The Story Doesn’t End: What I Will Tell My Future Daughter About Love

 

Sometimes, I write letters, especially when I am struggling to find my own voice.


Little one,

I don’t know if you and I will ever meet. The universe spins and throttles about on so many different axes that to be certain of anything seems like a fool’s errand.

And yet.

You come from a heart-on-the-sleeve stock, my dear (at least on your mother’s side). Everything can be so exciting– if you want it to be. The graze of a hand, catching someone’s eye, your first kiss– all of it can bubble so effusively in that spot right beneath your lungs. You’ll feel like you’re filling with air and everything will feel tense and your skin will feel like it doesn’t quite fit you because you’re all wiggly with joy and apprehension and excitement about the course your life might take. All of this can be spurred with a small gesture if you want.

I hope you let yourself have that kind of joy if you want it.

We live in such a cynical, difficult world sometimes. We’re taught to “play it cool” or not give too much. The world might tell you that sharing your joy is a surefire way to give up your power at the table, so best leave it at the door.

And to those people, my love, I sort of want to say, “fuck that shit,” (pardon my cursing, of course).

The thing is, there are people in the world who see their love as the weight on a far-swinging pendulum.

You can hold that weight in your hands, let it sit there heavy and cool and close to your chest. When you feel it start to pull towards someone else, throw your balance into your toes so you’re less steady than before, you can react defensively. You can hold it tighter to your chest, squeeze yourself a little harder, assure yourself that the weight and power and shine of your love is still yours and yours alone.

On the other end of that pendulum is a throw-yourself-at-it-drop-everything kind of love. It’s devoting the entirety of your strength and balance to someone else, praying they send it back to you with the same force and devotion. You’re left tottering on your toes, waiting for the other person’s counterforce to steady you. As you swing the weight back and forth, you hope you don’t knock down too many bodies along the way– especially your own.

Sure, either of these is an option, I think.

But there is a magic in the middle ground, if you can find it. You don’t have to see love as this sacred, weighted object that you can only wield with strength and centrifugal force. You don’t have to see it as a shining thing that you lob at someone when you’re ready.

Instead, I want you to see love as a story.

By now, you probably know your mother lives for the story. Love is no different. Your story began far before you took breath in the world, as did mine. It began with me, your grandparents, and back and back and back. When you were ready, you picked up the pen and began writing your own lines. Your hand was unsteady at first, but as time went on, you started becoming more confident in your grip. You caught the mistakes you were making. You wrote adventures and difficult silences and laugh-out-loud shenanigans.

Love is letting someone share the pen and write with you. It’s giving up the agency of sole authorship and letting them wrap their arms around you and hold the pen too. Hips against yours, arm slung around your waist, you will let them nuzzle their chin the crook of your neck. They will kiss your ear and gently place their hand on top of yours and write that part of the story with you.

It will make the story richer. Little star doodles will find their way into the margins, and the story will become so much funnier and sweeter. You will laugh and cry and fight as you figure out the next chapters. You will both make mistakes. You will have big cross-outs and messy, ugly ink blotches that no amount of white-out can fix. Love will never be the neatest pages in your story. It will look like chaos if you want. It will be big and bold and ridiculous.

And it will be absolutely beautiful.

Still, just because someone makes an appearance in your story doesn’t mean they stay. At some point, you may realize it just doesn’t fit. Or they got tired of writing with you. Or they want another partner or you want another partner or the million other reasons love can change and need to be let go.

It will hurt. A lot. Your back will suddenly feel naked against the air without the other person. You hand will feel unsteady again after letting someone write with you. The pages will feel cold and blank. You will feel like you can’t write anymore.

Here’s the thing, though: You still have the pen. The story isn’t over just because someone stopped writing with you. You will still be able to keep writing. The magic of the story is that someone you love can rip out your heart, make you cry and ache, and you will still be able to get up in the morning and keep writing. Your story cannot be ended by anyone but you. 

I don’t know a lot about love right now, if I’m honest. I know I have a lot to learn. But the  lesson I want to give you is this: don’t stop writing. Don’t be scared to share your story. It will be tempting to set down the pen. The first time your heart is broken, you will want to hold it tight to your chest like that pendulum for fear of ever sharing again.

Relax your body. Breathe. Let the grief and the fear flow through you, and then let it go. When you look back later, you will love those pages you wrote when you were in love. You will have a fond, small ache for the people who wrote with you, even if you know they weren’t the right co-author. The pages you shared enriched your story, added color and nuance.

Forgive yourself for the scratches and the inkblots and the “mistakes.” They were just part of your process. They were the lessons that taught you that no matter how empty it feels now, tomorrow will still come and tomorrow will feel better.

And when you’re ready, love, look up from the paper. See people again. Look at the world around you and then write some more.

When someone comes along who makes you feel like you’re filling with air and your skin doesn’t quite fit you, smile. Hold out your hand and ask them if they want to sit with you for a second. You have a story you want to share with them.

With love,

me.

 

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I am still trying to write a thing. I don’t know how it’s going.


Here’s the thing: I like telling stories.

That doesn’t make me special. I’m a sometimes-writer and full-time English teacher. I have spent years fitting events into narrative structures: dynamic characters, dramatic tension, nuanced relationships wind through conflict and still end with a neat resolution. My world, most days, is spent somehow trying to craft something that fits into a narrative.

I thought this was just craft, something I did on paper. Then, someone noted a small, white lie in my work, saying, “You like making things fit your story.” It wasn’t mean, they were just making an observation. At that moment, it clicked.

It wasn’t mean, they were just making an observation. At that moment, it clicked.

I have been telling myself stories for years.

Nearly every relationship I’ve had is subjected to hours in the tumble-dry cycle of day-dreams. I take the smallest tidbits, find the narrative and fill it with so much hot air it floats away with the rest of my imagination.

My narrative habit has been curling its way through my brain, around my heart, and into my actions since childhood. A gossamer string, my desire to adapt my perception of reality– then manipulate that reality to my perception– has been woven into my life since long before I could understand it.

It’s in adolescent journal entries describing, in excruciating detail, the real meaning behind my crush putting his hand briefly on the back of my chair as he talked to someone else. It’s being sure that, when his “ocean blue eyes, like a stormy sea” (a line, no doubt, purloined from some bad fanfic I had read on the internet) locked with mine, it was because he was seeing something deeper in me. It’s embedded into the fabric of time I’d spend skulking around corners at school, hoping to “accidentally” run into some guy.

When, somehow, I would convince that crush to actually date me– with obvious flirtation, with praises and pretty words– I was still creating storylines for them that would, eventually, end.

Storyline: A young Mormon missionary falls in love with a Catholic girl. He proposes. She says yes. He goes on his mission and when he returns, they find a way to work through their religious issues and have a happy life.

In reality, six months after he left, the heady high of my first kiss and first love had worn off. I was sixteen when he gave me a ring. I was seventeen when I sent my missionary a Dear-John-email (we weren’t allowed to call or see them in person, or I swear I would have). He begged me to accept his God into my heart. I ignored his messages. I returned his ring. 

He’s married now, I think. He blocked me on Facebook.

I did this a few more times in high school:

Storyline: The midwestern track star who tutored me in math dates the unathletic drama kid after they meet in orchestra. Very High School Musical, before that was a thing.

He broke up with me when he realized our time was up. I threw a fit and sobbed some dramatics, though deep down I agreed.

Storyline: The fellow thespian, who I badgered to go out with me my senior year. We went to the same church, sang in choir together. It made sense.

In reality, we were both biding our time, play-acting what we thought love looked like. we fought, we made peace and we parted ways. 

This, of course, is natural for many high schoolers. As a teacher now, I see myself in so many sixteen-year-olds skulking around corners, hoping to bump into someone. 

What is more difficult to realize is that I didn’t leave the practice behind in my school like I thought I did. I see now that I have been weaving webs of stories and heartaches long past my graduation.


 

It is a weird, almost-archeological act to look back on old writing.  Yes, many of us find and keep memorabilia from past lovers (photo booth strips, ticket stubs, a napkin they wiped their mouth with after a first kiss and other moony tangibles of the like).

Words are different. Journals, emails, and even now text messages create archives that speak not just to the existence of a relationship, but our mindset while we were in the relationship. Much like past love letters my parents have, first-person stories of just how besotted (or frustrated) we have been with someone exist for years to come.

Unlike the previous generation, however, artifacts of my relationships are not hidden in a Tupperware box in my closet. They are strains of my old-self buried in my email account. They are left-over rice grains in the drafts folder of old blogs—just when I think I’ve cleaned them all up, one sticks to the bottom of my foot months later. Try as I might to delete someone (and trust me, I try), bits and pieces of past relationships are consistently available at my fingertips.

I look over old emails and the words still feel strangely foreign. The person in them doesn’t sound like me at all. Who was this “us” we created? It appears so strongly here—casual banter and mutual knowledge, names appearing as always-conjoined or pronouns notating the “we” and “us”. Don’t worry about us! We’ll meet you there.

It is strangely dissociative, and I’m filled with a sudden urge to figure out the mystery of the woman I have been these past few months who feels so distant now.

After a stable three-year relationship, I had a moving-too-fast fling. Maybe I was desperately seeking to fill the space left by my break up. Maybe I was overly romantic and allowed myself to get swept into someone else’s fantasy. Maybe I just went temporarily insane.

Some texts remain. Like the emails, I feel so removed from the woman in those words. She is more like a character in a story I have written than any semblance of my actual self.

I read the texts in her voice:

Meet you @ home in 20 min. Who was this girl who gave allowed a near-stranger to call her apartment “home”?

That’s ok, I just wanted to make sure you got home ok 🙂 Who let hours-long absences go because of a breezy “I love you.”

Who was this woman, and how was she ultimately betrayed?

He once joked that at least he would be an interesting story for me to write, but he ultimately failed there too. Our relationship ended with so much banality: he cheated on me. A tale as old as time that any good writer could have seen coming from a mile away, but I was so willing to accept his stories that I completely lost myself in them.

I read the messages, and then I realize that I was also telling myself stories the entire time: that I was okay with this “relationship,” that I had been okay with the break up before it, that the two weren’t connected. Even the past emails were, in some ways, stories: I was a girl planning a to meet somewhere with a man who didn’t particularly like travel; we were breezily headed somewhere that, in fact, we were not.

These past words feel foreign because they are merely images of the character I was in that part of my story. They are no mystery at all; they are merely chapters in my life now closed. 

The question is not, though, how to move onto the next chapter. The question is how long I will be able to keep weaving stories for myself, or if I will ever pause, look around at myself and my reality, and see and accept things as they are.

Here’s the problem: I’ve been weaving stories for so long, I can’t help but wonder what that even means. Even now, as I look at what I’ve written, it’s difficult to figure out what is “truth” and what is “story-truth.” I read the words and wonder how many of the choices I’ve made in my life happened because it was what I wanted, or because that’s what I thought, as the writer, should happen next. How many plot-line roller coasters have I strapped myself into, thinking I saw denouement at the end?

Storyline: A woman sits in her apartment trying to write. She is trying to figure out how the story should end. She sits, looks at the screen, sees the blinking cursor. She knows there is no one to ask for help writing the end. She also knows that, as much as she wants to, she does not know how to end the story.

She looks at the screen. She sees the blinking cursor. She waits.