Tuesday, October 11, 2016

the stories we tell, and the stories we won't tell again

Last week, I ate salad with a friend at my small dining room table and told her a story. The events of the story had taken place a few months prior, but I hadn't told her yet and I needed her to hear it. I had already told it to other friends: several weeks ago to a friend over coffee, to a teammate by the dinner fire one night in Kenya, over text to a few friends after it happened, even to an imaginary audience in a rough draft of some kind of essay I thought it might turn into. Something about it merited re-telling again and again, and now to this friend.

Sometimes we tell stories because they explain our lives to others. This is how I met my best friend when we were five or this is how my daughter came into the world or this the way my mother made lasagna over and over when I was young. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, says Joan Didion, by which she meant that the form of a narrative, and perhaps also the act of telling it, gives shape to our lives.

But other times, I find myself telling the same story over and over precisely because it doesn't make sense. I tell it hoping that the way it comes out this time might flip a switch, or that the particular friend I'm confiding in will help me find the key. This story, the one I found myself telling my friend over salad, was like this. It ended with my being hurt and disappointed, and though it didn't leave me on bad terms with anyone in particular, it did leave me feeling confused. This particular scene didn’t seem to fit into the larger story I thought was forming, and I wanted it to. Maybe the story wasn't over? Maybe the larger story itself needed to change? Maybe not every story has a conclusion?

And then this happened: I was praying (though not about the story) when I heard the Spirit say that I wouldn't tell the story again. It wasn't instruction as much as description: the new way in which I was being arranged inside made it such that I wouldn't feel the need to go back over what had happened. The details have started to fade, their edges are dulled and less provoking. Even now, it’s as if the story is floating out to sea, a message I’ve shoved in a bottle and sent away with no intention of reclaiming. We tell ourselves stories to live, and sometimes we let them go to live more fully.

(photo: water and wood at tenaya lake, yosemite national park)

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