Small places in a large world

Both a garden and a story: San Juan Bautista, California, June 2003

“A story is a garden you carry in your pocket. The stories we tell ourselves and each other are for pleasure and refuge. Like gardens they are small places in a large world. But…we must never mistake the stories we tell for truth.”Alexandra  Curry

Over 30 years ago in a Bible class, the teacher spoke of how big the truth is. Afterward, Jeff and I had a discussion on that assertion. Jeff said he had always thought of the truth as something narrow and well-defined. He belonged to a profession based on hard science and peer-reviewed research involving lots of double-blind studies.  It was also his personality type; Jeff was much more skeptical than I am. I think he would have agreed with the caveat that, if we tell ourselves stories, we must not mistake them for the truth.

But I agree with that long-ago teacher. I think the truth is a big thing, so enormous that no human mind can fully grasp it. As such, I think stories, even totally imagined ones, contain grains of truth that may often be better illustrated by fiction than by bare facts. As Curry says, the stories we tell ourselves typically serve the function of adding joy to our lives and giving us refuge. They are not meant to be didactic, but they resonate with what we know of the truth, and they bring us humor and reassurance.

However, we also could tell ourselves stories that are not helpful. These tales might make people or events more evil or destructive than they actually are. We may re-invent the past to fit narratives that cast us in a better light, or make others the villains in a real-life drama that might be far more nuanced than we describe. Worse, we may convince ourselves that this self-serving version of events is the real one. So Curry’s point is well taken.

Having said that, I am immensely grateful for the power of stories, and I really like the analogy comparing them with portable gardens. Who among us does not enjoy escaping into a great novel, a well-produced film or an enthralling live theatrical production? The best of these stay with us, like a beautiful song or favorite memory, and shine brightly in the often drab reality of daily life. We may not have physical proximity to the sort of garden pictured above, but wherever we are, we can escape into a good story.

For those who have lived many decades, our memories are full of stories, like vast gardens with a wide variety of botanical rooms. Some are more colorful and verdant, some may be overgrown and ill-tended, and there will be those that bring more sorrow or regret than joy. But always we can find beautiful settings to enjoy, especially if we are willing to venture beyond our own story gardens, into those of our friends, and those that make up the great legacy left to us by authors, poets and artists of present and past centuries.

Today, let’s make it a point not to spend more time than necessary in desolate mental places. Let’s be mindful of the stories we tell ourselves, and choose hope. Our pockets are full of stories– gardens through which we can stroll for a soothing escape from whatever may be clouding our vision and worrying our minds. In the dreary days of late winter (or the parched, dry ground of late summer), these “pocket gardens” can transform our inner landscape. Feel free to share a favorite story with us here in the comments.


  1. Chris

    This is interesting. In one sense, I agree with Jeff’s initial thought. Truth is ‘black or white’; it’s very defined (the engineer in me). On the other hand, who are we to define truth? As your bible teacher suggested, truth is bigger than what we can imagine. Thus, the stories may just be the answer. Stories serve as a medium through which we come to understand truth, and learn.
    Jesus’ ministry was promulgated only through stories (parables); only the 12 knew the secrets of the Kingdom. The rest of us are ‘taught’ through the parables.
    OK, that’s it. I could probably talk about this all day; yet, I need to get moving. Perhaps I’ll walk about my ‘garden’ before taking that commute to work! 😊 Have a great week!

    • Thanks Chris, for sharing your thoughts. While I was writing this, I thought about how Jesus used parables to teach the truth, and sometimes he had to spell it out even for his disciples, so they could get the point (as in Matthew 13 and Luke 8). I think stories put abstract notions into a context we can understand. Think of the lessons we learn from Dickens’ Christmas Carol, or from films such as A Man for All Seasons or On the Waterfront. Stories have a way of striking all those chords that cannot be heard through data alone. Plus they are way more fun! 🙂

      • Chris

        You’re right about that. Reading your reply made me think of Jerry Clower. Ever heard of him? A southern comedian of yesteryear. He was one of the best story tellers I’ve ever heard! And very entertaining. 😊

        • Chris, what a blast from the past! My friend Connie and I used to love to listen to Jerry Clower and then laugh together over how funny he was. I have not heard his name mentioned in awhile, but quick as I read your comment I commenced to wondering what become of Newgene Ledbetter and all the other Ledbetters, so I found this routine online and he was so evermore funny I near about laughed my overhauls off.

          • Chris

            Ha! 😂! That’s great! I hadn’t listened to him in quite awhile either. Thanks for sharing the link. When I was much younger, I listened to Jerry so often that I pretty much memorized quite a few of his tales. When my brother got married (in New Jersey, 1983.), our side of the family, from NC, stayed at a nice hotel. There was a gaggle of us. Many of them told me their highlight of the evening was my “Jerry improv” on the hotel balcony overlooking the lobby. Apparently, I had too much to drink at the dinner/dance, and I was in “fine form” when we got back to the hotel that night. I guess I gathered quite the crowd as I “shelled down the corn” that night. Honestly, I didn’t remember much of it the next day! Haaaa!
            Have a good weekend coming up! 😊

            • Chris, you sound like old Newgene Ledbetter himself. (Or should I say “hisself,” as in “that boy was always getting hisself into a scrape.”) Hey, here’s an interesting fact about my friend Connie, who used to laugh with me over Jerry Clower– she ended up, many years later marrying Jerry Clower’s cousin! Now she has the same last name! According to her, they don’t lack for stories in that household. I guess it’s genetic.

  2. Linda Blackford

    I’ve so enjoyed your posts over the years, and this one especially touched me and caused me to understand myself and how I’ve chosen to see events in my life. We may not always be able to choose what happens to us, but we do have the choice of how we interpret the more profound events. We can choose to focus on the blessings, to try to see the lessons life teaches us, and to give others (as well as ourselves) the benefit of the doubt considering their actions. The stories I tell myself can have a huge effect, positively or negatively, on how I live my life. It’s not always that easy to look on the bright side, especially when it comes to looking at my own attitudes and actions! But it is certainly a new way of trying to accept others and myself. Thank you for giving me so much to ponder.

    • Thank you, Linda, for these thoughtful words. I’m so happy that you have enjoyed the posts. As much as I am driven to write for my own sake, it means a great deal more to think that anyone else benefits in any way from what I write. Isn’t it amazing– and indeed, a bit sobering– to think how much control we really do have over our own attitudes? It took me awhile to get the hang of the difference between emotions and attitude. Feelings come and go regardless of what we might try to do to deny or create them, but attitude (and action) can be the product of our will to focus on the blessings. Each of us has so many stories that can affect others for good or ill. Reading your comment, I was reminded of this excellent video from Cleveland Clinic, which I just watched again for the first time since Jeff’s death. I could not get through it with out crying (five hankey warning!!) because so much of hit hit home even harder than before, but it’s so worth watching, to remind us that others, too, have stories we may never know. If you can, maximize it on your screen so you can watch it without distractions. It’s really good. Thanks for being here.

      • Wow! Thank you for sharing the empathy video. I was compelled to post it on Facebook.
        Imagine a world where we took time to empathize with each other!
        (And I’m crying, too.)

        • It’s definitely a keeper. I hope it will be saved and shared online for a long, long time.

  3. I love the thought of story gardens! I will be mulling over that for awhile! Love to you and Matt!❤🌟❤

    • Thank you Cherie! No telling what lovely flowers will pop up in your stories. 🙂 ❤

  4. Harry Sims

    Thank you Julia.
    For several years now you have given me so much to ponder.
    Thank you.

    • Thank you Harry, I’m glad you find the blog helpful or at least interesting. 🙂

  5. That’s so true. I’ve seen many take a true story and twist it to suit their own view of it. We all have a filter of how we see the truth.

    • Marlene, definitely. Sometimes I think I have a whole case full of filters depending on my mood. There’s the rose colored one, the crystal clear one, the blurry/hazy one, and the gray/dark one that makes everything look dreary. I’m not sure whether I prefer the rose colored on or the clear one. 🙂

  6. Good morning, Julia!
    I got to thinking about “stories” versus “stores,” especially with regard to carrying around items or gardens in our pockets. Somehow, it all made sense.
    I think it’s because we store up our stories. Not to get all meta-physical about carrying gardens in our pockets ….
    It just made me think.
    Is my life a garden (or store) where I pick my own stories? Then each story is a garden in my garden. Maybe I get lost in layers of gardens. Is that such a bad place to dwell?
    My current gig in Minnesota is up. I start a new gig in Marlborough, Mass 2 weeks from Monday (going to see my parents, in-between). I keep accumulating stories at such a rate that I’m not sure I see past the garden! But, I like it here, so maybe I’ve answered my own question? Apparently, I’ve chosen my gardens to be the place where I dwell.

    • Yes, stories are gardens within gardens within other gardens, and we can wander wherever we choose…so I hope to choose wisely! Depending on how long you will be in MA, you might still be up there during a trip I have planned for this summer. Meanwhile, I hope you have a lovely visit with your parents. Perhaps you can ask them to share some of their stories. One of my very few regrets is that I never took the time to tape record (or later, videotape) any of the stories from my grandparents, and only made one or two quick video clips of my parents talking. But even if you don’t record them, you will enjoy hearing their stories, whether they’ve been told over and over, or are totally new to you.

  7. Hello sweetheart ! I apologize for my lack of visits and contact as of late. The past two months have been a frenzy of Christmas, work, projects, shopping, hosting, parties and more of work. I’m only now, able to see daylight. We’re in Maui next week and I plan to catch up with each and every friend.
    My dad was a wonderful story teller. His young life, like so many in North America, was spent on a farm. The house had, no electricity, running water, bathroom or shower. All the elements for interesting story telling were right there 😀 Dad could visit with friends on the phone for hours. Now a days, you might just get a quick, ill spelt text from pals. I miss the days when you actually got to chat.
    Funny story, I met a squirrel on a path near the Whitehouse one day. I felt like he had something important to tell me and came up real close. “Chirp, twitch, chirp”, was about all I could catch. Unfortunately, I didn’t speak squirrel, but we were able to share a small snack and admire the day together. He ran off to a meeting and I’ve not ran into him since. I guess I’ll never know what was on his mind that day. For all I know, he might have moved to Georgia.
    (names have been left out to protect the innocent).
    xox K

    • K, I have decided that you and I were connecting telepathically last week. Around the same time you were writing this comment, I was thinking of you and how much I needed to catch up with you. It’s always such a joy to hear from you!

      From the very beginning, I think my favorite posts at your blog were the ones about your Dad and your family. I loved your comment, “All the elements for interesting story telling were right there 😀” HOW TRUE! My Mom grew up in a similarly rustic home, and I can remember how it astounded me to hear the details of outhouses and other “conveniences” that were once more common than not, especially for rural folks. Did you know Jeff grew up in a home that had only a half bath, and no central heat or air conditioning? It was heated by a wood stove, and he had to split the wood, which gave him those hunky muscles. Showers had to be taken in the unheated basement where there was a shower spigot and, I assume, a drain in the floor (I never saw for myself, because I was never allowed to go down there — whenever we were there, I used to go down to his grandparents’ home to take my baths because Jeff’s Mom would NEVER allow me to see the basement or the attic). Despite this, it was a sweet and cozy home where I loved to spend time. It had lots of BOOKS and good cooking and a wood stove, what more could one want? Like your Dad, Jeff’s Mom used to chat on the phone for long periods, calling her older relatives who were lonely for company. She told how Jeff’s Dad would come around with the scissors, threatening to cut the cord if he wouldn’t hang up! 😀 There were a few times when Jeff joked that he might start channeling his Dad if I didn’t get off the phone. But as you say, those long chats belonged to another era, when (ironically) it used to cost a bundle to have a long distance conversation that lasted more than a few minutes.

      Hey that squirrel story is one of my all time favorites! As I read about it I heard a loud voice in the background declaring “A squirrel visiting with a human? THIS IS NOT SEEN!” Maybe the squirrel did indeed move to Georgia to tour with that guy — maybe after we left, he made the squirrel an offer he couldn’t refuse 😀 . In that same volume of stories, there’s a great one about a gate guard at Arlington who told these two women that they had to hold hands and skip if they wanted to go in, and then was surprised when they did just that! He may still tell that story himself to his family. 😀

      • I’m pretty sure we made more than one service man giggle that day 😀 Skipping through the gate and then running through that down-pour, along the walls of barracks with a plastic bag on your head and wine bottle in hand. I’m sure we’re on some blubber reel somewhere, LOLOL

        My gosh, folks lived with so much less, just a few decades ago. How spoilt do I feel now !? Have you ever seen those old photo’s of tent cities? Well healed families moving from overseas to America (or Canada) would live in a tent with their china dishes and fancy furniture until they could build a house. Farm homes seemed a little like that. Maybe there wasn’t any heat, plumbing or lighting but it was still very charming.

        Grandpa’s house was heated by a stove too. Once, I was about 8 or 9, we’d arrived on the farm late and dad was going to light the stove to warm things up. When he lifted one of the lids, a little bat flew out and around in the tiny house. All us kids went running back outside! Ha, ha, city kids 😀 Poor thing had come down the chimney but not gone back out yet.

        What about when there was one phone in the house. Ours had an extra-long cord. You could go all the way into the living room or hall closet for those real private moments, LOL! Oh and NO telemarketers!! Those guys have single handed killed the home phone line business. My girlfriends parents had a phone in their bedroom too and I thought that was really posh 😀 Man, things have changed just since we were kids. xo K

        • K, that’s what I love so much about you. Most people would have seen our hopelessly silly scurrying around in the rain as a major irritation, and they’d vow “Never again!” But not only did you turn it into something fun…you even came back for more a couple of years later! What a brave soul you are. And yes, it’s a fond memory for me too, although I don’t want to miss the gate closing and end up with a confused cab driver again! 😀

          Yep, our ancestors would think us terribly spoiled, and furthermore, they’d have a hard time understanding how we all came to be fastened to our screens, I think. The bat story was funny. I can remember once or twice a bat ending up in someone’s garage, and we thought of them as “vampire bats” and feared they would bite us and give us rabies. Hopefully the lovely children’s book about Stellaluna will keep the youngsters from having a fear of bats, but we had no such guidance.

          Re: phones — I had one of my own in my bedroom as a teenager and I too thought it was really posh. It was a modified princess phone and it made me feel like a princess! It had push buttons which was not the same a touch tone (it wasn’t available yet) but was still easier than dialing. Re: the extra-long phone cord…I can remember getting the first one of those ever during the early years of our marriage. I was elated and felt like my life had just gotten a lot better- for the first time I could walk around from kitchen to living room doing housework while talking on the phone. You’re right, the telemarketers have ruined the phone for so many of us, and they are well on the way to ruining email, if not already there. Facebook too, for that matter. I guess no place on earth is safe from commercials. I might actually watch TV sometimes if not for the commercials. Even PBS has them now. Yes, things have changed SO much since we were kids. Not always for the better, either. I’m very glad to have grown up during the era I remember from childhood.

          • me too and maybe every generation says that, ha! xo

            • Probably so. I guess that’s a good thing. ❤

  8. MaryAnn Clontz

    Your words are a balm for my spirit, which is now soaring! The words that popped out are:
    “choose hope”. Such a marvelous view of our world, knowing hope reigns! In our home Bible study, I am experiencing some closed, locked doors in my heart. I am on a journey with our Lord leading me to face the hurt & forgive. It would not be possible without HOPE! Wow! You are ministering to us, your blog friends so well! Much love~~~~

    • Mary Ann, I have such a hard time imagining you having closed and locked doors in your heart. But I certainly have that problem myself, so we will have some nice therapeutic chats when you come! Love you. ❤

      • MaryAnn Clontz


        (I do not how to change to my new email address on Defeat Despair.)

        • Mary Ann, I know there is a way to change the email address in WordPress, but I could not find a way to do it. However, you might try or perhaps someone who reads your comment will be able to advise us. It’s not hard, I just forgot what pathway to follow, and your view of the WordPress pages will be different from mine since mine are related to writing and editing the blog. I’ll keep trying to find the answer.

  9. Sheila

    Good Sunday morning, Julia. Choosing hope really can make such a difference in our lives, our gardens! Growing up I remember people referred to “lies” as “stories”, maybe because the term seemed softer. I’d never really thought about it, until now. But those were more respectful, even proper times. Bill has a favorite quote, “There are no degrees to honesty- Ronald Reagan”. My pockets are overflowing with so many flowers, to take them out one by one and reminisce is such a happy thought. I wonder if my garden is more colorful now, as I recall my stories as I REMEMBER them. Did it really happen like that? The sad thing is there are fewer loved ones to correct my memories, as so many have departed this life. So, I’ll tell my stories to my little audience, six adoring grandchildren! And they smile….

    • Sheila, until you mentioned that, I had totally forgotten how we, too, used the word story to stand for “lie” (though it did not mean that exclusively; it depended on the context). “You told a story” we would accuse each other in a singsong voice, often following up with a threat to tell Mama. If it was a REALLY BIG “story” it was a “whopper” as in, “you really told a WHOPPER about that being a 5 pound bass when it was really an 8 ounce blue gill.” BTW thanks for the Reagan quote. Like much of what he said, it sound simple but it’s really quite profound.

      I do think our “story gardens” often get more colorful as we remember them, but there’s nothing really wrong with that as long as the embellishments are not added in malice, but are in the spirit of the truth. Research has confirmed again and again that our memories are faulty and subjective, such that no two people will remember the same event exactly the same, but that doesn’t mean they are being dishonest. You keep telling those colorful stories to those grandchildren, and even think about videotaping some of them! Future generations of the Vann Clan will be grateful!!

  10. Julia, Great points! So TRUE.
    There is a difference between reality and truth. Reality, which most adhere too, is subject to time and circumstance. If a person can’t afford to buy a new car today, doesn’t mean that they can’t in a few months. But if a person decides to test the law of gravity by stepping off a ledge, he will find that whether he does so on a Monday or a Thursday the results will sadly be the same. The former is reality, the latter is truth.
    For those who subscribe to relativism, reality, although changeable, is truth. For It fits their ideology of being their own boss. And truth here, is what you make it to be. Christ tells us He is the truth, the way and the life. Such as these find that too much to swallow. No matter how big or small.

    • Alan, thanks for these thoughts. I never thought about reality vs. truth in that way, but it makes sense. Reality is indeed always fluctuating, but yet there are always those persistent truths that never change. While there is much to be said for living “in the moment,” as the cliche goes, it does carry with it the risk of becoming short-sighted and forgetting the big picture. Have you seen the movie The Truman Show? I think it relates to this whole question about subjective reality vs. underlying truth. When Truman begins to catch on that his version of reality, which is all he has ever known, is not the true story, it starts to get really interesting!

      • Thanks, Julia. Living in the moment did prove to be short-sighted for Pontius Pilate. When he asked “What is truth?” He failed to recognize that Truth was standing right in front of him.
        I’ll have to see the Truman Show. Does sound interesting.
        Stay well, kiddo!

  11. Mike Bertoglio

    One of the insights I gained in a O.T. class in seminary was around myth and story or myth vs. story. A myth though in itself fiction carries the truth within. Hence many of our Old Testament -stories- Myths- carry the truth though perhaps fictional at the root-but still carrying the truth. like the garden of Eden, creation. etc,

    • Mike, we were taught (and I later read) that Tolkien first convinced C. S. Lewis to open his mind to the possibility that there might be a God, by appealing to his extensive knowledge of mythology and suggesting that Lewis’s atheism was “not a failure of faith, but of imagination.” So much of world mythology hints of a much larger true story that some of us believe is not fictional at all, at least not in the strict sense. All stories, even true ones, are of necessity symbolic to some extent, because all language is symbolic. Words are representations of what cannot be fully described or even fully understood. This is true on the simplest level so imagine how it applies to the cosmos.

  12. Mike Bertoglio

    I bought some Sunflower seeds yesterday of the “Lemon yellow” variety. I usually soak these for a couple of days before starting. To me it is not summer without sunflowers. I think one of the most hopeful things we can do is to start seeds. I have not started these yet.

    • Mike, I just planted some sweet pea seeds I had soaked. In my case, planting seeds is a perfect example of “the triumph of hope over experience” since I have not recently had much success with them. I used to grow all sorts of flowers from seeds when we lived on the central coast of California, but never had much luck with them anyplace else. I keep trying, though. I love sunflowers too; they are among the most cheerful of blooms and appear so hardy. Lemon yellow is one of my favorite colors. No wonder I prefer daffodils over all other flowers.

  13. Mike Bertoglio

    Sweet peas or peas do well in Seattle. Sugar peas are one of the few items I can grow consistently there- I use Oregon Sugar pod 2. Speaking of Daffodils- did you ever go to the Oakland cemetery Daffodil festival? Going on this week. I hope to make it down there this week. I am reading about the cemetery and its origin in the cemetery -garden movement of the early 19th century.
    There are two story gardens in NYC at Church of St.John Divine on Amsterdam. One a Biblical garden with O.T names plants and trees–olive etc. And one the Shakespeare garden with appropriate verses. When I was CPE intern at St. Luke’s I hung out there a bit.
    There is also the Battastelli song “Write your story on my heart.”
    In regards to truth the line from Jack Nicholson in??? Few Good Men comes to mind–“You can’t handle the truth.” And now I digress. The garden of the mind.

    • Never did go to that daffodil festival or any other, unless you count Keukenhof. But I hope to make it to a few eventually. Those cathedral gardens sound lovely. They have a nice one (very small) at the National Cathedral in DC. Hey, the unofficial title of this blog is “we digress!” That’s a privilege claimed by people of a certain age. Our minds are too full of gardens to avoid distractions. 😀 That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

  14. Mike Bertoglio

    Have you heard of children’s book “A rough patch.” Supposed to be about chidren and loss -a Newberry Award.winner. Jojo and Norah just lost their puggle Bodhi last week. They seem to be doing OK.

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