When I attend UMass Amherst, I major in sociology. I choose this major because I want to know the people's stories. This is because even though I have cynical moments (ach, people, who needs them anyway), I love the people. I am hungry for a good story. What I am taught are phrases like abstinence syndrome. Sociologists get lost in the syllables; we study studies, we study black dots on demographic maps.
These black dots represent people of certain classes, cultures, educational levels and other such groupings. Sociologists like to look at groups with a good deal of distance between them and the individuals of the groups. Perhaps they really believe that the dots and numbers tell a story.
In some ways they do offer some information. For example, when the groupings have to do with poor people of color living in the projects, the black dots are crammed all together in the center of a city. When the groupings have to do with rich people living in estates, there's more space and room for a person's life.
I take one day away from the university to visit a friend living in New York City. I am a working class rural woman of color (which I don't realize then). She is an upper class urban woman. At a drug rehab program I meet up with her; she once is a client and now is a member of the staff. She introduces me to a young (actually we are all young) poor Puerto Rican woman. We spend the day at the beach, all of us together. We are able to converse with each other, enjoy the company of each other even though we come from different realities.
When day is done, we take Maria "home". Rising from the ground is a cluster of sixty-story buildings in which thousands of people live. She advises us to stay close with her and not to stray. As we go up many stories on the elevator, she explains to us that the noise level is always 24/7 as loud as it is now. I am sure there are studies that talk about the effects of constant noise. We get off the elevator about midway up the tower and go into her apartment which is hermetically sealed; no windows open and all the sound is shut out. I am certain there are studies about the deleterious effects of oxygen and sound deprivation.
We sit at her kitchen table and she tells me the story of her eighteen year life. At fifteen she is a prostitute, at sixteen she is a heroin addict, at seventeen she is raped and all she can think of to say is: don't mess up my new boots. The way she tells the stories makes me listen with my whole body; I feel every word. Then she asks me about my life.
I explain I am going to the university, that I have political activist friends who are working hard to improve the quality of life. She gathers me in with her fierce ebony eyes and holds me very firmly with them as she says: I want you to go back to the U-ni-Ver-Si-Ty of Massachusettes Am-Herst and I want you to tell your Po-li-Ti-Cal activist friends that they don't know Nothin about My life.
She is not angry with me; she just wants to make sure I have her message and that I will deliver it. She gives me my work for the whole rest of my life. I am to tell the stories, mine and hers. I am to stand at a bus stop and listen intently with my whole body as a perfect stranger tells me the story of life full of pathos and terrible things and profound courage. I am to know that each dot represents a life. I am to know that abstinence syndrome means puking up all the pain and sweating out the horror of a life someone has the courage to live.
Ultimately this life's work that she gives me is as described by the poet Muriel Ruckeyser: time comes into it. say it. say it. the universe is made of stories not atoms.