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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.