The Power of Stories

My life has always revolved around stories. Coming from an Irish family, stories are what I was brought up on. I was fed them as I was spooned my morning porridge and honey each morning, as my hair was combed in preparation for school, before I went to sleep at night. I would close my eyes and the tales would echo around in my brain, until they dimmed and melted into my own narrative. Then, I would finally sleep. Each story would be presented without much introduction, but rather as an organic part of daily life which tinted the mundane brighter and more colourful. They were placed alongside food, water and a healthy dosage of self deprecation in my parents order of things necessary for life.

My close family was and is, the least argumentative family I have ever come across. As children we would have the occasional tiff, but it would be over in a matter of a few hours, to be forgotten alongside the frogspawn we spooned from the ponds and left drying in the sun. The placidity of our daily life made room for fantasy, for the everyday to be transformed into the spectacular or the hilarious. 

My best friend’s family is gigantic, and habitually in conflict with one another. Arriving on my doorstep without advanced warning, she came to escape the drama which clung to her home life. Following routine, we would cocoon ourselves in a nest of blankets and gather various food supplies to in preparation for the night.  We would watch a movie as was tradition, usually consisting of a sappy romance we both mocked and secretly wished for. It was a necessity, even if we didn’t listen to a word. It granted space for confession, the words on the screen allowing room for those feelings we couldn’t admit in the stark, unsympathetic silence. A place for eyes to look.

I remember the feeling of the confessional box I was forced to visit as a child. The wood was dark and varnished, my bare knees sticking to the red leather cushion on which I knelt. Both intensely intimate and equally alienating, any words choked, thick in my throat. I had no idea what I was meant to confess, I mean, at the age of seven the worst thing I had done was purposefully spit chewing gum in my sisters long, thick hair.

Between the two cubicles there was a mesh window where I could see the profile of my priest. A man I loathed and who was singularly the most sinfully dull person I had ever met. I remember hearing him clear his throat, an ugly wet, mucusy sound, and the heavy silence evaporated. What came spilling forth was a story I had heard the week before about a girl who stole everything she could, cramming sweets, toys, money into her pockets at every opportunity.

I was told to recite Hail Mary and Our Father over and over, the words a meaningless chant to my ears, a punishment I couldn’t understand. Instead I recounted the story I would tell my friends once I left, knowing to describe the priest in full, to evoke empathy and laughter. The rosary beads were smooth and round as I rolled them between my fingers.   

Films and books are the place where I recede to when things become too hard to take. The stories of others, better or worse, soothe in a way that nothing else can. An escape for the mind. After the deaths of our grandparents, my family would always spend the next few months watching movies. They gave us permission to feel. Every night we would sit, cocooned in the velvety dark with our eyes pinned to the screen. Tears were attributed to the characters on screen rather than our own feelings, the choked sound of crying was stifled behind sleeves. After the movie ended we would clear our throats and pretend not to have noticed the outburst of emotion. When I was three years old, I watched ‘Black Beauty’ and cried for hours. My mother always said it was the most emotional I have ever been and notes that, ever since, I rarely cry at anything at all. It was then, aged three that I realised what another narrative could teach me. Stories have since become the media through which I learn, the thing I go to when I cannot understand. An idea, an emotion a viewpoint. If a story about horses can teach me about death and friendship, then the power of other narratives is seemingly indefinite.

Home is the cup of tea at the end of a long day presented to you without word from your mother, the comforting feel of fur through your fingertips, the soothing sound of a familiar voice in the dark, the smell of woodsmoke on a cold day, lying in your own bed with all its familiar bumps and springs after being gone for weeks. The small stories that only mean something to you. Intimate. Wherever I am, whatever stage I progress through, the stories I have been told anchor me to a place I at times lose sight of. More than a material space, it is where stories bind me to others, to land, to history. Memories. Home for me is a place of stories,  whether they be my own, works of literature or other people’s recollections. A fabric, untouchable but eternal, a tapestry of life.

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