“If you prick me I would bleed stories.”
I was born with a head full of stories. Well, I suppose that can’t be true literally. Language acquisition must have come first. But some of my earliest and most powerful memories involve stories. Not the ones other people read to me or the ones that I discovered myself between the covers of books or in radio dramas, though certainly those were powerful, too. The stories that shape me even today were the ones that sprang from my own psyche, the ones that lived inside my head.
I would take them out at very particular moments. During long, deliciously boring rides in the back seat of our ’36 Ford. During less deliciously boring moments in school or on my rambling walk home. Every single night after I climbed into bed. I looked forward to going to bed, in fact, because once I got there and had dispensed with my obligatory prayers, the story I was living in waited.
I was the main character in my stories, though my circumstances changed from story to story and even my size. Sometimes I was only three inches tall and lived in my dollhouse inside the larger house occupied by my parents and my brother. Sometimes I was a full-sized girl, a much braver, a much more adept girl than my non-story self. Then I rode my burnished gold palomino, racing alongside the Ford on family outings. When the land was open and rolling we galloped off toward the horizon then returned to pace the car again. Sometimes I had wings and flew. My wings were very precise, not bird wings but angel wings. When I went to the community pool to swim I had rubber covers to keep my wing feathers dry.
As you can see, I did not have a dull childhood.
We humans are storytelling animals. Science has continually sought to explain our presumed superiority over the rest of creation, and one of the latest explanations calls out our prowess as storytellers. As far as we know, we’re the only storytelling animals. (Though I wonder if a bee’s dance might qualify: I got this pollen from the rose bushes just beyond the old elm. You have to be careful there, though, because there’s always a toad waiting and he has an agile tongue.)
But why? What prompts us across every culture to explore the land of “what if,” to imagine ourselves in another skin? Windows and mirrors, of course. We seek windows into experience that isn’t ours. We seek mirrors to know our most private experience is shared. But I’m convinced our need to tell stories and to hear them goes beyond that. A goodly distance beyond that.
I suspect we are the only creatures who ask, “What does my life mean? What is my purpose? Why am I here?” And we do ask. We ask and ask and ask in a thousand different ways. And our stories exist as part of our reach for answers.
Religions exist for the same reason, but then religions are in themselves stories, beautiful, deep, meaningful stories.
Another way to say that I was born with my head full of stories is to say that I was born struggling to understand, struggling to make sense out of the chaos of existence. All of us were born that way, though I suppose not all of us manufactured rubber covers to keep angel wing feathers dry as part of the search.
And since understanding is so hard to come by, and since knowing more facts often doesn’t bring us closer to answers, we search through indirection, through stories. Every one of us.
Some of us bleed stories. All of us use them to stumble toward Truth.