At the crack of dawn on May 23rd, 32 years ago, I sucked down my first gulp of air in this world and thus started my life. Not my life story. That’s different. Your life story is the narrative you give to others when they ask you who you are and all variations and sub-categories of that question. My life story begins at different points depending on what you’re asking. If you ask where I’m from, my story begins in my Nana’s house in Forney, Texas, in those days a one-stoplight town of 2,000, give or take a hundred souls. If you ask how I got here, my story usually starts with the deep unhappiness I felt with my career in Government Relations and a transformational trip to Egypt that changed the game for me.
We all do this. I was talking to a girl a few months ago; we knew each other through a mutual friend, who told me we had a lot in common and should meet. I brought up the mutual friend’s comment, and she began to tell me her life story. Lots of dark, selfish, inexcusable things happened to her at an age too young to comprehend the injustice of it and too old for it all not to sink into her marrow. The story, the authenticity of which I do not doubt, struck me as polished. This was a story she had told many times, and she had gotten real good at hitting the high notes and keeping it all under the five-minute mark so as to avoid surpassing the average American’s attention span. Her life, then, was one of neglect and betrayal and survival and perseverance and success. In her narrative, she had overcome the odds and taken control of her possible futures. In her story, history was everything.
So, I’m in California now; not in the Cali you are probably most familiar with, but in an unincorporated mountain community in the northern part of the state (home of an active secessionist movement, in fact). I’m living on the 20-ish acre property of friends, truly exceptional people who opened their home to me when I was looking for a way out of the rat race in Dallas. About a week after I arrived, the friends I’m staying with hosted a picnic in this ridiculously scenic meadow where a bunch of the brightest colored flowers in existence decided to plop down right there together and bloom all at the same time. So a bunch of people I’ve never met and I are in this beautiful place, and I’m having a conversation with a couple who are mid-50ish or so. They are both artists. I ask them what kind of art. I tell them that I really admire and respect artists and that I’ve never been artistic but wish I was. The woman said, “that’s just the story you tell yourself.”
Since I’m living here rent free and being fed some really damn fine food in the process, I do projects around the house and gardens; I help keep the house tidy; I play with the kids (9 year old boy, 5 year old girl, and a newborn about to pop out at literally any moment); I run errands. Whatever needs to be done, I try to earn my keep by doing it. As I’ve been learning about gardening and performing such brainy tasks as “fill wheelbarrow with dirt via shovel, walk wheelbarrow downhill, dump dirt in greenhouse, push wheelbarrow uphill, repeat” and “water plants,” I’ve been reminded by just how un-handy and downright dainty I am. Whenever I get dirt on my hands (constantly), all I can think about is taking a shower. When I truck the dirt up and down the hill, I pray to the hand model gods that I don’t develop callouses. I’m about as useful as a bucket of wet hair when a wheel inevitably comes loose or the water spigot won’t turn off. I was confessing all of this to my hosts one night. The guy says, “You’ve told yourself you’re not good at this kind of stuff, and so you’ve become your story.”
I came here without a single book, having sold all 300-something of them previously. I was eager to check out the home bookshelf, and have been hungrily making my way through it. “Move Into Life” by Anat Baniel was one of the books I was drawn to. Its basic premise is that the brain creates tons of new pathways when we are children, but, once we learn things to a point we feel is sufficient, our brains will fall into patterns because doing so makes life a lot easier (think, for example, if you had to re-learn to drive every time you got in the car). These shortcuts become our life stories, and right now you can probably think of a dozen examples relevant to your life. For myself, I know that I do not like to run, I’m not good at math, I will pick every onion I see out of my food (and curse the person who put them there, because I sure as shit didn’t!), and I cannot begin to fathom how people can text and drive (not in the “how dare they!” way, although, “how dare they!,” but in the “how is it humanly possible to be able to pull off such a feat of coordination?” way). I also know that I was raised by my great-grandmother which is apparently super rare, I am intelligent and enjoy debate and discussion, I get bored with routines and like to change things up often, and I enjoy traveling and cooking and eating and all three at the same time. These are some of my life stories.
When we tell other people about ourselves, we are also telling ourselves about ourselves. We are opening and closing doors, attracting and repelling, describing and manipulating. When we define ourselves by our history, we limit the possibilities of our present. When we define ourselves by our future (what we hope to be), we are telling ourselves that we aren’t yet good enough. When we say “I can’t play guitar” or “I’m not very good at crossword puzzles” we are engaging in story-telling, and we are limiting our potential at those tasks. When we realize that everything we say has power, we can harness that power.
So, the lady who I mentioned earlier, the artist. She recommended that, instead of saying “I’m not artistic,” trade it for something like “I haven’t chosen to explore my artistic side.” I liked that a lot.
I’m reminded of this nice little anecdote about an elderly blind woman who was being moved into a retirement community. Her son walks her around the room, acquainting her with the new space and describing the beauty of the room (maybe exaggerating a tad in the process). The woman, still gripping his arm, says “honey, you don’t have to try to make me like the place. I decided to like it before I ever got here.”
My challenge, as I face the world as a 32 year old, is to be mindful of the power of story-telling. My commitment, to begin my story anew each day; history cannot define me and the future cannot control me. I am here, right now, and now is the most important time that ever was or will be. What a gift!