“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” writes Joan Didion in The White Album. I was reading the book 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.