Tape & Toothpicks
I spent the evening taping strips of paper together with toothpicks. Together, they formed a tapestry, and the next day, I hung it on the wall.
It my senior year of high school. My project hung next to every one else's, and my teachers went around the room, asking each of us to describe our work.
As everyone was sharing, the tape holding my project together lost its grip, and the toothpicks separated from the paper. Slowly, it all began to fall, and within a matter of minutes, the entire piece was nothing more than a pile of cheap supplies on the concrete floor.
Everyone turned to look at me, ready to discuss how my project had just completely fallen apart. I was criticized for my poor craftsmanship, and they were right. As usual, I'd had my sight on the larger picture and hadn't paid much attention to the construction of the piece. I felt my way through it, taping and taping, and in the end, I'd done a poor job creating the piece of art that I intended to create, but as I watched it fall apart, I saw something far more interesting than what I had planned.
I asked permission to write an essay defending the destruction of my project and explaining how this actually made my work even better. My teachers agreed to let me do this, and I got an A.
I learned early on that just because something doesn't go as planned, doesn't mean that it has gone wrong. I learned - as they say - to takes lemons and make lemonade, and I did this through storytelling.
The original story I had for the meaning of my project did not hold together - quite literally - so I rewrote the story to show the beauty in the reality I faced.
Lines on My Arm
Eleven years later, I decided to get a tattoo on my right forearm. It was going to be my largest tattoo yet. I was pretty freaked out about this, but I kept seeing it so clearly in my mind, so I went for it.
The tattoo was an interpretation of my sacred geometry - the collection of lines connecting the planets at the time of my birth - according to astrology. The accuracy of these lines are dependent on the precise time of my birth, so I made sure to repeatedly confirm this information with my mom before getting the ink. 11:00 AM. She was sure.
One month after getting the tattoo, I traveled home for Christmas. My mom looked up my family's birth times so I could run their charts. In the process, she saw my mine: 11:55 AM. I ran my chart with the revised time and compared it with the lines permanently drawn on my arm. Three of them were no longer accurate.
I panicked for about five minutes, then I did what I always do. I saw the beauty in the misdrawn lines. I saw how this was yet another lesson - a reminder to not take anything too seriously, and to instead, stay open to new information and remember that even when we think we know things, we often don't have all of the facts.
And often, not having all of the facts is a blessing. It gives life mystery, surprise, excitement, and sometimes, by emptying our minds of certain stories (or simply never learning them in the first place), we are able to make far better opportunities for ourselves. This is because our stories shape our fears. And fear has fun encouraging us to stay small.
Monkeys Eating Kix
My freshman year of college, I was determined to work with monkeys. I was attending school at Emory University, which has one of seven national primate research centers. I knew next to nothing about primate research, and I had only been on campus a few weeks when I approached my anthropology professor and told her I wanted to work at the research center. She told me I should talk to so-and-so professor, so I emailed him to set a time to talk.
As far as I was concerned, he was just some professor in the psych department, and I just really wanted to play with monkeys.
When I met with him, I was very honest about who I was, what I knew, and what my interests were. I was eighteen and had no reason to think I should say anything but the truth. I ended up getting the position, and I helped teach monkeys to trade, monitored their ability to recognize each other's faces, gauged their capacity for empathy, and always, always rewarded them with Kix cereal.
I didn't learn until after the fact that this was apparently a prestigious research opportunity typically reserved for seniors and that this professor was actually one of the world's most renowned primatologists.
Had I walked into my initial meeting with the psych professor with all of that information, I probably would have been nervous. I would have had the story running through my mind that this was a big deal and that I was a measly first semester freshman unworthy of getting this job. My nerves would have won - as they so often did back then. But instead, I was blissfully naive. I walked into that room with fierce determination and the story that I was definitely going to get to work with monkeys because of course I was.
Nowadays, I of course do the appropriate research before sitting down for a professional meeting, but I strive to approach them all like my bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, monkey-loving eighteen-year-old self: like I'm just somebody and everyone else is just somebody and we're all just people doing things. Because that's what's happening.
I empty the fear story, strip reality down to its basic parts, and make things happen.
And this is the magic of storytelling.
Storytelling Is Alchemy
The stories in our minds shape our experience. They shape how we see ourselves and each other and our work and our environment and the world and everything. We take the basic information around us, and we pull it together to create our memories, our confidence, and our openness to love and magic.
Even when we minimize expectations and stay open, we inevitably still carry our stories with us.
We each have a story at the beginning of something, and every step of the way, we are given the opportunity to rewrite that story. When the project falls apart, when the permanent decision is different than what you thought it would be, when getting what you want seems impossible, you get to simply rewrite and revise. And that's the art of gaining control by losing it.
When you struggle to rewrite your stories and instead cling to old narratives and unmet expectations, you suffer. But if you can instead live your life like a constant act of storytelling, then you can consistently find your way back to peace, love, and beauty.
From the moment I learned to write words on paper, I've been writing, but it wasn't that long ago that I realized that I write to remember that life is beautiful. Because through storytelling, I can find the beauty in anything. I can tune into the finest details at the end of every relationship and the close of every door and find beauty and joy and yes, even magic.
This approach to life has been studied again and again by faculty at Duke and Stanford and more, and each study has demonstrated that writing and rewriting and owning your story is one of the most powerful ways to live a contented, happy life.
Catharsis through writing was the primary impetus for starting the blog Fleeting Connections in 2015, and it remains one of my main healing tools. To get started, find a piece of paper, a napkin, a journal - something - and grab something to write with and just start writing. Don't worry about whether you're writing is good or bad. That's not the point. The point is the writing. The writing and the rewriting. You write until you find the story that honors the truth of your experience while filling your heart with feeling and ultimately joy, and that is how you heal.