Living Our Metaphors

“I haven’t a clue as to how my story will end. But that’s all right. When you set out on a journey and night covers the road, you don’t conclude that the road has vanished. And how else could we discover the stars?” —Nancy Willard

I found this quotation at the top of a terrific blog post by Justine Musk: “the epic feminine: welcome to the epic story of your life (+ how to make it a good one).” It made me think about how we tend to live out our metaphors.

Once, a friend of mine told me that she had started running. She was running a lot, probably too much — eventually, she would train for a marathon. At the same time, she was in a relationship in which she was desperately unhappy (it would later end). I asked her, “What are you running from, or to?” Running was a metaphor: she wanted to get away from the relationship, get to something else. But she couldn’t, at least not at that particular moment. So she started running. When we look at our lives, we often find that we behave in metaphorical ways. If we can read these behaviors, as though they were texts (metaphors in words), we can understand what we truly want, or don’t want.

I’m thinking about this because I’ve been doing a lot of traveling this summer. And the question is, how do I read that action metaphorically? What does it tell me about myself?

Tonight, I’m writing this in a house on Peaks Island, Maine. I’m staying with the wonderful Catherynne Valente, who lives here (and travels a lot herself). I arrived yesterday, and it was an adventure getting here. I’d been in Brunswick, Maine, teaching at the Stonecoast MFA Program, so the first step was taking the train to Portland. Then I took a taxi to the ferry station, which looks like this (from on board the ferry).

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And then we set out across Casco Bay, to the island. Here is Portland, with the sun setting over it, from the back of the ferry.

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And here is me on the ferry, heading toward the island. Heading into the darkness. It was a windy night, and my hair was everywhere.

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I think I’ve been traveling so much because I don’t know where I’m going. Traveling in space becomes a way of thinking about traveling in time. I’m living out the metaphor. Perhaps by doing so, I’ll come to a better understanding of my life.

I haven’t a clue as to how the story will end. I’m a character in it, not the author of this particular narrative. Which, to be honest, is difficult sometimes — I wish I could skip ahead to a later chapter, make sure our protagonist is still all right. Make sure that, if she hasn’t gotten her happy ending yet, she’s headed there, or has at least learned something worthwhile along the way. And yes, sometimes it’s night and I wonder if the road has vanished, or if there was no road in the first place — if I imagined the road. (But perhaps I’m in a ferry, moving across the water?) However, we can’t know our own stories before they happen.

All we can do is trust them, and try to understand how we are living them. Try to read our own metaphors . . .

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3 thoughts on “Living Our Metaphors

  1. This is a really profound message and I think that we sometimes forget to take a moment and be introspective. It’s funny because as writers we’re constantly trying to ferret out the meaning behind our characters’ choices, but we do it in reverse. Character A feels something so the outward signs of this is something. For ourselves we have to read the behavior before we can understand the meaning.

    My metaphor has always been “Life is like a bobsled team. If you’re not the lead dog, the scenery never changes.” But writing has shown me that I’m not always in charge of the next change in direction. I may be the lead dog in my own life, but someone else has the reins over the long haul.

  2. Nice post, Dora. A good reminder that not all who wander are lost, and that it’s the journey that matters. Sometimes the most cliche of cliches are true.

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