Stories We Tell Ourselves

I’ve just received my DNA results and my ethnic story has slightly rewritten itself. For most of my life I’ve felt very strongly Welsh but always with a strong pull towards Ireland. The first time I ever visited there (Donegal) I knew it was my spiritual home and in many ways my journey on has been about confirming that. I found the link quickly, on my mother’s side – a very clear line coming from Ireland to Liverpool and then into North Wales. It explains the Catholicism and the twinkle in the family eyes.

Growing up, my mother told me her family thought there might be some French blood in there – she had a French nose, she said. She also had glorious cheekbones. There had to be something else mixed in. There is – 26% Western European (likely to be Belgian, French, German or Dutch – even Swiss). Later in my life, I’ve wondered if there was some Jewishness in me – it turns out there is – 4% to be exact – probably from Eastern Europe.

As well as an unsurprising healthy dose of Scandinavian blood, there is the very small matter of 1% East Asian. A friend tells me I’d only need to go seven generations back to find a full Asian parent in my ancestry. I wanted a surprise and I got one – how cool would it be to track that parentage back?

One thing’s for sure, I am a woman who feels connected with the world beyond our shores and this DNA test confirms it.

I’ve had some friends take this test and been wholly blindsided by the reversal of the narrative around their ethnicity. Barring the Asian curveball, I am pretty much who I thought I was. Perhaps a tad less Celtic than I thought but a strong European mix. But other people have discovered that their family story isn’t quite as it’s been told over the years. It makes me think of the Alistair McGowan episode of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? when the impressionist was blown away by his father’s Anglo-Indian roots and the fact that his name hails from Ireland, not his beloved Scotland, where he’d always felt a spiritual pull. As my mum used to say, it just shows to go you.

It’s made me think about how we construct narratives around ourselves to make sense of our place in the world. I’ve spent years trying to place myself – ethnically, professionally, socially – and this blog is part of that exploration. If you don’t fit a pre-set narrative, this is what you do. As a fifty-one year-old woman I ‘should’ be juggling my publishing career with a bunch of teenagers and mid-life crisis man at home. I ‘should’ be holidaying in a cottage in Cornwall with my family, not preparing to trek through Kyrgyzstan with a group of mostly strangers. I ‘should’ be spending Christmas in a chaotic household filled with multiple generations, not walking along a Goan beach, solo, with an occasional white horse for company.

I’ve compared my own story with other stories of like women. I connected with Elizabeth Gilbert and her Eat Pray Love story, but over time I realised mine was not going to end with the Love bit so I looked for a new narrative to connect with. I found another with Cheryl Strayed when I read Wild, and then saw the movie. A woman who’d lost her mother and then gone wandering off into the wilderness to find her true self. But again, that narrative ended with marriage and babies. I’m sensing that this is not my true path.

In the search for my own narrative I’ve found pieces of others’ that have resonated hugely but no one story arc that matches mine. I’ve tried to find an essential truth behind what happened to me and why, tracing from my happy childhood, through the pain of early parental loss and the fracturing of a family, to a coupling and decoupling, and an establishment of my solo self. I want to get to an absolute truth and tell the story, and not hide the reality.

Over a number of years, I’ve developed a habit of seeking out and telling the truth (as I see it) about situations. I’ve also discovered that sometimes people don’t really want to hear it and prefer to believe a falsehood to make themselves feel ok. Maybe because I had to face reality so early on in life I prefer to look at things square on, and not flinch from the truth. I want to prepare myself for the reality, and not believe in false hope. I like to know what the exact weather forecast is and be ready for it, rather than ‘hope’ for the sun to come out. That way disappointment lies.

In the workplace over the years, I’ve become the ‘meme destroyer’ – running around throwing proverbial wet cloths over flaming untruths that gather around rumour and conjecture. I’m always amazed at how far these will go and what people are willing to believe. And also, how disappointed they are sometimes when you tell them the truth – when there’s nothing to complain about any more (ditto the weather).

I once worked for a company that was described to me early on as a ‘dysfunctional family’, when in fact it was more akin to a domestic-abuse situation. The staff who’d worked there for a long time described office life there as ‘rough and tumble’ and the boss as ‘a bit of a character’ – I called it being bullied by a manipulative narcissist. People refused to hear it at first, but gradually, even now, after a few years, I received emails from them saying ‘you were right’. I could see that they had constructed narratives to be able to cope with the situation and told themselves they were true. They didn’t want to hear me state the reality out loud. But I had to. The boss hated that I walked around with a folder containing the facts, not willing to listen, let alone believe, the gaslighting.

I’m not saying that I’ll never fall for a falsehood ever again, because I do all the time, because I like to believe people when they stand in front of me, talking. I was in Gower in Wales earlier this year and met a woman running her own coffee shop. Her other job was being an editor on films like Wonder Woman. I excitedly reported the news to one of the guys in the group. “And you believe her?” he said. “Well yeah, of course,” I replied. He was amazed at my readiness to believe and I was amazed at his cynicism. I instantly recalled myself showing a picture of me holding a sloth in Costa Rica to a local: “How do I know it’s real?” he said. “Do you have a video to prove it?”

In many ways I’m glad I’ve retained a willingness to believe someone’s story, in spite of being spun so many falsehoods over the years. I’m rewriting my own narrative on a daily basis, but I try to root it in the absolute truth – and here it is, on the third anniversary of me starting this blog.

You can choose to believe my story or wait for a video to prove it.







Wild Women

This week, I wanted to write something in response to seeing Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild on the big screen, brought to life by Reese Witherspoon. More than any other book I’ve read, this story has resonated so much with me that I can’t believe someone has lived it and told it. I first heard the author reading it out loud on the radio and I was transfixed by it. Who was this woman singing my life with her words?

In her twenties, Cheryl set off on a journey of self-destruction, sleeping around and taking heroin, until she didn’t recognise herself. She cheated on her loving husband. When her mother died suddenly at 45 of cancer, she divorced her husband and decided to become the woman she told her mother she would be. She began with a baptismal trek through the wilderness – a 1,1000-mile hike along the US’s Pacific Crest Trail.

Now I’ve never done heroin (or any other hard drug for that matter) but I know what it is to walk out on a husband who is a nice guy, a safe pair of hands, and step out into the unknown. Something compels you to go and much of that has to do with living a life that your mother hoped you would live, or the one you think she wanted for you. For women in particular, it is a baton that gets passed on from generation to generation, even if they never vocalise it during a lifetime. There is an understanding that somehow you will improve on the life of the woman that created you, and that it is your duty to do so.

There is a point in the movie when Cheryl snarkily tells her mother,“I’m just so much more sophisticated than you were at my age.” Her mother retorts that that was always the plan. We constantly see ourselves reflected back and forth between generations of women, and although I’ve never had the privilege of having a daughter of my own, I feel the same way about my friends’ daughters, or young women among my group of friends.

It is always the plan. I know my mother wanted more for me than she had had herself, professionally, romantically, economically and everything-ally. And I have spent my life trying to make that happen, especially since she died sixteen years ago.

For me, the grieving for her mother in the movie was the note that struck home. In a series of flashbacks, we see Cheryl’s vibrant, playful mother, played by Laura Dern, making a life for herself and her children away from an abusive husband. She is a woman who decides to go to college at the same time as her daughter (the college runs a special mother-daughter scheme), and who sees herself as a mother first and foremost, an independent woman second. She passes the baton to Cheryl, who puts herself through an independence right-of-passage, on the infamous PCT.

My mother was an exceptionally bright woman who couldn’t go to college because the Second World War got in the way. She entered into a very happy marriage with a man she loved, but I could always tell she wanted to see me get more out of life than just being a housewife with kids. When I finally tore myself away from the family home at twenty-two to go to college, she vicariously shared in my academic and subsequent professional success every step of the way. I always felt as though every A* grade or job offer was a gift for her and in many ways, I’m still offering her my personal achievements. I think she’d have liked this blog.

The grief for her passing hit me like a steam train. I’ll never forget how physical it was – I felt as though a boulder had been strapped to my chest. I suddenly realised the real meaning behind getting things ‘off your chest.’ It sat there, pressing down on me, unwilling to move. For days I found I didn’t cry – I just moved around in a fug, unable to really grasp what had happened. My sister and I threw ourselves into the paperwork and logistics of sorting out a funeral – I still think all that stuff is put there deliberately just to keep you busy.

I remember going into her local supermarket in Wales a few days later, just to pick up a few things. I suddenly had a flashback of her standing there, holding a basket with a few strange things in it. A tin of salmon, a carton of yoghurt. That’s when the grief got me.

Cheryl Strayed had her moment on top of a mountain, as she watched her walking boots bouncing away down the side of it during a rest stop. She was left to construct some shoes to walk to the next town in, out of duct tape and a pair of sandals. But she carried on.

And this will sound like a cliché, but someone once told me clichés are there because they’re true. We are all wearing our mother’s shoes but at some point we have to construct a new pair of our own to walk in.