Alana Cristante

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Compound Living

June 4, 2021

What is a life story that is not your own which has always stuck with you?

I began collecting the stories of others from a very young age. As a child, I recall overhearing adult conversations about the lives of others. I recall being taught that one of the founding fathers or early colonizers of Canada was married to a woman who wore trousers long before it was acceptable. I recall my history teacher alluding to the fact that this man must have been given a hard time about it.

I’ve almost always been fascinated with “being alive”. It’s probably one of the main reasons why I love people so much; life in different forms. I connect well with people who seem very conscious about the fact they are moving through life. Sometimes we can flick on the switch and become so aware of our own state of life, the fact that we are given a brief window of time on this planet to soak up energy from the sun and a warm meal in order to take a shot at what it means to live our lives.

This knowledge seems to be unique to the human experience. Researchers have observed animals such as elephants, orcas, and chimpanzees mourning their dead. It appears that these animals understand that death is irreversible, but it is still quite scientifically unknown whether animals understand that they themselves will absolutely die. [1] Nearing the end of their lives, cats often sneak away to hide and eventually pass, alone. Still this leaves the question, did they know they were going to die before they physically felt themselves nearing death? Nobody knows. Humans may be unique in the fact that we are made aware pretty early on that our time here is not infinite.

We move through life, the sun rises and sets, and we gather our own experiences and the experiences of other people. Through language and storytelling we plug ourselves into the universal conscience, sharing and hearing and connecting.

Almost from birth we become tied to the lives of our parents, siblings, family members in general. We watch them go through life. We watch them age. We gather the experiences of our friends, fictional characters in books and films, real life people on the news or in documentaries. Childhood can be experienced twice; firsthand through our own underdeveloped perspective, and secondhand through parenthood (or watching those close to us enter parenthood). The second time around we observe early life from a different perspective, often juxtaposed against modernity and change far different than our own childhoods. We experience giving someone a childhood and not just having one.

Sometimes we enjoy life in increments. We proceed through time, following its forward arrow with a best friend or a partner, soaking in their days almost as much as our own. Listening as they tell us about their dreams from the night before, their frustrations with work that day, their plans for the upcoming weekend. We experience their successes, their failures, their heartbreaks and losses, their joys and excitements.

Sometimes we enjoy a summarized century of life in one large chunk, calling our grandmother on a Sunday afternoon and catching her in a particularly talkative mood. Listening to stories of childhood during the war and salami slices so thin you could see through them; immigration and marriage at 18, decades of work and raising a family and becoming a widow and being retired. Learning how to use an iPad. Or maybe you fall down a Wikipedia rabbit-hole at 2 a.m. on a Thursday night, soaking in section by section. Summary, Early life, Career, Controversy, Death, Media. You set your alarm for bed and turn over in the dark, your head on the pillow carrying the weight of a life far beyond your own.

Sometimes we enjoy a bit of both; a friend’s mom pouring you a cup of tea and telling you a specific story about a neighbour they had “back home” in another country. Perhaps one day a story from your own life will be compressed and enveloped, passed hand through hand in conversations to people several degrees outside your realm of knowledge. A story shared at a dinner party years down the line when you are long gone. Or maybe it will be something more simple, captured in a Buzzfeed article or a tweet and posted to the internet for anyone to see.

So it is that as we walk through this life, each day we spend on earth in our own lives is compounded with the lives of others. There is a beauty that exists in being a cog in the machine, a fragment in the mosaic of humanity, not just for existing but for existing while others exist. The web of our experiences grows beyond our own bounds. For these reasons, I feel consistently astonished just at being alive, the machine of my body powering me, and the will that sets my sails. I suppose that’s why I find the stories of others so fascinating; anything that connects the living, or even the living and the dead. I want to both live my own life and a life well beyond my own.

[1] Di Silvestro, R. (2012). Are Other Animals Aware of Death? The National Wildlife Federation.