On Storytelling, Moving Through Grief & Love


Agnes Martin, Unbeckoning Grass, 1958, oil on canvas, 40" x 40" (101.6 cm x 101.6 cm) © 2019 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


“And now you'll be telling stories of my coming back and they won't be false, and they won't be true but they'll be real.” - Mary Oliver

When I went through my last big heartbreak, a couple of years before I met my current partner, I found myself at a crossroads in my grief.


That break-up wasn’t anything spectacular for me. It was a rhythm I knew well. All my previous relationships had ended in the same way, and I laughed in the face of my ex-lover, who felt he was so unique and original. I didn’t mourn him as much as I began to mourn the version of myself I knew I had to lay to rest - she wasn’t serving me, and she definitely wasn’t serving my heart.


I knew I was on the brink of something, and the next steps I took would lead to one of two outcomes.


The brink I balanced on at that time in my life would either be a downfall, into the depths of hate and pessimism, a pathway to a closed heart. Or it could be a lifting up, a falling away from the old narratives that encircled me, and a new way forward with a heart that looked at the possibilities of love with hope.


I inevitably chose hope. And of all the things that led me there, it was one night of gin, a Taylor Swift song, the fella over there with the hella good hair, and a parting gift of a cat-printed lighter purchased from the 24/7 newsagents at five in the morning.


That’s a story for another time, but it was the catalyst that returned me to the idea of stories. I knew I was doing matters of the heart wrong, but I was surrounded by people who seemed to be doing it right. I had friends in the thick of the second decades of their marriages, playboy male friends settling down with engagement rings, and university friends who became on-off couples after one night of passion welcoming their first children.


I hooked into these stories and did what every girl in her heart-broken twenties thinks is a good idea - I started a blog. I recently stumbled across the remains of that blog, a wide-eyed grin returning to my face as I remembered the how and why it came about.


The premise was simple, to keep my waning hope stirred, I began interviewing couples. I met with them separately and asked only three questions: how did you meet, what did you first think of your partner then, and what would you go back and tell yourself at the start of your relationship if you could.


I wrote up their answers side by side and sent the interview back to the couples to read together, capturing their reactions. There were moments of pure synchronicity and joy. Some of them hadn’t revisited the story of how they first met in a while. I can tell you it is a lump-in-throat-where’s-the-tissue-no-you’re-crying moment when you see the eyes light up, a smile tug the corners of the mouth, a lick of the lips, a bite of the lower lip, a chuckle, giggle or full head tilted back laugh, as the memory re-surfaces.


Hearing those stories didn't take me back to my own failed beginnings but installed in me the idea of a promise; that there were so many unlived stories yet to come.


I’ve been thinking a lot about those interviews, the process of asking the questions, prompting, teasing, pulling out the story when needed. Or being the willing vessel for the story to pour into, the glee some people emanated at being asked to share something so dear to them. There’s a slight voyeurism to the process.


Storytelling can be an art form; we know when we meet a storyteller who has spent time honing their craft. They enrapture us with the cadence of their voice. Caroline Hinojosa-Cisneros writes about the power of storytelling for survival across families and generations in her article for OnBeing, advising:


“This is how people survive. Story sits inside of the hollow conduit that is our throats awaiting its Nacimiento, its birth.”

Caroline also writes about her grandfather, an upbringing surrounded by folklore, storytelling, and faith. She compares the act of storytelling as akin to one of prayer:


“Storytelling is a form of prayer. The posture and attention we give to storytellers as they elicit feelings and induce our bodies to draw near is the same engagement we see when we position ourselves to pray.”

My blog was called The Other Side (as in, there’s always another side to the story). It’s archived now, but I still have all the interview transcripts stored away on an old USB after all these years. I’m still unpacking my thoughts around the roles and ideals of teller and listener, the symbiotic relationship that develops. Was I in prayer to these stories? I guess in some ways, I was. When we untie prayer from the religious roots we know it from, prayer becomes a form of devotion. I was undoubtedly devoted to these stories for a time.


Even though my blog never went anywhere, even though it was a short-lived love affair, it saved me in its own way. Those stories, the willingness of the individuals to share and invite me into a part of their lives, reminded me that at the end of grief is more love. That love surrounds us. And that even in my darkest moments, I was still willing to seek it out.


Those stories were the antidote to my grief, and helped me persevere through all the false story starts that followed in the years ahead. They helped me keep turning over a blank page and to keep beginning again.


The promise of unlived stories and the hope to keep seeking led me to the biggest story - and love - of life.


I keep reading about the ways we hold up storytellers, seeing others claim the title of the storyteller as something sacred and coveted. While I fully believe in the power of storytelling, I also believe we all hold stories worth telling - ones that dive deep into the full range of human emotion, from love to grief and back again.


It doesn’t necessarily require a platform or a stage, and I think if we all dedicated more time to realising and revisiting the stories of our lives - lived or unlived - we’d discover a great deal more happiness in life.


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