Monday, June 16, 2014

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

This morning I shredded a bread roll and scattered crumbs for the birds. I would like to say these were the beautiful exotic birds that take my breath when I spot them. No, these were common mourning doves, omnipresent sparrows and one tenate, a grackle with blackbird manners and a shrill whistle that could cut glass. 

            The tenate would grab a hunk of bread, stamp it underfoot, marking it for his own. Then she’d dive in for a different (The grass is always greener!) piece while a sparrow swiped the original chunk. The doves were so busy chasing off relatives that nobody got much. The sparrows moved about with vacuum mouths. 

            “O, the stories we tell ourselves,” I thought. The tenate: “If I brand it with my foot, it is mine,” totally ignoring the little thieves and rustlers. The doves: “If I can keep my brothers from getting any, there will be more for me.”  The unobtrusive sparrows clean house.

            Being unable to walk, housebound for a couple weeks, has given me time to contemplate my own stories; stories born of fear and childhood experiences, stories that color or make my adult decisions. One story taught me by my family was, “You’re a big girl. Big girls don’t cry.” It is the same story as “Be a man.” Since I was the oldest, it didn’t matter if I was four or fourteen, I was a “big girl”. It never occurred to me to say, “But I’m a child!” I could never have forced the words out my mouth. 

            One valuable way to shed light on the dark stories is to face death. When I was twenty-three I was in a car wreck. At the moment of impact, I have no other way to describe it, I felt and saw a presence I identified as the “Hand of God” reach out and cup me. I knew I’d be severely injured and I knew I’d live so I relaxed into that knowledge. I never told a soul that story, having no desire to end up in Warm Springs. I wish I could say I walked away healed and lived happily ever after. Ha! 

            But the chink in my cracked armor allowed me to begin a life-long healing process, a process that began, appropriately, with tears. I cried with grief, with pain, real and imagined, with sorrow, with pathos, for you and for me. Took years to drain that well dry.  

            In the process I learned to quit obsessing over my stories and listen to your stories. I’m ashamed how often the person, of whom I had rendered instant judgment, was most helpful. If we only knew the pain beneath the skin of our neighbor, we’d drop our judgments and hold out hands to him.  We would celebrate together every forward step. 

            Life is a bag of mixed greens. Some bitter, some tender, some tough. I love the stories that have segued into urban legends. When my daughter was born, my mother-in-law, in all seriousness, said, “Keep the cat outdoors. She’ll jump into the baby’s cradle and suck away her breath.” 

            The idea startled me but, in respect, I kept Siam outdoors when Grandma Rose visited. 

Someone I know swears this story is true. A man died from filling his bedroom with his own gaseous emissions. (His wife might have been who died.)  

Most of us grew up believing that earwigs crawl into our ears and eat out our brains. Isn’t that a fun thought? Tell me you haven’t entertained it on at least one of your sleepless nights! If you haven’t, you will, now that I’ve told you. 

When I got to Mexico, I was told, nay, ordered to dispose of my bathroom tissue in the waste basket, not the toilet, because the paper would plug up the pipes. Inwardly I rolled my eyes, but did not argue. Nor did I quit flushing my paper. I filed the story away until I heard it again. Careful questioning revealed the origins of this legend. When the City built a modern sewage system and outlawed backyard privies, the newspaper or thick gray paper used to wrap fruit, no surprise, plugged the system. Like our Monkey Ward catalog pages in our own transition times. 

Now, of course, everyone uses modern tissue, but “Mom said,” and what Mom said, lives forever and gets passed down the generations.  

Most of the stories we tell ourselves, whether funny or pathetic, can be traced back to family experiences or youthful events. And we often go a lifetime without questioning the origins of our beliefs. 

So I strive to dig those earwigs out of my ears. Listen with compassion to my neighbor’s stories. Question my own stories. Take my foot off the breadcrumb. Cry a little. Laugh a lot.  

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
May 15, 2014

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
May 15, 2014

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