What's in a Story? #8

By Anne Marie Coughlin

Published: 2020-05-26

When I was a kid my sister and I would get up early every morning and set out to an overgrown orchard that grew near our house. Each of us would head to our favourite tree, take off our shoes, and climb. Climbing trees barefoot was the best way to ensure a steady hold and demonstrated to each other our Mowgli-like abilities.

My sister, being the better climber, would always get higher than me. “I’m heading to the attic”, she would announce as she shimmied through branches to the highest possible climbing point. “I like the living room better”, I would rationalize as I kept to what felt like a much safer height.

As the day and my courage grew, I would slowly make my way to the top of the tree where my sister and I would claim reign over all we could see. All day we would move through the old trees and gorge ourselves on wormy under-ripened apples until our stomachs cramped. We stayed in those trees until supper time when old man Smith who lived in the house beside the orchard came out with a BB gun and chased us away.

Actually… in truth, it wasn’t every morning. It was just a handful of times that we ventured into that old orchard. And Mowgli made it look much easier than it was. Our attempt to climb barefoot didn’t last very long. The “attic” my sister was so adept at reaching was only about 8 feet off the ground and while we did tend to eat a lot of green apples, we didn’t stay out all day, it was more like an hour or two. Oh, and Old man Smith had long been dead by the time my sister and I had got there. Our over dramatized vision of him was more likely a shadow and a good dose of imagination. Yet this is a story that has stayed with both my sister and I our whole lives. We have told it over and over again each time reminding each other of our own strength, resiliency and adventurous spirit. It is a story from our childhood that, in part, has helped shape who we believe we are.

My entire life has been made up of different stories that I have consciously and unconsciously collected and curated to create what I have come to believe about myself, others, and the world around me. Some of the stories come with me from my childhood. Others were gathered throughout adolescence, adulthood, and yesterday. Made up stories that have been slowly stitched together to create the novel that is me.

Smarter folks than I could explain in detail where exactly these life stories come from and how they carve their way into my brain. But they are there. Stories that both serve and don’t serve me.

I have read enough self-help books to know that I am more than the stories that I allow to define me. Yet I can’t imagine life without them. There is something about the way we tell the story of our adventures in the apple trees that is both true and untrue. While the details get more and more embellished over the years, I know that they are a feeble attempt to capture in words a feeling that no words can capture.

While the apple tree story seems to chronicle an idea that has served me, I am well aware that not all of my stories are so empowering. Like many people I can easily fall victim to stories that reinforce my own unworthiness. Social narratives that define who I should be as a woman, a mother, a partner, a professional…. The stories I carry about who I am are neither true nor false. I simply believe them or I don’t.

For me the power lies in knowing that it is all just a story and stories can change.


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