Tag Archives: Isak Dinesen

Bleeding Stories

angel

photo credit: Darnok / Morguefile.com

“If you prick me I would bleed stories.”
Isak Dinesen

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.

 

The Healing Power of Story

1-28groszIt was Isak Dinesen who said, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” And I have found that truth to be one of the most basic of my existence . . . and my career.

I don’t mean to suggest that I have borne more sorrows than others. Every life holds sorrows, and I have had the good fortune of having a way to process and grow through mine that feeds me on many levels. The stories I spin teach me, encourage me, comfort me.

Stephen Grosz, author of The Examined Life, discussing the ways stories can help us to make sense of our lives, says if “we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us—we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand.”

And fortunately, we don’t have to understand ourselves, through and through, before we sit down to write for our work to serve as an effective catalyst. Inevitably, our deepest truths will present themselves in the topics we are drawn to and in the resolutions our stories discover. I have always found that one of the best ways of knowing what I believe, what I am feeling, what I desire is to read my own stories.

If I’m reaching deeply to find my stories, not merely assembling them from the bits and scraps that make up my external world to try to impress some imagined audience, it isn’t possible for them to lie.

The constant work of my own stories has been to process and resolve a sense of abandonment. It took me many years to understand where that hidden fear came from, and even then understanding its origins requires some guessing. But drawing on the emotional power of that ancient fear has fueled stories from On My Honor to Little Dog, Lost. In fact, it has fueled so many stories that I have sometimes wondered, if I were finally to heal myself so deeply as to banish the fear entirely, whether I would have any stories left to tell.

I suspect the truth is, though, that healing doesn’t work that way. While I may feel less vulnerable in my daily life than I once did—at least in part because of finding resolution to that sense of abandonment through my stories—that childhood vulnerability will always excite my imagination.

It’s like my favorite color, a rich auburn. I knew that color drew me powerfully long before the day I happened to be unpacking a box of childhood toys and came across Tim, my beloved teddy bear. Guess what color he is. Of course, a rich auburn! That color was imprinted on my adult heart even though I hadn’t seen Tim—or thought about him—for many years. And discovering the well-worn bear in a box didn’t make my love of auburn go away. The only difference knowing makes is that I sometimes smile at myself when an autumn landscape of rusts and golds or a mop of flaming hair makes me catch my breath.

Tim

Tim

My dear old Tim continues to live inside me and to deliver comfort even though I’ve outgrown the stuffed toy.

And so I continue to mine the deep ache the theme of abandonment delivers for me and to nudge myself to move beyond it. There are, after all, other feelings to be experienced, other unresolved issues—even from my own history—to be mined.

Other healing to be accomplished.

What a blessing it is to live a career that both reaches outward to touch and heal others and inward to satisfy and heal myself.