Throughout our lives, we tell our stories in so many ways, purposefully and not-so-purposefully. Our story comes out in snippets to our good friends, and often, in romantic relationships. Some of us speak publicly about our stories, in order to make a point or to teach, inspire, encourage, or convict our listeners. We sometimes share the beautiful, but especially the tragic, parts of our stories with a mentor, therapist, clergyman, or psychiatrist, trusting that our story will be held in strict confidence.
And then some of us write. And like a public speaking event that’s videotaped, this way of sharing our life is vulnerable in a unique way: it is recorded and can be played or read over and over and over, by practically anyone. In other words, it’s profoundly permanent. We all know that once something is published, either in print or on the world wide web, it is out there and cannot be easily taken back or changed.
As we write about ourselves, we make near-constant decisions about what parts of our lives, our thoughts, and our souls to share. This often involves asking ourselves, what part of my life am I willing to hold out for others to see (and judge) as they will? But because none of us live in a vacuum — especially in our childhoods — we face another question, too, which for me is more daunting. What part of other people’s stories, as they intertwine with our own, do we write? Assuming that our lives haven’t been exclusively rosy, but have included mistreatment or abuse by others, what should we write about those who’ve hurt us? So the original question gets expanded. Who has the right to the parts of my story that are deeply inter-related with others’ stories?
Of course, almost everyone is fine with being referenced in someone else’s story as an encourager, a supporting presence, or someone who challenged and inspired growth. Better yet, most of us won’t protest being portrayed as someone’s hero or heroine. “Bring it on,” we say. For good reason, writers and speakers often honor certain individuals in this way. But alas, often the heroes and heroines of our stories are necessary because someone else — the villain or villains — have caused us profound hurt.
And here we arrive at the problem. What’s the use of telling our stories if we leave out the “plot thickens” and conflict part, and only discuss the conflict resolution? That would be like me telling you, “This morning was the worst morning of my life for reasons I’m not going to tell you. But then I ran into this amazing friend of mine and she said…well, I guess I can’t say, because I would have to first tell you why this morning was so awful. Oh, well. Thanks for listening!” That story is not going to inspire you to get through your own difficult day. In fact, it will probably leave you feeling more, instead of less, alone. You’ll get the impression you’re not worthy of being trusted (which hopefully isn’t true). And you will continue seeing the messy aspects of life — the nasty, shame-filled, confusing, and tragic parts — as too much to say out loud.
Some of us identify all too well with this way of living. I used to live that way. And it was freakin’ miserable, but also kind of manageable…until it wasn’t. I’m now in the “until it wasn’t” chapter of my life. And as I get more accustomed to saying out loud what I’d kept inside before, I have questions. My most urgent question is what to write and wh—- the heck?!
I kid you not — at this precise moment, what looked like a grossly deformed, flying dinosaur (aka Pteranodon) landed with a sickening splat next to me. I’m sitting here at an outdoor cafe enjoying the sunny day, and suddenly there’s a long-since dead, rotting, baby bird smeared on the table two feet from my laptop. A tanned, buffed guy in his upper-20s saw it happen, smiled nervously, and kept walking. So I walk into the cafe and tell a couple teenage guys what just happened. They give the objectively correct response: “What?! Are you serious?! That’s crazy!” The cafe owner comes out to take a look and explains that this has happened more than once. He gestures irritably at the overhanging sign for the business just above his cafe. Apparently, birds often nest there with a low rate of success. So he just gathers the remains of the bird into a napkin while I tease him about the yelp review I’ll be writing. (I would have suggested he talk to the upstairs business owner, but considering the sign says, “Sugar Daddy’s Smoke Shop,” I don’t blame him for leaving that alone.)
What can this interruption teach us about sharing the good, bad, and ugly of our lives? (Go ahead, laugh, but the timing is just too crazy!) Anne Lamott wrote a great book about writing and life, entitled “Bird by Bird.” And again — no kidding — I had planned to include a quote from this book prior to the dead, dino-bird incident! But I think we’ve all lost my train of thought at this point. So, instead of quoting Anne, I’m going to run with the central idea of her book, which is to take life square inch by square inch, or bird by bird. (Do read the whole book for why she uses this analogy. It’s worth your time!)
So here’s today’s square inch, or bird: 1) we all have stories that include some (hopefully not literally) gut-wrenching moments, and 2) like the literal bird, our stories will be told, one way or the other, like it or not, dead or alive.
Considering this, maybe we should go ahead and fly down from our overhanging signs so that passersby can see our suffering. Others can often help us more than we can help ourselves! True, it’s a risk, but if we don’t fly, we will eventually fall. Our stories may be ugly and painful to show others, but our stories demand to be told, in some form or other. So why not try to fly down before we fall down, trusting that at some point, someone who is kind will come along?
I think I should stop trying to channel a dead bird while I am (not) ahead. But let’s keep listening. I expect another bird will come along in a later post, hopefully a little less dead this time.