I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative and about the stories we tell ourselves. This is, in part, because I am a writer and have recently decided to switch from fiction to non-fiction. But, mainly, it’s because I did not like the story I was telling myself about my life.
Here is the thing: I have had a lot of crappy things happen to me: miscarriage, infertility, postpartum depression, divorce, and an episode of dating abuse that left me with significant trauma. So when I moved to town and met the Mr., I was really looking forward to leaving it all behind. But here is the thing about partnering with a widower that very few people will tell you: some people are not very nice as a result.
Since we got together, I’ve been shoved, had mean comments written on my blog, and been confronted at a party with someone wearing my husband’s deceased wife’s clothing to make some sort of point. I was taken out to lunch by a woman who brought along another woman who had never quite comes to grips with my husband’s wife’s death. The woman who organized the lunch kept buying her more and more beer until she was asking me about ghostly apparitions in my garden. I get it: they miss her. That’s their story, I suppose. For me, it knocked me back into a story from my childhood where I’d experienced pretty serious bullying by my peers. It allowed the greek chorus of She’ll Never Measure Up to get under my skin even though I knew that those espousing this view had met me only once, if at all.
I started to get ground down by their comments that I was “the other woman” and that the news of our engagement must have “devastated” my partner’s kids. I started to slip into victim mode, which is easy when you’ve been a victim in the past. I was starting to believe the narrative that life was hard, I’d never have it good, and that this was my cross to bear. Not only was I telling myself this story, but I spent a year writing a novel trying to make sense of it all, which only gave this story more power.
And then we went to Cuba. With the warm waters and the freedom of anonymity, I relaxed. In spite of the fact that we were getting torrential rainstorms, I felt happy — something I’d not felt in a long time. The Mr. and I decided that having a spot to get away to, ideally near the ocean, was something we both needed.
On a weekend trip to Halifax, we saw a property right on the ocean that looked like a lovely retreat. We decided to buy it as we’d recently sold down our properties when we combined homes, and it was being sold for about a quarter of the price of summer homes near us.
And in that moment, my narrative switched. Instead of Surviving Suburbia, I’d been Saved by Saltwater: two names I’ve used for this blog.
That little mind switch made a huge difference to my way of thinking. Last weekend, when I went north to a yoga retreat, I had a different mindset. I no longer shied away from being me: trying to hide my light under a bushel so I could avoid being criticized for not being someone else. I felt freer and more open. I was the slightly zany girl with the hyper-mobile elbows who had several baths and squirrelled herself away to write. And you know what? I was not hated – even when I had to ask every single person to move her car so I could exit the driveway in the morning.
I realized that what helpful people had told me about the unsupportive people was true: it was really about them, not me. I’d watered myself down to be this benign, faded, quiet version of myself lest I risk offending, and still they were unaccepting. In that moment, I decided to rewrite my narrative. I decided that I’d never again not be myself.
And so I spent the weekend journaling and figuring out who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. The universe is very good at providing you lots of wonderful opportunities to be yourself once you decide who you are. Where I’d had writers block, the ideas were suddenly flowing. Where my connections had been stalled, they flourished once again. Since returning from the retreat with my brand-new story, I’ve had two successful pieces of writing and a couple of enriching social engagements. I’m in the state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow.
And here is my point: no matter what life has thrown at you, you can reframe your narrative and change the way you live. Story is really that powerful. What is your story? Are you the hero? Or the villain? The martyr? Or the victim? Is your story a tragedy or a comedy?
This year, I urge you to make your story a great adventure. Start to write an ending so happy that Hallmark will knock at your door. And please, above all else, make yourself the hero. Heaven knows, the world needs more of those.