The elephant's burial ground, or why I write

The elephant's burial ground, or why I write

I think it’s a story from Tarzan, but I know I heard it first from a graduate school professor. When elephants die, it goes, they bury their dead in a place where no one can find them. Older elephants leave the herd and take themselves to this mysterious place, far from the others, and lay down to die.

Hunters seek these burial grounds because in one place they can uncover the tusks from generations of elephants. The most valuable part of the elephant is left here, hidden here, from those who would seek to steal the ivory.

My professor, Dr. Corder, said that we all have our own elephant’s burial ground. But that’s as much of his part of the story that I can remember. So, I’ve been thinking lately about mysterious places. and what I bury there. My ivory is in my stories, and this is why I write.

There are bits and pieces of memory floating around in my head, parts of me from long ago. During the past 18 months, I’ve been focusing on mindfulness and giving attention to my breath. I’ve become aware that I hold my breath a lot, and I’ve learned how incredibly soothing it is to breathe very deeply and follow that breath through its whole cycle.

Snippets of memory have made their way in, memories of breathing. I have a memory of struggling to breathe when I was small, one of holding my breath until I passed out, another of my mother fighting to breathe when she was in the hospital. I remember taking huge gulps of air and diving under the swimming pool water, choking on a brownie at a friend’s house. All these breaths have stories.

I remember sleeping at my Gram’s house when I was 7 or 8 and seeing the Pinkie and Blue Boy paintings on the wall. I love the girl in her swirly dress, but the boy was so ominous. He holds a hat to his right side, but to my child’s eyes it was a monster peeking out, trying to find me. I held my breath as long as I could and tried to go to sleep.

When I told my grandmother this story, sometime in my twenties, she went to the bedroom and removed both paintings. She was so sad and said that if she’d known she’d have taken them down a long time ago. “I never liked those things any way,” she said.

And, just like that, my story was heard. I looked at the Blue Boy up close for a long time and wondered how it could have terrified me so completely. And, now, there it was in my hands, without any power at all.

That story is no longer about fear and holding my breath. It is a story of empowerment instead. It is a story about being heard and growing up and leaving monsters behind.

So, this is why I tell stories, and this is what I leave behind in my elephant’s burial ground. Some of my stories are just for me. They are a chance to care for and sooth a little me or a grieving me. I can take snippets of memory—some that hurt and some that won’t leave me alone, some that taunt me and others that just confuse—and I can weave them into a story.

Once they have a story, they have a place to be where they don’t rattle around any more and create distraction. Stories, somehow, give me control over the past, over the sadnesses and joys, and I can put them to work in my life, or put them to rest.

I have another memory. I’m watching my three month old daughter sleep in my arms. Her little chest rises and falls evenly, and then there’s a pause that gives way to a sweet sigh.

I’ll give that memory a story to live in where I can tell it again and again, and I’ll leave it in the elephant’s burial ground. It will be one of the stories left in a mysterious place for generations. It will be there for my daughter and for me.

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