Friday, July 3, 2015

A Thread through Chaos

by Jean Roberta

My stepson is convinced that his mom and I are hoarders. He wants us to get our house, and our lives, into better shape. His – um – almost-girlfriend? friend-with-benefits? hires herself out to declutter other people’s space. This seems to be a trendy occupation because “hoarding” (formerly a condition without a name) has been identified in the mass media.

The two of them came to visit us, and I gave Ms. Declutter a tour of our house, not hiding anything. I opened closet doors, and described what couldn’t be seen (because it was buried under something else.) She was diplomatic, and said she would come help me organize stuff as soon as I’m ready.

At the risk of sounding defensive, I have damn well sorted out and discarded a lot of stuff. The problem is that more stuff comes into the house, and needs to be sorted. We have an old toilet in our basement, a souvenir of our renovations. It’s still there because the Re-Store (which claims to accept every stick of used furniture or old appliance ) wouldn’t accept it. We have a huge plastic crate full of Christmas ornaments, plus two fake trees that don’t fit in the crate. We have my world-class collection of wrapping paper, ribbon, and gift bags.

Back up in the civilized environment of our front room, Stepson continued introducing Ms. Declutter to our family stories, including that of my grown daughter, who hardly seems like a stepsister to my stepson any more. She stopped speaking to me and everyone connected with me in the summer of 2010, so I have not had contact with her, her husband, or their two children since then. When anyone asks me whether I have grandchildren, I’m not sure what to say. I have passed on my DNA in much the same way that a sister of King Richard III passed on her DNA through 17 generations to a man currently living in Canada whose blood enabled the dead king’s bones to be identified. I don’t have grandchildren in any meaningful way.

You must be wondering where I’m going with this. It occurred to me, as Stepson explained to Ms. Declutter why my daughter feels that none of us (especially her mom, the unworthy vessel that bore her) are good enough to be in her life, that we all crave a degree of logic and coherence. This is our weakness. We want to find a path through the immense clutter of our lives.

Realistically, everyone’s life consists of millions and billions of individual moments. Some experiences are brutal, some are funny, some are heartwarming, some are frustrating, some are boring, some are terrifying, some drive us to ecstasy. Our expectations are thwarted, but then life sometimes gives us something better, and worse. We do well-intentioned things that don’t work. We say things we wish we could take back. We form one-sided crushes that never go anywhere. We form mutual relationships that change and shift until we forget what attracted us to that person in the first place.

We turn our lives into meaningful narratives by emphasizing certain things and editing out the rest. Sometimes our stories clash with the stories of other people who have brushed up against us. I believe this is why my daughter feels she can’t afford to let me into her life, or let me interact with anyone who has heard her current version. She can’t afford to run the risk that her story about the mother who was “never there” for her (her phrase) might be challenged by me, or doubted by others.

In the 1970s, my daughter’s father told himself (and me) a story about a disloyal wife, a nympho slut from hell, a typical North American white woman who was constantly picking up random men to humiliate her decent African husband. This story literally seemed to drive him insane, but he couldn’t let go of it. After I left him, I realized that his story about our relationship would never mesh with mine because giving up his story would cost him too much. He would have to reconstruct his conception of reality, and of himself.

For years afterward, I had to pry myself loose from friends and acquaintances who advised me to go back to my husband to “resolve” our credibility gap. They were telling themselves the story that all relationships can be healed if people just talk to each other. They obviously had a high opinion of themselves for believing in love and reconciliation.

Two days ago, an elderly pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door. I’m sure they were telling themselves the story that if they just planted a seed of faith in my heart, it would grow. They probably thought I really needed the good news they had come to tell me. Telling them to frack off and leave me alone probably would have encouraged them to believe that Satan has a grip on me. I accepted their pamphlet and said I was very busy, then shut the door as soon as I could. It seemed like the only way to keep them out of my space that would make any sense to them.

Years ago, I dreamed about having a conversation with a stallion who could speak English. (He had learned by listening to his human handlers.) He told me that some of his friends had told him all about human mares, and how they are in heat all the time. He looked sideways at me (the only way he could look) to see how I was reacting to this piece of barnyard lore.

In the dream, I laughed and told him that wasn’t true.

The horse told me he knew that. After all, he explained, he was neither a fool nor a foal. He asked if it’s true that human females go into heat for five days once in every moon-cycle of 28 days. I said not exactly.

“Oh, I get it,” said my horsey date. “It doesn’t come that often, but it lasts longer, doesn’t it?”

I realized I would have to say something that would seem logical to him. “It’s not my time,” I said.

“Oh,” answered the horse, sounding disappointed. But at least we had communicated, however awkwardly. I could only imagine how he would relay this conversation to another stallion, one of his buddies.

I sometimes wonder how I might be deceiving myself with my own stories about my experience. I probably won’t get a clear answer to that in this life.


  1. "We turn our lives into meaningful narratives by emphasizing certain things and editing out the rest."

    I love what you say about the way we tell ourselves stories and the way they can clash with others. I would also say that many relationships depend on shared stories. For example, I knew it was over with my ex-husband when I could no longer swallow the story we liked to tell ourselves about what our relationship was and how it worked.

  2. What strikes me about this fantastic post is that there's no one correct story. No matter how certain we might be that our own take on the past reflects "reality", that belief is indefensible. After all, how could one ever know? Humans edit and emphasize all the time, unconsciously, on a moment-to-moment basis as well as when reminiscing. We have to, in order to function at all. It's natural that different individuals will select or delete different elements.

    Perhaps the key to a compatible relationship is having similar editing tendencies.

    My DH and I have been together for 35 years. REALLY together, since for most of that time we've worked as well as lived as a team. We've been through a lot, experienced the same things. Yet at least once a week we'll realize that our individual memories are discrepant, that he thinks one thing happened whereas I'm willing to swear to another.

    Another thought: perhaps the ability to edit the messiness of a story, to cleverly select and polish just the right elements, is key to being a good writer.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Annabeth and Lisabet! I've often thought that the way we think of our life-stories is a key to both our relationships and our writing. At the same time, I don't think the kind of flexibility (being able to see the same situation from different angles) is equally useful in writing and in living. When I'm advised to stop doubting myself, I usually think that doubting oneself is a key to sanity, and that I don't want to become like some people I've known, who construct their own reality to the extent of excluding every element that clashes with it, like someone who wants to live in the Middle Ages and therefore won't let anyone bring a cell phone into his/her castle. On the other hand, doubting oneself too much can lead to writer's block! It's a fine line.

  4. Your analysis of all these issues makes a lot of sense. And your horse-enhanced dream is priceless!

  5. Fascinating dream. I think it was David Niven who said he loved reading his actor friends' biographies because nine times out of ten they were a confused lot. As he'd been around them quite a bit, he knew when a story had been embellished to make it more hilarious, or palatable, as they case may be, and when they were downright lying. "That didn't happen to Cary Grant, he heard it at someone's party!" he said in his own bio. Of course, he might have been making that up too.

  6. Yes, we all process the facts so that they'll jibe with our own take on a situation.

    Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet is a seminal work using that premise:
    The same group of people at the same time and place from four points of view. I'll also join everybody in appreciation of your horse dream.

    A wonderful, engaging post, Jean.

  7. Thank you, Jeremy, JP, and Daddy X.

    I need to read the Alexandria Quartet sometime.

    My horse dream was an example of a dream that is sort of about sex, but it could never give rise to an erotic story because sex never happened in it, and I was determined that it wouldnt, considering the different proportions of a human and a horse. So many conversations between members of different cultures are like this.

  8. it was especially interesting that at the ending of the dream you wondered what twist the stallion would put on it (and possibly sincerely "remember") to his stallion buddies, i.e. "studs," i.e. men in general.

  9. Oh yes, Sacchi. You've nailed it. The horse in my dream was literally a stud, and much of his view of the world came from information he got from other studs. In turn, I was sure he would pass on his version of what all mares/fillies are like, including females of other species.


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