A New Origin Story – Christine Litwin
One of my favorite pieces of advice I received (although, shamefully, have not regularly applied) was simply to “read everything:” the whole spectrum between trashy magazines to scholarly journals; children’s books to front page news; the mind-numbing text to the tantalizing page-turner. It all has meaning. You’ll find it was worthwhile because it was something important to someone at some time, and that should yield enough purpose for you.
After reading Cousineau’s Introduction to Once and Future Myths, I would add a clause within that piece of advice that it’s important to understand the story’s time and place. Establish what you know about the author, and where this story falls within the timeline or context it was written, and you’ll procure even more meaning. Cousineau would say this is similar to the art of applying “mythic vision,” or the ability to evaluate the personal situation in hopes of understanding the bigger picture: “the human condition.” I would imagine this requires conscious skill, like looking through some magic lens that allows you to toggle between microscopic scrutiny and birds-eye panoramic views. It allows you to examine a person, place, thing, or moment in time, and then immediately place it in a more eternal context.
In that spirit, and also in the spirit of Hutchens’ Circle of the 9 Muses (which has forced me to examine how I can improve my storytelling), I wanted to revisit one of the challenges you posed in today’s class: to tell an origin story.
At the time, I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable giving an intimate account to a room full of new faces on my First Day of School, so I fear that my original origin story appeared stilted and shallow. But I suspect the main reason I struggled with your request is because I’m adopted, and origin stories can be difficult for the adopted. Besides knowing I was born in South Korea, to a woman who was not prepared to have a baby, I have no pictures of my birth parents, no medical records, no financial background, no understanding of what their hopes or intentions were for me; the first eight months of my story were just erased.
An origin story is difficult for someone who’s forced to take everything they’ve learned about him/herself at face value: “I like spicy food because I guess I just like spicy food.” “I have a fat face maybe because my mom had a fat face” (or maybe it’s just because I love eating). The course material thus far has shown that myths can aid us in self-discovery. We’re constantly searching for meaning, and I admit to difficulty in finding it.
It’s clinically proven that adopted children often struggle with self-identification, and what is an origin story, if not a form of self-identification? Sure, I can examine myself under the microscope, but what does the panoramic view look like? Sometimes, I feel like the living classic science experiment of Nature vs. Nurture, but without a control group to compare myself to. Most people have had the chance to learn about themselves through what they witness in their parents – those walking, guiding, identity “compasses.”
Fortunately, I was adopted into a loving, honest, and transparent family; and for as long as I’ve had the capacity for memory, I have known that I was adopted. It hasn’t plagued me or significantly impacted me like it has with others, which I’m incredibly grateful for. And so, I’d like to offer my revised origin story:
According to my parents, when they picked me up at the airport at eight months old, I was a screaming bundle with a splotchy face and incredibly tight pigtails. The missionary who brought me looked incredibly relieved to hand me over, as I had apparently been crying nonstop on the flight from South Korea. Apparently, the crying only got worse and reached a point where my mom called my dad at work, out of sheer frustration, and questioned whether they made a mistake. Something had to be horribly wrong. Eventually the incessant crying did subside, but not for several weeks. While my parents were trying to decide if this was a temporary hiatus, my uncle flew in from Chicago to meet me. When we got to the airport to pick him up, my mom put my hair in pigtails again as I had when I first arrived from Korea. According to legend, this immediately triggered something in me, as I flung myself around my mom in a way that she’d never experienced before. The subsequent crying and screaming was somehow even worse than before. It was in that moment, that my mom hypothesized, “she thinks we’re sending her back to Korea!” I clung to my parents harder than ever.
That was the moment they claim I became their daughter.
I’ve come to realize that your origins don’t have to start at the very beginning; it doesn’t necessarily define who you are or need to set the tone for the rest of your life. They also don’t need to be completely factual. As I’ve questioned what I was thinking that day we picked up my uncle at the airport, and whether my parents’ claims could be substantiated, I’ve also realized that question doesn’t necessarily need to be answered.
I remember the first time I read Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” in high school, which our class jokingly used to refer to as, “The Things They Made Up,” essentially, because the reader is left feeling confused as to whether the story was true or false. How can a book be so powerful, when the lines between fiction and truth were so carelessly blurred? The great quality of myth is that it doesn’t matter. In fact, before diving into Cousineau’s abundant varying definitions of “myth,” I would’ve defined myth as “an ancient, fictional story”- and probably would’ve stopped there. But is it always ancient? Is it always fiction? It wasn’t until a few years ago that I actually found myself enjoying non-fiction over fiction, so there’s something ironically yet pleasantly satisfying in the idea that fiction can sometimes convey more truths to us than non-fiction.
For some, the greater context in which we place our stories is a full picture; For others, it’s missing pieces. Just as for some, their origin story is rooted in their birth; For others, it doesn’t find roots until much later.