The Story We Must Tell Ourselves. . . In 2017
Marilyn came out to the pool to see us yesterday afternoon as we lounged. She is the bartender and asked if she could get us anything. We said no. Probably in her late Sixties, she has a nice smile, and her eyes agree with her smile. She says that if we get bored she has plenty of stories to tell. We laugh and go back to our reading as she slowly returns to the bar, navigating the pool, a slight shuffle in her walk in uncomely black brogans.
Juliana and I were admiring the colors in California, now nearly two years ago, the adobe walls of the building juxtaposed with the green of the trees and the crisp blue sky. A bluejay lands on the tree, weaves among its needles, and leaves, flying up and over the wall. I close my eyes and nearly doze.
But Marilyn is back, and though unbidden she has a story to tell. It's about her prized 29-year old Mustang convertible, and she gives us the details of its horsepower and longevity, about how the air conditioning lasted 23 years before failing, and how the transmission was fine until recently when she had to drive it in first gear all the way to the dealership. She has pictures, several, that she takes out of an envelope one by one and shows us, and they depict the car posed in her driveway, with a background of modest Sixties era tract houses that look like those in which Kevin and Winnie live in The Wonder Years. She even wrote to the CEO of Ford Motor Company about her car, and he wrote back, and Alan (she is on a first name basis with him) is quite amazed at the longevity of her Mustang.
Marilyn said she tired of a stick shift and asked her son, Cory, to help her buy an automatic, as he drives down from Fremont to see her every week, and he made a very good deal on a Hyundai. She loves the car. She shows us its picture. She told us how she was stopped by a policeman after going through a yellow light, and how he let her go, telling her to "hold it down." He asked her where she worked, and she said she tended the bar at The Westin, and he said he didn’t go to bars like that, and she thought I don’t go to bars like you go to either, and he waved her on. She told us with some distress how her car was leaking oil and she had to have it towed from the hotel parking lot the other night, and how she couldn't believe that would happen to a new car. She couldn’t believe that could happen and she hoped it would be ok.
But we were thinking about how her son must mean the world to her. She did not mention a husband. Maybe he died, or maybe she is divorced, but she has Cory. And her Mustang. And a leaking Hyundai.
At the pool under a California sun I'm reading a 1979 book of essays by Joan Didion, called The White Album, all because of the first sentence: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." It's a provocative statement, as it made me wonder what stories I am telling myself. Oh, I know the right answer, the Sunday School answer, the one theologian D. Martin Lloyd Jones gave, that we are to preach the Gospel to ourselves, the narrative of grace, and yet there are times when the little stories that wind through my head begin to collectively stage a coup d'état on that truth, when a story laced by doubt begins to impinge. Times like that I have to start over again, like when you forget to say "Mother may I?" and, reluctantly, because you forgot, because you know better, in spite of the fact that you know how the story goes, you have to go back to start, kicking at the dirt, anxious to get on with it, and begin again.
So, lying in bed in the early morning hours, when doubt circles and weaves its tale of disappointment, frustration, or impatience, when I ache from lying too long or from the broken record of seemingly unanswered prayers (or at least ones not answered the way I like), I stretch my hands upward to take hold of a story that is bigger, better, and bolder than all the fiction that I'm entertaining, the one that says "In the beginning, God created,” the one that says "for God so loved the world [and me] that he gave his only son," and the one that says “death shall be no more” --- chapter headings in a great saga of redemption, in the little story of me. I have to take hold of that story every morning, as I may lose it during the day.
But I don't know what story Marilyn is telling herself. Maybe it's a nostalgic one she relives when she drives her red Mustang up the 101, one about youth and about the "wild" spirit she remains. Or maybe it's one told vicariously through her one and only son to whom she clings after being cast off by a husband who simply moved on. I don't know. But I do know that I was too self-indulgent, too begrudging of my time, too wedded to my book to offer her one single photograph from the album of my life, one scene from a narrative that makes sense of it all, a snapshot of the Only Begotten on the move.
But then the sun went behind the building, and a chill entered the air. And Joan Didion, who is a masterful recorder of stories and cataloguer of places, and who is confused and anxious, is telling me of her life with her husband and child in the Bohemian Los Angeles culture of the late Sixties, and yet, reflecting on the disparate images of those years, she concludes with the hopelessness that "writing has not helped me see what it all means." She says that life seemed to be "a story without a narrative." For all her powers of perception, she sees but through a glass, darkly, barely. It is, as poet Joan Kenyon says, "otherwise." And it is, for Marilyn and Joan Didion, a tale still unfolding, one which, God willing, may yet surprise.
What story will you tell yourself in 2017? Let it be a narrative of Gospel hope, of a God who came and remains and who is doing a new thing every day. When you doubt, reach up for something solid, for the God With Us.