The Stories That Make Our Lives

"Story is the vehicle we use to make sense of our lives in a world that often defies logic." - Jim Trelease
Jim Trelease’s website (original quote source material unknown)

Hello, my dear Internet friends,

I hope your summer is in full swing in the best way. And if you happen to be tuning in from the southern hemisphere, I’m sending you winter well-wishes!

In March, I wrote about challenging my expectations for myself (and life itself), “practicing my flexibility muscle, [and] balancing what I want in a given day with the reality of what’s presented.” In May, I reflected on the resistance I feel in the face of unexpected challenges and how “I have learned—am still learning—that instead of resisting, I need to embrace what is so I can decide what I want to do about it.” This month’s post feels like a natural progression from those two. Some chapters of life are apt for learning certain lessons or exploring particular themes—if we’re open to reading them that way.

This month, I’ve been reflecting on how crucial storytelling is to the way we experience the world and understand our lives. Our personal memories are often stored in narrative form. Our friendships are built on shared experiences, from the humorous tales we recount with glee to episodes of support in hard times, which stay written on our hearts even if we never speak them aloud. And when we go through something unexpected, we try to make sense of it through story.

Expectations can exist in our minds as stories. Scripts—or at the very least, loose outlines—for how we anticipate certain events or facets of our lives will go. I often don’t realize how attached I was to an imagined version of the future until life goes off-plot.

That upending of expectations can feel like loss. Loss of what we hoped for. Loss of control. We are the authors of our own stories, but we’re not the authors of the world (or other people). Story collision is bound to happen. Sometimes in a spectacularly serendipitous way. Sometimes in a painful one.

When that happens, where does it leave us? With a new story. Already lived through, but not yet shaped for memory. It may feel hard to hold at first. But once it’s in your hands, it’s yours. Yours to craft as only you can. What may have felt in the moment like a story of disappointment or self-doubt can become one of resilience and growth. Of love and connection. Or maybe you’ll write a story bighearted enough to hold all of it. Every shade of the experience coming together to form a mosaic. One that looks a lot like life as it really is. As Kathryn Schulz writes in her beautiful memoir Lost & Found, “We can’t get away from this constant amalgamation of feeling, can’t strain out the ostensible impurities in pursuit of some imaginary essence, and we shouldn’t want to if we could. The world in all its complexity calls on us to respond in kind, so that to be conflicted is not to be adulterated; it is to be complete.”

From one storyteller to another, I am simply encouraging you—as I’m encouraging myself—to be mindful of the narratives you “write” about your experiences, even if they never leave your own mind. Expand your story’s frame to capture the bigger picture. Treat each “character” with compassion (including yourself). Highlight the scenes of connection, meaningful details, and lessons learned that you want to carry with you.

Because one by one, your stories make your life. And you deserve one that’s been written with care.

xoxo

Marie

A Few Blossoms of Light in March

Hello my spring blossoms,

Whew. What a month. I don’t know about yours, but my March somehow managed to both exceed expectations in the best way and present challenges I never could have anticipated. Such is life, huh?

For this month’s blog post, I wanted to share a few pieces of creative work that have resonated with me lately. After listening to the podcast episode below, I realized a theme was emerging. The things that have stood out to me most this month have asked me to challenge (or at least question) my expectations—of myself, of my time, of how life “should” go. They have asked me to slow my pace. To work with the present moment as it truly is, so as not to miss life as it happens.

For me, that has involved practicing my flexibility muscle, balancing what I want in a given day with the reality of what’s presented. Little hassles. Major stressors. Human limitations. I had a day where I was trying to get things done, but I was only half-awake. I didn’t sleep well the night before (some of the stress of recent challenges was catching up to me). Normally, I would try to coffee up and push through, but I questioned if a different approach might be better. I had room in my day to be flexible. Might I get more out of my time later if I took a break now?

So I did the unthinkable. I laid back on the couch, pulled my fuzzy pink blanket over me, and fell asleep. My fluffy gray cat was purring on me as my alarm went off. I still had plenty of time. I grabbed a coffee, put music on, and got back into things, more refreshed than I’d felt all day—or maybe longer.

If that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

I hope one of the pieces below gives you something helpful to carry into the next month. If anything (a song, an article, a podcast episode) has made your March, please feel free to share in the comments!

An article: “I trained myself to be less busy — and it dramatically improved my life” by David Sbarra, PhD for Vox

I came across this essay while searching for articles on an entirely unrelated subject, and I have read it multiple times since. I don’t think being busy is inherently a bad thing. I also understand that there are times in life when we may not be able to take anything off our (very full) plates. What Dr. Sbarra is really challenging is mindless busyness. Being busy for busy’s sake, and barreling through an overstuffed calendar because we think that’s what we’re supposed to do. I think that even without removing anything from our schedules, we can check our pacing—and our expectations. Are we rushing through life, or are we living in it? Are we being reasonable in what we expect ourselves to get done?

A podcast episode: “Are Your Expectations Too High?” from The Science of Happiness

The Science of Happiness is hosted by psychologist Dacher Keltner, PhD and co-produced by PRX and UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

In the first part of this episode, Dr. Keltner talks to Julie Santos, who was born in Costa Rica and spent summers there growing up. When she visited just after graduating college, she observed how expectations—and an ability to celebrate anything that exceeds them—seem to be linked to happiness in the country’s culture. Her reflections have made me think, what if we all stopped to show gratitude when things rise above our expectations, even just a little? Could boring or stressful tasks feel less burdensome if we don’t expect to hurry through them?

A quote by Kurt Vonnegut

A while ago I watched a video of a lecutre by the late author Kurt Vonnegut. He shared an anecdote about his Uncle Alex, which he said he’d included in every lecture he’d ever given. He also shared it in one of his nonfiction books, A Man Without a Country:

. . . his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

I have been following his advice. It’s a simple strategy—reminiscent of what Julie Santos observed people in Costa Rica doing—but so powerful as a happiness checkpoint, ensuring that we don’t miss the ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary) joy that surrounds us.

xoxo

Marie