chil­dren is in our cells. We have only to lis­ten to our mem­o­ry.” I cut out the quote, and taped the paper to the back of the frame. When I read the quote now, I think of Meg Medina and her “one true story.”

Before I began this essay, I moved the framed diary page from my book­case to my writ­ing desk. I don’t know if this long-ago diary entry will lead me to my next big writ­ing project or not, but I’m think­ing about what’s next. This January, we cel­e­brat­ed Martin Luther King’s 89th birth­day. The same issues King addressed—discrimination, fear and hatred of “the other”—are in the news, our pol­i­tics, our neigh­bor­hood, our con­ver­sa­tions. I hope to stay wide awake and uncov­er sto­ries that speak to both our time and my twelve-year-old self. I hope the next sto­ry I write, and the one after that, and after that, have at their cores my “one true sto­ry.” Those are the sto­ries I hope to write.

Martin Luther King Speaks! Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution. National Cathedral Washington, D.C., on 31 March 1968. (King referred to the sto­ry of Rip Van Winkle in 1958 and through­out his speech­es until his death in 1968.)

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