simply dig: thinking about the stories we tell ourselves

As I’ve indicated in earlier posts, I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how and why we tell our own love stories. And as I write, I keep coming back to a particular moment.

The night before my college graduation, J came to visit. He was not my boyfriend then. I had not seen him in a year and a half.

Four of us were sleeping in my dorm room that night: me in my bed, my roommate Katie and her soon-to-be husband Joel in her bed, and J on the floor in a sleeping bag. After a celebratory dinner with all of our parents, after settling into our respective spots sometime around midnight and turning out the lights, I realized I wasn’t going to sleep. The person I’d spent the past sixteen months dreaming about was in my room, and I could hear him shifting, still awake, the rustle of his skin against the nylon bag. Every dream I’d had about him been the same: his body next to mine under the duvet, his chin against my clavicle, the weight of a leg pressed upon my abdomen. And each time I’d wake up angry. Angry with the duvet for covering only me. Angry with myself for wanting him there. But then he’d written a letter saying he was coming to visit. This person who hadn’t even attended his own graduation wanted to come to mine. This person who I thought I’d never see again was lying on my dorm room floor.

I knew I should sleep—my family was arriving at eight the next morning—but instead, I stood up and whispered to him, “Do you want to go for a walk?”

We spent the night wandering the campus. He told me about his mud house in the Andes, about how he passed the days hiking through the forest above his home, about amoebas, about weeks of eating only rice and eggs and beans. And for the first time I could see that I’d been living in his past, in the life he’d left behind. What could he care about the ordinary world I still inhabited? The content of my letters, which before had seemed mundane, now also seemed childish.

So when we were sitting on the track sometime before dawn and he said, “I think about you, a lot,” it felt like someone had dropped a rock on one side of the scale in my stomach. And that mantra I’d been chanting—”Grad school in Florida. Grad school in Florida.”—just slid off the other side. It was the mantra I’d been using to steady myself, to remember that his visit was just a visit, not an opportunity to get distracted from the exciting new life I’d worked so hard to arrange for myself. But even in my unbalanced state, I remember thinking: this will make a good story someday.

“I think about you a lot,” he’d said, and I’d paused to take in the details: the way the street lamps warmed the fog, the unusual quiet of a college campus at the end of the term, the far-off look on his face, as if he was staring into one of those Andean sunsets he’d written me about. I imagined my real-world adult self one day laughing over a bottle of wine with my real-world adult friends, saying, “I really believed I’d never see him again, but then he came to visit the night before my college graduation.” I thought of the grandchildren we might one day have. They would like this story.

I am good at telling our story because I spent ten years selecting and cataloguing each scene, each bit of dialogue. I am good at telling our story because I have, for my entire life, wanted my own love story to tell.

Here an uncomfortable thought occurs to me: what if I have wanted a love story more than I wanted love itself? Or perhaps I believed they were the same thing, to be loved was to have a love story.

I have always liked explaining how I met J because telling the story allowed me to focus on his kindnesses. And when you go back to the beginning, when you compress the complexities of a decade into a ten-minute story, it creates a kind of inescapable momentum, a sense that a series of unalterable events has brought you to the present, to very moment you are inhabiting. And you belong here, in this tiny French cafe with two new friends, or in the relationship you’ve spent years building, despite its weak foundations. You belong. Telling the story makes that belonging possible, logical even.

In “The White Album” Joan Didion said that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But what if the converse is also sometimes true? What if we live in order to tell ourselves stories? I wonder: how much were the choices I made in our relationship rooted in my desire for a certain kind of love story? What if it was not only my attachment to him, but to the idea of us, to our story, that was keeping us together?

I’m not yet sure of the answers to these questions.

And then there’s this, some inspiration for the day, which reminds me of my grandfather and my uncles, and of my privileged postion in the world, and of what my friend Duffy would call my “first world problems”:

Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

Read the whole column if you’ve got the time. Sugar nails it. Thanks to Heather for introducing me to her.

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