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The Living Story


In The Brothers Grimm, Matt Damon and Heath Ledger play Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, fictionalized as con men roving through 18th century French-occupied Germany, “exorcising witches.” But when they find themselves wandering through the forests of Marbaden, they enter into the kinds of fantastic and unnerving stories in Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

It’s a funny movie with decidedly Terry Gilliam humor. “Trust the toad!” Will says, as it stretches its leg in the direction they should travel—a primitive GPS. The sets are part Faust, part Lord of the Rings.

But I had to watch The Brothers Grimm two nights in a row, because it spoke to me more profoundly than anything has in about as long as I can remember.

I know that’s a weird thing to say about a movie that is, on the most obvious level, a comic romp. But beneath the humor is hortatory: we watch as Jake and, later, Will (and then maybe the viewer) come to realize that they are not just collectors of stories and dealers in deception. They are in the story.

“The story,” Jake says, “it’s happening to us now. We’re living it. It’s alive, it’s real, it’s breathing. And we could give it a happy ending.”

Call me simple-minded, but that notion of story as something we cannot not be part of, because our lives and the story are inextricable, was the best news I’d heard in a while.

Maybe it’s because of what I do for a living, but I think I have always had the sense that somehow we transcend our own stories. We aren’t really making them; we’re just passing through them. And finally, that’s a grim (no pun, honestly) frame of reference.

So I came into my office today resolved to write something about The Brothers Grimm. But what? I opened my copy of Grimm’s Fairytales, hoping for inspiration. Instead I saw an inscription. I had forgotten—the book had been a birthday present from a college roommate, a girl both beautiful and troubled, dogged by depression.

A whole chapter of story rose in my mind.

I got up from my desk and knelt down before a beat-up cardboard banker’s box that has been sitting in the middle of my office. I had hauled it out of the closet weeks ago because there was some paperwork in there that I needed. But I knew it held something else as well, a bulging manila envelope marked “Memories” in red Sharpie.

I often try to avoid “Memories.”

I reached into the envelope.

I pulled out a little bound book. My autograph collection from when I was 10, signatures from New York City Ballet dancers alternated with messages from my fifth- and sixth-grade teachers, my sister’s boyfriend and my friends from a traumatic week at church camp. And then a stamp-sized bit of paper slipped out and fluttered to the floor. I picked it up.

Sylvie LeMarchand,

8 rue des Meunieres,

Pont Aven, France.

It couldn’t be—but it was. Sylvie, my pen pal from high school. It hadn’t been a long-lived correspondence—I was a high school French student, after all. But lately I have been wondering if I could find her somehow, send her a note now that my French can actually be used for communication. I held her address between my thumb and forefinger incredulously. Would I be able to find her? How could I not want to try?

I pulled out old photos of my daughters. I pulled out their early drawings and a whole stack of “I love you, Mommy” letters from back when they called me “Mommy.” I pulled out thank you notes from people I had forgotten, responses to old columns (I only save the positive ones). Somebody had once written asking, “Do we remember or do we remember the continual re-telling of the tale?”

I pulled out a copy of an invitation to a Christmas party I’d written as a parody of “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Nice party, stupid invitation.

I reached in again. I found a copy of the sermon the pastor had given at my wedding to my ex-husband. A few cards and photos later, I found a poem I had written during the marriage’s painful break-up.

I found a letter from a quirky professor and poet I had worked for in graduate school. I had heard about his death from an old classmate. He had died suddenly and alone.

I found a postcard, Picasso’s “Nude Under a Pine Tree” from my college boyfriend. He regularly shuttled between me and a woman in Chicago whom he was living with when he sent the postcard. He wasn’t subtle. After that I pulled out some e-mails we’d exchanged after decades of silence. He had married the woman in Chicago, and they had three sons. He sounded just like his old self: “One of my battles right now is with my own search for meaning as an artist, or an observer or a maker of connections.”

I added his e-mails to the pile of narrative evidence from the “Memories” envelope and I spread it all in a circle around me. I sat for a while within that circle of chapters and fragments.

“The story,” Jake says,” it’s happening to us now. We’re living it. It’s alive . . . And we could give it a happy ending.”

I get it now. I do. I am not simply living a life. I am making a story.

—Jo Page

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