ansary imageTelling Stories

By Tamim Ansary ’70

When I graduated from Reed College 36 years ago, I thought civilization was verging on collapse, so I hung around Portland for six tumultuous years as part of a counterculture community. Oh, we were ardently immersed in building the pure new civilization that would replace this crumbling old one. We had community gardens and communal houses and solar this’n’that, and I was part of a newspaper collective called the Scribe, and our days were filled with meaning.

But the years passed, and the juggernaut of industrial modernity hurtled on, and it began to dawn on us one by one that civilization might not collapse after all. In the end, it was our counterculture community that crumbled and we who scattered to the winds.

I drifted down to San Francisco and wrote articles and textbooks for a living. But at night—just trying to make sense of what had happened—I hammered out a passionate novel about the Portland days called Sinking the Ark.

Years after finishing that novel, I returned to Portland to see how the Real Thing compared to my fictional reconstruction. But the Scribe had gone under long ago, and the church that housed it had been razed. Ken’s Afterglow, the tavern where we used to dance on Thursday nights after putting the paper to bed, was a biker hangout now and it smelled like the Morning After.

The Real Thing was not in any place or object. Was it only in the collective memory of we who lived through that time? I hunted up some old friends and found that we all had vivid memories of our experiences then, but they were different, often conflicting memories, even of the same events. And there was no neutral point of reference from which to reconcile the discrepancies. So the Real Thing wasn’t in memory either. It struck me finally that my novel about Portland might be as real as it gets.

Indeed, for me, the metaphor of story may be the most powerful tool for finding meaning in the rush and tumble of random events. As human beings, we don’t live in the brute facts of our material existence but in a narrative with some story-like arc. When I write a story or critique someone else’s fiction, I feel I’m struggling toward an understanding of how a real life, not just a fictional one, can work.

On a later return to Portland, I ran into my girlfriend from the Portland years. She told me she had run across all the letters I had ever written her and asked, did I want them? As I read them, I recognized my own voice, though I had forgotten the letters.

In the last one, sent from San Francisco, I said I was giving up my old ambitions. I was no knight and there was no Camelot. And I listed the pitifully shrunken goals to which I now aspired: To love someone truly and be loved in return . . . To have a home and to feel at home somewhere in the world . . . To do needed work and receive a decent income for it . . . To have and deserve the respect of my society . . .

On that day, surely, I thought I knew what my life was about: dreaming big and falling short, the futility of high ideals.

But when I looked at that list of goals again recently, they no longer struck me as trivial. To love someone truly . . . to feel at home in the world. And suddenly, I came to a new understanding of my life story. It didn’t falsify the old one, merely subsumed it into a larger tale. I saw that any life is really about peeling away layers of illusion, an odyssey toward becoming one’s true self: in my case, this husband and father, this writer of children’s books.

This was the summer of 2001. In September of that year, terrorists destroyed the World Trade Centers, and shortly thereafter, American military forces were sent into Afghanistan. Again my sense of life story changed radically. On graduation day, 1970, I thought I had left Afghanistan behind forever. In the aftermath of 9/11, events dragged me onto various public stages to speak for the voiceless Afghan people and even, inconceivably enough, for Islam, even though I am the most secular of men.

What came home to me was that no life story unfolds in isolation. They are all parts of interlocking ever-larger stories—the history of our times. As we puzzle out the shape of our individual narratives, we’re also puzzling out that larger history and contributing willy nilly, by action or inaction, in small ways or large, whether we choose to or not — to its shape.

Tamim Ansary ’70 is a writer and editor in San Francisco. This essay is adapted from his 2006 commencement speech at Reed.