The Power of Story

Nathan Alling Long - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
As heard on the This I Believe podcast, November 9, 2015
Nathan Alling Long

When Nathan Alling Long's dog was missing a few years ago, he found himself heartbroken and unable to accept the fact that he would never know what happened to her. But a friend suggested that he change his thinking and pretend his dog Gracie was on an adventure. Long then realized that he truly believes in the power of story.

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When my dog Gracie disappeared six years ago, I really learned what I believe. Gracie escaped from my boyfriend’s backyard around 2:00 p.m. We scoured the neighborhood for hours but had no luck. She was gone. We put up fliers, and by dark, we returned home, exhausted.

On the second day, I called my vet, the SPCA, and the animal shelter. Nothing. I felt lost, defeated.

If I knew Gracie had been killed, I would have been heartbroken, but I could’ve moved on. If I knew she was caught somewhere, I would rescue her. If I knew she had found a better home, I would be sad yet relieved. But how do I deal with the unknown? Pray? Wait patiently? Search endlessly? Give up? I didn’t know what to do, what to hope for.

The third day, while I was searching in the woods for Gracie with my friend Rhea, I confessed that losing Gracie was like losing faith in everything. Rhea smiled and said, “You know, maybe Gracie’s on a great adventure.” It seems strange, but I felt better then. Rhea’s words reminded me what, as a writer, I definitely have faith in: the power of story.

As one writer said, all we have is stories. It’s what holds our life together. We call some stories science, some stories myth, but imagine hearing for the first time that the world may be round or that solid matter is mostly hollow. Such stories only become real when we believe them. And some stories are never supported with scientific fact, but they still seem to hold true.

For instance, ten years earlier, I’d dreamed that I should get a dog, and by that evening, Gracie, a goofy-looking gray mutt, came into my life. When people on the street would ask what her breed was, I would say Muppet wolf terrier. It was a breed I made up because I believed Gracie was a breed of her own, a fluffy half dog, half wolf.

So why not imagine now, as Rhea suggested, that she was off on an adventure exploring her wolf side?

The fourth day started with me finding a nickel on the sidewalk. I’d always thought of finding money as a good omen. And I was convinced it meant Gracie would come home on the fifth day. I guess it was another story to hold on to.

On day five, I was at a friend’s house when her phone rang. I knew instantly it was news about Gracie. And I was right. Someone had found her in a downtown alley and had taken her in. Still, when I finally saw her in my hallway, her head lying quietly on her fluffy front paws, I cried. “My wolf days are over,” Gracie seemed to say. “I’m back to being a dog.”

Or so is the story I choose to believe.

Nathan Alling Long is a writer based in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and he is an associate professor of creative writing at Stockton University in New Jersey. The recipient of a Mellon Foundation Fellowship, a Truman Capote Literary Trust Scholarship, and a Pushcart Prize nomination, Long has had more than one hundred stories and essays published in journals and anthologies. His collection of short stories, Everything Merges with the Night, was a finalist for the Hudson Book Manuscript Prize and is currently seeking publication.

Recorded at the studios of WHYY in Philadelphia and produced by Elizabeth Perez Luna