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.

Why Me Lord

My childhood was a war zone. I’m a poster child for a highly sensitive person (HSP – yeah, there’s a freaking acronym for that now) packing emotional trauma. Now I’m a seasoned veteran with a collection of scars I have names for. But hey, I’ve found my calling in the wasteland, and I write the sort of books that saved my life and mind when I was a kid.

As with any calling, we all reach a point sometimes when it all goes to hell and our calling becomes the stupidest fucking idea we ever had. Well, I’d been in that for a few days and at some point, I hit the bottom. Until yesterday.

It was a quintessential New England summer day, hot, smelling of grass and flowers, with catkins blowing in the air like snow. I went out for a ride with my husband. He’s a dark, miserable bastard too, but we understand each other. We got hot fudge sundaes and took them to a graveyard, parked in the shade and listened to Kris Kristofferson while my man gave me a tour of the graves where some of his kin and friends of the family were buried, complete with sordid details. It was a good day. And old Kris brought me back to a place I had almost forgotten.

Graveyard

At the tender age of seven, when things were bad but before they got a lot worse, my parents sent me to a summer camp called the J Bar J Ranch. It was right out on the highway outside of Houston, Texas. I learned how to ride horses, find my way to the haunted shack in the woods, and never to put my hand into a cluster of pears on a pear tree because hornets live there. In the mess hall, there was a juke box. And two songs on that juke box got into my heart and stayed with me to this day.

“Why Me Lord” by Kris Kristofferson. Feel free to replace the whole Lord Jesus thing with whatever you turn to when your world gets bleak, and you’ll get this baby in context. It’s the sort of song you put on repeat, sit with your head in your hands and sob like a drunk in a gutter on your last sorry dime.

 
“Nights in White Satin” by The Moody Blues. This song blew my mind like a portal to the Otherworld. I don’t know what it is about it, but when I hear it, my heart opens and everything changes. Or, I sob like a drunk in a gutter on my last sorry dime–but at least the moon and the stars are out.

 
Aside from writing, music is my therapy. I have a collection of playlists containing all manner of rough, dreary, pissed off, head banging music I listen to when I need to vent and go through the darkness to find the light again. And, because consciousness loves contrast, as my old therapist used to say, I also have playlists where the light shines, and I’ll close here with one of these, some background music for my calling–that is, when it’s not looking like the biggest cosmic scam ever.

 
It’s good to hit the bottom sometimes.

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