The Woman At The Window: Thoughts About The Human Need for Stories

The Woman at the Window is in the building on the far right. I took the photo when she was away, of course.

I arrived in Medellin two weeks ago. My days follow a predictable pattern: I get up about 8 AM and make coffee. I sit on the balcony with my laptop and write for most of the morning.

Usually around 10:30 or so I make breakfast. (The eggs are excellent here, with bright orange yolks like the ones our chickens lay. As they cook, the whites swell in the pan, a sure sign of freshness.)

After the dishes are done * I go back on the balcony and focus on editing.

* Very tiny ants are rampant in Medellin. I knew about them before I arrived. I convinced myself that they couldn’t crawl up to the 22nd floor. I was wrong. The moment a meal is finished, every dish is washed, the sink and counters are thoroughly cleaned, then I take out the trash. It’s dropped in a bin outside the front door. The bin must empty four or five stories below because I hear the trash clanging and clashing its way down the metal chute.

My afternoons are spent experiencing Medellin. In the evenings we go out for dinner, or I cook in the apartment. The late evenings are spent writing, and reading.

On the second morning I was here — while on the balcony —  I noticed someone standing (sitting?) at the window of an apartment building so far away I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman.

For some reason, I imagine the stranger is a woman.

Was it the third day? fourth? I started looking for her.  She spends a lot of time there — sometimes hours at a stretch.

Who is she? Why does she have so much time to spend at a window? Is she looking out… or is she reading?

How old is she?

What kind of life does she lead in that apartment?

In my expository writing classes (I teach English at a college in California) I give a lecture each semester that explores people’s desire for stories. Human entertainment is an outgrowth of this need:

— books

— movies

— television

— sports (a “story” that leads to a climax — who won?)

— the news (a series of unfolding events / stories about individuals, families, tragedies, nations, the world)

— video games (you’re the hero of the story. Even strategy games like Candy Crush create a narrative — they call them episodes — for getting from one level to another.)

— magazines

— the internet

— theater, the opera, ballet…

— music (the lyrics tell a story; instrumental music tells an emotional story)

— social media (what else is Facebook except a platform for telling stories about ourselves and hearing the stories of others?)

And human conversation:  when we run into someone or speak to them on the phone, we ask: what have you been doing? … what did you do this weekend? … have you seen…? Did you hear about…?

What are we asking? Tell me a story…

Bill flew back to California day before yesterday but confided he didn’t enjoy Medellin as he had hoped. He found many interesting things here, but wasn’t prepared for the sense of isolation that’s created when every interaction with others confirms your Outsider’ness.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation. Maybe I was more prepared for it (I’m enjoying myself immensely) … but I suspect that the contrast in our experiences can be explained by the different ways he and I interact with the world. I think Bill perceives himself as a part of the world, and of course he’s right.

But from a very early age, I felt as though I was outside — that is to say, separated from others. I think this explains — at least in part — my interest in observing people and writing about them. It’s impossible for me to disconnect my sense of being The Other from writing. They’re linked in ways I don’t understand.

(And yes, of course, many people feel this sense of Separation — sometimes occasionally, sometimes often — and they don’t spend time writing.)

Regardless, perhaps my self-perception means I don’t interpret the language barriers as being qualitatively different from what I feel in my daily life.

In church, when I was a child, I was taught that gossip — a human failing, a “sin” — was to be avoided. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to believe that talking about other people is human nature. It’s What We Do.

I close my lecture by pointing out that human beings seek out stories because they help us understand ourselves. Ultimately, our desire for stories is intensely personal.

It’s about us.

Stories help us navigate the world; they show us how other people handle heartache, and joy. They show us possibilities for addressing what arises in the course of our lives.

Stories give us tools for making choices, for discovering answers, and — perhaps most important of all — for guiding us through circumstances when we have no idea what we’re supposed to do.

When a friend lowers their voice and says, “You’re not going to believe what happened to So-and-So…”

We lean forward. We’re all ears. We don’t want to miss a word. Although it’s usually unconscious I suspect our brains are exploring the questions:

What if X happened to us? What would we do?

Aren’t we listening closely to discover information to help us?

Inevitably this leads me back to the woman at the window. Isn’t it natural I would wonder if she’s noticed me?

Has she asked herself:  who is that guy on the balcony?

… what’s his story?

3 thoughts on “The Woman At The Window: Thoughts About The Human Need for Stories

  1. Oh, I like this, Bart. I can see the woman at the window. 🙂

    And the whole “other” thing is fascinating to me. I wonder, did Bill feel this way about Medellin more than other places where people don’t speak English? Though it sounds like Columbia may be unusual in the lack of English, yes? Makes me kind of sad.

    I had a hard time in Mexico off and on, always being so recognizably the other, and it wasn’t about the language for me there. (Though that was a tiny part of it because communication was always an effort, but I spoke Spanish.)

    The pattern of your days there sound delightful!

    Thank you for this.


    1. Hi Riba,

      Bill and I have been in many countries with language issues — Russia, for example, this summer. But in Colombia, 94% of the population is monolingual — so we use hand motions, printed requests in Spanish, etc. Bill’s issue wasn’t the language, per se, but the challenge of being separated by language. I realize this sounds like splitting hairs, but I understand why he found it emotionally challenging.

      It’s fascinating trying to determine why we feel displaced in some countries, and so at home in others.


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