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You are each the hero of your own story

Joseph Campbell
Here I am, in my fish earrings and being all mattery.

I’ve been asking my classes this question for years now. This year I finally have an answer.

Who am I? I am a story: Rather, I am a series of stories. Imagine, if you will, that we are standing together on the front porch of my little house. All the things that make up my life are in my house, but I am more than those things. There’s a story here, a story that begins, “Once upon a time, a woman and her son moved to Milton Freewater. It wasn’t where they wanted to go, but there weren’t a lot of choices. They had to move because the story they had been living in Gresham had become unhealthy and dangerous to their bodies and souls….”

We look to the left, and there is a little brick house, with a younger woman and a younger boy standing out back in front of a door leading into a daylight basement. Water pours out of the door, soaking the woman and boy’s feet and legs. There’s a story in that house, too.

Beyond that stand the burned ruins of a townhouse just outside of Medford, Oregon. A young woman and a baby lived there before the fire.

We walk down the front steps and look down a whole row of houses disappearing into the distance. As we look, we realize that the house next door isn’t the only one with water around it—a river weaves between and around some houses. Some stand in the desert, where there is NO water.

The woman and the boy don’t live alone for much of the time. Other people move into their stories, and tell stories of their own which shape the woman and boy’s stories. Sometimes the stories are happy; sometimes sad.

Understanding who my son and I are now means understanding who we have been in the past. It means knowing the stories in which we lived.

Understanding who my son and I are now means understanding who we have been in the past. It means knowing the stories in which we lived.

Me in the fish earrings, 2022

So who am I? I am the sum of all of my stories. I am also the foundation upon which every story in my future will rest. I build from here, and from now.

But what does this mean in practical terms? What does this tell you about me? Here are a few ways that seeing my life as a story will shape our time together:

I believe things should make sense. If they don’t make sense, I need more information.

I believe life has a beginning, a middle, and an end—but the beginning rests on the foundation of others’ stories. My story, in turn, will serve as part of the foundation of stories yet to come. 

Your story is exactly the same. What does that mean? It means that each of us matter. A lot. I matter to you. You matter to me. That just leaves one question: How will we matter to each other? Because we are here in this room together, our lives have become linked. What will that mean to each of us?

I believe that while we cannot control all of the events that find their way into our lives, we can choose how we use those events in shaping our stories. Joseph Campbell has it partly right: We are indeed the heroes of our own stories—but we can be far more than that. We can be our own storytellers, too—and in choosing how we tell our stories, we choose how we will see our lives. 

Have you ever felt like you were waiting for life to begin? Have you ever experienced something so painful that you thought your life was over? I have.

Again me

We can choose when we see our beginnings. And we can choose when we see our endings. Have you ever felt like you were waiting for life to begin? Have you ever experienced something so painful that you thought your life was over? I have. And yet here I am. And the reason? I’m a part of my son’s story. I’m a part of my community story. And now I’m a part of your story. More important, I’m still exploring my own stories. I’m telling my stories, and in telling them, I’m learning who I am.

And that brings me to the last point I’ll make here—The part of me that sees life as a story has offered me a way of surviving another part of myself. I live with clinical depression and anxiety. Those are part of my story. Learning to understand how those factors became a part of my story, and learning to understand what parts of my story help me to claw my way through those dark times, has been a huge part of understanding not just my story, but my parents’ story, my grandparents’ stories, and even my great-grandparents’ stories. 

 I won’t go into great detail here because I am quite literally writing a series of memoirs and a screenplay on the subject (I told you I was all about the stories), but understanding that part of my story means that I have a set of tools to offer others who grapple with those particular challenges. I’m not any kind of mental health professional. But I am the granddaughter of an amazing man who also grappled with depression and anxiety—and who also saw his life as a story. You’ll hear a lot about my Grandpa. Here’s the first thing you should know. 

 My grandpa was the person who taught me how very important one person can be in another’s life. He taught me that I mattered, that I was an important part of his story. He taught me that when depression and anxiety strike it’s important for all of us to understand that while we might not be able to “fix” those things (if we should even try—and more about that later, too) but we can sit beside each other in the darkness. We can offer a hand in the dark. We can offer our ears. We can offer simple care. We can understand that loving each other means that sometimes we go to dark places together, just so our friends and loved ones, who must travel those dark paths, don’t have to travel alone.

We can understand that loving each other means that sometimes we go to dark places together, just so our friends and loved ones, who must travel those dark paths, don’t have to travel alone.

and me once more

 And the payoff? The last lesson for today? No matter how very final those shadows may feel, they do not have to be the end of the story. If we can hold on, the sun will rise again. The clouds will part. The failed exam will become part of our story rather than our agonizing present. The lost love will become part of our history or herstory—and we will learn to love ourselves and others better for the experience. We will remember that we matter. And that others matter to us.

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These are not my legs, nor are the legs in the approved Potty Dance stance, nor are these my shoes. About the only thing this illustration has going for it is that it looks awkward and funny, and the legs don’t look hairy. Don’t judge. I’ll put in a nice car farther down, and maybe a bike.

So I’ve fallen down–or up–stairs three times in the last month. This has had me concerned. I mean, I’m falling down more often than my mother does, but then she’s a remarkably fit 84. Actually she runs circles around me on a regular basis. So anyhow, falling down and worrying. This has had me thinking. And then tonight, as I was limping across my office and standing timidly at the top of the stairs, worrying about my descent, I suddenly realized that I was falling not because I was getting old–is 59 old these days?–but because my body is inattentive to bodily things until conditions have reached DefCon 1.

If you’re a classy sort who doesn’t discuss body stuff in mixed company, you’ll want to stop here, because I’m about to tell you about the Potty Dance. I’ll wait a minute.

Okay, they’re gone. On with the story. I learned the Potty Dance in early childhood. I executed it frequently because, my body’s pee meter wasn’t a gauge, which measures slowly increasing pressure, but more of an idiot light, which, like the little oil lamp in my car, only comes on when it’s far, far too late. This system does not work well, and never has.

As a small child I provided a lot of entertainment for my siblings and their friends, who took delight in trying to make me laugh when they could see I was performing the Potty Dance, a sort of Drunkard’s Path path executed with thighs pressed tightly together and legs scissoring in a sort of circular motion–all of this performed with what I must confess was an absolutely transparent air of casual ease–I was just staggering toward the bathroom this way because I wanted to. There is still a story enshrined in family history about the time I staggered into the bathroom door at my mom’s friend’s house, nearly knocking her lovely full-length mirror to the floor.

Here’s the bike I promised you, because I always keep my word. Also because I love this guy, with his big nose and his clodhoppers and his fat-tired bike, freewheeling through life. I would never dare to do this. Again, this has nothing to do with the subject matter, but who cares? I’m feeling rebellious. Who says stories and illustrations have to match? Not me! At least not today. It’s a guy on a bike.

When I was a teenager I worked on a ranch. Much of my time was spent in fields where men might come driving up in pickups at any moment. Having to strip in the field (bib overalls were my garments of choice in those days) for a quick whiz was risky business. So how did I cope, you ask? Did I go to the bathroom in the outhouse down by the grain elevator at the river?

I did not. The outhouse was there for the convenience of the truckers, true, but none of us ever used it. This was because we had robust senses of humor. We found it hilarious to pelt the outhouse–which was metal–with rocks if anybody went inside. For some reason there was an outside latch on the door. Rumor had it that some newby had gone into the outhouse one time, and a trucker had locked him in. And then everyone stood around and pointed and laughed as the newby huddled inside, mortified. So–no outhouse for me.

Instead, I developed a bladder that could have doubled for a blacksmith’s bellows. I mean, that thing had muscles on its muscles. Halfway through my first summer driving harvest I realized that I was going all day–that’s twelve to fourteen hours, for those of you who have never drive a harvest truck–without a potty break. Nor was I performing the Potty Dance. How did this happen? I don’t know. I just know that during the summers I developed muscles everywhere, even where nobody ever thought to look.

Ah, if only that happy state of affairs had continued. I had a baby. I had my lady parts removed a few years ago. And suddenly here I am, performing the Potty Dance regularly again. It still provokes amusement. Now it is my son who takes pleasure in my complicated and gyrations as I stagger to the bathroom.

And now my feet are getting temperamental, going along for months, carrying me everywhere without an issue. And then one morning I’ll swing them to the floor, stand up, and fall back on the bed because it hurts too much to stand. My feet will have cracked in the night. Imagine, if you will, trying to stagger through the Potty Dance when your feet insist that yes, you can and should levitate.

But there’s another complication, this one psychological rather than physical. Like all new mothers, I was faced with the complication of having to wrap, feed, and carry my child using my hands and arms. I got very good at juggling a baby, a diaper bag, a baby seat, various bags of groceries, and sometimes a cat.

In those days, I learned to load myself up on trips between the car and the house. Otherwise I would have been toting groceries all day. I’ve never really broken the habit. When I can’t skive off completely and rush into the house while Patrick and whoever is riding with us at the time bring in the groceries–Potty Dance!–I Do My Part. I load myself up with boxes of soda, jugs of milk, occasionally the eggs when I’m feeling very brave, the bread, vegetables–you get the idea.

So picture me a couple weeks ago, loading myself up with groceries and juggling a large cup of ice water and a Strawberry Mist Frost as well–a Strawberry Mist Frost from which I had only taken two small sips. I got two steps from the car and the idiot light went on. I Assumed the Position–thighs clamped to the knees, lower legs swinging out to clear the gravel and leaves lying beside the driveway. I made it to the two little steps leading up into our pergola, stared at them doubtfully, took an enormous risk, and unclamped my thighs just enough to lift my foot onto the bottom step. I knew instantly that had been a mistake, but I still had another step to go and then the walk to yet more steps unless I wanted to spend the night under the wisteria bush. I grimly lifted my other foot, resigned to the knowledge that I would be changing my trousers in just a few minutes.

And then I navigated the walkway, doing a flamboyant, twisting rendition of the Potty Dance, tacking back and forth across the walkway like a sailboat in a strong wind. The sole mercy was that The Boy had preceded me into the house so there were no witnesses. I made it to the steps. My arms ached. I took a better grip on my Strawberry Mist Frost and my water cup, hoisted the grocery bags, and attempted the first step. I got my foot up on it, but I was off balance. I lifted my other foot quickly to the second step–always a mistake when one is performing the Potty Dance. I made it again, but there was another step, and now I was really off-balance. I lifted the first foot quickly to the porch, then took a couple little running steps, thinking, as I always do at times like this, that if I could just catch up with myself I’d be okay. I don’t know why I believe this because never has that ever worked. I did, however, realize suddenly that that idiot light had gone on for a reason, and it would shortly be going off again, whether I made it to the bathroom or not. I didn’t have a lot of time to think about this because by now I was seriously falling. I was close enough to the door that I smacked it with my forehead–hard enough to break the door jamb and pop it open, but not so close that my head couldn’t continue its journey to bounce on the concrete porch.

I landed on top of my Strawberry Mist Frost and my cup of ice water. I also bruised a lot of vegetables. The Boy appeared to see my lying flat on my belly, cursing into the concrete as the Strawberry Mist Frost soaked through my coat. “You need help, Mom?” he asked, because he really is a good and kind person.

“No, I’m fine,” I said even though idiot lights were going off all over my body at that point. It is part of my Code that I must get myself back to my feet On My Own at times like this. Having help would be taking unfair advantage. I got myself down there; now I have to get myself back up. Don’t look for logic in this–there is none. I clawed my way back upright, limped inside, and continued to the bathroom without needing to perform a single step of the Potty Dance, if you take my meaning.

So that was one fall. The falls before that had resulted from a simple arithmetic error: I went down a flight of six steps, but only planned on five. It could happen to anybody, I tell myself. And then tonight I stood up from my desk, only to realize my feet had developed cracks like the Grand Canyon, but had kept that information for a little surprise. I winced and rolled up on my heels–the cracks run across the balls of my feet–only to have the idiot light come on.

I hobbled to the steps, doing a strange truncated version of the Potty Dance. I stood at the top for a long time. And then I slowly, slowly descended, sideways, one step at a time, bracing myself on the wall. And I made it. I’m learning. I’m learning to think in terms of time since my last visit to the bathroom, rather than expecting my bladder to alert me that perhaps I should start planning a trip. I’m learning to accept my son’s arm when I go up and down the outside steps. I’m learning to stop loading myself up like a pack mule when there are groceries to bring in. Making a second trip is not a mortal sin.

And I’m learning to laugh at myself when this happens, even though it feels shameful and humiliating. I’m learning that changing my trousers in the middle of the day is not the end of the world. Well, it kind of is right now, since our dryer’s on the fritz, but I digress. Mostly, I’m just letting my idiot light and my poor feet remind me that I’m traveling through life with somewhat temperamental equipment, and if some things don’t work as well as they once did, other things work a lot better. I’m learning that it’s okay to be human.

And here’s the car, like I also promised. Here’s hoping I’m not feeling as rebellious tomorrow. I really do like it when my stories and pictures match…

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