I’m sitting on the couch in the living room, watching out the window as cars make wide soaring turns onto our street. It’s gray out, but the sky seems to be done with both raining and snowing for the time being.
I came home from my morning shift at lunchtime with the question looming: What would I do with the hours until 5:30 when I had to head back to work? (What should I do? What could I do?) I could’ve looked at my to-do list. I like lists. I create them, then they tell me where I am and what to do next. They’re a method of making sense, a method of self-control. Even my writing itself is frequently full of long, haphazard inventories. They help me feel like I’m managing, like I’ve got some sense of the scope of whatever’s in front of me.
But my productivity in many areas, including writing, has been low in the last few weeks. I’ve been half-a-stumbling-step ahead, rather than ten, as I’d prefer. That’s how it is sometimes.
So it’s not really lists—the nice, the neat, the orderly, the tidy—that I’ve been thinking about recently anyway. It’s stories—the messy, the splashy, the glowing, the inexplicable. Stories transcend our management.
My better moments in the past weeks have been moments of story-telling, when I’m talking to a friend and I think of something that happened two years ago, or eight, and get a couple sentences in, then stop myself, realizing what I’m about to do, and say, “Can I tell you this story?” And then, with my listener’s blessing, I go on.
And I’ll tell you something—when there’s no friend in the room, I just tell the stories to myself. I think of something a student or a cousin or a parent did some good while back and I launch into the tale in my head. When we tell stories—stories we care about—we do it actively, enthusiastically. So even just silently recounting some small narrative to myself, I can feel my eyes light up and my shoulders lean forward as if there’s an actual audience, my gray old winter heart rising.
I knew this, but I’d forgotten: stories are structures to hang our hope on. And I think this is because, unlike lists, stories are not entirely knowable. They’re positively littered with pockets of mystery and odd unsolvable detail, bits that call out our deepest human longings. To habitually tell stories—to others, to ourselves, to the wall, to the cat—renews somewhere in our souls the sense that we are perpetually on the edge of a very large story indeed, a story that we do not and cannot quite understand. It reminds us that there are plans much larger than our little lists, plans that will carry us in their arms, plans for glory and for justice and for grace. As Auden wrote, “Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.”
Anyway, I’m watching cars today. That wasn’t on the list. (And also writing. That was. That always is.)