BONUS POST: Narratives we tell ourselves

One of the most important things we are able to do as humans that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is reflect. We can look into the past and remember in order to make the present or future different. It’s how we learn about ourselves and the world around us.

These days, it’s all too easy to look back; in fact, there are apps like Timehop and Google Photos that do this for us. However, the narratives that are told again are not necessarily the important ones, the ones that inform our thinking. Often when I get a notification from Google Photos to “look back at this day,” it’s random pictures I took of my homemade dinner. Or a cute picture of the dog. Or a beautiful sunrise. But these aren’t the most important things we need to remember, to reflect on.

Oh man, was it that much better then? | We were left alone, we were proud of our pain

Fleet Foxes, “A Long Way Past the Past”

I’ve kept journals off and on since I was about 7. Unfortunately, the ones I still have in my possession that have somehow made it through two cross-country moves don’t begin until when I was in junior high. I came across my journal from when Aaron and I were dating and trying to decide when to get married, about fifteen years ago. We were young and it was a busy time. A confusing time. I literally felt like my whole life banked on a decision about something like whether to major in Spanish, or whether we got married in December or in June.

At that time in my life, I let myself receive narratives from others, and my own narrative was buried. However, at the time, I didn’t realize that my own desires and needs were nearly indiscernible. I told myself that because I was so young and inexperienced, I should rely on older adults to make decisions for me. So I took people’s suggestions and prayers and ideas and wove them into my own tapestry so I didn’t know where theirs began and mine ended, and in the end, I gave them credit for my life decisions. It was a relinquishing of precious autonomy and agency that I’m just now wielding back into my possession all these years later.

One the narratives I have told myself since going through infertility is that “I really wanted to be a mom my whole life. That’s all I wanted – to be a wife and mother.”

It’s not true. I’ve realized while fumbling through my memory that this narrative isn’t true. Not 100 percent. I think when infertility was fresh and raw, this was a comforting thing that I told myself. It helped me feel close to the only community that I had access to at the time: the infertility community, where people go to great lengths (and into great debt) to have a child.

However, as I was thumbing through an old journal, not sure what I was looking for but hoping to find something poignant to cling to, I found:

I definitely could be happy being just a mother and a housewife, but I feel like there’s this other part of me wanting to be unleashed to go fight in the world.

2006

For some context, I was in the middle of my undergrad studies, Aaron and I had basically decided we were “it” for each other, and I was really struggling with my decision to pursue teaching Spanish over teaching math. This was also before all parts of people’s private lives and thoughts were made public, so I had no audience for my writing, outside of the things I would post on my Xanga (take that one to Google!). There were some years when I didn’t journal, no doubt because of the shitstorm of honesty it would have released. But that’s a topic for another time.

At that time in my life, getting pregnant was not something I wanted: “Pregnancy would be the least logical thing to do… to amount to.” I think that maybe I had been influenced by my mom who wanted me to graduate college before getting married and having babies. It’s something she didn’t do, so when we were all 10 and under and finally in school, she decided to go to college full-time. And the hits “Get Married After College” and “You Don’t Need a Man” was the song she sang all throughout my formative years.

Even when Aaron and I got married two years from the date on that journal entry, I remember pushing off all the people at church and elsewhere who were clamoring to know when we’d start trying for a baby. We’d only just been married! Our answer was five years from getting married. And, kind of like clockwork, we started trying about six years into our marriage. We waited for a lot of circumstances to line up – no more deployments or long separations, stable jobs, having paid off a lot of debt, et cetera.

So now that I work through all of that, it’s possible that the narrative I told myself as a salve was partly true. But only partly.

I have to trust 20-year-old Elizabeth who was writing for no one but herself, to chronicle her life and feelings. And damn, did finding that journal entry bring some perspective and remind me of the logical, sane, conscientious person I can be who has a part of her that needs to “go fight in the world.”

Some years down the line, I will remember saying things like these to myself, sentiments that are far from one another on the spectrum, and realize that I met myself in the middle. Both narratives and perspectives have a place. Which begs the question, How do you know where the middle is if you don’t know where you’ve been?

Stories abound

From even before we are born, we are told stories. Maybe they’re bedtime stories. Maybe they’re daytime stories. Maybe they’re stories told to us before a nap. But they’re there.

It’s long been debunked that we humans are born as a “clean slate,” without context, completely free to be molded by our environment.

To say that humans are born as a clean slate is to discount our stories.

Which ones have you been told?

And which ones do you believe?

Which ones have holes, incongruencies?

Which ones make you feel warm and fuzzy inside?

In which stories were you told lies, maybe to pacify your curiosity?

In which stories were you presented the truth? (Probably not many, considering every human is a subjective, biased source. Maybe I’m just pessimistic.)

It’s no wonder that at some point every person goes on a self-centered mission to find out who they are. I don’t say self-centered with a negative connotation, either. Because it’s okay to center on yourself in order to fully actualize in the world.

The world now abounds with stories, and it’s gone beyond small concentric and geographic circles. The stories we’re not only told but participants in intersect at many locations, some unintended. Some stories are deafening in their details, trippy in their timelines. Some stories today really convince me that there is, in fact, a monster hiding under my bed.

My whole life I’ve been pretty bad at reading comprehension. Probably a “C” student, if you had to put a letter grade on it. I have a vivid memory in fifth grade when in order to answer a short answer comprehension question fully, I wrote in really big letters thinking I could trick my teacher into believing my answer was sufficient. It turns out it wasn’t.

I think once I was given the whole picture, I was pretty decent at parsing out the details, and I was (am) very good at making philosophical connections and inferences. I was also really good at math, and maybe that’s a reason I was invited to the gifted program.

I was a member of “Avid Readers,” one of the gifted/talented pull-out English Language Arts groups I could choose from. I wanted so badly to be like my friend Kara, who could read very fast and retain information. I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t quite grasp the stories I was reading.

For a long long time after that, I didn’t have much curiosity about the stories I was reading. Romeo & Juliet, Great Expectations, Julius Caesar, The Great Gatsby, The Jungle. They all passed me by. I knew what iambic pentameter and who Charles Dickens were, but summarizing or retelling the story were near impossible without help from my bff, Cliff Notes. It’s a shame, because from what I’ve heard, those are all beautiful stories.

My 11th grade English and etymology teacher, affectionately referred to as Momma Knight, spoke all the time about the human condition. Of course, to a 16-year-old woman-child it sounded very ethereal and esoteric, maybe something I’d understand someday.

Now as an almost 35-year-old woman, I wish I could go back to those classes and read those stories anew. While the context I was born with didn’t lend itself to understanding the plight of those characters, I have context now, and perhaps sometime in the past 20 years walked in the shoes of some of those seminal characters.

I’m critical now, of the stories I read. And more so of the stories I hear. And the most evaluative of the stories that flood my memories. I look at them from all angles, examining the setting, plot, characters, and conflicts. I provide evidence based on my own experience. And in time I will draw my own conclusions.