My daughter broke her ankle this week; she�s spent far more time than she would like looking around her. So, as people do, she started making up narratives: about our ill-arranged glasses, personifying the odd assortment of dishes, and sympathizing with the petals that fell from the flowers we bought to cheer her up. As Thoreau says, each of us looks outward from a sedes, a seat, each sees his own horizon. In the twentieth century, people emphasized these horizon’s personal, arbitrary nature. Well, perhaps. I like the nineteenth century (perhaps the twenty first) which saw in the small a microcosm of the large. But, then, that�s what I want to think. Listening to her, I dug out an old essay. If it is all that arbitrary, then the interest of this story is pretty much nonexistent. It isn’t very dramatic. Well, we’ll see.
I�ve always loved Franklin�s cheerful pragmatism, his argument that �Felicity, when I reflected on it, has induc�d me sometimes to say, that were it offer�d to my Choice, I should have no objection to a Repetition of the same Life from its Beginning, only asking the Advantage Authors have in a second Edition to correct some Faults of the first.� The second thing to reliving it, he observes, is telling it. Of course, I�ve always felt a good deal more rueful about my own (a good deal less successful and a good deal more fragmented) life. But with the �hidden text,� my readers, like Franklin�s, �may read it or not as they please� without distracting themselves from the timely and public world of our usual posts.
SOME DAY, THIS WILL MAKE A GREAT ANECDOTE
Human lives are composed . . . like music.
Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence. . . into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. . . . Without noticing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest stress.
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Growing up in rural Nebraska, I was obsessed by musicals. Each week I waited for the New Yorker. My father left the mail on the dining room table at noon; I’d grab it and hide away, in the windbreak or my bedroom. First, the cartoons; then, the short stories to see if any were sexy enough to hold my adolescent interest; then I’d turn to “Goings On About Town.” As boys memorized baseball stats, I studied the plays, the actors, the writers. Soon other passions possessed me and what I learned slipped away. But the songs and stories were always in the back of my mind, structuring experience.
In junior high, I begged for a record player at Christmas; saved my babysitting money for the cast recordings of Carousel and Oklahoma; was transported watching Burton and Andrews and Goulet do bits from Camelot on Ed Sullivan. Listening, watching, I felt intensely alive, the glamour contrasting with days spent pedaling around the dusty streets of Kenesaw, delivering newspapers at dawn. In high school, I scrawled lyrics in my physics workbook, murmuring the lines.
A group of us went to Gypsy. Afterwards, over cokes at a drive-in, I talked about her sister�s autobiography, one I�d read in my father’s magazine. I�d been struck by what life in such a family must have been like. A friend pierced my musings: “Ginny, you think musicals are real, don’t you?” This was meant to have–and did–the sting of insult. But, I protested, in a way, life was like that. Didn�t I prove it over and over?
In college, another friend (enamored of musicals and Deanna Durbin and the forties) and I would meet late at an old Czech bar. We’d drink red beers and wander over to the train depot. The Chicago Zephyr would pass through Lincoln at midnight and we’d send it off, tap dancing up and down the platform and ramps, waving to dozing passengers who seldom noticed. Then we’d walk home, singing songs from old musicals. We longed a bit for a seat on the train out, longed, a bit, for our lives to be musicals. Now, he plays those songs in a piano bar�not wanting to leave Nebraska but still lovingly reciting the lyrics as people fill his tip jar.
Combining words and music, musicals meld analysis and emotion. In his review of the British revival of Carousel in the January 18, 1993 New Yorker, John Lahr, describes its ability to
submit the audience to the differing pleasures of song and prose. Song is an enchantment. . . that is palpable and long-standing. A song makes an audience feel, but prose makes it discriminate. . . . . Its well-balanced narrative approaches some deeper sense of life, which is theatrically more satisfying for embracing both misery and mystery. (100-04)
Musicals answered my need to give that inchoate adolescent passion form, to embrace experience and then see a pattern in its marks on me. But now I see my instincts were also for self-preservation; that fantasy got me through adolescence. At school I stood outside; I like to think of myself as an observer (not untrue) but that was because I had little choice. Still, in my imagination I was that quintessential musical type: small town girl aiming at big city lights. I longed for the pace of the city; musicals reassured me that I would find people who loved what I loved, laughed at the same jokes. The bittersweet expectancy of “Somethin’s Comin'” of West Side Story, of the Gershwins� “Some Day He’ll Come Along” captured the outsider�s longing�to be acknowledged, to be loved. Ella Fitzgerald sang the Gershwins so often in our living room the record wore out. The fateful world of musicals posited vivid, intense initiatory arcs. And there I was, at the beginning of my own initiatory arc, listening intently late at night in a darkened room in a Nebraska village.
Musicals celebrate intensity but do not assure us it succeeds. They warn that disproportional passion can not only destroy its bearer but threaten the world through which it blazes. The torch songs embody this melancholy and threat; the first of the great musical plays–Show Boat–used “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man o’ Mine” to personify unrequited and self-destructive love. Such danger underlies the drama of Brigadoon; the most apocalyptic version concludes Camelot.
Doomed passion attracts an adolescent. These narratives echoed our inflated estimate of our passions, our sorrows, indeed, our selves. Rodgers and Hammerstein describe love as fate–“Some Enchanted Evening,” “If I Loved You,” “What’s the Use of Wondering,” “Something Wonderful.” Later, we found maturity possesses its own beauty, less passion and chance and more rational harmony. If we hold the romantic vision too long, we are in danger of becoming hooked on melodrama. But too quickly denying the mythic poses dangers of its own. Seeing beauty in the mundane can err toward sentimentality; seeing only accident, finding, indeed, the mundane in the beautiful can err toward cheap and unearned cynicism.
By the late sixties such musicals were no longer important�to me or to Broadway. However, although I barely remembered the songs, their influence remained, more pervasive than the literature I now studied. The musical’s intensity defined my early relationships, the soundtracks playing loudly in my mind as I enacted scenes out of all proportion to the emotions invested by my lovers and even, if truth be known, by me. I suspect it made me a bit wearing to date, a bit wearing as lover. Unfortunately for the men in my life, I wasn’t attracted to the witty, racy, musicals of say, Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hart; I wasn’t a party girl. Nor was I completely comfortable with film musicals. I saw myself–and my lovers, of course–in terms of elemental and tragic narratives.
Years passed; still, the lyrics hummed in my mind–in Chicago, in Paris, in Rome, in Athens. The Fantastiks, wonderfully transparent, illuminates the traditional scaffolding: an ing�nue�s growth, the dramatization of a desire “to become not evil, but a little worldly wise.” Yes, this was me and this was life; not a musical, perhaps, but it followed that old, Bildungsroman plot: small town girl goes to city and searches for true love, for a career, for herself. I loved this vision� defined by urban sophisticates. However, the lyricists� characters belonged in my world–rural America. Their art seemed truly perceptive, our audience truly receptive. In these, red and blue America looked at each other with humor, appreciation, affection. The musical, like most American art, is bold synthesis–British music hall and European opera, American violence and romantic young love, rural expansiveness and urban sophistication, tragedy and patter.
Musical plays as defined by Rodgers and Hammerstein were a genre of initiation, a celebration of growing self-consciousness. Later critics sometimes describe this as complacent happiness; they cite “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” with which Curly opens Oklahoma! and which ushered in the Rodgers and Hammerstein era. But a closer examination of these plots finds a more complex and less complacent rendering of reality. They often concern political and historical turmoil; the resolutions compromise. Optimism comes from the sturdy sense characteristic of rites of initiation, that purpose and meaning structure even tragedy, that self-consciousness requires a certain courage and humility. This optimism is both more profound and more comforting than sunniness: it is a belief that narrative reflects the structure of reality and that it contains meaning. These dramas assume that their characters, although often wrong-headed and representative of flawed systems, have dignity and three-dimensionality.
I only saw the forties State Fair recently. It is not top drawer Rodgers and Hammerstein: the music is not melded to the plot nor is it as rich and generous as in their stage works. However, watching as an adult, I better understood the hold musicals once had on me. They are celebrations of middle class lives and transcendent passion. Their subject is the momentary intensity embedded in the daily. Often a minor character with a powerful song interprets place, embodies culture. They have Whitman�s buoyant egalitarianism. “Ol’ Man River” defines Show Boat, “Bali H’ai” sets the stage for South Pacific; “They Call the Wind Maria” defines the milieu of Paint Your Wagon. Theirs is the power – Whitman might say the divinity – of lived life.
As I watched West Side Story and State Fair with my daughters, I remembered how much these musicals meant to me. But I also realized, with something of a shock, how seldom they enter my present. Then, I felt free; now, with husband and children, I�m grounded. My respect for Rodgers and Hammerstein has not diminished, but my need has. And I remembered those other teenagers, so long ago. And how we got through those years.
I always want to surround experience with words. Later, I would say that the discerning reader of life always perceives patterns. This was not how my friend, Mary Jane Hogan, felt. Irritated, she turned to me at a noisy high school basketball game, complaining that I should let things be, stop applying words to our friends, stop seeking motives and positing consequences. But I saw our experience as plots, our classmates as characters–to be examined and dissected. Mary Jane believed this trapped the real, deadened experience. Now, my husband argues that the only happy marriage is an unexamined one. Mary Jane may have been right; words may construct an artificial reality and self-consciousness always runs the danger of fragmentation. But to me life without words seems lived on the surface; words make the real real. They give the why and through them we find coherence, unity.
Mary Jane would have argued this is sophistry. And what, you ask, are we doing here, what do you intend to do with her, with you? That was another time and another place–but, I’m still doing what I did then; she’s still–well, I don’t know what or where she is. Our worlds diverged over thirty years ago and have never touched again.
High school friends, we had little in common, but the ten or twelve girls in our class knew each other well�many years together does that. She was relatively literal-minded, although a bit dreamy. She had the introspection of, say, Carousel’s Julie Jordan. And, indeed, if Broadway had come to Kenesaw High to cast such a part, it would have chosen her. For instance, she had a lovely voice–perhaps best at harmony, but pure, true. She sang in the madrigal, one of our school’s few claims to fame. At contests in which the audience was made up of their competitors from other small schools around the central plains, they met standing ovations.
And she was beautiful–easily class beauty, class cheerleader, class homecoming queen. She had the moody good looks of the black Irish–black hair, blue eyes, freckled pale skin. Mary Jane�s life was that of a Rodgers and Hammerstein ing�nue–the neat and fertile family farm, the brothers as good looking as she, the gentle Catholicism, the fleeting commitment to becoming a nun. Mary Jane liked Tchaikovsky, slightly melancholy pop, lyrics emphasizing the slightness of her control (“The world keeps on turning” and �Life is just a bowl of cherries� she’d hum over and over again); she loved Emily Dickinson and recited poems like “Who Am I?” She was modest, in the sense of desiring mystery, keeping the self hidden. She distrusted words, for they were exposition as well as analysis. When we graduated, Mary Jane’s parents chose a sheltered girls’ college, where she got a teacher’s degree in art.
Three years later, her boyfriend moved to Lincoln to grad school and she visited, rekindling our friendship. He was in love with her but she seemed distant, even (especially) with him. Majoring in drama, he dragged us to the British imports of those years. Mary Jane liked Darling� loving Julie Christie�s anonymity, �darling� without a name. Looking at it again this year, I was struck by its strong curve of ambition and cynicism. Perhaps I misunderstood Mary Jane�s ambitions, underestimated her nihilism. Who could have identified with that, I ask now. But that was then.
A year later I visited her in Omaha. Her roommates and boyfriends were a shifting assortment; many, like her, taught school. They complained of boredom–their only entertainment watching the airport wind signal change. Omaha was three times larger than Lincoln, but my friends couldn�t imagine such complaints. Self absorbed, we endlessly argued over ideas, books, our lives. We suspected we were minor figures in any drama of the real world through which we walked, but we were protagonists in the stories we told into the night.
Not that our narratives contained us; they were always in process, a bit out of control, looping around and back to the selves we barely knew. My friends had energy but little style–even the ones taking their dramatic costumes and painted faces to opera auditions and even those that turned heads in their miniskirts. Melodramatic, we aimed at looks we didn’t quite achieve: our hair a bit astray, our hems a bit uneven. Mary Jane’s friends, however, had the carefully tended style that comforts grade school students, implying a neat mind and a neat house. None of us had teaching degrees–ours were in English and voice and philosophy. Our jobs asked for typing speeds and required late night shifts; but this fit our sense of ourselves–we were in perpetual transition.
Mary Jane had a practical degree: she kept her eye firmly on the moment, controlling her image, her schedule. And, she was quite successful at being. This was also true in a broader sense–being attractive, being young; her restlessness seemed, well, aesthetic. She had style. I didn’t have a clue. That listless weekend, she seemed to drift. But, paradoxically, she also seemed completed in a way I didn�t understand.
Years ago my choices characterized me: given a bad year, I walked out, took a plane and spent a year hitchhiking around Europe. Seduced by a fictive Europe, I longed to see the country houses of James, the world weary Paris of Hemingway, the Italy of Antonioni. The last time I talked to Mary Jane was that spring when I phoned, asking if she, too, imagined such sets. Perhaps I saw Sicily because I didn�t drive, hadn�t had to. In Denver, she�d signed a fall teaching contract. My response to the late sixties seemed aimless to her; besides it would be hard to make her car payments.
Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve as 1969 drew to a close, I stood beside my backpack on a country road that wound around a steep hill in southern Italy. The clear, black country night was pierced by the lights in the village below. Angry, but also feeling a bit silly, I had gotten out of a car driven by two spirited men in their sixties. In their irritation with one another (as well as me) they were fighting over the steering wheel; in the far distance, I could see them executing an erratic U-turn. Probably it was erratic for another reason; they’d finished off quite a bit of wine in the village’s only caf�.
I’d made some pretty stupid choices to end up on this dusty road and wondered if it would be best to throw my backpack into the ditch and hide. But that would be a temporary solution. I needed to catch the last train that night to Palermo, from the nearest station, wherever it was. Of course, that was where I thought we were going when we left the caf�. I wondered exactly what I was going to do. No language, no friends, not even a map–as we said at the end of another decade, I had no leverage. But I kept thinking: someday this will make a great anecdote.
Buoyed by the optimism of American musicals, I imagined myself as performing–girl down on her luck, in an exotic setting, sits on her luggage on a dark mountain road and bursts into song. Plucky–musical comedy heroines were always described as plucky. It’s not a word you hear all that much. Well, I thought, I felt plucky. Actually I felt stupid, but plucky sounded a whole lot better.
Then, a car pulled up, full of men in their late teens. They offered me a ride and with an interpretation of reality gained from the quite spurious paradigms of American musicals, I squirmed into the front seat. The other car drove by and we waved cheerily at the old men. I was comfortable, immersed in a laughing group eager to show me their preferences were for one another��invertito�, I think, was the word they used. Warm, open, they stopped by one of their homes for a train schedule; the boy’s father was crippled, lying in bed but cheerful; his mother fixed tea; a parrot chattered merrily and the books along the wall were in English�parrot and books belonged to a brother away at sea. After much expressive small talk (some of which I understood), they took me to the train station and I ended up in Palermo the next morning, in the arms of the man I’d met at the British Museum. My choices were validated; the world I moved through was as I assumed.
The room he�d found for me in Palermo had a breathtaking view of mountains from one window and a wide white beach from the other. Directing the international banking section of his Palermo bank, my friend made frequent trips to America as well as England and Spain; his father moved to America in the thirties but, wounded in a shootout, found America less attractive and returned to Sicily. We went to a New Year�s Eve party at the country club, where the jokes about the Mafia were laughed at in an uncomfortably knowing way. Two weeks later I set off for Greece.
For those weeks, I played a part in a Mediterranean drama, full of energy and humor and passion, unencumbered by words, and, therefore, self-examination. I was warmed by Italy�hugs, gestures, even arguments. This reality was sensual: I remember the taste of the octopus pulled from the sea, plopped in the pot and cut up to be eaten on the beach, tangy and chewy. The haunting, murmuring reflections of the golden mosaics in the cathedral at Monreale, its Byzantine beauty brilliant and glittering in the winter sun remain with me today. I was immersed in the present, just passing through. I saw myself as a provincial in this exotic and beautiful set. However, I would turn to see men following, men who saw in me the exotic, the performer.
Perhaps I walked on that old and beautiful beach because I had listened, enthralled, to those sound tracks of my youth. Those memories set me off, confidently hitchhiking through southern Italy into the future. But perhaps I was also turning from the past and its words, its analysis, its memories. Life has filled in the outline with so many details sometimes the plot seems obscured. And looking again at those other moments, I realize that striding to may be fleeing from. For, wasn�t that journey also a retreat, an unwillingness to assimilate the great losses: death, love, youth? Because, before Italy, there was an Italian. And before that warm Italian beach was a cold Nebraska weekend.
During those years, Mary Jane seemed languid, drifting–but Bian, well, Bian was thoroughly there. Looking back, I remember his presence as a great glow of energy, close to chaos and laughter. Mary Jane�s beauty came from how much she held back, his magnetism from his availability. He radiated sexuality: each fall he�d return from the long summer cruises; his stomach tight, smile ready, his face tanned and warm�a bit of the Mediterranean even in the cold winters of Nebraska. Bian was a risk taker from way back. Like most of the military brats, he had gone to new schools each year as his parents moved from base to base. But his father was a non-commissioned officer with limited choices. Bian intended to succeed.
We�d met during the first weeks of my freshman year, when, somehow, I�d ended up with one of his friends, Frank, in that loose circle of ROTC and ex-military guys that hung around together. Frank�well, maybe describing him gives you an idea of those years. He was divorced. He�d spent several years in the Navy. And he was the first guy I ever, really, dated. He lived with his mother (who lived with her lover and a daughter from one of her various previous entanglements) in a run-down section of Lincoln. Much of her past had been spent around bases. I was always a little vague about what she did, her lover did, anyone did; I did know they made beer in the basement. When I brought Frank home at Christmas, my father pointed out that he was pretty much a pathological liar. Of course, my father was right, though that didn�t make me like the truth much, or my father much, if truth be known.
We broke up and Frank soon disappeared–flunking out of the university he had only half-heartedly attended and rejoining the Navy. But Bian and I remained friends. We were unlikely friends, probably because we were different kinds of risk takers. Frank was one of my risks. Bian�s were of a different dimension. He was a bullshitter but not exactly a liar. His was a crowd of heavy-drinking guys, of party girls. But, he steadied me�and I needed the steadying. We had lunch together three times a week, walking to work and stopping for ice cream. We both loved to talk. For some reason, he decided to become a philosophy major; he said the Navy officers had been pleased; he was sure such a major would help him immensely as a pilot�he would learn to think. I had my doubts – both about how much thinking he was doing and how much it would help. When, several boyfriends after Frank, I maneuvered the man I thought (quite mistakenly as it turns out) would be the grand love of my life into bed, it was Bian who listened, who comforted me as I described my hopeless, aimless passion. That night and all through those years, he was there for me�assessing my boyfriends, applying a template different from the one by which he judged himself, his friends. Eventually, my boyfriends became grad students (as he expected) and his girlfriends became lovely party girls, dropping out of school and hanging around his apartment (as I expected). He graduated, married, went off to Pensacola. I graduated. Time passed.
In early 1969, I flew back from Chicago for a weekend as bridesmaid. As I stood in the reception line, a couple came through � one of our old crowd, Sharon, with Kemmy, the man I almost married. She said, Bian died. We didn�t know if anyone told you. And then, turning, she said to Kemmy, hurry, we�re leaving in a minute, implying a quite fictional coupledom. She was, of course, a bitch. But for once that wasn�t my first thought. I was stunned. He said, no, he wouldn�t join them. He wanted to talk to me. And I stood, unable to move.
Bian as risktaker had done what men do far more often than women. If my risktaking had been a ridiculous affair with a pathological liar, if it was (almost) throwing my future in with this man before me, the man I still half loved and no longer respected, Bian took the graver risks. He�d become one of those Navy pilots who land a powerful plane on a pitching and turning shipdeck. And in that plane, he�d gone down not in Viet Nam, but in San Diego Bay. And how can one make buoyant a narrative about a warm and attractive, intelligent and funny guy plunging to death, leaving a pregnant wife and a child at home?
That weekend became a blur. Our lives–Bian�s and mine, indeed, Kemmy�s and mine–had drifted apart, as anyone might have predicted. But Bian remained a warm flickering potential, a reassuring sunniness in the back of my mind. And the back of my mind was suddenly very dark and sad. I remembered our last conversation, too stunned to find irony. Back on a recruiting trip, he phoned (from Sharon�s). He�d heard, he said, you�ve found the one, a keeper. I said, yes, I think so. Kemmy, who turned out not to be such a �keeper�, watched me talk; we were about to go out; he was, indeed, the kind of guy everyone assumed I�d end up with. Sharon interrupted; I heard her laughter, heard her hand Bian a drink. The call ended. Now, standing, my hair full of flowers and my hands shaking, I could not put any of it in order. I felt his smile, laughter, hug.
I felt overwhelmed. I�d moved to Chicago to disentangle myself from a relationship that had also warmed, if often smothered, with that �keeper.� And now, Kemmy stood before me, unable to comfort me�he never knew Bian and wasn�t much in a mood to play that role anyway. We had our own business to finish�our own battle, messy and ugly and final. The night dissolved into endless and pointless talks, mourning and recriminations, anger and yet more pain. The tears kept coming�but I wasn�t sure if I was mourning Bian or the end of that long-running affair or simply the end of life as I knew it. I didn�t become wise nor sophisticated, but I would never be the same. In that great initiatory arc of my life, I stood, in a wedding reception line facing the great archetypal losses: death of a loved one, end of an affair, and passage from youth to–what? To Italy perhaps. Then, I couldn�t find words. I couldn�t make sense of it. It didn�t entertain. It just hurt.
Yes, the year that ended in Sicily I understood some narratives don�t end well. A decade later, I cried through An Officer and a Gentlemen; Richard Gere didn�t just look like Bian, for me for two hours, dressed in that snappy uniform, he was Bian. And tears, flowing powerfully, helped as tears do. Those young fliers were part of any narrative I could accept of Tailhook. I knew what choices a girl made going to those parties. But I also knew what risks those men took, ones informed by a certain if erratic chivalry that also made such a man�s friendship a refuge. But thinking came later. That week-end I was all out of plot, of analysis. Bian�s parties were imitation, this was real chaos.
Years passed. I gained a family, gained weight, gained (dare I say) perspective. I watched my two oldest daughters immersed in West Side Story–one scoffing, the other in tears. The scoffer, like our high school football team, took a literal reading; watching it after Senior Prom, they complained: “What were those guys doing–jumping around and singing” and meant, “This doesn’t represent reality as I know it; in fact, this reality is pretty sissy.” And, I remembered Mary Jane’s look as she said, your perception of the world is false, you think you live a story. Reaching back, I’m sure she didn’t make that mistake�at least in the same way I did. She chose the reticent Emily Dickinson, the opaque Julie Christie, admiring the barriers they erected to protect themselves. I chose musicals because of those singers� transparency — I fervently believed that somewhere was a someone who, if he truly saw me, would understand, would take care of me. Wasn�t this part of why I stood on a mountain in Italy?
I know that loving musicals in high school had a lot to do with that night–why I wanted to be there, how I got there, how I interpreted and acted out what would become my anecdote before a somewhat bemused audience. But how much of the reason was also Bian, also Kemmy? That cold, long, teary and real weekend in Lincoln had also changed the way I told my story, the way I lived it. Years later, it took all my imagination to try to assimilate that chaotic year, to make it a part of the meaningful narrative of my life. But, of course, now I see, it did fit: Mary Jane and Bian and Kemmy, Rodgers and Hammerstein and lots of Henry James, and not a little the disaster that was south Chicago in 1969, all were reasons I stood, looking at those Monreale mosaics, that I laughed on that winding mountain road. All of them together, none of them alone, made that anecdote mine.
In his review of Carousel, Lahr noted: “What’s important . . . is that it doesn’t deny the darkness but shows how it fits . . . into some larger picture, which includes sun, stars, and earth.” Confidence in that pattern liberates. Of course, such focus also obscures, since the choices that determine the pattern depend upon a narrator�s perspective. Mary Jane and Bian become figures blurred if mythic. Others, indeed they themselves, would not recognize my portraits. And, my firm belief that that Italian night provided a cheerful interlude in a drama more comedic than tragic would not, in other circumstances, have made it so. If something else had happened that night, you say, it might have been a darker tale. Well, yes. And I admit other fragments, other moments could be chosen to show a totally different outcome was inevitable.
But this was what happened. I can still see that village below, the dusty road–that memory remains strong because it proves a pattern in which experience is anecdotal and human nature entertaining. I came back with that confirmation: my experience, at least the sum of the moments I choose to remember, has been of a life more often ironic than tragic, that has amused more often than devastated. Some of this may be choice�how I�ve shaped my experience to tell my narrative. My life hasn�t been, as Mary Jane would put it, a bowl of cherries. But, I�ve been lucky; for instance my schizophrenic roommate chose not to avail herself of the razors we had as well as the bottles of thorazine her thoughtful brother the doctor had provided when she locked herself in the bathroom; she preferred to mimic the last scene of A Streetcar Named Desire as the policemen escorted her to the waiting car. Nor was I very concerned when another boyfriend held a gun on me. Nor did I need to be. These are other people�s anecdotes and many need not be taken, it seems to me, all that seriously�at least as I tell my story.
Immersion in my story seemed to me immersion in life. That may be sophistry. But I love the rise and fall of plot, the art Aristotle described so beautifully so long ago; the inevitability that never stops absorbing and pleasing. Our desire for plot is at the core of what makes us human; each semester I see it in the deep affection of my students who thought they�d hate literature but don�t, who use it to make sense of experience. Lately I�ve developed a sneaking suspicion life really is a narrative, though I�m a bit uncertain who the narrator is and my part in its vast and interwoven plots. And I know narrative�great literature or anecdotes at lunch–comforts; perhaps this solace is a diminished one but no less real for that.
Now, my life�s plot has moved on; I�m the narrator of its long resolution. Bigger things happened later – marriage, children, life as we know it. But I was never young again. After a lengthy initiation in which the moments of 1969 were but a few of the incidents piled haphazardly in my memory, I�ve become my life�s mature narrator, drinking tea and reminiscing, arranging and rearranging, finding patterns, making patterns. Isn�t that always the structure of personal narratives? The voice in the present looks back on the earlier self with irony and delight; maturity says, ah, was I the silly one then, but you see how I went through this to become the wise one who speaks to you now. (But we can never truly write the resolution, can never be Miss Marple, explaining over tea after the murderer has been locked up. Aren�t we, as we examine our own lives, like those frustrated critics who impatiently await the death of the subject of all their little articles so they can write the big, definitive book? No, we pause, we don�t really want to die; besides we hope for time to redeem ourselves and patch together a more resonant ending.)
Now, I�m no longer the plucky kid by the side of the road nor the bewildered tearful bridesmaid but rather the objective and ironic voice telling their tale, one that lends itself to editorial intrusion. But what exactly, I wonder, has that voice learned from living that plot? Is it an assurance that life is a meaningful narrative? Or is it an attempt to make a meaningful narrative from a chaotic life? Offering up this Sicilian anecdote, I see perhaps both are true: I�ve kept at life because plucky was a word I�d integrated into my self, but I�ve also kept at it because I knew, eventually, a good dinner guest could turn it into anecdote. A story was being lived and, at the same time, a narrator was preparing to tell it. The power of narrative gave me confidence, informed a firm belief that this isn’t that bad, I�ll get through it, and besides, some day, it will make a great anecdote; some day, it will make sense. And it will.