ous with it. I’m certain, for example, that those of us who are
parents remain bound by a storyline within which we teach and
inspire our children, helping them to mature into fine people,
while also demonstrating our own wisdom and a;rming our
own values. But even as we wish to live our lives according to
the stories we try to tell about them, we also struggle with the
obdurate tensions those lives invariably present: their fractured
narrative arcs and rough transitions, glaring stylistic flaws and
troubling ambiguities, their tediously predictable plot points and
frustrating lack of closure. Rather than embrace the inevitability
of this uncertainty, we instead stubbornly fantasize that we possess infallible authorial control. As a consequence, the writing of
our lives reflects an impoverishment of narrative possibility — an
overreliance upon a limited set of plotlines designed to force our
story toward the denouement we most desire.
I try to imagine how the world looks to a kid, but I find this
increasingly di;cult to do. There is something about adult perception, however finely honed it may be, that struggles to attain
the sense of possibility that is instinctive to children. And while
I reject utterly all Wordsworthian rhapsodies about the angelic
nature of children — romantic nonsense that the odor of a single
diaper plainly refutes—it does seem to me that children possess the enviable capacity to imagine and thus inhabit a world in
which all stories remain possible, and in which any story may be
told by anyone at any time.
What if adults lived in a world of comparable imaginative
richness? What if, instead of choosing desperately from among
the half-dozen threadbare plots that Hollywood sells, we asked a
broader range of questions about our stories? “Do you know the
one about the man who learned to love his wife?” “Will you tell
about how the lady in the cubicle discovered that her work really
mattered in the world?” “Do you remember the tale about the
day the very old man played guitar for the first time?” “Please
spin the yarn of that father who, while splitting a bucked juniper
stump at dusk, suddenly looked beyond himself and witnessed
alpenglow igniting the snowy flanks of Petersen Mountain.” Who
knows what new questions we might ask, what new language we
might ask them in, what new answers our stories might inspire.
After all, no good story unfolds without surprising plot twists,
and no story can determine its own conclusion. Perhaps our
lives may only be written once we relinquish narrative control,
allowing the tale to tell the teller — once we believe in a world in
which a little girl reading the trail of a pronghorn can imagine
the animal, and, through that imagining, can summon a breathing ungulate on a dusty mountainside. A
Michael P. Branch reads this article for the Orion Authors Aloud
podcast series at orionmagazine.org.
Chickens disturb the pebbles
just outside my bedroom window
as they skulk and search
for bark crickets. The neighbors
still mourn their youngest son,
caught under an oily car.
Four mornings here and each one
rings out funeral song and honk ::
green parrot and slender goat :: a clay dish
full of ghee. Saris tongue the wind,
trying to taste my grandmother’s
cinnamon plants and leafhopper wing.
Or the karimeen fish waiting
to be wrapped and steamed
in a single banana leaf for tonight’s meal.
A hundred bats fly inside my chest.
I hear them in my lung cave
while I am still. I want to stay in bed
a bit longer, wait until my grandmother
knocks at the door—her glass bangles
the only clink quieting what’s inside me.