Biomythography - Note 21
What Biomythography Means
Whenever you tell a story from your life, you make choices.
On a warm spring day, a bee lands next to you. A moment before, you were playing with your best friend, three years old like you. You were burying each other under a foot of white sand in the sandbox. But now you find yourself six inches away from a deadly stinger. The bee dances on a broken clover stem that sticks up from a clump of dust and dirt. By its colors, it could be the same one that sent you screaming in pain last fall.
"It's going to kill us!" your friend screams. He frantically tosses sand in the air in an attempt to dig himself out and abandon you.
At first, the need for a decision paralyzes you. If you dig out, you will put your arm next to the bee. You will disturb it and it will kill you by stabbing you in the face. You imagine the loud, buzzing pain and the darkness thereafter. Then you get an idea. You grab the green plastic pail you were dumping onto your stomach a moment ago and refill it. Your chubby hands tremble. But you manage to fill the bucket to the brim.
Gently, gently. You know that you can't let the bee understand what you're thinking.
"Run!" your friend screams from the safety of the grass.
With no choice because it's self-defense but also with the sense that this is revenge for the bee that tried to kill you last fall, you twist your body with the bucket in your arms. The bee twitches. It digs at the broken clover.
"Heeeyaah!" you yell. You turn the bucket and smash the sand down onto the yellow and black murderer.
But underneath the bucket of sand, the insect body buzzes with outrage. Loudly.
You didn't kill it. It's too strong. With no other choice now, you scramble out of the pit to escape. Together with your friend, you run all the way to the apartment building door. There, your friend hugs you.
"You made it!"
"We can't go back!" he says.
You know he's right. You can never go back. Never.
That's what I thought when I was three years old and living in Bitburg, Germany. My parents taught at the army base. I played cowboys and indians with the neighbors and, when we were outside, I played in the sandbox. My friends' parents probably also worked at the base although, really, how would I know? I barely have any memory of the adults except my mother.
That's a little bit of what biomythography means. My memories are limited. A lot of the time, they're from the viewpoint of a child. Also, sometimes as I tell a story from my life, I extrapolate and use my knowledge as an adult to fill in gaps. For instance, what are the chances that I wrote exactly the words my friend used in the sandbox? Pretty small. I'm fairly certain that I'm close, though. I've gotten the timing right and the intent. My friend and his brother spoke English, not German. He panicked and told me to run. He hugged me when he thought we'd been saved.
And really, we never went back. Our mothers couldn't get us into that sandbox again. We thought the bee was watching us from somewhere in the playground. If we went back, it would realize we were the kids that buried it in sand and think, Now I can kill them.
The term I use about this process, biomythography, comes from Audre Lorde. I'm geeky enough that sometimes I open poetry books and read things from them. I noticed Separation, Love Poem, Power, and a few others, and thought: okay, I need more of these. Then I put the book back on the shelf and forgot. Only the name Audre Lorde remained familiar enough for me to recognize it on the spine of a book called Zami. I picked up her trade paperback.
In half an hour, I read most of it right there in the bookstore. It wasn't poetry. It was a memoir. And it was good.
My entertainment budget was two dollars per week. It was hard to pay seven dollars for the book. But I did. The purchase paid off as I read it cover to cover, twice, and again later, when it turned out to be a choice in my undergraduate Gay Literature course.
I've occasionally read horrible attempts to analyze Zami. No one seems comfortable saying, "a person wrote a good, thoughtful memoir." Also, telling people, "you might be entertained and a little enlightened" is frowned on as well. I guess that's because it feels so ordinary. But I still want to say, crack open Zami somewhere in the middle and read a few paragraphs. You may be entertained and enlightened. If not, put it down.
I don't remember Audre Lorde explaining what she meant by the term biomythography. But I know what I mean.
1) My memories aren't perfect
2) I'm choosing parts of my life to tell
3) I'm avoiding some parts, too
Even when I've chosen a moment to describe, I'm usually working from thrice-recalled fragments of images, smells, and emotions. None of us should trust those. To make coherent stories, I've gone back to original notes or documents. I've rummaged through old photos. I've consulted people who were there. Usually, those people are not much help. Everyone remembers different things. Most of these events were important only to me. On many occasions when I ask for verification, all I get back is a shrug. But I'm trying.
I'm hoping to chose only the most significant events to tell - life-changing ones, maybe, but also the incidents that say something about the world, myself, or my friends. I hope everyone understands that the details and dialogue are as close as I can make them but they come from my memory. They can't be perfect. The best they can be is close. There's a certain amount of mythology involved in telling the story of anyone's life. After all, life itself is not a story. We only want to compress it into one in order to relate what seems important.
And we might be wrong about what's important. About that, we can only try.