How our stories define us (in simple English)

Even if our memories aren’t real

Jen Hill
7 min readJan 24, 2022
@zaunluecke on FreeImages

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 canal, filled with water, used for irrigation. I used a footbridge to cross this canal every day to attend primary school.

On the other side of the canal and its footbridge was a baseball field. Next to the baseball field were two wooden outhouses (privies, in British English); small, smelly outdoor toilets that had dead flies stuck to strips of sticky paper and you never knew if there was enough toilet paper.

In the summer months there were always amazing thunderstorms. Lots of lightning and thunder and heavy (but short) rain. The rain went into the canal, which probably went into a pond or other reservoir to be used later as irrigation for the crops. This part of Canada is very sunny but also very dry. We often had droughts, and we were even taught a little song for how to save 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 incredible thunderstorm I remember.

I was probably nine or ten years old. My family and I were all watching a baseball game. The skies got dark with black thunderclouds. There was thunder in the distance, but no rain yet. The baseball game continued. I needed to use the toilet, but I didn’t go 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 a circle 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 pushed the door. I played with the lock. I knew that there were locks on the outside of the outhouse, to keep the door closed against dogs or coyotes, I guess. But how had I managed to lock myself inside?

It started to rain. There was more thunder. I started to panic. And then I heard the announcer through his megaphone, saying that the game was cancelled, and everyone should go home. Cars started driving away, I could hear the tires on the gravel road. 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 cloudy. I think someone opened the door (I don’t think I opened the door myself). I was still crying. 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 field.

I also remember that same thunderstorm sending a bolt of lightning that struck a tree next to our house. The tree fell. It didn’t hit the house, though, it just fell on the grass. My siblings and I played in the ‘fort’ that the fallen tree had made for us with its big branches and leaves until the professionals came to take it away. I remember laughing as I looked up through the leaves into the blue sky. It was amazing to play in the branches of this fallen tree.

My parents don’t remember this, either.

However, this experience became part of my personal history. It became one of my stories as well. It is the story that says, “Jen has always loved thunderstorms”. And I do. Thunderstorms are part of my identity. Does it really matter if this experience happened or not? What if it wasn’t real? No, it doesn’t matter, not when each thunderstorm I watch takes me into my past, helping me feel connected to every Jen who ever watched a storm. Thunderstorms are important to me, they teach me about chaos and noise and sudden changes and the calm that comes after.

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We all have similar experiences. Memories that are very old, yet somehow still sharp and clear after all these years. We see our younger selves going through the very experiences that have created who we are now: everything we are today is because of our younger selves’ action or reaction to life. We would not be the people we are today without these experiences.

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

The story we tell about the memory continues on.

This story shapes us.

And as we get older, the real task is being able to see the story as a story. One of many stories we tell about ourselves and the people around us.

Just because we think this memory happened to us, doesn’t make it true.

The story is still valuable, though. When we define ourselves through our stories, we make borders around us and our lives. We identify what makes us different and unique from others. It’s a sad fact that there are as many ‘negative’ stories we tell ourselves as ‘positive’ ones. Stories that have topics of ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I’ll never succeed’, ‘I’m afraid of being hurt’. As we grow older, it’s useful to look at our stories and find the ones that are good for us and our wellbeing. We can choose to focus on these stories that provide some benefit, and throw out the rest.

For me, I’m the thunder-girl. I accept all the chaos and noise of life’s storms and always come back to my calm center.

This is a story that is very useful for me.

Let me continue with another.

I was in grade five or six, which means I was probably ten or eleven years old. My family had a lovely illustrated copy of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, and I read it from front to back, living in the world of hobbits and dragons and dwarves. I was so amazed 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 love and the meaning of life. He lost himself for a while in a dark and awful forest, but then he found himself again.

Ever since that moment, writing has defined me. Writing shaped me. Writing created me. In creating my worlds of fiction, I create myself. I use every story to understand myself and my ‘shit’. I also use writing and publishing fanfiction as a way to connect with other people like me. Fanfiction is my playground, and by playing with words in my fanfiction, I made myself a better writer for my original work as well.

I still have this original copy of ‘Greagon in the Misty Mirkwood’ somewhere in my parents’ garage back in Canada. I’m sometimes amazed that I read The Hobbit at such a young age. I would think that this memory is fake, if I didn’t have the evidence of this story and all the drawings I made.

The story gets deeper as we go on.

The story continues to define us.

The story goes hand in hand with Life, both Life and the story creating who we really are.

The last memory I would like to share is very soft and cloudy and I’m not sure if it’s true at all — I might have formed this memory for my own benefit over the years, as so many of us do. My younger self needed this story, though, to find out who she really was.

I was in grade seven, we now lived in a small city called Brooks, and I was at an afternoon drama practice (it might have been a 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.

In that moment, 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 this girl an anonymous love poem and put it into her locker. I waited for her to read it, but I don’t remember what happened next. She soon left our school to attend high school, and I hid the fact that I was lesbian until the age of 30.

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

Like all things in life, we make our stories, we use them for a while, and then we throw them away when they aren’t needed anymore.

There is another truth under all of this.

Life is writing the story of me.

So the next time you remember a memory that has helped you create a story about yourself, if the memory is good or bad, real or perhaps false, you can ask yourself how this story supports you. Is the story helping create you, define you, give you strength, support you?

If not, consider exiting the story.

Don’t stay locked in a shitty outhouse.



Jen Hill

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