On letting go of the story line

Pema Chodron, in various of her works, talks about “letting go of the story line” as one of the crucial skills that enables us to stick with the practice of living, of being present to our lives.  I had never even heard the concept until I went to a retreat she was running at Omega when I was 35 weeks pregnant.  The retreat was called “Smiling at Fear,” which seemed like a good idea, as I had just left not only a job but a whole career I’d spent 15 years building AND I was about to have my first child.  I was working and working at the concept of befriending my negative emotions and I just couldn’t see how you make friends with a runaway train and I was feeling the old desperation rise up in my throat.  But then she said that about the story line, and how we spend so much of our lives acting out particular stories that we feel define us, and all of a sudden I could see it.  Even THIS, the process of wanting to shift something and not being able to, was a story line I was committed to.  So what happens if we let go?  Well, it turned out that letting go of that one meant that I could just BE there — in a beautiful warm room with two extraordinary friends and several hundred other fascinating people.  With a wise and holy teacher before me and another one inside me: that joyful acrobat in my belly has never since stopped teaching me.  I was able to breathe, to stretch, to sit in quiet and gratitude.

I think often of the challenge of setting down the story line, and less often I actually remember to do it.  But sometimes life surprises me.  Yesterday, for example, was full of surprises.  My 14-year-old car had been making some terrible noises, and I realized that I really didn’t want it on the road, much less carrying me and my two precious babes.  I had convinced myself that it was a clutch problem, or worse, and that now, here, finally was the repair job that would be the death of Hubert (yes, after the excellent bloodhound in Best in Show.  We generally name our cars after dogs).  So I prepared for the worst by doing what I do: managing for time and money.  We spent some time looking up used cars online, and I concluded that Tuesday’s lineup of meetings would give me only four hours for car repair, so we’d better the diagnostics done Monday.  I called the shop (Center Street Auto in Auburn, Maine — if ever you need anything, they ROCK), and they graciously agreed to take a quick look for diagnostics if I came in at 11.  So both boys and I “took Hubert to the car doctor.”  Twenty minutes later, they handed back the keys, having identified and fixed a loosening wheel (!!!).  No cost, no trouble, no major life shift.  Oh!  Look at that.  I had the story all wrong.  Which is reason number 2 for setting down the story line: first, it makes you crazy if you let it define your life, and second, you might not even have the right story.

When we get home, I gratefully remove all the winter accoutrements from our three persons and head to the kitchen to figure out lunch.  But there’s water in the disposal (which is the only drain in our kitchen sink and which, we know from past experience, has no main drain cleanout beneath it, so any serious problem in the pipe becomes a serious plumbing issue in the house).  AH, I think.  There it is.  Not the car but the plumbing.  THAT will be our major problem.  But before I despair completely, I figure I’ll do the recon I’d feel stupid to skip: and of course, the under-sink unit had merely become unplugged somehow.  Crisis averted.  Story line aborted.  Or perhaps there’s a different story line starting to form: maybe I am a resourceful protagonist who can sometimes solve her own problems and so doesn’t need to freak out about them.  Everything in its own time, eh?

It was a sunny day, and warm (upper 20’s), and we still had a nice foot of snow on the ground, so I hauled both boys outside after naptime.  The storyline there is about hassle pre- and post- and about crying over snow in the wrists while we’re out there.  But I announced we’d have outside time, and by golly we did.  Ezra helped me pull Malachi in the little red sled and went down the hill twice himself; he even made the lower half of a snow angel. Twenty minutes of enjoyment outside and we went in for warm snacks.  The sun slanted glowingly into the kitchen; the neighbors’ trees were all bronzed and rosy at their tips; the startlingly clear sky showed not one but three jet trails, brighter than light, converging slowly toward Portland. Of course there’s going to be whining, I thought.  Of course the snow gets in at our wrists, right where our skin is most fragile and thin.  But this does not mean we stay inside.  We try to remember that we will warm up again; we zip up and tuck in and open our eyes to the sky.

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6 comments on “On letting go of the story line

  1. Sherry Sims says:

    Love it! Twists and changes of expectations are so gaspingly common. I think also about the gentle slap upside the head of rationally figuring something out and then finding that reason doesn’t always apply. Or maybe an entirely different set of premises, such as your dishwasher fix.

  2. Ben says:

    Great post, Anna.

    • annasbartel says:

      Thanks, Ben! And thanks for reading! It’s weird writing when you’ve no idea who’s seeing it…and so reassuring and fun to hear from you, then. I hope the semester is starting off well!

  3. Resourceful protagonist, indeed. Just what I needed to read today – thanks!

  4. Such an interesting post, I love the way you write. I just noticed you over at my blog and I had to check yours out and this was the first post I happened to read. I am stunned because I have been talking about Pema Chodron all week with my brother, he’s insisting I read some of her books (I mainly read Thich Nhat Hanh’s stuff) He just emailed me one of her quotes. I think the universe is speaking to me again! Hope you get to sit in quiet and in gratitude today. I take it your from Maine so be sure to not do any of your sitting outside today, too cold.

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