The Stories We Tell Ourselves

My demons are clever…because I help them.

I can turn anything into a story. I wander around here muttering to myself, spinning past, present and future events into stories like an old spider in a web. I make them beautiful, awe inspiring, and terrible. Some of it wanders into books I’m brooding on. Some of it I torment myself with. And some is just debris rushing down a swollen tidal bore. It’s creative, and it’s therapy. Stories reveal the essence of a thing, frame it in such a way or that, and help us to cope or understand.

I love my therapist. She has wild, white curly hair, an ornery laugh, and a dark side worthy of a crone in a fairy tale. Whenever I present one of my well-crafted descriptions of some personal demon or other, she grins and says, “That’s quite a story you’ve got there.” And we laugh, because I’ve given my demons an identity, a kingdom, power of attorney, and then carved my story in stone like a gargoyle on a cathedral roof. I’d be better off going in there with a finger up my nose. Because as any writer will tell you, no story is cast in stone.

So what’s real? If neuroscientists and quantum physicists would have their say, it’s not what you think. My therapist recently told me that when we experience something, the details of that experience begin to shift and fade in our memory after 20 minutes. Then our imaginations step in to fill in the gaps. Think about that. Twenty minutes. Now slap on a decade or three. What’s real now? Not that old memory, I don’t think. But the emotion around it convinces us that the story is real. Well. Yes and no.

Painting illustrates this nicely. Years ago, I was out in the woods and saw a trout lily blooming near the path. A beautiful thing. So I took a picture for something to paint. When I started the painting, I didn’t bother with the photo, I just went with how the experience felt. The result has nothing to do with that photo; it contains infinite impressions from somewhere else. The same is true of my memory of totaling my truck on a creepy wooded road in upstate NY, drunk and stoned out of my fucking mind. Or that argument I had with my mother about her meatloaf recipe. Just stories. I’ve long since lost the photos.

Trout Lily, by F.T. McKinstry

Trout Lily, by F.T. McKinstry

We live in an infinite sea of stories, alive and breathing, independent of time and space. It’s an open system, always in motion, always seeking balance. I read fantasy novels as a kid that changed the trajectory of my life and saved me from becoming a teenage suicide statistic. Were those stories “real?” Depends on who you ask. To me, they were. Not only that, those stories mean something different to every person who reads them — and they are just as real.

Middle Earth

Map of Middle Earth by J.R.R. Tolkien

Point is, if you can write a story, you can change it. And if you listen, the story will often rewrite itself…and then healing happens. I’ll end with one of those.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Rosemary Plant

Once upon a time, in the spring, when my heart yearns to grow things, I spotted a pack of rosemary seeds in a nursery. Lovely. I brought the seeds home and planted them.

Rosemary BloomsWell, for some reason, the rosemary seeds did not start easily; it took time and effort to get them to sprout. But they did, and one of them got strong and began to grow. It’s cold here, and my gardens are no place for a rosemary plant, so I brought it inside for the winter and put it in a sunny window. In late spring, I took my new baby back outside to bask in the warm, fresh air for the summer.

So it was for many years, and the rosemary got big, with long gnarled limbs and bark like a tree. It bloomed a few times. In summer, it lived on the back porch where it was greeted each morning by the rising sun. In winter, it took up the whole bottom half of the window. It had a soul, my rosemary plant, like sun, wind, river stones and healing mysteries. When I talked to it, it talked back. Sitting outside in the morning, we discussed all kinds of things. Beautiful things.

Last summer’s end, when the shadows grew long and the wind whispered of darker things, my rosemary plant grew silent. Puzzled, I brought it inside as usual, and placed it in the window. But something was wrong. As fall descended in the mountains, my rosemary fell too.

There was no discernible reason for this, as far as I knew. But I knew nothing, and never had that been so evident. I fretted, puttered, and despaired as the rosemary leaves, once grayish green, thick and fragrant, began to shrivel and turn brown. I combed the internet for everything I could learn from those who did know, and when that didn’t help, I prayed to the Soul of Rosemary flourishing in the halls of the Great Earth Mother. A comforting image with no shadow, that. It was like trying to stop the setting sun. Nothing had changed, and yet everything changed, until at last, without a word, my friend left me.

Baby RosemaryI did remember that life is infinite and her cycles never-ending, though grief doesn’t tend to care about such platitudes. Even so, I had managed to get some cuttings, which I put into water to root. In time — a long time — some of them did. Heartened, I let the pale, tender roots get strong, and then I planted the sprouts in a pot and gave them a sunny place by my desk where I can look after them. The plant still feels fragile, with strong places and weak ones, as if it’s not yet certain it wants to be here.

I know the feeling. But as rosemary taught me, some things must stay in the dark for a long time before they’re ready to come into the light.

© F.T. McKinstry 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Demons at the Bar

Swamped

“The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” – C.G. Jung

My life is falling apart.

Sounds charming, put like that. Imagine if you will some poor bastard, drunk at a bar, ordering that fifth whiskey while he drags his fingers through his hair as if to pull it out. The bartender is shaking his head with a faint smile. He’s heard it all before.

A better image would be of a sand castle being slowly sapped and dissolved by the waves of an uncaring sea. Cruel, silent, inexorable, years of it, career issues, health issues and the ever-strengthening shadows of my fucked up youth. I sit up here in the woods and write stories, talk to myself and the gods and the houseplants, and crank metal until my ears bleed. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I don’t want to do yoga. I’m sick of eating healthy. If I see one more sanctimonious, inspirational meme on Facebook I’m going put my fist through the screen. I sit outside, and my cats come around and sit with me, looking this way and that, alert, or sleeping with one eye open, as if they’re guarding me. They have a big responsibility. The veil between my mind and the boundless waters of the unconscious has grown thin and my demons won’t leave me alone.

Goblins

There are some interesting names for this process: life transition, Neptune/Chiron transits, clinical depression, dark night of the soul, desensitization and reprocessing, alchemical dissolution, and shamanic initiation, to name a few.

Let’s go with that last one. I’ve read quite a few books on these sorts of things. I want answers. I was attracted to the idea of shamanism, particularly the Northern European variety, and I looked into it. But it wasn’t until things got nasty that I went back and looked at it again, particularly the dark parts concerning initiation. This rugged ordeal involves long-term isolation, debilitating illness, dismemberment, being devoured and spit out into a steaming pile of cat puke by your demons (ok, I added that last part, except for the demons).

So after I shook off the chill, I thought, Yeah right. Shamanic initiation. I’m just inventing something romantic to deal with my crumbling life. But there’s nothing romantic about this. It’s a suckfest wielding one nasty punch after another, a testament to humans’ amazing ability to invent false bottoms. It goes something like this: “I have to be at the bottom, now! This can’t possibly get any worse!” Uh-huh, nice try. Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Feel free to imagine me laughing hysterically.

My man left me, just recently. Ah, the peaceful sound of another false bottom washing away into the sea. He moved in with another woman and they’re dancing and laughing in some sunny meadow of romantic fulfillment, or so it seems to me, sitting in my cave, staring into the void, issuing concert tickets to a never-ending flood of demons arriving from the shadows of my past. It’s like this dream I once had. I’m standing in the dark on the forest’s edge, gazing at a warm campfire in the distance, when something invisible comes up behind me, put its hand over my mouth and drags me into the night. Just like that.

Scary WolfI’m between the worlds. I shapeshift between fearing the wolf and becoming the wolf.

At the end of the day, I am a creative sort, and if there’s anything that will not be ignored, it’s that. This is a good thing. So I’m working on my next book, The Wolf Lords. I never sat down and decided to write a story about all this. It doesn’t work that way. I just wrote a story. But, ironically, it’s full of demons and the sorcerers who love them, all kinds of surly, implacable characters wreaking havoc on things because they can.

The experts say, “Write what you know.” Writer blogs are full of platitudes like that, stale little cookies we devour to fill the void because facing the void means dealing with our demons. Fortunately, when it comes to that, I’m not inclined to take prisoners. So I’m taking the aforementioned platitude to heart.

We’ll see how many of my characters survive it.

© F.T. McKinstry 2017. All Rights Reserved.