Holding the Cup

December 27, 2014 – 11:11 pm

One of my favorite things is listening to people’s stories. Not the ones we tell of funny things that happened, cardiology or impressive feats, hepatitis or jokes at the expense of others — not the ones that perform status or put on a show or somehow manipulate the levers of the social beast. But stories that are told in hushed tones, with long pauses and incoherent words; stories where voices drop, grow hoarse, and break. The ones told late at night, in empty rooms, or rooms that might as well be empty because the rest of the world has melted away until it’s just the storyteller and the people that they trust to hold their space around the rim of a small, golden cup.

And it seems to me that wine — a deep, red, tannic wine, perhaps shiraz — is pouring out into that cup, and as the story deepens it comes shimmering up towards the rim. You hold it carefully, your side of that edge of that cup. You know you can’t let go. They keep pouring their story in; sometimes it gushes, sometimes it trickles, sometimes it bleeds from them in visible pain — sometimes it tumbles in a sparkling joy, but it’s of a rich substance, and it’s… their life, that you’re helping to cradle, in your hands that breathe steadily to keep from trembling as the story sparkles like warm spiced liquid rubies.

It is rare, this privilege of sharing. And I treasure it, the privilege of listening. Sometimes the cup stays small, but sometimes — on even rarer occasions — wine will fill and curl up to the rim, and you continue holding that gold cup there on the other side, and then you feel the metal warm your fingers. And as the storyteller keeps telling their story, and you listen — hold the edge with listening, with rapt attention and compassion, not trying to shake or fix or analyze the contents, but simply to witness — they keep pouring, and the cup deepens, fills out into your hands; becomes too large to be a cup, becomes a bowl — and the bowl grows, and grows, and it becomes a depth — a massive chalice, and you peer inside and look at their reflection on the surface, marvelling.

And when you cradle it alongside multiple people — which is rarer still — you become aware of their breathing and their care and tenderness as well, and the shared strength and just… the privilege of holding up the rim of that great cup alongside them, right now, inside this moment, with the story of this one person pouring into it.

So they pour, and they pour, and you watch, and you wait, and you’re present. Profoundly present. Not caretaking, not problem-solving, not fixing anything, just being there in witness.

And when they are done, you look at the full bowl trembling there between your fingers, vibrating with life — and he or she who told the story gazes, and sometimes they can gaze a long, long time — and then they start to lift, and you can feel the lift from the thin metal at your fingers, and your hands rise forth and help them lift as well.

And they drink. They drink their cup, they drink their wine, they drink the life that they have poured out in the space between you, in the sanctuary you’ve created with your careful breaths and trembling hands and poised and patient presence. That’s why you’ve held; they need to pour it out, so they can drink — because there was something inside them, and they’re thirsty, but maybe they didn’t realize it — or maybe they didn’t realize how deep it went — that well within them, or that thirst.

They finish — sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Some cups are quaffed; some cups are bitter and need to be drank in sips, pauses, great gulps — sometimes you need to speak softly to them, remind them: slowly. You can take your time. We will stay here.

You can’t drink for them, and you shouldn’t; it’s their wine. You can’t eyedropper out a sample and run it through spectral analyzers, figuring the content — that’s not what it’s for. It’s not for product or for profit or for parceling out into watered-down sippy cups for others who weren’t there, so they can give you status for holding that edge, hurrah for you. The cup belongs to the person who has poured out the story. You are privileged to even be there, to even be allowed to hold a living portion of their life between your hands. It is a sacred trust.

It’s not “data.” It’s not “for research.” Sometimes it can be — I’m a narrative researcher, and this great love of stories is probably why — but I am very careful to put on that role with great deliberation, and I usually don’t walk around the world that way. On the rare times I do put on that hat, it’s something the narrator and I have discussed, and we know it’s a cup of stories are going to be shared, and oftentimes because of that they do not run nearly as deep, or taste nearly as rich. A $7 bottle of convenience store zinfandel. And I am bothered by — furious at — researchers and counselors and listeners who do not know how to hold cups, who do not respect that wine, who call a tiny cup a huge bowl because they have never seen one bigger — they can’t steady their hands, the liquid can’t reach the rim, they slosh — who try to drink from wine that isn’t theirs.

It’s one of the best things I know, watching people pour our their stories in that hushed and sacred space. Watching them drink. And they drink, and… it’s done. That was the cup. A story was poured out, and then it was poured in, and there: the world goes on.

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  1. One Response to “Holding the Cup”

  2. This is something I’ll be thinking about.

    By Sumana Harihareswara on Dec 28, 2014

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