What message do you send with the stories you tell about yourself? My pen pals and I recently engaged in a swap-a-story project. The rules were to name an age, and then tell a short anecdote either about yourself or something you witnessed when you were that age. The other person would reciprocate with an anecdote from the same age. With three or four anecdotes, patterns began to emerge among storytellers. Here are three of mine:

Age 13

My 7th grade honors English teacher looked like a horse, with her big swoop of grey hair and her tall haunchiness. She had a whinny-wobble in her voice and lived in a trailer on a farm so she could be near her horses. Mostly in her class we memorized Shakespeare. We also did a lot of sniggering and note passing, and on this particular day someone wadded up a piece of paper and threw it at the back of her head. She cried. She sniveled and neighed and told us how horrible we were and how her life was hard enough as it is. She’d had it! We sat in stunned silence and then sniggered some more. She left the classroom, never to return. We didn’t miss her.

Age 15

Our ninth grade was the oldest grade at Bidwell Junior High. There was a long bank of benches at the edge of campus where you had to wait for the bus; the bus I took was always the last to arrive. I have a vision of myself as the only person there, every day, for ages and ages, which can’t be right (my brother and other kids must have had to ride too) but that’s memory for you. I wandered from bench to bench gazing out at the empty fissured parking lot. Tufts of brown grasses and weeds grew up between the cracks. When the place was sufficiently peopleless, I’d pull a pack of matches out of my pocket and go light the tufts on fire. It smelled really good. I did a few tufts a day so I wouldn’t run out of grasses to burn.

Age 21

After six months with Youth With a Mission, I returned to Salem to work and save up money for the start of school, and was renting a furnished room from a retired couple. Everything in the room was pink– bedspread, furniture, carpet, wallpaper– the drawers would stick because they’d been painted so many times. I had a bike someone had given me that I would use to get to my two jobs, one serving fake meat and cheese at a vegetarian deli in the mall, and another serving espresso drinks at a stand in a government building. One day my landlady knocked on my door and told me I would have to move out right away. Why? Because I had been keeping men in my room overnight.

What do you mean? I asked. For one thing, as you are well aware, my boyfriend is in AFRICA, and for another I don’t have any friends in this whole town* so NO ONE has been visiting me, let alone strange men.

Don’t lie to me, she said. We know someone’s there. His car is parked right outside and hasn’t moved for more than 24 hours.

Then it dawned on me– the leader of the campus Christian group had loaned me his car while he was on vacation; that must be what she meant. I asked her to point out the vehicle. Sure enough, that was the one. An unassuming Toyota. That’s my car, I said. I’m borrowing it.

Do you see what I see?

In these stories I appear as something of a loner, contemptuous of authority, put upon by the world, staging my small rebellions where I may. Now, I won’t say that these characteristics are entirely absent from my personality– they do thread through the growing up years, but there are many thicker threads of strong relationships, being a square (vice president of both the Campus Christian club, and Students Against Drunk Driving, anyone?), respected mentors, and more.

I didn’t aim for a particular image or message as I chose my anecdotes; I tried to think of things I thought would be interesting, discarding the usual stories of seventh grade back-stabbing in favor of driving away a teacher, choosing fire and matches over roller blading with my mom. I noticed that my pen pals each developed their own themes as well, and I began collecting two or three anecdotes from friends and coworkers. Men seemed to go for the “subversive hero” theme while women often went the self-disparaging route, with nerdiness or naivete.
The impulse to simplify and spin complexities into recognizable narratives strikes me as essential to being human, and yet it is so weird! I can’t stop thinking about stories. The stories I tell others about myself. The stories I tell myself about my life. The stories I tell about God and the world. The stories God tells me. I move through nets of stories, each woven with a different guage to catch a different kind of meaning.

I’m hungry for stories, if anyone wants to share any of theirs…

*Felt true at the moment, but not actually true.  Sarah was there, and we house sat together for part of the summer.