How our narratives define us

Even if our memories aren’t real

Jen Hill
7 min readJan 19, 2022
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Up until I was eleven years old my family lived in a village in southern Alberta, Canada, called Vauxhall (population around 1000). We lived on the edge of the village in a small house surrounded by trees. Across from my house was a street and along this street there was a small ditch, filled with water, used for irrigation. I had to cross a footbridge across this ditch every day to attend primary school.

Just beyond the ditch with its rickety footbridge (it was reconstructed in later years to be safer, but I recall it being narrow and deliciously dangerous when I was a small child) was a baseball diamond. Next to the baseball diamond were two wooden outhouses (privies, if you read British English); small, smelly outdoor toilets with flypaper tacked to a wall and questionable amounts of toilet paper.

In the summer months there were always amazing thunderstorms. Lots of lightning and thunder and heavy (but brief) rain. The rain flowed into the ditch, which probably flowed into a reservoir to be used later as irrigation for the crops. This part of Canada is deliriously sunny but also terribly dry. We often had droughts, and we were even taught a rhyme for how to conserve water when flushing toilets. “If it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush ‘er down.”

Now, let me tell you about an epic thunderstorm I distinctly remember.

I was likely nine or ten years old. My family and I were all watching a baseball game. The skies darkened, filling with menacing thunderclouds. Distant rumbles of thunder were heard, but for the moment there was no rain. The baseball game continued. I needed to use the toilet, but I didn’t run home. (Were the doors to my house locked? Probably not.) I went to the outhouse instead. I locked the door from the inside (I think it had an eyebolt and hook style of lock) and did my business. When I was finished, I tried to get out. And couldn’t.

I had somehow locked myself inside the outhouse.

I rattled the door. I fumbled with the lock. I knew that there were locks on the outside of the outhouse, to keep the door closed against wildlife, I suppose. But how had I managed to lock myself in?

It started to rain. There was more thunder. I started to panic. And then I heard the announcer through his bullhorn, stating that the game was cancelled, and everyone should go home. Cars started driving away, I could hear the tires on the gravel. I began crying. I couldn’t get out! I was going to be left there all night in the middle of a thunderstorm!

This is where my memory gets a bit hazy. I think someone opened the door (I don’t recall figuring out how to do it myself). I was still crying, in that hiccupy strangled way that kids who are truly scared seem to cry. I don’t remember who opened the door — was it my parents, looking for me? Maybe. Maybe not.

This is a strong memory for me, even now that I’m 45 years old. Filled with emotion and good storytelling. But here’s the thing. Is it true? Did it really happen? Neither of my parents remember this at all. They don’t even remember the outhouses being next to the baseball diamond.

What’s more, I remember that same thunderstorm sending a bolt of lightning that struck a tree next to our house. The tree fell. It missed the house and crashed on our lawn. We kids played in the ‘fort’ that the fallen tree had made with its big boughs and smaller branches until the professionals came to clean it up and take it away. I remember laughing as I looked up through the broken canopy of leaves at the eaves of the house. It was remarkable to play in the shelter of this downed tree.

My parents don’t remember this, either.

However, this experience became part of my personal history. In particular, it occupies the space called ‘Jen has always loved thunderstorms’. And I do. Thunderstorms are part of my narrative. Does it really matter if this experience actually happened or not? No, not when each thunderstorm I watch delves deeply into my past, helping me feel connected to every incarnation of me. Thunderstorms are vital for me, teaching me about chaos and noise and abrupt change and the calm that comes afterward.

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We all have similar experiences. Memories that are aged, yet somehow still crisp and vibrant after all these years. We see our younger selves going through the very experiences that have paved the way to our present selves: everything we are now is due to their action or reaction to life’s circumstances. We would not be the people we are today without these past incarnations.

Does it matter, then, if those memories are real or not?

The narrative persists.

The narrative shapes us.

And as we get older, the real task is being able to see the narrative for what it truly is: just a story. One of countless stories we tell about ourselves and the people around us.

Just because it happened to us, doesn’t make it true.

But it’s still valuable, all the same. Defining our narratives brings boundaries to our life until those definitions are no longer needed. These narratives help to create us by identifying what makes us different and unique. It’s a sad fact that there are as many seemingly ‘negative’ narratives as ‘positive’ ones, narratives in which we create rigid themes of fear, toxic relationships, mediocrity, and isolation. As we grow older, it’s to our benefit to identify our narratives to find those which serve us and our evolution. We can choose to nurture those narratives that benefit us, and discard the rest.

I am the thunder-girl, I roll with the ferocity and noise of all life’s storms and then come back to my calm center.

That’s a narrative that serves me well.

Let me continue with another.

I was in grade five or six, which means I was likely ten or eleven years old. My family had a lovely illustrated version of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, and I read it from cover to cover, immersing myself in the world of hobbits and dragons and dwarves. I was so enchanted by the story that I wrote my first piece of fan-fiction, an illustrated short story called “Greagon in the Misty Mirkwood”. Greagon was a dragon searching for meaning and love, losing himself for a time in a dark and dreadful forest, eventually emerging victorious.

From that moment on, writing defined me. Writing shaped me. Writing created me. In creating my worlds of fiction, I simultaneously created myself. I used every story to ‘sort out my shit’. And since that time, I have also used fanfiction as a way to connect with like-minded people. Fanfiction is my sandbox, my playground, and my freedom in playing with fanfiction has impacted the playfulness and freedom of my original work as well.

I still have this precious original copy of ‘Greagon in the Misty Mirkwood’ somewhere in my parents’ garage. I’m sometimes amazed that I read The Hobbit at such a young age, and I would disbelieve this memory as well if not for the evidence this illustrated story provides.

The narrative deepens.

The narrative defines.

The narrative co-creates with Life itself, for both are necessary to create our sense of self.

The last memory I’ll share is definitely soft, fuzzy, and it’s truth is questionable — I’ve probably enhanced and formed this memory for my own benefit over the years, as so many of us do, but I really needed the narrative that the memory provides. I was in grade seven, we now lived in a small city called Brooks, and I was at an afternoon drama practice (or performance?). There was a girl there, I think her name was Sandra. She was in grade nine. She was beautiful. She had beautiful legs. She danced like a goddess.

Just like that, I had my first lesbian crush.

I was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as Mormons), and being lesbian was definitely prohibited. I was young and innocent, just twelve years old, and I did what so many of us have done: I wrote my crush an anonymous love poem and slipped it into her locker. I waited for her to read it, but I don’t remember what happened next. She soon graduated and left our school to attend high school, and I went into the proverbial closet until the age of 30. (I’ll save my story of exiting the closet for another day.)

I’m now in my mid-forties, in a stable and loving relationship with a woman named Bara, I teach English by day and work on my stories and articles by night. I watch thunderstorms with the same wonder and awe as that young child who locked herself in the outhouse. Through meditation and self-awareness, I have come to identify my narratives for what they truly are.

Like all things in life, narratives are made, and used, and eventually discarded.

There is a truth underneath all of this.

Life is writing the story of me.

So the next time you encounter a memory that has led to a narrative about yourself, whether the memory is good or bad, real or perhaps false, you can ask yourself how this narrative serves you. Is the story helping create you, define you, support you?

If not, consider exiting the narrative.

Don’t stay locked in a shitty outhouse.

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Jen Hill

Just a girl in Prague, writing about love, teaching, and spirituality. I enjoy shamanism, writing novels, and drinking craft beer.