Mining a fallow field for stories.

Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 1992

Yesterday, the Eldest and I sat on the damp grass, writing in our nature journals- his eyes locked on a story he was telling about henbit. But the henbit didn’t interest me, not enough, not really. I wrestled with the words that lay sleeping. The colors of the storm-drained day forced me to seek the life around me, to push against the temptation of laziness and lack of color, strain my eyes to find the green on the field.

I turned quietly to the Eldest for inspiration. His nature journaling was notable for its flow state. I felt suddenly self-conscious- the laggard in the long line of people excited about the goal behind the waiting. Why was the wonder absent? How could I retrieve it?

Nevermind that the attempt to control wonder- to force it to the surface- fails for its willed desperation. It’s the babies we most want to conceive- the ones that we intend to fit into the perfect plans for our lives- that give us grief for their refusal to arrive upon demand.

I remember lying on the king-sized bed and talking to my eggs. “Look guys,” I said, hoping the Eldest would not overhear, “your job is to get fertilized and give me that baby we want so badly.” Ultimately, the conversation ended badly. I didn’t get pregnant for another eight months- exactly three weeks after I’d given up on getting pregnant. Prophet, whom I’d hoped to will into existence, eluded me so long as my desperate pursuit retained the aura of a supplication.

I’m the kind of person that fears those moments in which I can’t find the story that ties the room together. Like the Dude, I need the rug, my woven waft of words, to anchor everything else.

The uncharmed moments- the ones that don’t “speak” to me- ruin plans and turn delight into drudgery. Like a woman holding a grocery-store corn cob, whose perfect rows of kernels add a foreign presence to the kitchen, it seems all there is left for me to do is to add water and boil it. But what’s the point of adding to heat to an unhusked object? How am I different from a tool when my only task is to push the right button?

Judith Herman’s insights into the transformative, liberating power of narrative resonate with me. For it’s not only trauma that requires narrative liberation- the cycles and rhythms of everyday life bud and bloom best when untangled through stories. Yet, we dread the presumed price of honesty, weighing it against our self-concept and pride. I assume being “myself” means being the self I have known and recognized for all these years. I find excuses to keep from telling the stories that threaten this static, unchanged self.

“I move to keep things whole,” Mark Strand reminds me. The true story of a self can only be a quest, a tale in which the protagonist changes and adapts, acquiring the traits discovered in leaves and creatures along the path. Being dedicated to a story about an unchanged self generates its own forms of trauma- the trauma of living in the past and never marveling over how those lines suddenly appeared around my eyes. Under the circumstances, all that matters is getting rid of those lines that make me look “older”. Being physically “young” becomes part of the story I tell about the past self, the only one I can love enough to narrate.

“I move to keep things whole.”

So read my nature journal entry for yesterday’s 45-minute observation period. The Eldest covered four pages, front and back, with scribbles and scrawls about sapsucker marks on trees and the perfect seeding method of tulip trees. I settled for six words.

But those six words reminded me of the story I continue to observe in the social ecology of American family life- a story woven of many strands, one that looks different enough to obscure the shared loom, the common threads. Maybe the only stories worth telling are the ones that lead us into a livable present. Maybe the only wonder worth engaging is the kind that creeps up on us, uninvited, and reveals the leaf miner at the heart of the leaf.

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