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The Stories We Tell

by Joanna Gaines
Published on November 1, 2022

*This story first appeared in the Winter '22 issue of Magnolia Journal

We all have a story to tell. This book happens to be mine—every chapter a window into who I am, the journey I’m on, and the season I’m in right now. It started with that picture of 6-year-old me. Because that little girl—the one with the missing tooth and messy hair—she knew who she was before the world chimed in. And part of writing my story has been the hope of finding her again.

The chapters of your own life will be different. Maybe you won’t always relate, or maybe it will feel like you’re looking in a mirror. Whatever we have in common and whatever differences lie between us, I only hope my story can help shine a light on the beauty of yours. That my soul work will stir something of yours. And that by the time you get to the end of my story, you’re also holding the beautiful beginnings of your own.

It’s a story only you can tell. And I hope that you will.

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Earlier this year, I started to sense this desire to catch my breath and look closely at my life. I found myself jotting down memories and stories from my past, journaling about things I was still, years later, working through. Things had gotten blurry. I’d gotten blurry. My 44th birthday was just around the corner, and I was realizing that it meant I was nearly halfway through this life of mine.

I looked around at what I’d built with equal parts gratitude and exhaustion. I love my life, and I love my family—deeply. But some of the ways I’d gotten here, some of the qualities I’d always relied on—like being really productive, superefficient, always running at high capacity—were beginning to turn on me.

The past 20 years have been a heck of a ride, but I knew I couldn’t keep going the way I have. It’s hard to explain how I was feeling. I was grateful beyond measure, but exhausted. Loved, but feeling unworthy. Full, but running on empty. And because my world kept me busy, I could still feel the wheels of my life humming. What became harder to tell is where they should be headed.

The first chapter I wrote went the slowest. A few days passed as a stack of mostly blank pages sat idly on my desk. I’d been trying to write down everything I could remember from the first handful of years of life as a family. A few scenes came to mind pretty easily, mostly pieced together from what I’d seen captured in photos: the fairy garden–themed birthday party we threw for Ella and Christmas at my parents’ house. The soft yellow color of our first home, all 800 square feet of it.

But the moments between some of those milestones—that’s where things got hazy. Anything else I’d start to remember felt so far away. I could only see it in shapes, blurred once by too much time and again by too much distance. It was like I couldn’t get close enough to separate them from one another, to know what I should write down.

As much as I wanted to believe that somewhere in the dusty recesses of my mind were clear and distinct memories—the way my heart swelled when each of my kids took their first wobbly steps, the first time Chip made me laugh really hard, the feel of my hand tucked into my mom’s—every year those seem to fade a little more. Of course, I’ve held on to keepsakes and photos throughout the years, but I couldn’t so easily recall those tender little moments, the ones I think you find yourself wishing you could will to memory later, after years have passed. Just to breathe them in again. To feel that part of your life once more. And as I stared at those blank pages on my desk, I realized how so very true that was.

But the more I wrote, the more I remembered and the more I could feel the moments themselves. Not just the scenes pulled from photographs or the highlight reel of family milestones. Those are beautiful and worthy in their own way, but when it comes to having a heart connection to the life you’re living, one that you can really feel your way through, I’d come to learn that you’ll have to dig a little deeper—down to the place you’ve been unknowingly storing bits and pieces of beauty and wonder. You have to wade through the messiness, maybe even some ugliness, some past pain, some regret or shame. Beneath the stuff that distracts us, I learned, is the stuff that’s been quietly holding us up all along.

And it was there, right in the reliving, that the memories I started to connect inched closer and closer, one to another and then another until I had before me this landscape of a life I never thought I’d get to hold again.

And I’m letting that landscape reveal what I want more of in this next chapter of life. I’m letting the story of my days so far show me what moments are worth chasing still. I know I can’t go back to those early days of motherhood, but I can look out for moments that remind me that I’m a mom—and I’ll let those take my breath away. I can look Chip in the eye next time he makes a joke, and let myself sink into how much I love his humor for a minute or two. I can pull my mom a little tighter every time we say goodbye.

I ended up discovering a lot in my story: clarity, healing, deeper truths I didn’t know I could get to. But mostly, these pages brought me back to myself, back to those tender little moments I thought I’d lost. In writing down my story, I had the chance to relive some of the very best chapters of my life.

Maybe you walk through the present with a certain clarity about where life goes next. But there’s a chance you haven’t always felt so sure of things. Or you might not again somewhere down the road. And perhaps, when you sit here and think about it, you remember seasons when life felt like it simply happened to you.

I don’t know about you, but when I look back next time, I don’t want to see a kind of kaleidoscope life—out of focus and jumbled—where the moments I swore I’d never forget become difficult to discern amid the chaos of thoughts and memories unresolved. I want to live the next season of this beautiful life in focus.

So I’m taking this lesson and carrying it forward. Because now I know that beneath this way of living lies an undercurrent. When I’m armed with the spirit of storytelling, every day becomes a page worth writing— even the mundane, the dishes and the cleanup, the car rides to school, and stacks of bills to be paid. Deep in our souls is where this tender knowingness simmers: I am building something beautiful.

I don’t know how you view the life you’re building. But I do know that it’s worthy of a second look. And it doesn’t matter how late in life, how out of focus your story may seem—you have not missed your chance to see it.

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Cover: I wanted a cover that matched what my heart was after: a little lightness, a little fun, a little more of who I used to be. And pink—because it was the first color I ever loved.

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