Telling stories

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” writes Joan Didion in The White Album.   I was reading the Seven Straight Nights: Candlelight vigil on the steps of the capitol by quixoticlifebook last night while I waited for my younger son to arrive home on snowy roads, reading it because I knew she would sweep me away from my worry and I could think about things like stories instead of all the disasters that could befall him.  

He’s staying with me for awhile as he makes a transition from one city to another, and this is the part I dreaded: the plunge into that low-level, eternal worry that all mothers know all too intimately.  The knowing he is on an icy road late at night in in a highly impractical car.  Calling me on the cell phone to tell me how terrible it is.  

I read Didion so I could think about writing and study what she’s doing that I like so much–I’ve been reading one collection after another, gulping them down.  She’s very literary, of course, all that pizzaz and conscious styling that can be annoying, but in her hands is not.  Last night, I read that line and my mind was off–what stories do we tell ourselves to make sense of life?   I am conscious, most of the time, that I am always shaping events into a narrative; the unasked questions make me crazy: why did they do that? What happens then? 

My son called again to say he’d spun out in his impractical car, trying to avoid a tractor-trailer pulled over on the side of the road.  He was shaken, but safe.  No accident, everything safely averted (thanks, I think,  to me sitting in my dark office before a lit candle to the Virgin of Guadalupe only moments before, offering prayers of safe passage, imagining giant, muscular angel wings protecting him and his car, a visual that was the only thing that let me sleep when they were teenagers and driving and doing all the foolish things teenagers will do behind the wheel).   He made it here safely a couple of hours later, vowing to get a more sensible vehicle on Monday.  I slid into my office, to the corner where the candle still burned in the darkness, and whispered a thank you. 

The story I told last night was that Guadalupe and angel wings could protect my son on an icy night.  It gave me peace enough that I could make a cup of tea and sit in the living room and read and wait for his arrival, calm in the expectation that he would walk through the door.  I could wonder again at my pleasure in Didion’s work, her very western cadence, which makes me think about myself as a western writer and what I might have to say about that (but not today).

All mothers find a story that keeps them sane as the beloved little toddler grows into a seven year old who crosses streets by himself, and an high school student who rides with other kids.   I wonder sometimes about the wives of soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the wives of policemen.  

I wonder.  Which is, of course, why I write stories like Lost Recipe, where a woman is mourning her sister for twenty years. 

What stories do you tell to keep yourself sane and alive?

PS  this blog is crossposted to barbaraoneal.com, which I will be doing regularly.  Not sure how this will all shake out, as that feels like a slightly different “magazine,” but I’ll keep you posted. 

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10 thoughts on “Telling stories

  1. When things like that happen I sit there and ask forgiveness for all of the wretched crazy things I’ve done when I was a wild oat sower and then I hope that my fervent repentence will make MY child safe that night. That’s my story. *g* If I’m really feeling the pressure I call my mother up and apologize. That normally does the trick.

  2. Barbara

    Eva, that’s beautiful!

  3. Erin Scoggins

    I love those stories of children getting lost in the woods who are found, safe and sound, curled up next to their dogs. My son’s best friend is a large, goofy mutt named Katie, and I am convinced that if he ever got lost, she’d be walking the trail beside him, keeping him warm and happily entertained.

  4. Barb

    I’ve always worried more about my son than I have about my daughter, for reasons I won’t get into here. However, what keeps me from going into a full-blown panic attack about him is comparing him to his grandfather, who is a wonderful and wise man – a hard worker who is respected by all for his integrity. My son is so much like his grandfather in so many ways, that it’s eerie. So, when I start worrying about my son, I start listing in what ways he’s like his grandfather and then tell myself, “See? He’ll turn out just like his grandfather did.” It always calms me down.

  5. Barbara

    I love that, Barb.

    Turns out my son’s car was smashed on the highway (!). So happy he wasn’t in it. Now he can find some sensible thing. (hahahaha)

  6. I tell myself love stories.

    Not romances, in the predestined HEA sort of way, but love stories of all sorts that allow my imagination to soar, encompassing all manner of emotion, yet that ultimately leave me feeling grounded in this world.

  7. Yvonne Erwin

    Oh. My. God. Barb, you’ve stared straight into my soul.

    Mothers and sons,who can describe that bond? It is unbreakable, unsurmountable, woven so tight it cannot be broken. When I read this post, again, I wept. My own son, my oldest son, Michael, is out tonight on a frigid dark night in January (not the first time) and I find myself praying to a God I don’t recognize for Michael’s safety, for him to return home, alright (not the first time).

    I identify completely with what you said because I’ve said it a thousand times myself about my own son.

  8. Amanda

    My son is only 3 and a half… however, I constantly think of the time that he will be the age of your son(s) and also my daughters who are still so young… and the absolute terror of it/the possibilities can sometimes take my breath away…

    I think I need to find my own Guadalupe (of sorts)… those thoughts don’t do well swirling around my mind! Better to have a focus I think…!!

    Amanda

  9. Melissa Compton

    I am so glad that your son was safe. This was a beautiful post. I’ve heard from a lot of people who did not like A Year of Magical Thinking, but I loved it. Perhaps because I was in the right frame of mind for identifying with her at the time I read it.

    I don’t have a son yet, but in our struggles with Lyme, I tell myself stories everyday. That my husband’s new therapy is working. That he will get better. That he will find the strength to keep working, keep treating, keep researching, keep moving. That I will, too. Somedays the stories are believable. Other days less so, but we are still going, still moving forward. There are days when the stories are the only thing that keep me from a full-blown panic attack, but the next day is always better…

    Thank you, Barbara, for sharing these moments with us. :)

  10. Barbara

    Melissa, living with chronic disease, with love and honor and any kind of sanity, definitely requires stories.

    I hope to see you in Santa Barbara this summer!

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