Huckleberry Friend

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Waiting for Mr. Darcy (and then not recognizing him when he walks in).

Disclaimer: You’ll notice I ask a lot of questions in this post. I do that in a lot of my essays. This is because a) I love playing devil’s advocate and b) I really have no idea what I’m talking about half the time. That being said…

I wonder about the book-lovers. Not the casual Amazon-order-ers or the Oprah list-ers, but the bona fide introvert-with-a-capital-I types, who need the muscle-action of eyes passing over words on pages every single day.

You know the type. But did you know this? If a book works its magic, we go around thinking in precocious Jane Eyre-speak or taking things apart like Tolstoy (watch out, we might read your minds!). We’re at once tickled and troubled that Willa Cather has changed us, for a week or so, into somber, hard-working Midwesterners—or that we’re suddenly turned scoundrel a la Tom Sawyer. Once, I was on the road listening to an audio version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula when I came over a hill to an enormous, early evening full moon—it looked like it was about to swallow the sky for supper—and I screamed. Talk about distracted driving.

It was delicious.

Will you judge me if I confess that since elementary school, I’ve put together outfits based on my heroine du jour? (In the fifth grade, the Laura Ingalls Wilder braids and checked dress phase lasted for the entire nine-volume Little House series and beyond. I even convinced a buddy to dress like Mary one day. I, of course, was always Laura.) Now in my forties, lately I’ve been inspired by Ellis Lacey of Brooklyn. Almost unthinkingly I’ve grabbed from my closet anything that reminds me of the early fifties—full skirts and colorful prints and Peter Pan collars. I swear, there’s nothing finer than a Peter Pan collar. (Unless you’re reading Dracula. Then you’ll want to opt for turtlenecks and heavy scarves.)

Brooklyn-the-movie

Saoirse Ronan as Ellis Lacey

Fashion fetishes aside, would it be an unjust generalization to say the readerly ones tend to be a broody, dissatisfied lot, at least some of the time?

While I set the table the other night with a new set of French-themed plates, I hummed Disney’s version of bookish Belle’s There must be more than this provincial life…

A cheery enough tune; nonetheless, the lyrics tend to hit a nerve. Especially if you live in the suburbs.

bonjour plates

The jar in the background is our family “trip jar” for a summer vacation. We have gathered exactly $1.59. We are dreamers, the whole lot of us.

Lots of folks enjoy a good yarn—for others, story, in a way, saves our lives. When well-told, story takes us on trips (and foots the bill) inside the city’s perimeter—or across the pond—or sweeps us of our feet or shows us hard and beautiful truths without being preachy. Story makes sense of things like nothing else.

There are lots of nice sayings about the dreamer and drifter types—just check the latest crop of tote bags, t-shirts and burlap toss pillows. Flights of fancy are having a moment. All who wander are not lost, they say.

not all who wander

But I’m here to tell you that if you’re a wanderer, you’re going to take some wrong turns.

Back in the seventies, when my family moved from Ohio to a small town in Connecticut, that first summer my mother in her blue Cutlass Supreme had a habit of pointing us in no direction in particular.

“I thought we were going to the library,” I’d whine. The library had tremendous appeal—for obvious reasons and because it was one of the only buildings in town with air conditioning.

“We are—but first we’re going to get lost.”

She said it like But first we’re going to get triple-scoop sundaes at Friendly’s—go ahead, order the works! At five-going-on-six, I wasn’t as charmed as Mom with crumbling stone walls and wildflower-sightings and curves so curvy you had to honk the horn to warn oncoming traffic. My brother and I fought like Sharks and Jets to ride shotgun; stuck our whole faces, like dogs, out the windows (this was before the child-proofing gods wreaked their havoc); and tattled on whoever wasn’t buckled in, hoping the law would come down on the side of harsh justice. (But more often than not, Mom said, “That’s okay—these aren’t busy roads.” I’m telling you, the seventies were a free-for-all.)

Sometimes the Cutlass got so off-course, we had a hard time recovering. That’s when Brother and I ducked down while Mom knocked on somebody’s door to ask directions. We were mortified, but Mom was having a big old time, exploring new territory and meeting the locals. She said the place made her heart sing.

Maybe she’d been in Cleveland too long.

Mom was onto something, though. She was teaching us to see. Those ventures, with their views of Revolutionary War-era churches, jersey cows with bells around their necks and buttercups at their feet, and big saltbox homes where George Washington allegedly slept, provided scope for the imagination—and set the stage for future travels, whether to Milwaukee or Munich—to do likewise.

So what to do when country drives and compelling novels begin to make you feel more restless than enriched? What to do when these things inform you that your life might be too small?

What to do when, after nine years, your parents move you back to Ohio?

Or maybe you, along with 11.59 million others, belong in Ohio. Itching-for-adventure George Bailey certainly belonged in Bedford Falls, my husband likes to point out.

Bedford Falls

Ah, the old Bedford Falls/you beautiful Building and Loan/bloom-where-you-are-planted trick. I’m familiar.

But what if, what if, what if my life is too small, I argue with the spouse. “I think there are two different things: wanting to be greater or wanting to be better,” he explains patiently. He says these days everyone is taught they’re so special it’s practically their moral duty to seek greatness: fame and notoriety and seeing the world and promotions and getting in line for lightening to strike. Move over, Mark Zuckerberg! But what, he asked, about “the importance of being a better father, a better husband, a better man?”

I sigh and agree with my better half. But I add that I think better can take forms other than try harder. Sometimes we need to add more authenticity or compassion or grace or perspective or, in a lot of cases, subtract being so busy or hard on ourselves. But yes, doing well at what we’ve been given—and certainly learning to love lavishly—has everything to be said for it. Along these lines, the final paragraph of George Eliot’s Victorian novel, Middlemarch, is achingly lovely:

“Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Surely, heaven will be bursting with the stories of quiet lives. When all is made well, instead of searching everywhere for Mozart or Madonna, we’ll gather round to hear these tales and be spellbound by stunning acts of sacrifice and kindness.

But. Here is the question I’m getting at despite the wisdom of Eliot and It’s a Wonderful Life: How does one differentiate between self-inflicted discontent/boredom/a possible mood disorder vs. a genuine call to change things up? Bloom where you are planted vs. stir the pot?

A less weighty but nevertheless delightful quote to ponder:

“Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life – well, valuable, but small – and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around?” ~ Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail

How to guess whether or not your valuable (because it is) but perhaps small-ish life has an element of hiding in it? This is where instinct begs to be let out to run free—but we barely know how to listen to ourselves anymore. Inklings can be shy, sometimes only showing themselves as first thoughts in the morning or during walks or remembering who we were before we got so grown up. To be heard, hunches often demand silence or time gone by or the same idea circling back around, again and again. Scary as it seems, we’ve got to toss out all the other narratives—the rules, especially the ones about never saying no, that don’t seem to quite fit and the expectations and our parents’ notions instead of our own.

Lately, I’ve been listening close. And, as you might have guessed, I’m landing on the side of YOU BIG CHICKEN.

Not that I don’t display bravery: the very act of being alive in this crazy world requires some amount of courage. Being married is brave. Being a parent is medal-worthy. But there are the things left undone or procrastinated or performed half-heartedly, the stuff shoved away in a closet under the wok you got for your wedding but never used, not because you’re lazy (okay, that too) but because of fear.

Stir fry, anyone?

So I’ve made a list of a dozen ways this year that I can be brave and true and all-in, all of them way short of running off with a saxophone player. My list scares me and thrills me at the same time. Mostly I’m scared the list will go the way of a lot of my lists: bok, bok.

But I don’t think so.

 

8 thoughts on “There Must Be More Than This (Suburban) Life

  1. This is not an easy thing. It makes me think of what L’Engle would say to those who told her about their boy friend or girl friend. She would counsel them, you may remember, to see if the relationship made them more productive/able to do the things they are doing. Discontentment can be from so many things and is not easy to discern – but looking at the impact it is having on your relationships/ability to be in the world is a good way to begin. I am just beginning to read Goudge’s Rosemary Tree (am so Excited!!!) and Harriet speaks of prisons; we can be in one space, I find, and find it to be either a prison or a palace. Freedom is something that is only found within; fear is something, I have found for myself, that keeps me fluttering around beating my wings as if where I am is a cage instead of the place where I will gain my freedom. Remember what L’Engle says also about freedom and that structure is essential, as much as a skeleton is to a human’s ability to move. Have you read Kathleen Norris’ book on Acedia? It is another way to look at the struggle we are often in in terms of fear/discontentment/despair/boredom…. Keep reading Elizabeth Goudge, so many of her books really deal with these sorts of questions. I am not immune to them and am still trying to figure out what is best in my life to do/spend time on. For me it’s been the bewildering change of marriage and moving and having questions like ‘hmmm, I don’t have to work, what do I want to do with my life?’ that I am still working out. All I know is that I have to be patient in the process and that life can throw a lot of curve balls to what plans I was trying to do with my time and efforts. You have a lot of great questions and I appreciate your narration of them. Who knew, when we were in our early 20s that our 40s would have so many questions! But yet life, it has so much to savour!

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  2. Amberlin Warren says:

    What a fantastic word and so thought provoking, I have been thinking about this for days now. I have been guilty of living in fear and made fear based decision for most of my life. Then one day I said enough is enough and I asked God to help uncover me from this horrible disease of fear that was destroying me, my mind and my life. He came to my rescue and I’d say within a years time His love has rescued me from most fears that I was aware of. There maybe more that I am unaware of, He will be my guide. I feel free for the first time, EVER! Thanks for a great post. I will still be thinking about it next week.😘

    Sent from my iPhone

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  3. m0m2m0m says:

    I love your essays, Laura. You have such a gift. What a treasure, to have preserved these stories of your mother driving you around on adventures, filling your mind with dreams. And the books! Oh, how I can relate! 🙂

    With one son off at college, a senior daughter soon to follow, another daughter dual enrolling this fall, I’ve discovered college to be the place for mama as well. After 20 years of staying home to raise my precious brood, I’ve at last taken serious steps to figure out how one gets certified to teach in Georgia. There are many hoops to jump through, but what else am I going to do when my last child leaves home? I need to be around young people in real life; if not my own, then somebody else’s child. I live 5 minutes from a fantastic university with a thriving College of Education, yet it took major courage to walk in the doors and ask, “How do I become a certified teacher?”

    I’ll put in a plug for MAT programs — If you have a bachelor’s degree in any core subject, you can be certified to teach 6th-12th grade in about four semesters. My classes are all online, except for a required Young Adult Literature course that meets once a week on campus this summer. (Someone is requiring me to read and discuss young adult books — oh joy!) My classmates have opened my mind to so many possibilities — many have master’s degrees from other fields and are ready for a career switch. I now have a friend who teaches English to incarcerated youth in a juvenile detention center. Who knows how many lives will be changed from her teaching?

    I’ve yet to find a job, but I’m having fun, and hoping someday to be able to share my love of books and writing in a school setting — besides the myriad activities I do as a volunteer. I feel a bit like dear Mr. Molesley in Season 6 of Downton Abbey. These kids may eat me alive. But if I can connect one child to a book series I love, then it will be worth it!!

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    1. Laura Boggs says:

      Good for you, Heather. Some say mid-life crisis–I hate that. I say let’s reinvent ourselves–or circle back around to what we’ve always been!

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      1. m0m2m0m says:

        Thanks, Laura! I like that term, “reinvention.” Going back to my childhood…what did I love to do? Read books, write in a journal, make up stories, play library, boss my little brother and sister around — ha. I don’t like standing up in front of people giving speeches, which is why I’ve tried to avoid teaching for years. But now with our high-tech google classrooms, teaching is more intimate, one-on-one correspondence oriented. I also never knew there was such a career as “Literacy Coach.” Give me a whistle and let me cheer some kids on with improving their literacy!

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  4. Elizabeth says:

    You ask how are you brave and how do you break out … As for breaking out, it took a friend to suggest that I could teach fitness. Then, it took another friend (NYC danseur) to frown that I was not teaching dance because I know it like a muscle. So, 8 months later I am certified to teach ballet barre and I have an opportunity through another friend to teach fitness classes in March. The common thread – I, also, listened to the small encouragements of friends and said, “OK, I will.” My take-away – tell friends the exact moment you see them shining.

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  5. These are such good, hard questions.

    Our culture does so praise greatness. Everybody’s seeking an audience, a following, to be seen. I was talking to my husband about it last week and remembering something one of my professors used to say: “seek obscurity, so you can focus on pleasing God and not people.” Part of me thinks that’s the answer — what we’re seeking with our big decisions and our little ones — as in, do I want to be a writer so people think I’m a writer, or do I want to be a writer because that’s who He’s made me to be? And: Will this desire be OK with ending in obscurity, or does the desire just want to be thought of as great?

    Another part of me thinks, well, sometimes God destines a man for greatness, though. Moses, let’s say. He’s all, I don’t want to lead! (i.e., I’ll seek obscurity!), and God’s response isn’t praise and thumbs up. He tells Moses it’s about the God behind him, not him at all, so stop being afraid.

    I read an interview a few weeks ago about a filmmaker who said she, of course, wants her work to be seen. But she also wants to leave the results up to God. To be faithful, to keep plodding, but to trust Him with who does or doesn’t see and resonate with that work. Maybe that’s where I’m landing right now? Like, listen to that voice you hear in the stillness telling you to do that thing, but plough ahead irrespective of what everyone around you says in response. It’s not a full and total answer but it’s where I’m satisfied for today.

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  6. Marie Alderson says:

    I particularly enjoyed this post! Made me want to go find an old book and immerse myself in the wonder of how words strung together can have such an impact on the imagination. I loved the shared memory of your mother’s adventurous spirit (she probably inspired you with your love for the old gravel roads), and your husband’s perspective and wisdom (I do agree it is probably hard to live with such profundity at times). Thank you for this today. Blessings!

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